Friday, January 30, 2009

For refugees, recession makes hard times even harder.

On Sunday, I shared an article from the Boston Globe on the difficulties that educated refugees face trying to break into the American job market. Today, the New York Times reports on the challenges that all refugees face as they try to survive in the United States in the midst of a recession that has been especially hard on vulnerable populations:
After escaping violence in Burma and spending 27 years in the bamboo huts of a United Nations camp in Thailand, Nyaw Paw, 33, arrived in the United States last August to face the traumatic adjustment and cultural vertigo known to every refugee.

But with high rents, lagging federal aid and now a recession that is drying up entry-level work, the transition has become harder than ever, refugee workers say. Overwhelming housing costs are its starkest symptom. Many new arrivals spend 90 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities, leaving them virtually no disposable income and creating enormous hardships.

Ms. Nyaw Paw, who was placed in Salt Lake City with her two sons, ages 6 and 13, has scraped together the $600 rent on their one-bedroom apartment from federal payments that ended in December. Now, her only income is a welfare grant of about $500 a month; a private aid agency fills the gap.

Ms. Nyaw Paw has tried for traditional starter jobs, like motel housekeeping, but no one is hiring here. Her life demands such frugality that she washes the family clothes in the bathtub rather than feeding quarters to the machine down the hall.

“I think about the rent every minute,” Ms. Nyaw Paw said through a translator, and I don’t know what I’ll do when the aid programs run out.”
For the rest, click here. In a telephone conversation earlier this afternoon, I mentioned this article to a former coworker from the refugee resettlement program I worked with in California. She confirmed that her clients have been badly hit by the recession, with many unable to find any kind of work and some facing eviction because they simply don't have the money to pay their rent. From my own experiences working with the program, I can attest that refugees struggle to make ends meet even in the best of times. In times like these, the struggles they face are even more acute.

As I did at the start of the week, I'm offering my prayers today for the refugees who have escaped from violence but must now confront new forms of insecurity. AMDG.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Notes on the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas.

According to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, today is the memorial of the great Dominican philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Coincidentally or providentially, this is also the date on which the Eastern churches honor the 4th-century theologian and hymnographer St. Ephrem the Syrian. I never took note of this parallel until now, but I suppose one could make something of it given that Ephrem and Thomas were both learned theologians who expressed their teachings in hymns and poetry as well as in academic works. I don't have anything more to say about this, but readers hoping for a lengthier reflection on St. Thomas Aquinas may consult my post from this date last year as well as the links offered there.

Reflecting on St. Thomas Aquinas this year on his feast day, my thoughts surprisingly drift back to the summer that I spent studying in London in 2002. I didn't have any significant contacts with Dominicans or with Aquinas' writings while I was in England, but I did come across a pub in London called The Black Friar. Found in a part of London called Blackfriars (named for a pre-Reformation Dominican priory that was located in the vicinity), this venerable 19th-century pub is architecturally significant on account of the influence that the Arts and Crafts movement had on its design. For present purposes, The Black Friar is most interesting on account of the statue placed above its front door, which you may see in the photo at the beginning of this post. When I saw this statue of a laughing friar for the first time, I immediately thought of Aquinas.

Some popular traditions hold that St. Thomas was a man of some girth, though I know a few convinced Thomists who would contest this point with great force. I also like to think of Aquinas as a jolly and mirthful sort, someone other friars would have enjoyed dining with and a teacher who may have enjoyed disputing with his students over drinks after he'd finished lecturing for the day. Even before I had finished thinking any of this through, the statue over the door of The Black Friar became fixed in my mind as an effigy of St. Thomas Aquinas - though I'm sure this was not the intent of the artist (who, to judge from the design of the habit, seems to have drawn little distinction between Dominican and Franciscan garb).

On this Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, I pray that he may intercede with God on behalf of the many Christian philosophers and theologians who continue to search for the truth and to share it with others. With a nod to The Black Friar, I also pray that those who are engaged in the quest for knowledge (including me and my brothers at Ciszek Hall) may find joy in our studies. AMDG.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Educated refugees lost in transition to U.S. workforce.

