Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The liberation of Lent.

We all start Lent in different ways. Some readers of this blog will have started Lent this past Sunday at Forgiveness Vespers. Others will start it today by attending Ash Wednesday Mass or another sort of liturgical service. If you follow the Julian Calendar, Lent begins for you next Sunday. Some readers, I'm sure, will greet the start of Lent in entirely private and ostensibly non-liturgical ways.

Our communal celebrations of the start of Lent may differ, but our own individual assessments of where we are at the start of this season differ even more. The self-examination that we are encouraged to undertake at this time may lead each of us in very different directions. The ways in which we elect to fast or abstain or otherwise manifest our repentance for our failure to live up to our baptismal promises may differ markedly depending on how we feel that God is calling us to change our hearts and our lives during this season. The Lenten journey is one that we all undertake together, yet in some sense it is also a journey that each of us must make alone.

Even if each of us experiences Lent in different ways, we must not lose sight of the themes at the heart of the season. In the book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Father Alexander Schmemann speaks eloquently of these themes (or "conditions") as his reflects upon the Byzantine celebration of Forgiveness Sunday on the very eve of the start of Lent:
Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of "this world." And the Gospel lesson of this last Sunday (Matt. 6:14-21) sets the conditions for that liberation. The first one is fasting - the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit. To be effective, however, our fast must not be hypocritical, a "showing off." We must "appear not unto men to fast but to our Father who is in secret." The second condition is forgiveness - "If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you." The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my "enemy" the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless "dead-ends" of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a "breakthrough" of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world.
I hope to return to these themes in a later post. For now, I think we would all do well to consider the questions that Father Schmemann places before us. What must I fast from this year in order to allow the liberation of Lent to enter my heart? Who must I forgive in order to allow the Kingdom of God to break through into my life?

My prayers are with all readers in this Lenten season. I ask you to pray for me as well. AMDG.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

La Trappe d'Oka, 1881-2009.

Last May, I posted some reflections and photos of one of my favorite places, the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac in Oka, Quebec. As I noted at the time, a combination of reduced numbers and the encroachment of suburban sprawl have led the Trappists at Oka to make the difficult decision to leave behind a historic monastery built in 1916 on grounds occupied by the Cistercian Order since 1881. After several years of careful planning, the twenty-odd monks at Oka are moving this week to the new Abbey of Val Notre-Dame near Saint-Jean-de-Matha, a rural community about forty-five miles northeast of Montreal. As Alan Hustak reports in the Montreal Gazette, the last public Mass in the monastery at Oka took place this morning.

Though the Trappists' departure from Oka has been long anticipated, it's still a bit sad to realize that the move is finally taking place. Nonetheless, I took some consolation in the words of a wise old monk quoted in Hustak's article:
"No one can deny that moving is a heartbreaking experience," said Brother Bénédict Vanier, who has been at the abbey since 1945.

"We are leaving a lot of memories behind in the old place. But we have chosen to follow Christ in solitude, and if he is with us - and I believe He is - it seems to me we will find Him just as easily at Val Notre Dame as at Oka."
I trust that God will be with the Trappists of Oka as they move to their new home, and I pray that they may enjoy many years of grace, peace and tranquility at Val Notre Dame. AMDG.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Seeking prayers.

I don't normally write much about my family on this blog - they're entitled to their privacy, and I don't think they're interested in reading about themselves on the Internet - but I would like to ask for prayers for my grandmother, who has been in the hospital this week. I've been deeply worried about her health the past few days - so much so that I've had trouble focusing on my academic work as well as on other tasks, including updating this blog - and I've been praying a lot for her and for my family. If you would send up a prayer of your own for these intentions, I would be most grateful. AMDG.

Friday, February 13, 2009

St. Ignatius and Contemporary Iconography.

