Monday, August 30, 2010

Why we go to college.

Students at colleges and universities across the United States go back to school this week, including here on Hawk Hill. I'm officially back in the saddle again, as fall semester classes began today at Saint Joseph's University. Though I always mourn the end of summer, I also appreciate the sense of new possibilities that accompanies the start of a new academic year. As a student, I almost always looked forward to the first meeting of a new class - a meeting, more often than not, with a teacher and a set of ideas that were also new to me. As I begin my second year teaching in a university setting, I find that I still look forward to new classes - I look forward to meeting new students, I look forward to watching a new (if only temporary) community take shape in the classroom, I look forward to trying to help students gain both intellectual knowledge and practical wisdom, and I look forward to learning something new from the perspectives and perplexities that students offer in class and in their written work.

With the above sentiments in mind, I'd like to share an editorial from the latest edition of The Hoya, Georgetown University's newspaper of record. This editorial is in some sense highly Georgetown-specific, occasioned by the sad news that one of the Hilltop's most beloved professors, Father James Schall, will be unable to teach this semester as he recovers from cancer surgery. Father Schall's (hopefully temporary) absence from the classroom leads The Hoya's editors to write more broadly on the nature of higher education, offering reflections that I find universal enough to quote in full:
For those of you entering the gates of Georgetown for the first time, the university can feel like a world away from anything previously known. It is, in fact, a refuge - a place of contemplative thought and serious scholarship, one of the great repositories of heritage and tradition in Washington, D.C. Those of us fortunate enough to spend four years in such a place should do our best to take advantage of it.

This fall, however, Georgetown will be missing one of its most valuable individuals, Fr. James Schall, S.J. He is perhaps no less than the most celebrated professor in a government department known nationwide for its exceptional talent.

Schall is currently on medical leave following major surgery to repair a cancerous jaw. We wish him the speediest and fullest recovery, for even his briefest absence leaves Georgetown worse off. This man and his kind are the bedrock of the university. His classes are the stuff of legend: a Socratic setting bursting with students eager to know the lessons of classical political theory. Schall dispenses with technology, preferring instead to enter a dialogue with Plato, Aquinas and Chesterton sans PowerPoint. There are no teaching assistants and no distractions, just deep discussion about the greatest ideas of the Western canon.

This is why we come to Georgetown and, in truth, why we go to college. The thrill of a Georgetown basketball game or the buzz of the latest political intrigue is an enviable benefit of being in Washington, but the soul of Georgetown is still her teachers and students. For his entire career, Schall has rallied against the wandering relativism of the modern academy, maintaining a belief in certain timeless truths and the necessity of not only being educated, but actually learning.

As you set off on your four-year journey on the Hilltop, we hope that you take advantage of the wonderful opportunities available at Georgetown. Perhaps for the first, and last, time in your life, you have the chance to enter the age-old dialogue about what is important to humanity. There may be more questions than answers on a subject as profound as this, but there is no better time to explore these depths and see what you find.

Our parting words are simple: Make the most of your time at Georgetown. Find friends with whom you can talk about anything, including the most important of things. Seek out the teachers who can show you a fact that you never knew and a viewpoint you never considered. Georgetown has stood on the banks of the Potomac for over two centuries, employing both reason and faith in her quest for knowledge. That is the mission of our school, for, as Fr. Schall writes so poignantly, we students can do nothing less than "pursue the highest things, the things that are, but are not of our own making." No alternative would be conceivable.
My best wishes to all who are going back into the classroom these days, on both sides of the desk. I hope that those who are currently enrolled in undergraduate studies are able to make the most of these special years, and I likewise hope that their teachers are able to help them do so. AMDG.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ten maxims on prayer.

