Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of airborne monasteries and boy Benedictines.


The above photo is one that I took over the North Atlantic during a late June flight from Philadelphia to London, on my way to Vienna for a month of language study. I've been waiting for the right opportunity to use this image here, and it seemed like a good fit for a post that Michelle Francl-Donnay offered earlier this week on Quantum Theology about the contemplative dimension of intercontinental air travel:
It might be the modern day equivalent of a medieval monastic enclosure. Everyone sleeps in a common dormer; we sit in our assigned places, as if in choir; once the doors are closed, you can't leave; you eat what is served, when it is served; we have made temporary promises of obedience; bells ring and we tighten our belts. There are no cell phones, no landlines, no wi-fi. It is a remarkably silent place, and I imagine not a few of us are praying.

No, I'm not on retreat, I'm on a China Air 747 somewhere between New York and Osaka, traveling with my students and two colleagues to Japan. We're off to see and experience Buddhist practices of mindfullness and meditation in particular, but we are also keeping our eyes open to the ways in which silent spaces are constructed. What constitutes a sacred architecture of silence? of solitude? of stillness? How many of these constructs, physical and metaphorical, cross traditions?
I am intrigued by the parallels that Michelle identifies here, and by the questions that she poses. I'm not used to thinking of air cabins as contemplative spaces, but in some sense flying does move me to contemplation. Though I enjoy travel, I don't particularly like being cooped up in the cramped confines of an air cabin; I also find enough distractions and discomforts on planes to thwart attempts to do serious reading or to get any real rest. To make the experience of flying more bearable, I invariably withdraw into myself, closing my eyes and thinking about various things - rummaging through the past, or thinking about my destination and what I'll do there - and, yes, doing a bit of prayer.

My approach to all of this has been informed by a piece of advice that I once received from an older Jesuit who regularly flew back and forth between Europe, North America, and the Far East. How, I wondered, did this well-traveled Jesuit deal with the tedium and discomfort of intercontinental flights? "I become an object," he said, meaning that he found a way to disengage from his immediate environment and relaxed his body and mind in such a way that both were basically inert. The spiritual discipline that this requires is obvious: 'becoming an object' in this context is essentially a form of meditation. I can't say that I'm very good at this - quieting my mind is particularly difficult - but I nonetheless offer this approach to air travel for any readers who may find it helpful.

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The second item that I'd like to call to your attention this afternoon is unrelated to Michelle's post on airborne monasteries but does serve to justify the "boy Benedictines" part of my title. By way of this post from The Hermeneutic of Continuity, here is a charming anecdote from a young mother in England:
We've had a really nice Benedictine Brother visiting our parish recently, much to the interest of my eldest son who is 9. After Mass this morning I reminded my son - as always - that it's anti-social to walk around with the hood of his jumper worn up.

"Sorry mum, you can't ask me to put my hood down any more..." was his reply "... I'm practising to be a Benedictine."
This is one way that vocations to religious life are born. I hope that this boy remains open to the idea of becoming a monk as he grows older; I also hope that I and others in religious life can take to heart the message here about the critical role that visible witness plays in promoting vocations. For more on this theme, consult this post from 2008, which still accurately captures my thinking on this subject. More importantly, please pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life - and invite others to consider them. AMDG.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Georgetown's Tocqueville Forum.

Today's edition of The Hoya reports on a program at Georgetown that I wish had existed when I was an undergraduate:
Since its inception, the Tocqueville Forum has served as an arena for students interested in government to unearth the fundamental causes behind contemporary Western society and theological thought.

Every year as part of its quest, government professor and forum director Patrick Deneen leads a group of students off campus in a retreat to reflect on the foundation of such values.

"We break bread together, we discuss books, we hike. We try — just for a weekend — to experience college as it once was, spending hours inside and outside seminar rooms discussing ideas and truth."

It has been five years since Deneen founded the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy in the hopes of mirroring the intellectual project of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who strove to define the foundation of American democracy, culture and intellect. Since 2006, Deneen has grown its number of undergraduate fellows to over 70 students.

"What has always been the case and what interested me from the very beginning was that the Tocqueville Forum is very welcoming to all students and that there is a rich intellectual dialogue that is often missing on campus," said Erik Wind (SFS '09), who was involved with the program in his undergraduate years.
As a teacher and as a Georgetown alumnus, I was most edified by the following paragraphs of The Hoya's report on the Tocqueville Forum:
The perks of fellowship in the Tocqueville Forum — dining with some of the country's most highly regarded minds while conversing about the condition of democracy and liberty — attract students to the program, but what the fellows discuss among themselves appears to spark the most excitement.

"My favorite is the reading group — it's run by post-doctoral fellows and is basically an opportunity for students to get together over some cookies and discuss a good book without any worries about grades or being judged," Michael Fischer (SFS '13) said. "It's a very liberating experience to discuss and enjoy a piece of literature or philosophical thought purely for its own merit."
To read the rest of The Hoya article, click here. Better yet, pay a visit to the Tocqueville Forum website to learn more about the program and its offerings. AMDG.

Fearing change, many Syrian Christians back Assad.


In the past, I've expressed some concerns about the effect that the 'Arab Spring' would have on Christians in the Middle East, and I've relayed at least one 'on the ground' perspective on the issue. Following up on this topic, here is a newly-published report on Christian responses to the protests in Syria from the New York Times:
Abu Elias sat beneath the towering stairs leading from the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a church high up in the mountains outside Damascus, where Christians have worshiped for 1,400 years. "We are all scared of what will come next," he said turning to a man seated beside him, Robert, an Iraqi refugee who escaped the sectarian strife in his homeland.