My brother Jesuit and fellow Ciszek Hall resident Ryan Rallanka has recently started a blog sharing his own reflections on Ignatian spirituality and his experiences in the Society. This week, Ryan has been posting a series of reflections on the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola based on images of the saint produced by artist Dora Nikolova Bittau. A native of Bulgaria who has lived in Rome for more than thirty years, Bittau paints in a style that combines elements of traditional Byzantine and Latin iconography together with more contemporary influences. If you'd like to learn more about Bittau and her work, take a look at this interview (in Italian) and the gallery of images that accompany it. In Jesuit circles in the United States, Bittau is probably best known for a set of five icons depicting scenes in the life of St. Ignatius that she wrote for the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University. The above image of St. Ignatius' vision of Christ at La Storta is taken from this set; you can see the others by taking a virtual tour of the narthex of the Chapel of St. Ignatius.

Before reading the reflections that Ryan has been posting this week, I didn't realize that Dora Nikolova Bittau had also written a set of icons for the chapel of the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Francis Xavier in Portland, Oregon. The scenes that Bittau depicts in these icons are the same five that she chose for the icons at Seattle University, though there are striking differences between the two sets. For example, comparing the Vision of La Storta as presented in the icon shown above and as it appears in the icon of the same scene at the Portland novitiate shows how one event can be presented in multiple ways by the same artist. Ryan notes the dissimilarity between the two icons, but he also says a great deal more about how these images have led him to reflect more deeply on our Jesuit vocation. If you'd like to know more, please have a look at the series on St. Ignatius and contemporary iconography on Ryan's blog. I've found much to ponder and pray about in his reflections, and I look forward to reading more. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Notes on the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Today the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, recalling the multiple apparitions of the Mother of God experienced by St. Bernadette Soubirous over a period of several months in 1858. A devout fourteen-year-old from a poor family, Bernadette reported that "a beautiful lady" had appeared to her in a grotto at Massabielle near Lourdes and identified herself by saying, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Though Bernadette initially faced considerable opposition from civil and religious authorities, the Marian apparitions that she reported and the subsequent devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes received the approbation of Pope Pius IX in 1862. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes has since become one of the most significant Marian shrines in the Catholic world, attracting four to six million pilgrims each year.

Many who make the pilgrimage to Lourdes come seeking the healing of illnesses considered to be medically incurable. Apparent cures are carefully evaluated by a board of physicians, and those which are found to be inexplicable in medical terms are reported to the Vatican. Though many unexpected healings are referred to the medical authorities at Lourdes each year, relatively few pass by the exacting scrutiny of the doctors. Nonetheless, 67 cures reported at Lourdes have been declared miraculous by the Church in the 151 years since the apparitions. I suspect that even those pilgrims whose cures have not been officially declared miraculous still remain grateful to Our Lady of Lourdes and credit her intercession for helping them to recover from illnesses that they had previously regarded as incurable.

Over the past century and a half, the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes has been embraced by millions of people around the world. One mark of the global popularity of this devotion is the great number of reproductions of the grotto at Massabielle that have been built around the world. Anecdotally, I'm aware of shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes (complete with "Lourdes Grottoes") in places as diverse as Santiago de Chile, Baguio City in the Philippines, Carfin, Scotland, Emmitsburg, Maryland, and even on the Caribbean island of Aruba. Though some reproductions of the Grotto of Lourdes have become major pilgrimage sites in their own right, most remain unknown to all but a relative few. I've come across any number of Lourdes Grottoes at parishes and retreat houses and on the grounds of religious houses in the United States, and I sometimes wonder whether this country has more such shrines than any other (I'm not willing to commit to this claim, but I'd appreciate feedback from readers who may know more about this than I do).

The above photos were taken in January 2005 at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes located behind the old Franco-American Orphanage in Lowell, Massachusetts. I went to Lowell in the company of two of my fellow novices on one of the days of repose that we had while making the Spiritual Exercises in Gloucester. During these days - which are prescribed as a break in the intense regimen of a thirty-day silent retreat - the novices were permitted to speak to one another (provided we didn't talk about the retreat) and were encouraged to get off the property of the retreat house and do some sight-seeing, with the caveat that we shouldn't do anything that would distract us too much from the retreat. My confreres and I elected to go to Lowell on a sort of pilgrimage to sites associated with Jack Kerouac (a story for another post, perhaps). One of the sites we saw was this Grotto, which Kerouac visited regularly as a child and which figures in his novel Dr. Sax. Shrouded by snow and darkened by the shadows of a gloomy winter day, this Grotto and the Stations of the Cross that precede it offer poignant testimony to the once vibrant - but now largely vanished - culture of French-Canadian immigrants in New England. It's hard for me to visit a place like the Grotto in Lowell without waxing melancholy about the generations who have prayed there. As I reflect on that visit today, I'm praying for and with all who have had recourse to Our Lady of Lourdes. AMDG.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Georgetown celebrates Jesuit Heritage Week.

