Thursday, December 31, 2009

Back at Colombiere.

The end of the calendar year tends to be a busy travel time for many people, including young Jesuits. After turning in my fall grades at SJU, I drove up to Massachusetts to spend Christmas with my family. The Sunday after Christmas, I fought post-holiday traffic to get back to Philadelphia. With little time to rest or to repack, I was out the door again the next morning for a flight to Chicago. From there, I journeyed to Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan for the annual gathering of men in formation from the Chicago, Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces of the Society of Jesus. The above photos should give you some sense of Colombiere, a massive edifice that was constructed at the end of the 1950s to serve as a Jesuit novitiate and juniorate and now serves as a residence for retired and infirm Jesuits and as a center for conferences and retreats.

Though some matters of moment are discussed at the annual formation gathering, the main function of the event is to provide young Jesuits living and working far apart to spend some time together in prayer and fellowship. I enjoy the opportunity that these gatherings provide to catch up with Jesuit contemporaries I don't often get to see. Having spent part of my novitiate hospital experiment at Colombiere, I also appreciate being able to return to a place that has played a notable role in my own formation as a Jesuit. In more than one sense, these days at Colombiere give me a chance to reflect in gratitude on my life and vocation as a Jesuit.

As this year ends and another begins, I hope that you have an opportunity to reflect gratefully on the gifts that you have received this year. Reflecting also on the challenges that you may have faced, I also hope and pray that you may also be able to find some grace and consolation in what may have been difficult or painful experiences. Finally, I extend to all who may read this my prayers and best wishes for a happy new year. AMDG.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The smallness of God.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ, Novgorod, 15th cent. (source).

For your continued prayerful reflection on the Feast of the Nativity, I'd like to call your attention to this recent post by Orthodox priest and blogger Father Stephen Freeman, who offers some timely words on the smallness of God:

We draw near to the Feast of our Lord's Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child - the smallest of us all - man at his weakest - utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness - all that we see in His incarnation - is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image [that] we were created to be.
To read the rest, click here. Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A new and wondrous mystery.

Detail of a window in St Cyprian's Church, London (source).

Before heading off to Midnight Mass, I would like to take a moment to observe my annual custom of marking the Feast of the Nativity on this blog with the quotation of some lines from a sermon preached on this feast by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

To all readers of this blog, I extend my prayerful best wishes for a blessed Christmas. Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Speechless in amazement and awe.

Delayed by a day on account of the demands of calculating and submitting fall grades - a task that I finished late last night - this is the last in a series of posts reflecting on the Sundays of Advent with the help of Father Alfred Delp's Prison Meditations. For the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent, Father Delp considers the themes of "binding and loosing" that are constitutive both of our Advent journey and of the Christian life generally. As Father Delp explains, our liberation from sin comes in our surrender to God:
. . . The power that will overcome the law of sin is not to be found within the heart of the sinner who seeks it. And he must first fulfil the necessary condition of a change of heart before he can even receive that redemptive power which lies beyond his reach. He must first call upon it and then make himself ready so that he may go to meet it. Advent does not offer freedom to the man who is convinced he is already converted. Stir up thy power: by the help of thy grace. It is a case of God against sin. Sin is very like a handcuff - only the person with the key can unlock it. It doesn't matter how fervently I desire it, I cannot rid myself of my handcuffs because I have no key. And sin is like the door of my cell - even if I had a key I could not unlock the door because it has no keyhole on this side. It can only be opened from outside. And opposed to sin is God, as accuser and judge of man obstinate in error, as liberator and saviour if he will turn to his Redeemer and ally himself with his Creator against sin. . . .
How do we ally ourselves with God? First and foremost, we do so by prayer. Though we must remain hopeful that God will answer our prayers, we cannot know the exact form that God's response will take:
The outcome of so many things, the occurrence of so many miracles depends on the wholeheartedness of our plea to God. He will not always provide sensational miracles - though they will occur now and again, witnessing to his divine power. But with truly regal bounty he will reveal himself in a thousand little everyday adjustments proving by innumerable apparently casual events that his will prevails in the end. The man of real faith has no doubt about the outcome - he leaves the means to God. And when God repays, and more than repays, man's trust we can only stand speechless in amazement and awe.
As we complete this time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, each of us could do well to reflect upon the ways in which our trust in God has been amply rewarded. The work of opening our hearts and our lives to receive Christ into our midst includes the task of recognizing how the One we await has already manifested himself in our lived experience. Just as God's answer to our prayers can take the form of "a thousand little everyday adjustments," the Lord can make himself present to us in subtle and often surprising ways. As we recall with gratitude the ways that God has been at work in our lives, let us prepare to joyfully celebrate the birth of our Redeemer. AMDG.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gaudete in Domino semper.