"He fled Iraq and came here," said Abu Elias, looking at his friend who arrived just a year earlier. "Soon, we might find ourselves doing the same."

Syria plunges deeper into unrest by the day. On Tuesday, government troops attacked the rebellious town of Rastan with tanks and machine guns, wounding at least 20 people. With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades.

Syria’s Christian minority is sizable, about 10 percent of the population, though some here say the share is actually lower these days. Though their sentiments are by no means monolithic — Christians are represented in the opposition, and loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor — as a group they help explain how President Bashar al-Assad has held onto segments of his constituency, in spite of a brutal crackdown aimed at crushing a popular uprising. For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven many of their brethren from war-wrecked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where many have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.

They fear that in the event the president falls, they might be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it saw as Christian support of the Assad family. They worry that the struggle to dislodge Mr. Assad could turn into a civil war, unleashing sectarian bloodshed in a country where minorities, ethnic and religious, have found a way to co-exist for the most part.
To read the rest of the NYT article, click here. Meanwhile over at AsiaNews, Iraq's Ambassador to the Holy See, Habib Mohammed Hadi al-Sadr, offers a commentary on the Christian reaction to the Arab Spring. As Ambassador al-Sadr observes, there are competing schools of thought on this issue, with some arguing that the Arab Spring may make things better for Christians in the Middle East by encouraging greater openness in civil society, while others note that historically outspoken and political active Christian minorities have become wary of any regime change that might threaten their already precarious position. In response, Ambassador al-Sadr has this to say:
The reality calls for a neutral and realistic analysis of the differing positions. So then we must first recognize an important fact: the Arab Christian component is a minority within the society in which they live. There is no denying the importance and weight of their role, through different historical periods, but the number counts, and the weight of the majority is completely different from that of the minority. This minority is alarmed. It fears that the political, social and economic turmoil which erupted unexpectedly, motivated by emotions rather than clear programs, and which does not take account of internal and international conditions, can have serious consequences on the lives of minorities, and open the way for an unknown and terrible future.

The first Arab revolts received the full support of the Arab world, but today this is no longer the case. For example, the societies in countries where there is a revolt - Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain – are divided on how the prospect of change and demands for democratic reforms. In some places there are calls for a peaceful solution, and protests against foreign interference, but elsewhere there are those who use violence and confrontation, and there are those who rely on armed protests and use foreign forces to overthrow the regime. The situation is made more difficult by the attitude of the international community and the UN Security Council. Each party is acting according to his own interests, analysis and strategies to operate in the present and future of the region. And this situation means that Arab Christians should wait before committing themselves, to avoid any errors in assessing all probabilities.

It is also only natural that Christians should mistrust these protests, fearing that they will be led by radical Islamic forces who want to seize power, based on the fact that they are more organized and have a greater, more effective ability to shuffle the cards. These are forces that have shed blood and desecrated Christian churches. As a result Arab Christians find themselves having to choose between accepting authoritarian systems, but with a certain amount of secularism, which guarantee freedom of religion, or a totally different type systems. They choose what seems to them the lesser of two evils.
To read the rest of Ambassador al-Sadr's commentary, click here. As always, I ask you to join me in praying for the Christians of the Middle East in a time of great struggle and uncertainty. AMDG.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our little group has always been, and always will until the end.


Exactly twenty years ago, on September 24, 1991, Nirvana's second studio album Nevermind was released to the public. The Seattle-based grunge band was not widely known at the time, so Nevermind initially attracted very little notice; nonetheless, Nirvana and Nevermind would steadily grow in popularity over the last few months of 1991, largely thanks to the success of the album's lead single "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Nevermind went on to sell over 30 million copies, conferring celebrity on Nirvana and its lead singer Kurt Cobain and exercising a strong influence on popular music and popular culture at large.

The fact that all of this happened twenty years ago makes me feel somewhat old. Yesterday, I asked some of my students if they knew what significant album was released twenty years ago this weekend; no one was able to provide the correct answer, though one suggested an album by The Beatles - which made me realize that, for today's college students, Nirvana is just as much a part of history (and just as absent from living memory) as The Beatles. Naturally, coming to that realization made me feel older still.

To understand why many regard Nevermind as "the last album to drastically change the course of popular music," read this article by Tony Sclafani. To find out why some have gone further, declaring Nevermind "the most important rock album of all time," consult this piece by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. AMDG.

The Pope speaks to the Bundestag.


On Thursday afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address to the Bundestag as part of a state visit to his native Germany. As one who once authored a lengthy term paper analyzing Joseph Ratzinger's writings on the identity and vocation of Europe, I read this speech with great interest. Though the content of this address is consistent with Benedict's earlier writings on the same and similar topics, I believe that the particular context makes a difference: Benedict isn't addressing his audience simply as pope or as a Catholic theologian, he is also speaking as a German citizen given an unusual opportunity to address the parliament of his home country. Here is some of what he had to say on Thursday:
For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws. In the third century, the great theologian Origen provided the following explanation for the resistance of Christians to certain legal systems: "Suppose that a man were living among the Scythians, whose laws are contrary to the divine law, and was compelled to live among them … such a man for the sake of the true law, though illegal among the Scythians, would rightly form associations with like-minded people contrary to the laws of the Scythians."