Georgetown University just completed its ninth annual celebration of Jesuit Heritage Week, a mix of religious, social and academic events focused on the founding traditions of the oldest Catholic university in the United States. Georgetown celebrated Jesuit Heritage Week for the first time in March 2001, when I was a senior living in Copley Hall. I regret that I haven't been around for any of the subsequent celebrations of Jesuit Heritage Week, but I've been gratified to read year after year about the positive impact that this observance appears to have had.

Part of what has always impressed me about Georgetown's Jesuit Heritage Week has been the commitment shown by its student organizers. Though Jesuit Heritage Week enjoys the support and sponsorship of Georgetown administrators, the committee that plans the week's events has always been led by undergraduate students. Reading an article about this year's Jesuit Heritage Week in The Hoya, I was very consoled by the comments that the various students who planned the JHW events made regarding Georgetown's Jesuit identity. I also appreciated what one of the student co-chairs had to say in an interview with The Hoya when asked whether "Georgetown does enough to emphasize and live out its Jesuit heritage":
That’s sort of the question of the ages, I suppose. There is lots of room for critique, but like I said, Georgetown does what no other Catholic school can do. It’s a place where Catholicism can meet the rest of the world and the rest of the world can meet Catholicism. Georgetown comes under fire for a bunch of the stuff it does, but a lot of [the criticism] is ignorant of the fact that Georgetown does serve the Catholic Church in its mission in this very particular and unique identity. So, I do think Georgetown does a lot. Enough? Probably not. There’s always room for improvement. But what Georgetown does overall, I think it does very well.
Amen to that. I could say further that the "very particular and unique identity" of Georgetown played an essential role in my own discernment of my vocation. In other words, I don't know whether I would have been able to perceive the call to enter the Society had I not encountered the Jesuits first at the cosmopolitan crossroads that is Georgetown. For me, then, Georgetown's Jesuit Heritage Week provides an apt occasion for what a Jesuit I got to know far from the Hilltop might call "a very explicit Te Deum" - a Te Deum for the gift of a personal vocation that was made manifest to me through the vocation of an institution. AMDG.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Taft on liturgy and life.

As I expressed hopes of doing in an earlier post, I'd like to reflect a bit on a lecture that I heard Father Robert F. Taft, S.J. give last week at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. As is often the case with academic lectures, some of the most insightful and provocative things that Father Taft had to say came in his answers to questions posed after his talk rather than in the text that he had prepared for the occasion. To a question on the relationship between liturgy and spirituality, Father Taft had this to say:
Basically, the main problem of all liturgical theology is how do we justify the claims that we make for Christian liturgy? How can we say in the churches, the apostolic churches that have a high Christology – my Christology is so high it’d give you a nosebleed – a high Christology, in other words, which believes that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God who became incarnate, as in the teaching of the ecumenical councils, that he preexisted before all time, and that Jesus Christ is the main protagonist, as head of his body, of our liturgical services – and that’s what gives them the reality that we assign to them.

In other words, that we say that it is Christ acting through the indwelling of his spirit in the Church who is the main protagonist of the liturgy. It’s not the Church that does it, separate from Christ. Liturgical celebrations are celebrations of the entire body of Christ, and the main celebrant of the liturgy, so to speak, is Christ himself. But the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ, it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ – that’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness, we are supposed to become the bread of life for the world, we are supposed to become the healing oil – and by 'we,' I don’t mean just the ordained, [but] all Christians. So there’s no possibility of separating liturgy and spirituality.