Gaudete in Domino semper - "Rejoice in the Lord always." This imperative from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians gives the Third Sunday of Advent its common name of Gaudete Sunday. Coming roughly halfway through Advent, Gaudete Sunday provides a special opportunity to take stock of one's readiness to welcome Christ when he comes into our midst. Having urged us in the strongest possible terms to rejoice in the Lord ("again, I say, rejoice"), today's reading from the Philippians also reminds us that we haven't much time to spare, for "the Lord is nigh." Our merciful God is ready to receive us. What, then, prevents us from hastening to meet him?

Father Alfred Delp begins the section of his Prison Meditations dealing with the Third Sunday of Advent by reflecting upon the meaning of happiness. According to Father Delp, the common understanding of "the happy state" as "contentment with one's lot" doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Writing from a German prison cell less than two months before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Father Delp recognizes that few would regard his life as happy He also wonders whether anyone could truly be considered happy in a world torn apart by war:
As a matter of fact we may ask ourselves whether it is worthwhile wasting time on an analysis of happiness. Is happiness not one of the luxuries of life for which no room can be found in the narrow strip of privacy which is all we have left when war occupies almost the whole of our attention? Certainly it would seem to be so in a prison cell, a space covered by three paces in each direction, one's hands fettered, one's heart filled with longings, one's head full of problems and worries.
In spite of all this, Father Delp finds that his imprisonment has helped him to understand the true meaning of human happiness:
Yet it does happen, even under these circumstances, that every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy there is in it. Suddenly, without any cause that I can perceive, without knowing why or by what right, my spirits soar again and there is not a doubt in my mind that all the promises hold good. This may sometimes be merely a reaction my defence mechanism sets up to counter depression. But not always. Sometimes it is due to a premonition of good tidings. It happened now and then in our [Jesuit] community during a period of hardship and nearly always it was followed by an unexpected gift due to the resourcefulness of some kind soul at a time when such gifts were not customary.

But this happiness I am speaking of is something quite different. There are times when one is curiously uplifted by a sense of inner exaltation and comfort. Outwardly nothing is changed. The hopelessness of the situation remains only too obvious; yet one can face it undismayed. One is content to leave everything in God's hands. And that is the whole point. Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Fellow creatures can be the means of giving us much pleasure and of creating conditions which are comfortable and delightful, but the success of this depends upon the extent to which the recipient is capable of recognising the good and accepting it. And even this capacity is dependent on man's relationship with God.
Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Reading and thinking about these words, I recalled the "Atheist Bus Campaign" launched last year in Britain, which involved the placement on the sides of public buses of advertisements bearing the following words: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The fact that some atheists equate faith in God with anxiety reveals an almost laughable ignorance of what religion is really about.

The sense of true happiness and joy that is a part of the Christian vocation comes from an understanding of who we truly are and how we stand before God. Father Delp points out that this understanding is fundamentally a private one, which perhaps partly explains why the inner joy that Christians feel is too seldom apparent to the world. As Father Delp writes, "The conditions of happiness have nothing whatever to do with outward existence. They are exclusively dependent on man's inner attitude and steadfastness, which enable him, even in the most trying circumstances, to form at least a notion of what life is about."

The challenge facing Christians in a secular society is essentially twofold. First and foremost, we must seek to nurture a deep sense of inner joy that can withstand the apathy, misunderstanding and outright hostility that often seems to surround us. Secondly, we must seek to live in a way that makes our joy evident to the world. As we continue to prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our lives and into our hearts, we would do well to reflect on how we might better meet this twofold challenge. In thought, word and deed, may we more faithfully live out the call that comes to us today and every day to "rejoice in the Lord always." AMDG.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Una mujer vestida del sol.

La Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Albuquerque, New Mexico (source).

Roadside shrine, Sonora, Mexico (source).

Votives, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico (source).

Tecoh, Yucatán, Mexico (source).

Somewhere in Mexico (source).

In a clothing factory, Guanajuato, Mexico (source).

La Virgen y el Buddha (source).

Tecoh, Yucatán, Mexico (source).

Votives, Notre Dame de Paris (source).

Betty Boop y la Virgen, Pilsen, Chicago, Illinois (source).