This conviction was what motivated resistance movements to act against the Nazi regime and other totalitarian regimes, thereby doing a great service to justice and to humanity as a whole. For these people, it was indisputably evident that the law in force was actually unlawful. Yet when it comes to the decisions of a democratic politician, the question of what now corresponds to the law of truth, what is actually right and may be enacted as law, is less obvious. In terms of the underlying anthropological issues, what is right and may be given the force of law is in no way simply self-evident today. The question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.
In one of the more intriguing sections of his address, the Pope offers a critique of the dominant culture of legal positivism and cites the environmental movement as an example of a more holistic approach to politics. Benedict begins by seeking to explain how the positivist conception of the basis of legislation has supplanted an earlier approach to jurisprudence grounded in natural law:
Fundamentally [this shift occurred] because of the idea that an unbridgeable gulf exists between "is" and "ought." An "ought" can never follow from an "is," because the two are situated on completely different planes. The reason for this is that in the meantime, the positivist understanding of nature and reason has come to be almost universally accepted. If nature – in the words of Hans Kelsen – is viewed as "an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect," then indeed no ethical indication of any kind can be derived from it.

. . .

The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist world view in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.

I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for law-making, so that all the other insights and values of our culture are reduced to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum. In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.

And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

But how are we to do this? How do we find our way out into the wide world, into the big picture? How can reason rediscover its true greatness, without being sidetracked into irrationality? How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives?

I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.

. . .

Yet I would like to underline a further point that is still largely disregarded, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.
At the close of his address, Pope Benedict XVI returns to a theme that has been a regular feature of his public discourses and writings on public affairs in Europe - the need for a more vigorous appreciation of the continent's cultural, intellectual, and religious roots:
Let us come back to the fundamental concepts of nature and reason, from which we set out. The great proponent of legal positivism, Kelsen, at the age of 84 – in 1965 – abandoned the dualism of "is" and "ought." He had said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms if a will had put them there. But this would presuppose a Creator God, whose will had entered into nature. "Any attempt to discuss the truth of this belief is utterly futile," he observed. Is it really? – I find myself asking. Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?

At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness.

The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.
To read the rest of the address in English translation, click here. Der ursprüngliche Text findet sich hier. AMDG.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Spiritual but not religious," continued.


Following up on my "spiritual but not religious" post from nearly three weeks ago, I would like to share a few media items that have caught my eye in recent days, all related in some way to the phenomenon of people identifying themselves as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). I intend to add further thoughts of my own at some point, but in the meantime I hope that the following articles may be of interest.

First off, here are some thoughts from Congregational minister Tony Robinson, written in response to the piece by fellow Congregationalist Lillian Daniel that I linked in my first SBNR post. Robinson agrees with Daniel that some individuals who claim the SBNR label come across as smug and arrogant and that being 'spiritual but not religious' isn't the daring assertion of nonconformity that it is sometimes made out to be but instead "dovetails all too easily with the reigning, often self-centered, ethos of American culture." Even so, Robinson suggests, some SBNRs may be looking for truth and meaning but have been turned off by negative experiences with organized religion. Next, Robinson seems to propose that churches should acknowledge the sincerity of these SBNRs and offer them a stronger case for the value of belonging to religious institutions:
These days lots of people, for good reasons and not so good ones, are turned off by institutions, perhaps religious institutions in particular. I get that. And I regret it.

Institutions do often fail us by becoming self-serving (though religious institutions have no corner on that). But institutions also draw us into community and relationship, put us in touch with traditions and purposes larger than ourselves, and help us to do with others things we can't do alone. They provide continuity in a rapidly changing world. They can be a source of strength, funding acts of real courage.

We’re in danger of overlooking the positives of older traditions and institutions — or if you prefer the softer word, "communities." One day we may wake up to discover we’ve lost something of value.
Of course, effective outreach to SBNRs demands more than simply convincing them that religious traditions and institutions have value; as a first step, we may have to take a look at 'values' in general. This would appear to be the conclusion reached by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and the team behind a new study of American 18-to-23-year-olds entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Summarizing the contents of Lost in Transition in a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks describes a generation of individuals who often come across as alarmingly inarticulate and incoherent when discussing moral matters:
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. "It’s personal," the respondents typically said. "It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?"

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: "I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel."

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, "I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong."

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Given that I teach ethics to 18-to-23-year-olds, I should probably comment more on this. My instant reaction: I have known students who express the attitudes presented above, but I've also known others who are much more serious and grounded in their moral thinking than Brooks' words suggest. Smith and his colleagues seem to suggest that churches and universities have a lot to answer for; as an individual embedded in both sorts of institutions, perhaps I should offer some answers. I'm going to hold off on saying more, though, until I've had a chance to read Lost in Transition for myself.

Christian Smith himself offers some thoughts on the religious import of his findings in a recent piece for The Huffington Post on what he calls "liberal whateverism":
. . . This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.

. . . In our recently published book, "Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood," my co-authors and I describe the larger world in which liberal whateverism makes sense. Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated. . . .

Liberal whateverism was obvious among most of the emerging adults we studied. About 10 percent were militantly atheistic. But the vast majority opted for the more accommodating "whatever" default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual "opinion" that didn't matter much.
One practical implication of this "take religion or leave it" approach comes in the apparent increase in the number of weddings conducted by what an article in last Friday's Washington Post describes as "nontraditional officiants," typically friends of the bride and groom who takes the presiding role formerly reserved to members of the clergy or representatives of the state. The WaPo article needs to be read with a grain of salt: the only statistics cited are based on the users of two websites and may not be a reliable indicator of larger trends, while the only people quoted belong to a close-knit group of self-described "hippies" who met as students at American University and have remained friends since graduation. Though the opinions offered in the article generally confirm smug SBNR stereotypes, the following paragraphs caught my attention:
Members of the American University crew shared a love of jam bands, including Phish and Moe, as well as a passion for environmentalism and nature. Their wedding ceremonies often reflected those interests.

Some of them talked about vigorously scrubbing the word "God" from their rituals; instead readings came from environmental poet Wendell Berry or novels, such as "Einstein’s Dreams," which explores human beings’ relationship to time passing.