Liturgy is simply the mirror of what we are supposed to be, so that when we leave the liturgical assembly, we are supposed to go out and be what it is that we celebrate. That’s why St. Paul never once uses sacral terminology, like 'sacrifice,' 'offering,' 'liturgy,' 'priesthood' and so forth for anything except Christian life in Christ. What we do in church is simply the initiation into, and the feeding, and the restoration, if it’s lost by sin, and the intensification through preaching and the sacraments of what we’re supposed to be. If we don’t become it, we might as well stay in bed on Sunday morning, because what we’re doing is just a comedy.

So liturgy and spirituality are one – they can’t be separated, can’t be separated, or if they are separated, then we have, we have sucked all of the meaning out of what the liturgy is supposed to be. So the purpose of liturgy is that we become that which it exemplifies. Liturgy holds up to us the model of Christian life. What’s the model of Christian life? What do we put on the altar? We put on bread that was broken, and blood that was poured out, as signs of what we are supposed to be. When we put the bread on the altar and the chalice on the altar as the signs which will become through the invocation of the Holy Spirit the body that was broken for us and the blood that pours out to – we’re saying, 'I’m doing this because this is what I know I’m supposed to be.' And if that’s not why we’re doing it, why bother? What good is it?
Father Taft's trademark frankness may be off-putting to some readers, but I think it's hard to contest the truth of his central thesis. Christian liturgy should offer a model for Christian living - that is, what we celebrate in the liturgy ought to be a part of our daily lives and not an escape from it. Father Alexander Schmemann made this point when he described Christianity as "the end of religion" - the end, that is, of a false separation between the sacred and the secular that allows believers to treat worship as something alien and removed from ordinary experience.

To be sure, the transformation of the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ is accomplished in the liturgy regardless of whether the communicants undergo the sort of inner transformation that Father Taft speaks of. Nonetheless, it is worth asking what meaning the Eucharist can truly have for those who receive communion but are not really open to receiving the grace that God offers to them through the sacrament. If your experience of the liturgy doesn't help to bring about a deeper transformation in your life, you may want to ask yourself why it does not.

More constructively, you may also wish to consider how you can make your experience of the liturgy more meaningful - not simply for you, but for those with whom you live. There is a lot more that could be said about this, but for now I'd simply like to give the readers of this blog an opportunity to sit with Father Taft's words and to reflect upon them as I have done over the past week. We would all be very fortunate, I think, if each time we took part in the liturgy we could truly say to ourselves, "I'm doing this because this is what I know I'm supposed to be." AMDG.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

40 years of Georgetown's 11:15 p.m. Mass.

The latest issue of The Georgetown Voice features a piece by Father Thomas M. King, S.J. on Georgetown's 11:15 p.m. Mass, which King has celebrated six nights a week (excluding only Saturday) every semester since the fall of 1969. Here, Father King explains how it all started:
In June of 1968 I finished studies in France and arrived at Georgetown to begin teaching theology. Bill Clinton had graduated from the University earlier that month. It had been a difficult year for both Georgetown and the nation. Several months before my arrival Martin Luther King had been shot, and several weeks earlier Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated as well. All the while the United States was engaged in an unwinnable war.

In my first year here I lived in the Jesuit Community and offered a private Mass. I found that 11:15 p.m. best fit into my own day. That year the semester began on September 24th and I began teaching “Problem of God,” a course that had been introduced three years earlier.

For my second year at Georgetown I moved into a freshman dorm, Second New North. In August I went to the University Chaplain, John Bennett, SJ, and told him that I wanted to say Mass both Sundays and daily at 11:15 p.m. He said that was fine, but he warned that he would not be able to get a substitute should I not be able to make it: “All the Jesuits are asleep at that time!” “Okay, but I would like to try it for one semester,” I said. Now I am in my 80th semester!

So, as the fall semester of 1969 began, I started saying the late Mass in Dahlgren. The daily format was much the same as today: we begin the Mass by reading a Psalm together. There are many candles on the altar, and the lights are lowered for the solemn part of the Mass. I end the Mass with the opening passage of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” For many centuries this Gospel was proclaimed at the end of Mass, but it was dropped with Vatican II. Since I had a long affection for the text, I have continued saying it on weekday evenings.