Today's Boston Globe has an article on the "brain waste" suffered by well-educated immigrants and refugees who come to the United States after professional careers in their countries of origin only to end up having to take low-paying, low-skilled jobs because their credentials aren't readily accepted or simply don't serve them well in the American job market. Here's an excerpt:

A doctor from Afghanistan runs a cash register at the Walmart in Lynn. A former two-star general from the same country works as an $11-an-hour security guard in Somerville. And a onetime high-powered lawyer from Albania labored in a Worcester factory before being laid off.

For them, America was a path to safety, even while it was a huge step down in status.

In Afghanistan, Ahmad Darvesh wore a crisp, white coat and a stethoscope as he diagnosed emergency room patients suffering from bullet wounds or pneumonia. In Lynn, with a Walmart badge clipped to his shirt collar, he strikes up brief conversations with customers as he scans their purchases. The customers do not know it, but he chats because he misses talking to his patients.

"I'm tired," the soft-spoken 50-year-old said in an interview in his Chelsea apartment, with his diplomas and photographs arrayed on a folding table in the kitchen. "I'm tired of working in a job that is only for the money. I'm a doctor. . . . I could be more useful."

Across Massachusetts and the nation, 1 in 5 college-educated immigrants and refugees are unemployed or toiling in low-level jobs because they cannot easily adapt their skills in the United States - a phenomenon the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute called "brain waste" in a recent study.

It is an age-old quandary for immigrants who hold doctoral degrees and speak multiple languages, but aren't fluent in English and lack professional networks to steer them to jobs. Now, the problem is getting newfound attention from state officials who are considering expanding programs as immigrants in Massachusetts clamor for more training and assistance.

Many immigrants are able to rebuild their careers here, while some return home, frustrated. But others do neither; they lack the ability to find work in their chosen fields and are fearful of returning to their native countries because of violence or economic crises.

"This is a gaping hole of waste for the United States," said Jane Leu, executive director of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit founded in San Francisco in 2003 to guide foreign-born professionals, from real estate agents to professors, back into their fields. "These are people who have every ability to contribute and want to."

For the college-educated immigrants - some 1.3 million nationwide - the plunge in prestige may come as no surprise, but it is still overwhelming for many.

Faced with an urgent need to earn a paycheck, immigrants often take what advocates call "survival jobs." Often, they suffer from depression, culture shock, and abrupt downward mobility, while less-educated immigrants typically experience an increase in pay.

For the rest, click here. From my experiences working in refugee resettlement programs, I can attest to the reality of the problems noted in the article. Refugees arriving in the United States have already endured significant trauma - all have suffered from the effects of war or national calamity, and many have survived torture, imprisonment, or other violations of human rights. While seeking to recover from the emotional and often physical burden of the experiences that forced them to flee their home countries, refugees must also face the challenges that come with adapting to life in a new country. Finding work can be one of these challenges, and the problem of what the Globe article aptly calls "abrupt downward mobility" can weigh heavily on the psyche of people who've already endured a lot of grief and pain.

I'm glad that groups like Upwardly Global are trying to do something about the problem of immigrant and refugee "brain waste," which is likely to become even more serious given the present economic climate. I should note, too, that many native-born professionals are likely facing analogous problems in the wake of widespread layoffs and cutbacks. My prayers are with all who have faced or are facing these challenges, particularly the refugees I've been privileged to know by name. AMDG.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The riches of poverty and the heights of humility.

Poverty can be a contentious topic in Jesuit communities. Although the vow of poverty that we profess has certain objective characteristics - obliging us, for example, to give up control of any money or real property that we may have held before entering the Society - we often disagree about the practical implications that the vow has for our common life. Conflicts over the vow of poverty often center on whether or not we can justify having particular things. Is it acceptable for individual Jesuits to have cellphones or laptop computers? How about private television sets? How many television sets (or DVD players, or cars, or appliances) should a Jesuit community have? What kind of food and drink should we consume, and how should our houses be furnished? A proper answer to any of these questions requires careful discernment and the consideration of a number of different factors, including the nature of the particular apostolic demands that we face and the cultural and social contexts in which we work and live. Even so, it strikes me that communal discussions of poverty often betray a certain materialism. Despite our efforts at cultivating a sense of spiritual detachment, we sometimes allow our understanding of poverty to be reduced to debates about what material goods we should or shouldn't have.