One of my favorite bloggers, Ilyas Wan Wei Hsien of Torn Notebook, has returned to regular posting after something of a summer hiatus. Earlier this week, Wei Hsien shared ten miscellaneous maxims on prayer which bear repeating:

1. The essentials: pray in the morning and before you go to bed, and say the Jesus Prayer as much as you can in between.

2. Use the Psalter when you pray. It’s been an integral part of Christian prayer from the earliest times.

3. Have a set of prayers and psalms committed to memory. Then you can use them while traveling and other times when you might not have access to any books.

4. Pray prayers that’ve stood the test of time, which Christians of past generations prayed. Use prayers from the Divine Office of the Church, for example.

5. Prayer changes you.

6. Use icons, candles and incense. Make prostrations. Bow. Cross yourself. Get your whole body involved.

7. Pray the Psalms aloud; it makes the demons tremble. (Evagrius paraphrased.)

8. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.

9. It shouldn’t amount to a to-do list. If you just want to sit quietly, light a candle, drink your coffee and just be with God, do that. (Though I think too much of this can breed spiritual laziness.)

10. You cannot pray at all times if you do not pray at specific times. (Fr Jean Corbon, via The Catechism of the Catholic Church §2697)

Reflecting over each of these maxims this week, I've found that my own experience confirms the truth of each. Straightforward and practical, these maxims cover a lot of important ground and could well serve as the basis of a spiritual primer. If I were to add an eleventh maxim, it would be this: it is important to set aside specific times for prayer, but it is also helpful to set aside a specific place for prayer - a corner of one's home or room that is specially dedicated to the task of appealing to and conversing with God.

You may find it helpful, as I have, to reflect on whether and how each of the above maxims relates to your own experience of prayer. In light of your own experience, which strike you as most helpful? On the same token, have you found any to be unhelpful? Finally, has your own experience of prayer revealed the importance of other maxims that aren't included on this list? AMDG.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back in Philadelphia.

Two nights ago, I returned to Philadelphia after seven weeks in Austria. In mental as well as material terms, I still have a lot of unpacking to do: I had a great time in Innsbruck, but it's going to take me a while to consolidate and increase my knowledge of German as well as to fully understand and appreciate the graces of the summer. Meanwhile, I need to put the finishing touches on my fall courses and get ready for the start of classes this coming Monday. If I have time, I also hope to clean my room and reduce some of the accumulated clutter of the past year.

In the weeks to come, I hope to share more photos and reflections from my time in Austria. In the meantime, I'm sure that I'll post on other topics as inspiration strikes and time allows. Please pray for me, my colleagues at Saint Joseph's University, and all of our students as we prepare for a new academic year. Please know of my prayers for you as well. AMDG.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Under the standard of the Cross.

Later today, the second-year novices of a number of Jesuit provinces in the United States will make their profession of First Vows in the Society of Jesus. Were it not for my language studies in Innsbruck, I would be in Detroit today to witness the first profession of my confrères in the Chicago, Detroit, and Wisconsin Provinces. I regret that I will not be able to celebrate this joyful day with them, but I will pray for them in a special way today and invite readers of this blog to do the same. I pray that the Lord who has called these men to follow Him under the standard of the Cross will grant them much grace and consolation, and I pray also that each of the vovendi may find great joy and fulfillment serving in this least Society. AMDG.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Notes on the Feast of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

Today the Roman Catholic liturgy includes the commemoration of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a German Discalced Carmelite more widely known by her birth name, Edith Stein. Born into an observant Jewish family, as a teenager Stein lost her faith and became an atheist. Under the direction of pioneering phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Stein completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Göttingen at the age of 24 and spent the next several years writing and teaching alongside Husserl and fellow phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. A chance reading of the Life of St. Teresa of Avila helped spark Stein's rediscovery of religious faith and subsequent decision to convert to Catholicism; baptized at the age of 30, she chose to leave university life and spent ten years teaching at a Catholic girls' school in Speyer before entering the Karmel Maria vom Frieden in Köln in 1933. As Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, Stein continued to produce philosophical and theological works in the cloister. In 1938, as Nazi violence against German Jews grew more and more severe, Stein was transferred by her order to a Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands. This refuge lasted only four years, as Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo in August 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. Sixty-eight years ago on this date, she was gassed to death.

Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998, St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross is honored as one of the co-patrons of Europe. Her feast was accordingly celebrated with appropriate solemnity at the Jesuitenkirche and in the Jesuitenkolleg, where two of my fellow language students observed significant religious anniversaries today (one celebrated the first anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood as well as the anniversary of his baptism, while the other marked the eighteenth anniversary of his entry into the novitiate). Various encounters over the past month have confirmed my impression is that many people in Europe (including many non-Catholics) view Edith Stein as a significant intellectual figure of the last century. She has given her name to various schools and other academic institutions, including a teachers' college here in Tyrol (Innsbruck also has a street called the Edith-Stein-Weg, though I have yet to see it). As you can see above, she has also been featured on a German postage stamp - a distinction that I respect a great deal as an erstwhile philatelist.

Though she spent a decade as a Discalced Carmelite, Edith Stein tends to be remembered more for her philosophical writings and for the manner of her death than for anything specific to her life in the cloister. Of the works that Stein produced in the Carmel, the best-known deal with philosophical problems that had interested her for decades (Finite and Eternal Being) or with her pre-conversion youth (Life in a Jewish Family). Nevertheless, Stein's spiritual writings have also been published and translated into English. Some of these are available in a volume entitled The Hidden Life, which brings together a number of essays and meditations written specifically for Stein's fellow Carmelites. To round out this post, I would like to share some paragraphs from an address that Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross wrote for another sister's profession in 1940. I hope that all readers can find something of value in what follows:

When the gentle light of the advent candles begins to shine in the dark days of December a mysterious light in a mysterious darkness it awakens in us the consoling thought that the divine light, the Holy Spirit, has never ceased to illumine the darkness of the fallen world. He has remained faithful to his creation, regardless of all the infidelity of creatures. And if the darkness would not allow itself to be penetrated by the heavenly light, there were nevertheless some places always predisposed for it to blaze.

A ray from this light fell into the hearts of our original parents even during the judgment to which they were subjected. This was an illuminating ray that awakened in them the knowledge of their guilt, an enkindling ray that made them burn with fiery remorse, purifying and cleansing, and made them sensitive to the gentle light of the star of hope, which shone for them in the words of promise of the "protoevangelium," the original gospel.

As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have been struck by the divine ray. Hidden from the whole world, it illuminated and irradiated them, let the hard, encrusted, misshapen matter of these hearts soften, and then with the tender hand of an artist formed them anew into the image of God. Seen by no human eye, this is how living building blocks were and are formed and brought together into a Church first of all invisible.

However, the visible Church grows out of this invisible one in ever new, divine deeds and revelations which shed their light ever new epiphanies. The silent working of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul made the patriarchs into friends of God. However, when they came to the point of allowing themselves to be used as his pliant instruments, he established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development, and awakened from among them his chosen people. Therefore, Moses, too, was educated quietly and then sent as the leader and lawgiver.

Not everyone whom God uses as an instrument must be prepared in this way. People may also be instruments of God without their knowledge and even against their will, possibly even people who neither externally nor interiorly belong to the church. They would then be used like the hammer or chisel of the artist, or like a knife with which the vine-dresser prunes the vines. For those who belong to the church, outer membership can also temporally precede interior, in fact can be materially significant for it (as when someone without faith is baptized and then comes to faith through the public life in the church). But it finally comes down to the interior life; formation moves from the inner to the outer.

The deeper a soul is bound to God, the more completely surrendered to grace, the stronger will be its influence on the form of the church. Conversely, the more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God the more it needs souls united to God. And God does not permit a deficiency. The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible.

Certainly the decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.

On this Feast of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, I pray that the writings of Edith Stein may continue to serve as a source of wisdom to those who seek truth. May this philosopher and mystic provide a worthy intercessor for all who engage in philosophy, including the present writer and his past and future students. AMDG.