In December of my first year with the Mass, my server asked about using incense and having a special Mass before Christmas, and I said, “Fine!” Another student was standing there, and he said he was a carpenter and would like to build a stable over the altar. “Fine!” And with that, I began the Solemn Mass for Christmas on the Third Sunday of Advent, using the readings of the day. Because of the crowds, we moved this Mass to Gaston Hall and then, four years ago, moved it again to Holy Trinity. So the Solemn Mass for Christmas is also a 40-year tradition. We no longer set up the stable (you can still see it behind an iron gate underneath the west end of the Gervase Building), but each year we have a Solemn Mass with Christmas trees and some of the great music of the holiday.
To read the rest, click here. Father King and the 11:15 p.m. Mass are Georgetown institutions, and I would not have become a Jesuit were it not for the positive influence that both had upon me while I lived on the Hilltop. The 11:15 and the community that sprang up around it provided a context in which I could begin to perceive and to respond to the call that ultimately led me into the Society of Jesus. Though my story is my own, its link to the 11:15 is far from unique. Father King keeps a the list of '11:15 alumni' who have gone on to become priests or religious; the last time that I checked, there were more than forty names on the list.

Looking beyond the numbers, I can think of countless people I've encountered over the years - women as well as men, individuals with no university affiliation as well as current or former Georgetown students, young people as well as the not-so-young - who have discovered, deepened or renewed their Christian faith as members of the 11:15 community. As I pray in thanksgiving for the many graces that have come through the 11:15 p.m. Mass, I pray also that this liturgy may continue to be a part of the lives of Hoyas and others for many years to come. AMDG.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Father Taft at St. Vladimir's.

On Friday evening, I had the good fortune of hearing Father Robert F. Taft, S.J. give the Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary a few miles north of Fordham. Given annually at St. Vladimir's since Father Schmemann's death in 1983, this year's memorial lecture doubled as the keynote address for an academic symposium focusing on the impact of Schmemann's work for contemporary liturgical theology. Readers who may be interested in what Father Taft and the other speakers at the symposium had to say may listen to the various lectures online. For my part, I found Father Taft's reflections challenging, enlightening, and often very humorous (including many memorable one-liners, such as his confession that "my Christology is so high it'd give you a nosebleed" and the opinion that "canon law is the bad side of the Good News"). Later this week, I hope to post some more specific thoughts responding to the lecture.

Hearing Father Taft speak was a great joy for me, partly because he played an indirect role in my own vocational discernment. One of the things that helped to draw me into the Society of Jesus was the great variety of ministries that Jesuits engage in, including work in ostensibly secular fields that many would be surprised to find priests and religious engaged in. The Jesuits I knew at Georgetown included scholars engaged in disciplines as diverse as biology, economics, German and political science as well as the expected professors of philosophy and theology. In time, I became aware of three Jesuits far away from Georgetown whose commitment to very different forms of learned ministry gave me further inspiration. The three members of this unlikely triptych were astronomer Guy Consolmagno, film scholar Marc Gervais and, last but certainly not least, Byzantine liturgical scholar Robert Taft. What struck me about these men was that they were interested in very different things - meteorites, the films of Ingmar Bergman, and Eastern Christianity - but all were members of the same Society, inspired by the same charism and serving the same mission.

Having had the chance to meet the other two members of my triptych at different points of my Jesuit journey - Consolmagno in Santa Clara, Gervais in Montreal - I'm glad I finally had a chance to meet the third as well. My meeting with Robert Taft was brief and perfunctory - an introduction and a handshake - but it still represented the fulfillment of a longstanding wish. Readers who may want to read more about Taft after this post might start with some of his many interviews, including this 2004 chat with NCR's John Allen and earlier talks for the journal Diakonia and for a Spanish Jesuit publication. As long as you're willing to scroll through some brief biographical information in Russian, taking a quick look at an online bibliography of Taft's published writings will give you a sense of just how prolific Taft has been over the past fifty years. Finally, if you have any doubts about Taft's own legacy in this new millennium, check out his fan club on Facebook. AMDG.