Though very few Christians take actual vows of poverty, we are all called to follow the poor Christ. Poverty is an integral element of our shared vocation, yet we often fail to understand what poverty really consists in. Father Alexander Schmemann gets at the heart of the matter in an entry from his Journals dated October 8, 1974:
"It is difficult for the rich . . ." It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty! - there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something - that is its ugliness - but in being content with what there is.
Whether we're in vows or not, we would all do well to reflect on how Father Schmemann's words speak to our understanding and experience of Christian poverty. Am I truly able to appreciate the beauty of spiritual poverty? Am I humble enough to be content with the gifts that God has given me, or do I find something lacking? Can I pray for the grace of "an impoverished heart"? AMDG.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The dream endures.

While the events of yesterday are still fresh in my mind, I thought I should say something about the inauguration of President Barack Obama to oblige a few old friends who are still interested in my political opinions. I'll refrain from any public comment on the particulars of the ceremony or on President Obama's inaugural address. What I would like to say is that the inauguration made me proud to be an American citizen, and on multiple counts. I'm proud that, for the forty-fourth time, we are witnessing a peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to another. I'm also proud that, on days like this, we are able to temporarily put aside the rancor and division of partisan politics to celebrate the values that bring us together. I'm proud, too, that a historic racial barrier has fallen. As I wrote in November, I think that the election of our first African-American president ought to be a sign of hope for all who believe that this is a country where they can fulfill their greatest dreams and aspirations.

Some of the more moving comments I've heard regarding yesterday's inauguration come from Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. As a young man, Congressman Lewis played an important role in the civil rights movement as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as a participant in the March on Washington in 1963 (where, at age twenty-three, he was the youngest speaker in the program that included Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech). Here is some of what John Lewis had to say yesterday:
You know, when I first came to Washington, D.C. the first time in May of 1961 to go on the freedom rides, blacks and whites couldn't board a Greyhound bus and sit together and travel from Virginia through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, into New Orleans without the possibility of being arrested, jailed or beaten.

And we were jailed, we were beaten, we were put in a state penitentiary . . . People could not even register to vote. When we came back here for 1963 for the March on Washington and I was here when Dr. King stood and said, "I have a dream today, a dream deeply rooted in America's dream." And to come back here 45 years later, it is almost too much. It is almost too much.
Later in his remarks, Congressman Lewis expresses the hope that "[w]e're going to be a better people, a better society, and we're going to become one America, one family, one people, the American family." As he concludes, "I see this as a down payment, a major, a significant down payment on the dream of Martin Luther King Jr." I hope and pray that he is right. AMDG.

Theophany in Russia.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a bit about Theophany on the date on which the feast is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar. For Christians who follow the Julian calendar, Theophany falls on January 19th of the civil year. The largest number of believers who follow the 'Old Calendar' are undoubtedly to be found in Russia, where, as New York Times reporter Ellen Barry discovered, the traditional celebration of Theophany is a very big deal:
Monday was Russian Orthodox Epiphany, and roughly 30,000 Muscovites lined up to dunk themselves in icy rivers and ponds, city officials said. The annual ritual baptism, which is believed to wash away sins, is enjoying a boisterous revival after being banished to villages during the Soviet era.

These days, it is a ritual with high production values. Several sites in Moscow were furnished with no-slip carpeting, heated tents and supervisors with megaphones. Politicians have seized on it as a photo opportunity; the theatrical ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky took his plunge this year at Bottomless Lake, a Moscow River tributary, flanked by 15-foot tubes of fluorescent light.

“It has become a show — not only that, but a patriotic show,” said Boris F. Dubin, a sociologist with Moscow’s Levada Center. The immersion ritual satisfies a public hunger, he said, for “something that is truly Russian, ancient, real. For what distinguishes us from other people.”
To read the rest, click here. The contention that diving into the water on Theophany is "what distinguishes [Russians] from other people," given that similar rituals may be found in other cultures that possess a strong Orthodox Christian heritage. Nonetheless, I can appreciate the hunger for "something that is truly Russian, ancient, [and] real" that inspires the great enthusiasm with which many Russians greet this feast day. In spite of their patriotic and perhaps even secular character, I pray that these celebrations may lead many to a greater appreciation of the words from the Epistle to the Galatians that are heard during the festal liturgy: As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia! AMDG.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Transform each day into joy.