Most of them also came from families with interfaith marriages, and some followed suit.

Andrew Butcher was raised Jewish, while his wife, Julie Butcher Pezzino, grew up in a big Catholic family until college, when she told her parents she felt most spiritual and contemplative in nature, not church. For their wedding, Butcher and Pezinno broke a glass and had a huppah (or canopy), both Jewish traditions, but they also created a table of ritual items, including sand from the Cape Cod beach where she summered as a child and a brick from their home in Pittsburgh.
What struck me about these paragraphs is the importance that the people described accord to ritual. Having rejected religion, they are apparently trying to craft elements of form and structure that can take the place of traditional religious practices. This may involve the outright appropriation of some religious traditions (the huppah, for example) with references to the transcendent carefully expunged (or "vigorously scrubb[ed]" away, as the article puts it), or it may involve creative new practices like the "table of ritual items" described above. All of this strikes me as very sad, as it suggests that the individuals in question are still grasping for a sense of meaning and transcendence but don't know how to go about finding it.

On the other hand, the attitude toward 'ritual' expressed here could be nothing more than an empty aestheticism - the mentality of people who collect idiosyncratic "ritual items" and select Wendell Berry poems to be read at Phish-themed weddings may not be far removed from that of individuals who don't like to read but nonetheless enjoy buying old books simply because they look nice on the shelf. In any event, the whole phenomenon described in the WaPo article strikes me as terribly banal and tacky - so if you're planning on getting married on the beach by a college roommate who became a Universal Life minister "for the occasion," you might think twice about sending me an invite.

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So where do we go from here? What do we do about all of this? Here is a proposal from Lost in Transition author Christian Smith, offered in the HuffPo piece mentioned above:
I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square - while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that "all religions are ultimately the same." That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private "opinions." It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime's too-easy blanket affirmations of "tolerance" of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.
Smith's words strike me as at least somewhat congenial to the way of thinking of another keen social critic, Pope Benedict XVI, who had this to say earlier today at the start of an official visit to Germany:
. . . we are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations.

All the same, a binding basis for our coexistence is needed; otherwise people live in a purely individualistic way. Religion is one of these foundations for a successful social life. "Just as religion has need of freedom, so also freedom has need of religion." These words of the great bishop and social reformer Wilhelm von Ketteler, the second centenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year, remain timely.

Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom. The man who feels a duty to truth and goodness will immediately agree with this: freedom develops only in responsibility to a greater good. Such a good exists only for all of us together; therefore I must always be concerned for my neighbors.

Freedom cannot be lived in the absence of relationships. In human coexistence, freedom is impossible without solidarity. What I do at the expense of others is not freedom but a culpable way of acting which is harmful to others and also to myself. I can truly develop as a free person only by using my powers also for the welfare of others. This holds true not only in private matters but also for society as a whole. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, society must give sufficient space for smaller structures to develop and, at the same time, must support them so that one day they will stand on their own.
To be continued, I hope. AMDG.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Father Schall on film.



Having recovered from the jaw cancer that temporarily sidelined him last year, the celebrated and legendary Georgetown government professor Father James V. Schall, S.J. has returned to teaching. In the short film presented above, you can see Father Schall in action in the classroom and listen as he speaks with interviewer Mark Judge about such topics as Pope Benedict's Regensburg Lecture, the relationship between reason and revelation, the importance of reading the classics, and the real value of education.

As I've noted before, many Georgetown alumni over the last three decades have been proud to say that they "majored in Schall" - that is, that they took as many courses taught by Father Schall as they possibly could. Father Schall was certainly one of the greatest teachers I've ever had, not simply on account of the lessons he imparted in the classroom but because of the way he lived his life: more than anything else, it was the example of Jesuits I knew precisely as teachers, Father Schall among them, that led me to enter the Society of Jesus. Seeing this one-eyed 82-year-old as he is today - still vigorous despite a recent battle with cancer, still teaching and writing - I feel glad that the newest generation of Hoyas still has the opportunity to learn from him and gain inspiration from his example. Ad multos annos! AMDG.

Consubstantiálem Patri.


This is the first time that I have posted anything on this blog regarding the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which recently came into force in the United Kingdom and will be introduced in Roman Catholic parishes in the United States at the beginning of Advent. One of the aims of the new translation is to make the English text of the Mass more faithful to the Latin of the Missale Romanum; thus, for example, the congregational response Et cum spiritu tuo will now be more accurately rendered in English as "And with your spirit," instead of "And also with you," while the English rendering of the Creed's affirmation that Christ is consubstantiálem Patri will shift from the current "one in being with the Father" to the more precise "consubstantial with the Father."

How will the new translation be received by the people in the pews? I am sure that the changes will take some getting used to, but I hope that many Roman Catholics will take the opportunity to engage with the text of the liturgy in more deliberate and intentional way and thereby come to a deeper understanding of their faith. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

The opportunity for engagement that I suggest above is one that is available to practicing Catholics of all ages - not simply to mature and seasoned churchgoers, but also (and perhaps especially) to the young, who should be able to approach the new translation without the baggage and hang-ups of their change-averse elders. Consider this anecdote provided by Father Tim Finigan, a parish priest in the London suburb of Blackfen, on his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity:
The mother of a young family was talking to me today about the new translation of the Mass. She said that her children have really latched onto the word "consubstantial" and look forward to it in the Creed. They were disappointed last week because we did not say the Creed at the school Mass (it was a weekday).