It's hard for me to know exactly what to write at the start of a post on Our Lady of Guadalupe. On an intellectual level, I fully appreciate the important role that La Virgen de Guadalupe has played in Mexican history and culture. On an affective level, however, Guadalupe doesn't really speak to my heart and soul. Over the years, I've occasionally encountered arguments (in print and in person) to the effect that Guadalupe is a kind of 'universal Madonna' who can unite people of every race, class, culture and language. Far from turning me into a guadalupano, these sort of arguments make me even more resistant to the devotion, both because they seem to promote a kind of homogenization of Marian spirituality and because they almost treat Guadalupe as a sort of mandatory devotion. The Theotokos of Vladimir and the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos stir my soul much more than Guadalupe (or, for that matter, Fatima or Mount Carmel).

To my mind, La Virgen de Guadalupe is no more or less universal than Vladimirskaya or Pokrov or any other local or national Madonna that you may care to name. The point is not that any one image of the Mother of God should speak equally to all believers, but rather that she presents herself in a myriad of ways that appeal to Christians of different races and cultures. Some of these images have become quite ubiquitous, as Guadalupe has become in Mexico and elsewhere. In spite of my lack of devotion to La Morenita, I'll admit that I find the ubiquity of her image quite fascinating. As the above photographs attest, Guadalupe has found a home in rural shrines, on urban street corners, in factories and cathedrals, and even beside statuettes of the Buddha (a novel pairing, to say the very least). On La Morenita's feast day, I extend my prayerful best wishes to guadalupanas and guadalupanos everywhere. AMDG.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the life of Father Walter Ciszek.

Tuesday of this week was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Father Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit who spent much of his religious and priestly life engaged in clandestine ministry in the Soviet Union. Arrested by the NKVD in 1941 and charged as a "Vatican spy," Father Ciszek spent five years in Lubianka and a decade in the Siberian gulags before being released from hard labor in 1955 on the understanding that he would desist from further pastoral activity. Naturally, Father Ciszek refused to obey this order and continued to minister to underground 'parishes' in the Siberian cities of Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk and Abakan while working as an auto mechanic. He also sent letters to his two sisters in the United States, who, like his brother Jesuits, had long believed that he was dead.

Father Ciszek finally returned home to the United States in October of 1963, when he won his freedom in a Cold War prisoner exchange. Back in the United States, Father Ciszek wrote two books about his experiences in the Soviet Union - With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me - and spent the last two decades of his life giving retreats and serving as a spiritual director. Among other things, he also played an instrumental role in the establishment of Holy Annunciation Monastery, a community of Discalced Carmelite nuns following the Byzantine liturgical and spiritual tradition. You can read more about Holy Annunciation Monastery in this article, which also offers some unique insights into Father Ciszek's later life and personality. Grateful for Father Ciszek's spiritual guidance, the nuns of Holy Annunciation Monastery have played an important role in promoting Ciszek's cause for canonization, a task formally entrusted since 1989 to the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League.

Though I never met him, Walter Ciszek has played a noteworthy role in my life. I first heard his name at Georgetown, where Father Tom King suggested that I read With God in Russia as part of my discernment of a possible vocation to the Jesuits. I followed Father King's advice and found myself sufficiently moved by With God in Russia that I decided to read He Leadeth Me as well. While my personal experiences with Jesuits played a much larger role in my decision to enter the Society than any books that I read, I found a lot of inspiration in the story of Walter Ciszek, a self-described "tough Pole" from a Pennsylvania mining town who managed to combine an exemplary gentleness and humility with the strength and guile needed to survive years of imprisonment and exile behind the Iron Curtain.

Looking back, I realize that reading Ciszek's account of his life deepened my desire to enter the Society in which he spent his life. Having had the opportunity to read each of Ciszek's books a second time since I entered the Jesuits, I found that I appreciate his reminiscences in an even more vivid way now that I relate them a bit more to my own lived experience. Beyond that, I am proud to have lived for three years in a Jesuit residence named for Father Ciszek and to have gotten to know Jesuits who knew Ciszek personally. Of course, I couldn't have anticipated any of this when I first read With God in Russia on Tom King's recommendation. Then again, as Walter Ciszek's story so eloquently teaches us, God's plans for us are often greater than any that we could have imagined for ourselves. AMDG.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The value or worthlessness of human life.

Picking up where I left off last week, here are some thoughts on the Second Sunday of Advent from Jesuit Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945):
The value or worthlessness of human life, its profundity or shallowness, depends very much on the conditions of our existence. Life ought to preserve its real stature and not dissipate itself in superficial interests or empty sterility. Western civilisation is responsible for much misconception, foreshortening of views, distortion and so on both in public and personal life. We are the products of that faulty outlook. Distortion is a danger inherent in man's nature to which we as a generation seem to have been more than ordinarily prone.