Posting has been much lighter lately than I would like, largely because I've been occupied with the usual business that accompanies the start of a new semester together with sundry other projects (including clerical and logistical tasks connected with the continuing process of preparing for regency). I'm very happy with my course schedule this semester, which includes seminars on early Christian asceticism and the theology of John Henry Newman as well as the final two courses in the sequence required for the philosophy degree that I expect to receive in May. In the midst of all of the above, I hope to find the time to continue posting often on this blog.

During the recent vow renovation triduum at Inisfada, I finally started reading a book that I've been meaning to get to for a while: The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983. I've admired Father Schmemann ever since I read For the Life of the World as a Jesuit novice, and after reading several of his heftier theological works I decided to take a look at the Journals that Schmemann kept over the last decade of his life. Having started to read them at last, I can now say that Schmemann's Journals are simply wonderful. As a record of Schmemann's private opinions on a broad range of topics, the Journals cover everything from pastoral and theological questions to political and social issues as well as the ebb and flow of daily life. Making note of passages that I knew I would want to return to for further reflection, I quickly discovered that nearly every page I read offered something worth meditating upon. Though I'm only two-thirds of the way through my belated first reading of Schmemann's Journals, I already know that I'll want to reread them fairly soon. In the meantime, I may share occasional reflections based on the book in posts on this blog.

One theme that emerges in a reading of Schmemann's Journals is the importance of seeking God in one's daily life. In seeking a more conscious awareness of God's presence in our lives, we must also seek to rejoice in His company. In a journal entry dated February 26, 1975, Schmemann recognizes the difficulty as well as the importance of finding God in the ordinary:
Today we had an early Liturgy at the seminary. Walking to church, in the dark, but with a huge frosty moon, I thought with a great deal of repentance about my constant longing for freedom and some leisure from the fuss of my daily life. I felt quite sinful that I did not accept the reality of my life and was not faithful in little things. One has to accept each day and everything in it as a gift from God, and transform each day into joy. If all the details of my life (talks, students, meetings, correspondence) are not giving joy but are only a burden, then it is really my sin, my selfishness, my laziness.
Reading the paragraph quoted above, I was most struck by this sentence: "One has to accept each day and everything in it as a gift from God, and transform each day into joy." At first glance, this sentiment seems broadly consonant with a line from Schmemann's classic For the Life of the World that I took note of in a post from September: "A Christian is the one who, wherever he [or she] looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him." On deeper reflection, it strikes me that the point Schmemann is making in his Journals is a bit more challenging. Schmemann casts a fairly wide net in urging that Christians ought to find Christ "wherever" they look, and I wonder whether some might feel that they have done enough if they can find Christ somewhere - as, for example, they may find Christ in the church they worship in on Sundays. One may rest content to find God on Sunday while leaving aside the more difficult work of finding God during the week. As Schmemann notices in his Journals, God comes to us not merely on Sundays but each and every day of our lives. As Christians, we are challenged to see every day - busy or idle, easy or hard - as God's gift to us. Receiving this gift, Schmemann urges, we are further challenged to rejoice in what we have been given and to share our joy with others.

The start of a new week is as good a time as any to consider whether and how often we "accept each day and everything in it as a gift from God, and transform each day into joy." This Monday, we may find that the week we've just started offers us something new and different. The inauguration tomorrow of Barack Obama as President of the United States certainly represents something dramatically new, and many will probably remember where they were when they watched or listened to Obama take the oath of office. This week also offers something new to students and teachers who have just begun or are about to begin a new academic term. For the many who are struggling with the effects of the global economic crisis, this week may represent a new period of uncertainty in the wake of job loss or serious financial setbacks. Considering the particular details of our own lives, we may find that this week offers us something new - or, on the contrary, we may find that this week offers us more of the same. My prayer for each of us in this new week is that we may take some time to reflect on the gifts that God offers us in our daily lives. I pray also that, with God's help and despite the challenges that we may face, we may find ways to "transform each day into joy." AMDG.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Notes on the Memorial of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys.

Today is the Memorial of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who left her native France in 1653 at the age of thirty-two to become a teacher in the frontier settlement of Ville-Marie and later founded one of the first apostolic communities of religious women in North America, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal. Arriving in New France at a time when the future city of Montreal had fewer than sixty inhabitants, Marguerite Bourgeoys quickly established herself as a leading member of the community; a mere two years after her arrival, Marguerite convinced her fellow colonists to support the foundation of the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, which may be seen in the sequence of photos above. Returning to France to recruit teachers for a new school she had founded, Marguerite gathered together a group of devout and hardworking young women who became the first members of the Congregation of Notre Dame. Though the Church was initially hesitant to sanction the foundation of a community of uncloistered religious women, the new congregation received official approbation in 1698, two years before Marguerite's death. Beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1950, Marguerite Bourgeoys was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II on October 31, 1982.