I know that the younger ones may not yet understand what the word means. They probably like it because it is a long word that is difficult to say and to spell, and there is a sense of achievement in getting it right so that they can say it at Mass (actuosa participatio n'est-ce pas?). With that enthusiasm, it is quite likely that when they are old enough to understand a little trinitarian theology, they will be keen to know exactly what "consubstantial" means.

It is not a good idea to shield children from difficult words. Better that they know them and are fascinated by them and then learn more about them as they grow older.
As I look forward to the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal in the United States, I pray that many adults can learn from the example of the children that Father Finigan mentions. May the awe and enthusiasm of children discovering exciting new words help Catholics of all ages come to a fuller understanding of the mysteries of faith. AMDG.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ksitigarbha.

By way of The News from Wabu-eup, a blog that I discovered thanks to The Western Confucian (now The Pittsford Perennialist), I just learned about a striking tradition found in Japanese and Korean Buddhism, mentioned here in the context of a visit to a Korean temple:
Next . . . we find the Ksitigarbha, or Medicine Buddha Hall. This figure, known in Korean as Jijang Bosal, is particularly revered. He is said to have taken a vow not to achieve final enlightenment until all the hells are emptied. He is also invoked as a protector of children. In Japan, parents who have lost children, had miscarriages or abortions will sometimes offer statues of Ksitigarbha as a child and have the statue dressed with a bib and a hat to comfort the soul of the dead child and avoid retaliation from its vengeful spirit. This is seen in Korea sometimes as well. Manbulsa, a temple I visited last year, has quite a few of these statues. Often, pieces of candy are sometimes left as well.
Here is a bit more on Ksitigarbha, known in Japan as Jizō:
More commonly called O-jizo-sama out of respect, he is just about the most beloved figure in Buddhism in Japan. His statues are everywhere. I do mean everywhere. They are very common along most roads, in hillsides, along random paths, in graveyards, and on and on.

Jizo is seen as the guardian of children, especially children who have died before their parents. In Japanese mythology, he helps children cross the river Sanzu (think of this as the river Styx in Greek mythology) on their way to the afterlife, which they are unable to do by themselves.

Jizo is usually dressed with a bib to show this connection with saving children. Smaller jizo statues in graveyards are dressed in baby clothes, often with toys nearby. The clothes and toys are from grieving parents who donate their child’s things as a way to thank Jizo for watching over their child in the afterlife.

He’s not exclusively prayed to for children, however. People might commonly stop at one of his statues on the roadside, bow and say a simple prayer of thanks for life. In Buddhism, he is a bodhisattva. Think of that as someone who has achieved enlightenment and out of compassion has sworn to help everyone else achieve the same.
Noting potential similarities between the beliefs and practices linked with devotion to Ksitigarbha in Japanese and Korean Buddhism and some aspects of the Christian cult of the saints, I wonder how (or whether) indigenous traditions like these have affected Japanese and Korean Catholics. Has the traditional cultural role of devotion to Ksitigarbha led Japanese and Korean Catholics to regard devotion to the saints of the Church in a different or distinctive light? This is an interesting question, I think, and a worthwhile one for those who believe (as I do) that the cult of the saints is an essential aspect of Christianity as well as a universal cultural phenomenon. I only wish that I had the time and expertise to consider this further. AMDG.

The above photo of a group of Jizō statues in Tokyo was found here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

(More) on the experience of tertianship.


As previously noted here, New England Province Jesuit Jack Siberski has been keeping a blog on his experience of tertianship, the final stage of Jesuit formation. Back in January, I shared some of Jack's reflections on how the experience of tertianship differs from that of the novitiate despite some outward similarities between the two probationary periods that serve as effective bookends in the lengthy formation of a Jesuit. Having completed his seven-month tertianship in Australia in mid-August, Jack has spent the last several weeks traveling in Vietnam and Taiwan on his way back to the United States and an expected new assignment.

In his most recent post, written from Taipei, Jack offers further reflections on the differences between novitiate and tertianship, inspired by a question posed to him by a Jesuit novice in Vietnam. The novice wondered how making the thirty-day retreat as a tertian differed from making the same retreat in the novitiate. Was it true, the novice wondered, that for tertians the Long Retreat served as a "school of the heart"? Reflecting on all of this, Jack writes:
There are some very obvious differences between novitiate and tertianship. Unlike trying to understand the Constitutions as a [first-year novice], we had been living them for years and had a working knowledge of what they meant. The same can be said of the General Congregations. When the novice asked about the school of the heart I realized that while the novitiate is a school of the heart as well, there is much more "school of the head," a cognitive-learning component, that has been internalized by the time of tertianship. Because it is internalized there is more room for the school of the heart side. We were fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of the school of the head.

It is difficult to explain these subtleties to someone not living in religious life. Having never been married it would be foolish of me to draw analogies between tertianship and the changes that occur in a couple’s relationship after years of marriage, though from the perspective of thirty-six years as a physician, I’ve certainly observed changes and growth in successful marriages, or had to deal with the lack of same in marriages that were falling, or had fallen, apart. Religious vows are different. Formation in the Society of Jesus is unique even among other religious orders and congregations. Tertianship is not a universal experience in religious life.

When we were novices there was an oft-invoked statement that was true but also used as a form of put-down similar to the W.C. Fields line, "go away kid, you’re bothering me." That line was "You’ll understand after (fill in the blank)." "After" was defined as the long retreat, the pilgrimage, the long experiment etc. whatever necessary to suit the older novice’s need. . . .