Moments of grace, both historical and personal, are invariably linked with an awakening and restoration of genuine order and truth. That, too, is part of the meaning of Advent. Not merely a promise, but conversion, change. Plato would have said preparation for the reception of truth. St. John more simply called it a change of heart. The prayers and the message of Advent shake a man out of his complacency and make him more vividly aware of all that is transmutable and dramatic in his life.

. . . The encounter with God is not of man's choosing either in regard to the place or the manner of it. Therefore the central portion of the message [of the Second Sunday of Advent] runs: 'Blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me.' That is to say God is approaching but in his own way. The man who insists that his salvation shall depend on his own idea of what is right and proper is lost. It means further that the starting point of the movement towards salvation is the point at which contact is made with Christ. The way to salvation in the world is the way of the Saviour. There is no other way. We have to see this clearly and constantly affirm it.

. . .

So this Sunday we must again fold our hands and kneel humbly before God in order that his salvation may be active in us and that we may be worthy to call upon him and be touched by his presence. The arrogance so typical of modern man is deflated here; at the same time the icy loneliness and helplessness in which we are frozen melts under the divine warmth that fills and blesses us.
Though Father Delp composed his Advent meditations over sixty years ago, the distorted outlook that he noticed among his contemporaries is still very much with us. Convinced of our own self-sufficiency, we often fail to realize our own need for God's help; as Father Delp notes, the terms of our salvation are set by God alone. Even so, in our blindness we can often fail to perceive the ways in which God comes into our lives and offers the gift of His loving presence to us.

As we continue on our journey through Advent, perhaps we would do well to reflect on God's unexpected and unsought interventions into our seemingly independent and self-directed existence. As we do this, I pray that we may have the courage to become more open to Christ's presence in our midst. AMDG.

Boy bishops.

Though it falls on a Sunday this year, today's date is that of the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. Beloved and revered in both the Eastern and Western churches, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia is honored at this time of year with celebrations and festal customs that differ widely from country to country. One of the more novel traditions associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra is the enthronement of boy bishops, cathedral choristers whose honorary episcopacy lasted until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th. In the pages of William Hone's Every-day Book, an English almanac of the nineteenth-century, we find the following description of the tradition of the boy bishop:
Anciently on the 6th of December, it being St. Nicholas's Day, the choir boys in cathedral churches, chose one of their number to maintain the state and authority of a bishop, for which purpose the boy was habited in rich episcopal robes, wore a mitre on his head, and bore a crosier in his hand; and his fellows, for the time being, assumed the character and dress of priests, yielded him canonical obedience, took possession of the church, and except mass, performed all the ecclesiastical ceremonies and offices. Though the boy bishop's election was on the 6th of December, yet his office and authority lasted till the 28th, being Innocents' day.
The Advent tradition of the boy bishop has enjoyed a modest revival in recent years, as a number of English cathedrals and other churches have resumed the practice of enthroning a boy bishop on or around the date of the Feast of St. Nicholas. One such place is Hereford Cathedral, which enthroned its latest adolescent prelate in a ceremony held earlier today. Lest you dismiss this event and others like it as matters of purely local interest, I should note the attention paid to last year's enthronement by the BBC and by The Daily Telegraph. Here is part of what Telegraph reporter Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote last year about the tradition of boy bishops:
Hereford Cathedral is made for Christmas. Its sandstone walls are soft and embracing while the cast iron stoves give out welcome warmth. Candles flicker and there's that wonderful smell of old books, incense and slight damp. The Bishop, clad in heavily encrusted robes and mitre, is the height of ecclesiastical solemnity - until he hands over his authority to a teenager, the Boy Bishop.

. . .

"The earliest reference to a Boy Bishop at Hereford is circa 1250," says the Bishop of Hereford, the Right Reverend Anthony Martin Priddis. "It demonstrated Christ's command of becoming child-like and how he took a little child and 'set him in the midst of them (the disciples).'"