I took the above photos of the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours during a visit to Montreal in January of last year. The view of the angel with the Marché Bonsecours in the background (first photo) was taken from an observation deck on the roof of the chapel. The inscription over the front doors of the chapel (third photo) is one that may be found above the doors of many chapels in France: "Si l’amour de Marie en ton cœur est gravé, en passant ne t’oublie de lui dire un Ave." ("If the love of Mary is engraved in your heart, in passing [here] do not forget to say a Hail Mary.") Located near Montreal's historic waterfront, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours has traditionally been regarded as a kind of sailors' church, as the model ships hanging in the sanctuary of the chapel attest (fourth photo). Though Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours has long a place of pilgrimage in its own right, since 2005 the chapel has also housed the tomb of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys (fifth photo). Most images of the saint in the chapel and elsewhere depict her as a young woman (sixth photo), though the only portrait painted in Marguerite's lifetime shows her at the age of seventy-nine (seventh photo).

On this Memorial of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, I'm praying in a special way for the people of Montreal and for the Congregation of Notre Dame. May the Church that St. Marguerite Bourgeoys served so well find inspiration and greater zeal in following in her example, and may the members of the religious institute that she founded always remain faithful to her charism. Sainte Marguerite Bourgeoys, priez pour nous. AMDG.

Art and China's Revolution.

Defying heavy snow that kept most other Ciszekians indoors, on Saturday afternoon I trekked down to the Asia Society on the Upper East Side to see an exhibition entitled "Art and China's Revolution." Having read favorable reviews of the exhibition in the New York Times and elsewhere, I had been meaning to check out "Art and China's Revolution" since it opened in early September but never quite got around to it over the course of a very busy fall semester. I finally got to the exhibition a day before it closed, and I'm glad I had the chance.

"Art and China's Revolution" considers the development of the visual arts in China during the first three decades of Communist rule. Seeking to inculcate 'revolutionary' values in the Chinese people and to purge Chinese culture of elements deemed incompatible with life in a putatively 'new' society, the government of Mao Zedong promoted the work of a new generation of painters schooled in the Soviet style of socialist realism while condemning traditional Chinese painting styles as decadent and outmoded. Despite their disdain for Western imperialism, Mao's cultural commissars seem not to have grasped the irony inherent in their rejection of China's artistic heritage in favor of aesthetic values borrowed from the Soviet Union. As "Art and China's Revolution" makes clear, socialist realism did not appear in China as an indigenous movement but was introduced as part of an official cultural policy which included student and faculty exchanges between Chinese and Soviet art academies as well as an explicit copying of Soviet works. Meanwhile, artists working in traditional Chinese styles suffered serious persecution - including physical and psychological abuse at the hands of frenzied Red Guards amid the chaos of the Cultural Revolution as well as years of imprisonment and the destruction of many of their works.

"Art and China's Revolution" covers a broad array of works, including examples of the traditional paintings that Mao disdained, propaganda posters celebrating his regime, and works produced in secret by artists who chose to work outside the limited bounds of expression permitted by the authorities. The three images shown above should give a sense of the great range of works represented. The first image offers an example of traditional Chinese ink painting in Pines at Hua Shan (1972), a hanging scroll by Shi Lu, a respected painter who endured torture and banishment during the Cultural Revolution. Produced in the same year as Pines at Hua Shan, Wu Yunhua's painting Mao Inspects Wushun Opencut Coal Mine (second image) contrasts dramatically with Shi Lu's work in both style and theme. In accordance with the canons of socialist realism, subtlety, subjectivity and symbolism have been rejected in favor of an ostensibly realistic but oddly cartoonish tableau of smiling workers surrounding their Great Helmsman. Ma Kelu's Morning Snow (1975) is an example of the work of an underground artistic collective called the 'No Name Group.' Painting in Western styles while rejecting the narrow strictures of socialist realism, the members of the No Name Group reaffirmed art's power as a vehicle of individual self-expression.