There is, however, a great deal of truth in that statement. No one can truly understand until after he has experienced the long retreat, or the pilgrimage, or, as is becoming apparent, tertianship, what a particular step in formation means.
Jack's further reflection on this topic leads me to recall a point that I sought to make in response to comments on the aforementioned post from January. For novices, the experience of the Spiritual Exercises is pedagogical as well as spiritual. Made in the first year of novitiate, the Exercises are a part of one's immersion into the life and thought world of the Society, a process that also includes the study of the Constitutions and some of the letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola as well as the decrees of our more recent General Congregations. As a result, there is often an emphasis on exposing novices to the 'whole' of the Exercises - that is, to as many of the meditations as possible - as a way of giving them greater familiarity with the text and the ways that it can be interpreted and applied. Jack's observation about the novitiate as a "school of the head" is quite apt, applying not simply to the textual study that forms an important part of novitiate life but also to each Jesuit novice's experience of the Spiritual Exercises.

The "you'll understand" bit at the end of Jack's reflections also got me thinking about the various stages of Jesuit formation - not simply about the novitiate and tertianship, but about everything in between. In my own Jesuit life, moving from novitiate to First Studies to regency has involved a series of discoveries that affirm the truth of "you'll understand" statements. I've never felt ignorant of what would come next: before I made each transition, I had spoken with people ahead of me in formation and visited the places I would be sent, so I often had a very detailed picture of what to expect as I moved forward; in all instances, though, the reality of what has happened to me in each stage of formation has not exactly matched the "very detailed picture" that I created in my mind ahead of time. In other words, I've always been able to anticipate what the next stage of formation was like in an abstract sense, but knowing what's like in concrete terms is something that I've had to wait for.

Of course, there are always things that one cannot fully anticipate ahead of time. For example, I'll never forget the thoughts that went through my mind the night before my first day teaching as a regent. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to fall asleep, I realized that I really had no idea what the next day would bring: I had spent a lot of time preparing syllabi and lecture notes and thinking about how I would approach various topics in class, but in spite of all that work the real experience of teaching would remain a mystery until I actually did it. Teaching my first class at SJU the next morning, I quickly realized that I could teach, that I could do it well, and that I was going to enjoy it; as teaching became a concrete "experience" and not simply an abstract aspiration, the sense of uncertainty that I'd felt earlier disappeared.

My last two paragraphs may take us some distance away from Jack Siberski's initial reflections, but I do think that the point he's making about tertianship applies more broadly to other stages of Jesuit formation. As I finish this post, I ask your prayers for Jack, me, and Jesuits at all stages of formation - especially the thirty-two new novices who entered the Society in the United States last month. Please pray that we may persevere with faith in the calling that we have received. AMDG.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Notes on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.


Today is the Feast of the Exaltation (or Elevation, or Triumph) of the Holy Cross, one of my favorite feasts of the church year and, in a loose sense, the patronal feast of this blog. For more on this feast and its significance, let us read the following sermon written for today by Father Alexander Schmemann and published in the second volume of his Celebration of Faith:
On September 14th, for centuries, when the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross was celebrated in cathedrals, the bishop would take his place in the center of the church and, surrounded by a great assembly of clergy, would majestically raise the cross high over the crowd and bless the worshippers on all four sides of the church while the choir thundered in response, "Lord have mercy!" This was the celebration of Christian empire, an empire born under the sign of the Cross when Emperor Constantine saw a vision of the Cross high in the sky and heard the words "In this sign conquer . . ." This is the feast of Christianity's triumph over kingdoms, cultures and civilizations, the feast of that Christian world which now lies in ruins, still crumbling before our very eyes.

Yes, this solemn, ancient rite will once again be celebrated this year. The choir will still be joyfully singing that "the Cross is the strength of kings, the Cross is the beauty of the universe." But today, the tumultuous metropolis surrounding the church does not participate in that hidden triumph and is completely unconnected to it. Its millions of inhabitants will go on with their normal lives and their usual ups and downs, interests, joys, and sorrows, with no reference whatsoever to the goings-on in the church building. Why then do we keep repeating words about universal triumph, and singing over and over again that the Cross is unconquerable? Sadly, we have to admit that many, many Christians are unable to answer this question. They are accustomed to seeing the church in exile and on the margins of life, exiled from culture, life, schools and from everywhere. Many Christians are content and undisturbed when the authorities contemptuously allow them to "observe their rites" as long as they are quiet and obedient, and do not interfere with the building of a world where there is no Christ, no faith, and no prayer. Those tired Christians have almost forgotten what Christ said on the night [before] he went to the Cross: "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33).

It seems to me that we continue to celebrate the Elevation of the Cross and repeat ancient words of victory not simply to commemorate an old battle that was won, or to recall a past that no longer exists, but in order to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the word "victory" for Christian faith. It may be that only now, stripped as we are of outward power and glory, government support, untold wealth, and of all apparent symbols of victory, are we capable of understanding that all of that was, perhaps, not genuine victory. Yes, the cross raised above the crowds was in those days covered with gold and silver and adorned with precious stones. Yet neither gold, nor silver, nor precious stones can erase the original meaning of the Cross as an instrument of humiliation, torture, and execution on which a man was nailed, a man rejected by all, gasping from pain and thirst. Do we have the courage to ask ourselves: if all those Christian kingdoms and cultures died, if victory was replaced by defeat, was it not because we Christians became blind to the ultimate meaning and genuine content of Christianity's most important symbol? We decided that gold and silver would be allowed to eclipse this meaning. And we decided as well that God desires our worship of the past.