It is also a tradition connected to the sense of anarchy and role reversal that was once common at the Christmastide period: the hunting and killing of the wren was one such custom, while "lords of misrule" were ubiquitous in the 16th century. Major abbeys and schools observed the tradition: Westminster School's Boy Bishop was clad in a jewelled mitre and velvet robes embroidered with gold. It was not without its problems though: in 1443, a vicar following Salisbury Cathedral's Boy Bishop got into a fight and knocked a townsman out. A few years later in the same city the choristers were said to have got unruly and jeered at the Vicar's Choral.
Suppressed during the English Reformation, the tradition of boy bishops began to make a quiet comeback in the 20th century. For the Telegraph's Tierney-Jones, the revived institution enjoys a place in a hallowed pantheon of Advent and Christmas practices:
Spiritual and seasonal, even if incongruous, the ceremony of the Boy Bishop is a delightful Christmas custom that plugs us into our past and offers a staging post on the journey to Christmas, a route that has many commercial diversions. Forget Tesco, this is up there with school nativity plays, Christmas carol services and calling the neighbours round for a few drinks. Even though it is a Christian service, I can't help but think that there is something pagan about its theme of role reversal and the world turned upside down, a link back to Saturnalia and those long-lost traditions where a tribe made someone king for a day.
For my part, it strikes me that 'role reversal' customs like the enthronement of boy bishops remind us of the earth-shaking significance of the unique event that Advent prepares us to celebrate. It seems to me that the sheer familiarity of the story of Christ's Nativity often leads Christians to forget that the very fact of the Incarnation presents us with a "world turned upside down" - a world that our God chose to enter, becoming a human being and taking on the burden of our frailty and limitation. With the help of customs and traditions like the enthronement of boy bishops, this time of Advent gives us ample opportunity to renew our sense of surprise and wonder at the imminent arrival of He who is to come. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Notes on the Memorial of SS. Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Companions.

Today the Society of Jesus celebrates the memory of the Jesuit Martyrs of England and Wales, a group of ten priests and brothers who were killed for refusing to acknowledge royal supremacy over the Church of England and for providing pastoral and sacramental ministry to English and Welsh Catholics who had chosen to remain faithful to Rome. The martyrs commemorated today include Edmund Campion (†1581), Robert Southwell (†1595), Edmund Arrowsmith (†1628), Alexander Briant (†1581), Philip Evans (†1679), Thomas Garnet (†1608), David Lewis (†1679), Henry Morse (†1645), Nicholas Owen (†1606) and Henry Walpole (†1595). Some of these men became famous during their earthly lives, while others labored in quiet obscurity. All ten gave faithful and heroic service to the Church in a time of grave persecution, dedicating their lives to the greater glory of God and shedding their own blood in imitation of Christ.

The martyrs remembered today include at least two talented writers, Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. Both attracted notice during their lives as authors of apologetic works, the most famous of which is probably Campion's Challenge to the Privy Council, better known as "Campion's Brag." Southwell was known particularly for his poetry, much of which dealt with explicitly Christian themes. In the past, I've referenced a couple of Southwell's poems reflecting on the themes of Advent and the Nativity of Christ. For today, I'd like to share another of Southwell's poems, "Man's Civil War," which also strikes me as highly appropriate for Advent:
My hovering thoughts would fly to heaven
And quiet nestle in the sky,
Fain would my ship in Virtue's shore
Without remove at anchor lie.

But mounting thoughts are halèd down
With heavy poise of mortal load,
And blustring storms deny my ship
In Virtue's haven secure abode.

When inward eye to heavenly sights
Doth draw my longing heart's desire,
The world with jesses of delights
Would to her perch my thoughts retire,

Fon Fancy trains to Pleasure's lure,
Though Reason stiffy do repine ;
Though Wisdom woo me to the saint,
Yet Sense would win me to the shrine.

Where Reason loathes, there Fancy loves,
And overrules the captive will ;
Foes senses are to Virtue's lore,
They draw the wit their wish to fill.

Need craves consent of soul to sense,
Yet divers bents breed civil fray ;
Hard hap where halves must disagree,
Or truce halves the whole betray !

O cruel fight! where fighting friend
With love doth kill a favoring foe,
Where peace with sense is war with God,
And self-delight the seed of woe !

Dame Pleasure's drugs are steeped in sin,
Their sugared taste doth breed annoy ;
O fickle sense! beware her gin,
Sell not thy soul to brittle joy!
It strikes me that Southwell's sentiments resonate a bit with the words of Alfred Delp that I shared on Sunday. In different ways, Delp and Southwell both draw our attention to one of the great challenges of Advent: to overcome the distractions and temptations of the passing world so that we may more keenly perceive the true riches and deep sense of fulfillment that God offers to us. If we can see beyond the "brittle joy" that too often captures our imagination, we can begin to make ourselves ready to welcome Christ into our midst. May our Advent journey prepare us to do just that. AMDG.