Taken together, traditional Chinese scrolls and the modern works of the No Name Group offer a strong but subtle indictment of the socialist realist style so ardently promoted by Mao. For all the smiling faces and displays of collective enthusiasm found in the official works included in "Art and China's Revolution," the exhibition reveals the hollowness - soullessness, really - of socialist realism. The apparent joy on display in these works is really something like what Dmitri Shostakovich supposedly spoke of (with reference to the final movement of his Fifth Symphony) as "rejoicing [that] is forced, created under threat . . . It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing' . . ." By contrast, works like Pines at Hua Shan and Morning Snow reflect the spirit of authentic humanity reflected in an artist's personal vision. This spirit reminds us that the beauty that we find in art is the only justification that art requires - it need not be politically or socially useful, nor must it reflect the views of anyone other than the artist. "Art and China's Revolution" offers a potent reminder of this truth. AMDG.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Long Retreat.

Every January, a diverse group that includes Jesuit novices from several U.S. provinces as well as other interested parties gathers at Gonzaga Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts to make the full thirty-day version of the Spiritual Exercises, an experience that takes a little more than a month when one adds several days of preparation and debriefing before and after the retreat as well as a couple of 'break days' (that is, days on which the silence and seclusion of the retreat are interrupted and retreatants are allowed to speak to one another and to leave the environs of the retreat house) at different points during the retreat. I made the Spiritual Exercises in Gloucester over the month of January 2005, in a group that included twenty-six novices, two religious sisters, two laywomen and a diocesan seminarian. I took the above photo of the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean on a morning late in the retreat, when my spiritual director asked me to get up early and watch the sunrise as a way of meditating on the Resurrection of Christ. I have never been much of a morning person, and that day remains one of the very few in my life when I've actually witnessed a sunrise.

The group making the Long Retreat this year at Gloucester includes eighteen Jesuit novices and several other retreatants, including Catholic chemist and blogger Michelle Francl. I'm a regular reader of Michelle's blog Quantum Theology, and Michelle regularly reads and comments on this blog as well. I'll be praying for all who are making the Exercises in Gloucester this month, and I particularly look forward to reading Michelle's reflections on the experience - she has already posted some reflections about the lead-up to the Exercises, and I'm sure she'll have more to say after the retreat (even though I've found that there's a lot that you just can't say about having made the Long Retreat). If you're so inclined, I hope that you'll join me in praying for this year's crop of Long Retreatants. AMDG.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


In much of the Latin Church, the Feast of Epiphany is currently celebrated on the first Sunday after the start of the civil new year. Also called Theophany, this feast is still kept on its original date of January 6th by many Eastern Christians. Epiphany and theophany are both Greek terms for "manifestation" or "appearance" and are often used interchangably in practice, even though the feast to which the two titles are applied is conceived somewhat differently in the Christian East than it is in the Latin West. While the Latin observance of Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, the Eastern celebration of Theophany marks Christ's baptism in the Jordan (an event celebrated by the Latin Church on the Sunday after Epiphany). Despite considerable differences in emphasis, the different traditions associated with Epiphany and Theophany provide us with an opportunity to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst.

In celebrating the Epiphany or Theophany of the Lord, we also celebrate again the wondrous event of the Incarnation. In The Winter Pascha, a book I've referred to occasionally in recent posts, Father Thomas Hopko explains the significance of Christ's baptism in the Jordan for human salvation:
. . . it was in the Jordan, being baptized by John the Forerunner, that Jesus appeared to the world and manifested Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity.

The Lord's first public appearance takes place at His baptism for very good reason. Baptism is the symbol of death and resurrection; Christ came to the earth in order to die and be raised. Baptism is a symbol of repentance of sin, and its forgiveness; Christ came as the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sin of the world in order to take it away. Baptism is a symbol of sanctification; Christ has come to sanctify the whole of creation. Baptism is a symbol, finally, of radical renewal. When one is baptized the old is over and the new has come. And Christ has appeared on earth to bring all things to an end, and to make all things new. The act of baptism, therefore, contains in symbol the entire mystery of Christ, the whole purpose of His coming.
By celebrating this feast, Father Hopko concludes, "the faithful are enabled to see Jesus made like them in every respect, entering the waters to identify with their fallen condition in order to bring it to an end and to create them anew for life in the kingdom of God."