To honor the Cross, to raise it up, to sing of Christ's victory: does this not mean, above all, to believe in the Crucified One and to believe that the Cross is a sign of staggering defeat? For only because it is a defeat, and only to the measure it is accepted as defeat, does the Cross become victory and triumph. No, Christ did not enter the world to win outward victories. He was offered a kingdom, but refused. And at the very moment of his betrayal to death, He said: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Mt 26:53). Yet, Christ was never more a king than when He walked to Golgotha carrying his own cross on his shoulders while the hate-filled and mocking crowd surrounded him. His kingship and power were never more obvious than when Pilate brought him before the crowd, dressed in purple, condemned to a criminal's death, a crown of thorns on his head, and Pilate telling the raging mob, "Behold your king." And only here can the whole mystery of Christianity be seen, for Christianity's victory resides within the joyful faith that here, through this rejected, crucified and condemned man, God's love began to illumine the world and a Kingdom was opened which no one has power to shut.

Each of us, however, must accept Christ and receive him with our whole heart, all our soul, and all our hope. Otherwise, outward victories are meaningless. Perhaps we needed this outward defeat of the Christian world. Perhaps we needed poverty and rejection to purge our faith of its earthly pride and of its trust in outward power and victory, to purify our vision of the Cross of Christ, which is raised high above us even when neither we nor the world can see it. In spite of everything, the cross is still elevated, exalted and triumphant. "The Cross is the beauty of the universe." For in whatever darkness people find themselves, and however great the outward triumph of evil in this world, the heart still knows and hears the words, "Take courage, I have overcome the world."
Before thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and thy holy Resurrection we glorify. AMDG.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago today.


The following text is reposted, with minor edits and additions, from reflections I shared on this date five years ago.

I remember that Tuesday morning very clearly. I was a couple weeks into my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. At the time, I lived a couple blocks east of campus in an apartment that I shared with three other students. I woke up at ten to eight (this being September in the days of Indiana East Time, South Bend was then an hour behind New York) and got ready to head for school in time for my nine o' clock Torts class. Listening to NPR during the short drive to campus, I heard what I first took to be a police tape of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Not recalling the exact date of the '93 attack, I briefly wondered whether September 11th was the anniversary of that event.

I didn't begin to understand what was really happening until I arrived at Notre Dame Law School. Walking into the law school lounge, I encountered a mass of silent, motionless people. All eyes were glued to a TV mounted on the wall. Casting a quick glance at the television as I walked by, I saw and heard Peter Jennings calmly state that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had both been hit by airliners. The impact of Jennings' words left me feeling at once bewildered, stunned and numb, yet I did not feel any inclination to stay and hear more about what was going on: I simply kept moving, continuing on my way to class because I didn't know what else to do.

In those early hours, I lot of people faced the same predicament that I did, simply not knowing how to react to what was going on. While some of my classmates stood or sat in the lounge staring at the TV, seemingly too shocked to move, others went about their routine as if the impact of the still-fresh tragedy had yet to hit them. As I walked into Torts, I heard other students chatting in pairs or small groups about this and that, some discussing the attacks and some not. Our Torts professor seemed to be among those who hadn't yet felt the impact of the morning's events - after making brief reference to the unfolding tragedy at the start of class, he launched into a discussion of the assigned reading.

Some readers may be surprised that my Torts class went ahead as usual that morning, but I don't recall feeling any surprise at the time - what I remember, beyond the feelings of bewilderment and numbness already mentioned, is the sense of being caught up in a surreal experience akin to a waking dream. For a couple of hours on the morning of September 11th, the routine of an academic day continued at Notre Dame despite a palpable sense of disquiet and worry. The uneasy normalcy of those hours seemed strange to me then, and it seems even stranger now. By the time the university community gathered for a hastily-organized memorial Mass at three in the afternoon, an appropriately somber mood had set in. Though memories of that Mass and the rituals of mourning that followed seem more "correct," what I remember most about 9/11 is those surreal first hours when I - and many others - just didn't know how to react.

As a coda to the above reflections, I'll mention an experience that took place a little more than three months before 9/11. It was the morning of my graduation from Georgetown University. Identically attired in black gowns and mortarboards, my fellow graduates and I sat together in McDonough Gymnasium waiting to become "sons and daughters of Georgetown forever," as the University President, Father Leo O'Donovan, would anoint us during the ceremony. The graduates had been instructed to sit in alphabetical order, so I found myself seated beside a Chicago-area native named Vanessa Kolpak. Though Vanessa and I were classmates, we had never met before; we exchanged only a few words during our graduation, none of which I remember. What I do remember - and what I'll never forget from that day - is what happened during the recessional following the graduation ceremony. As we marched past rows of assembled family and friends on the way out of the gym, I heard a voice in the crowd shout, "Vanessa!" I glanced over at a woman whom I took to be Vanessa's mother, standing next to a man with a video camera recording the day's events for family posterity.

I didn't make much of this small incident at the time, but it came to mind in mid-September of 2001 when I came across Vanessa Kolpak's name in a news article listing those missing and presumed dead following the 9/11 attacks. Though I can't claim to have known her, I mourn for Vanessa Kolpak, who remains my most tangible personal link to the events of September 11th. I am sure that some readers can claim a much stronger personal connection to 9/11, having lost a friend or relative on that day. I'll be praying today for all who died ten years ago on this date, particularly those who may remain unknown and unremembered.

As a second coda, I shouldn't let this date pass without mentioning the other 9/11 (which was actually the first 9/11, predating the later one by twenty-eight years). As I pray for all affected by the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, I will also be praying for all affected by the events of September 11, 1973 in Chile.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace, Amen.

Friday, September 09, 2011

". . . that will define who we really are."


Yesterday afternoon, I was privileged to participate in the Mass of Installation for the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, Capuchin Friar Charles Chaput. Under other circumstances, I might have brought a camera, but in this case it really wasn't possible: I attended somewhat 'officially' as a seminarian and was seated with other seminarians (both diocesan and religious) near the altar and the pulpit, so taking pictures would have been disruptive of the liturgy. Effectively camouflaged in a cassock and surplice, I probably don't stand out much in video recordings of the Installation Mass, which are available (at least at the time of writing) at Whispers in the Loggia and on YouTube.