In many Eastern Christian communities, Theophany observances include a venerable ritual known as the Great Blessing of Waters. In the Byzantine tradition, the Great Blessing of Waters ideally involves a procession from the church to the nearest natural body of water - be it an ocean, a lake, a river, or a mere stream - where the priest says prayers of blessing and immerses a cross into the water three times to recall Christ's baptism. In warmer regions, the Great Blessing of Waters often becomes a major celebration in its own right. One of the largest and most famous of such celebrations in North America takes place each year in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America leads thousands of the faithful in celebrating the Divine Liturgy for the feast day before performing the Great Blessing of Waters at nearby Spring Bayou. As part of the ceremony, the Archbishop tosses a cross into the waters of the bayou; scores of Greek Orthodox youth from the local area then dive into the water to retrieve the cross, which is believed to bear a special blessing for the one who recovers it. If you would like to learn more about this tradition, take a look at this special online report published three years ago by the St. Petersburg Times at the time of the centenary of the Tarpon Springs celebration.

On another note, your prayers for the residents of Ciszek Hall would be appreciated as we leave today for our annual vow renovation triduum at Inisfada. I hope and pray that this time of prayer and reflection will help all of us at Ciszek to begin the spring semester as a spiritually united and invigorated community of brothers in Christ. I hope and pray also that this season is one of consolation and joy for all readers. AMDG.

Monday, January 05, 2009

(More) Armenian Jerusalem.

Following up on yesterday's post featuring photos from the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem, here are some photos I took last June documenting the Armenian presence at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is one of six church entities that share responsibility for Christendom's holiest site; the other parties are the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (represented within the Holy Sepulchre by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land), the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. Relations among the aforementioned bodies are not always harmonious, with conflicts over jurisdictional rights within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sometimes leading to physical altercations. If you want to know what makes the Holy Sepulchre such a special place, you may want to reflect on what Jerome Murphy-O'Connor writes about the church in his popular archaeological guidebook to the Holy Land. "The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here," Murphy-O'Connor writes, for the Holy Sepulchre "epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come here to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here."

Jerusalem's Armenian community has left its own distinctive stamp on the Holy Sepulchre. The first three photos in this set illustrate the entrance to the Armenian Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, bearing the distinctive cross of the Armenian Church (second photo) and some attractive metalwork (first and third photos). The three photos in the middle of the set show the members of the Monastic Brotherhood of St. James (fourth and fifth photos) and the students of the Patriarchal Seminary (sixth photo) leaving the Holy Sepulchre after completing one of several weekly processions they undertake within the church. The seminarians form the choir for services at the Cathedral of St. James; I had the privilege of hearing them sing at vespers, and you can also hear them on a commercial recording they made a few years ago of music from the Armenian liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany of Christ. The seventh and eighth photos in the set show two Armenian shrines within the Holy Sepulchre - the Chapel of the Standing of the Holy Virgin (seventh photo), on what one tradition holds to the place Mary stood during the crucifixion, and the subterranean Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator (eighth photo), commemorating the great apostle of Armenia. The ninth photo of the set may be my favorite, as it represents the kinds of sights one may encounter while poking around the dark nooks and cranies of the Holy Sepulchre. The painting hung on the stone wall presumably depicts a great Armenian hierarch; if you look closely, you'll see that the wall itself is covered with many small crosses carved by pilgrims. It's hard for me to look at these photos without wanting to return to Jerusalem; I hope to make it back to the Holy Sepulchre someday, and I hope that readers who have the desire to make a similar pilgrimage will be able to do so themselves. AMDG.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Armenian Jerusalem.

Tracing the birth of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the conversion of King Tiridates III by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301, many Armenians take pride in their status as members of the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. From the time of its foundation, the Armenian Church has preserved a unique liturgical and spiritual tradition. One distinctive aspect of Armenian practice is the celebration of the Nativity and Baptism of Christ on one and the same day, January 6th. The commemoration of the Theophany or Epiphany of the Lord on this date actually predates the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, giving the tradition of the Armenian Church a venerable precedent.

In acknowledgment of the Armenian Church's celebration of the Nativity of Christ, I thought I would take the opportunity to post some photos of Armenian Jerusalem. Home to a small but vibrant Armenian community for more than a millennium, the Old City of Jerusalem contains an Armenian Quarter largely occupied by the Armenian Patriarchate of St. James. Shown in the series of photos presented above, the Armenian Patriarchate includes a cathedral and two other churches as well as residential quarters for priests and monks as well as several thousand Armenian laypeople. The Patriarchate is in some sense a self-contained city within a city, including schools and medical facilities as well as businesses run by some of the lay residents. The only parts of the compound that are generally open to visitors (and then at very limited times, principally during religious services) are the Cathedral of St. James and the courtyard linking the cathedral with the main entrance to the Patriarchate.

The sequence of photos above gives a sense of the journey that the visitor takes from the street (appropriately named 'Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road') to the interior of the Cathedral of St. James. As you can see, the entrance to the cathedral is marked by some fine metalwork (third and seventh photos) and mosaics (ninth photo) as well as paintings (eighth photo) and crosses carved in stone by professional artisans (fifth photo) and pilgrims (sixth photo) alike. The interior of the cathedral (tenth photo) is strikingly beautiful but also very difficult to photograph, both because it is lit only by oil lamps and a small amount of natural light and because photography is effectively discouraged if not entirely forbidden. As the website of the Armenian Patriarchate states, "Limited photography is allowed, and visitors are requested to seek permission from the Cathedral Sacristan prior to photographing or filming." What is not stated is that the Cathedral Sacristan (who may be seen, albeit from behind, in the third photo) may revoke his approval when he feels a particular photographer has crossed the line - usually after taking more than two or three photographs. Attending daily vespers at the Cathedral of St. James during my time in Jerusalem, I saw a number of shutter-happy visitors chastened by the icy stare of the aforementioned sacristan, who in all cases effectively conveyed his wordless disapproval with a mere glance.

Though this is my first time writing about the experience on this blog, attending Armenian vespers represented one of the real highlights of my retreat in Jerusalem. Despite not knowing a word of Armenian, I found myself unspeakably moved by the services and particularly by the haunting and quite unique sound of Armenian chant. The services were chanted a cappella by Armenian seminarians, with much incense dispensed by what I took to be clerics in minor orders and Gospel readings and prayers offered by monks I took to be priests. It's hard for me to describe the experience in greater detail - partly because it's been about six months since I was in Jerusalem - but I strongly urge you to take part if you ever find yourself in the Holy Land. For more on my adventures in Armenian Jerusalem, stay tuned for another post tomorrow. AMDG.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Young readers support a SouthCoast tradition.

Tomorrow and on Sunday, scores of Herman Melville fans as well as the merely curious will converge upon the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the twelfth annual Moby-Dick Reading Marathon. To learn more about an event that has become something of a local tradition in my home area, take a look at this post from two years ago. As today's New Bedford Standard-Times reports, new participants in this year's marathon include a group of eager young readers who are just beginning to grapple with a work that merits lifelong attention. Here's more from the Standard-Times:
They have trolled the Atlantic with Captain Ahab in search of an elusive white whale. They know Ishmael like an old friend. And on Saturday, city fifth-graders will celebrate "Moby-Dick" alongside countless other fans of the classic novel.

Eight students from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, who spent the past month reading and discussing a young readers' version of "Moby-Dick" as part of their book club, will attend the kickoff of the 12th annual "Moby-Dick" Marathon at New Bedford Whaling Museum.

"The students are really excited about attending and they know their New Bedford and whaling history," teacher Debbie Perry said. "The kids basically read the book on their own and their conversations about the book were student-directed. We've read other books, but this just happens to be one of the literature circles we wanted to take a step further."

An estimated 150 people are expected to read aloud short passages from the novel during the 25-hour marathon. The students are not scheduled to read at the event, but they wanted to participate in the celebration anyway, Ms. Perry said.

. . .

Ms. Perry said her students were so interested in the famous 1851 whaling novel by Herman Melville that they want to continue their discussion with a "Moby-Dick" club that would meet every week.
Since Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books, I'm glad to hear that a few New Bedford youngsters are enthusiastic about a masterpiece that also happens to be a part of local lore. The notion of allowing literary classics to be read in adapted 'young readers' versions doesn't entirely sit well with me - even though I'll confess to having read a comic book based on Moby-Dick when I was a kid - but I hope this early exposure to Melville gets some of the Lincoln School students interested in eventually reading the original text. I hope, too, that posts like this one inspire readers of this blog who aren't acquainted with Melville to give his work a try. AMDG.