For my part, I found the Installation Mass deeply inspiring on a number of levels - as an expression of hope on the part of Catholics who have been deeply wounded by scandal; as a gathering of clergy, seminarians and laypeople who represent the future of the Church; and as an opportunity to hear from a new shepherd who offered a genuinely hopeful message, one which I believe is most succinctly expressed in this paragraph from the homily that Archbishop Chaput gave yesterday:
This Church in Philadelphia faces very serious challenges these days. There's no quick fix to problems that are so difficult, and none of us here today, except the Lord Himself, is a miracle worker. But it's important to remember and to believe that the Church is not defined by her failures. And you and I are not defined by our critics or by those who dislike us. What we do in the coming months and years to respond to these challenges - that will define who we really are. And in engaging that work, we need to be Catholics first, and always. Jesus Christ is the center of our lives, and the Church is our mother and teacher. Everything we do should flow from that.
Inspiring words, I think - and a daunting challenge for all of us here to live up to. My prayers in the coming days will be for Archbishop Chaput and for all of the faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; may these days of struggle and suffering give way to days of hope and joy - days that will truly define who we really are. AMDG.

9/11 and today's undergraduates.


In anticipation of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 - which I will mark with another post on Sunday - here are some perspectives on the tragedy from current students at my undergraduate alma mater. The Georgetown Voice has a cover story on the anniversary; the actual cover provides the illustration for this blog post. Meanwhile, today's edition of The Hoya has two opinion pieces on the anniversary, the first coming from the editorial board:
Almost all Georgetown students will be able to tell you where they were that sunny September morning 10 years ago. Most of us were still in elementary school, yet undeniably Sept. 11, 2001 was a political awakening for our generation. The subsequent years shaped our conception of not only world politics but also of America's identity.

For some within the Georgetown community, it was a day of great personal loss. For others, it was a day when we saw our neighbors suffer and felt solidarity with both them and America as a whole. For all, it was a devastating wake-up call.
The line about how "[m]ost of us were still in elementary school" offers me yet another of the many reminders I regularly receive, as a teacher of undergraduates, of the generation gap between me and today's college students. I was a 1L at Notre Dame when 9/11 occurred, a recent college graduate just old enough to have vivid memories of the Cold War. For today's college students, meanwhile, the War on Terror "has spanned basically all of our political lives," to once again quote a Georgetown undergraduate cited in an earlier post. In this context, the final paragraph of the Hoya editorial also seems worthy of special attention:
Almost all Georgetown student will be able to tell you where they were on that warm Sunday evening this May. As President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed nearly 10 years after the attacks, the boogeyman of our youth disappeared. We have finally achieved a measure of closure. It is only fitting that 10 years later, we can reflect on a day of national tragedy with a mix of sorrow and pride in America, and particularly in our generation's perseverance and commitment to freedom, democracy and peace.
As I have noted before, the death of Osama bin Laden seems to have a somewhat different resonance for Millennials than it does for people my age and older; I suspect that the same holds true for this tenth anniversary of 9/11. For another perspective on this, here are the opening paragraphs of The Hoya's second 9/11 anniversary piece, an op-ed by Michael Palmer (COL '12):
Trauma has an astounding effect on the memory. I can recount pretty much most of my memories from September 11th, 2001. I was 11 years old, sitting in sixth grade English class when the planes struck the towers.

I remember sitting next to my friends at lunch, one boy explaining to me exactly what the Pentagon was. I remember watching one of my best friends escorted from the cafeteria in tears. His mother was supposed to be at work at WTC 7. Another girl was quickly ushered out along with her brother. Their father was in the north tower. Another friend just disappeared altogether — her dad had been on Floor 81 in the south tower.

My suburban town in Northern New Jersey lost 11 lives that day. My father was working in the city, and his company was only alerted to the chaos when my mother called to see if he was evacuating. He eventually made it home — 12 hours later — after having to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The emotional impact of September 11th wasn't just felt by those who lost loved ones, at least not in the mid-Atlantic region. Everyone was connected to multiple memories and stories from that day. A neighbor, working on Wall Street, described how he watched people fling themselves into the sky. My father recounted how he walked along a deserted Fifth Avenue, awed by the sight of the nation's richest street left a ghost town. A friend's mother, who was late to work, stepped off the ferry, watched the Towers burn and immediately stepped right back on to go back home to her children.

For me, I saw the attacks the same way the rest of the world saw them — through the news camera lens. I remember my mother planting me in front of the television, saying, "Tell me everything you see," as she tried to calm down a close family friend on the phone. Her husband was supposed to be at the World Trade Center that day.
For the rest, click here. My prayers this weekend will be for the victims and survivors of 9/11 and their families. AMDG.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.



As Sandro Magister reported on Monday, the Pope's remarks at his Wednesday audience last week in Castel Gandolfo included a clear though indirect reference to J. S. Bach's sacred cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140), heard above in a recording by the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, with solos by Allan Bergius (treble), Kurt Equiluz (tenor) and Thomas Hampson (bass), all under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Here are the words of the cantata's opening chorale, first in German and then in an English translation provided by the Bach Cantatas Website:

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!

Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?

Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Alleluja!

Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!

---

"Wake, arise," loud call the voices
of Watchmen so high in the tower,
"Wake up, you town Jerusalem!"

Midnight’s hour is now approaching
They call to us with lucid voices:
Where are the clever virgins now?

Behold, the bridegroom comes
Rise up, your lanterns take!
Alleluia!

Prepare yourself
For the wedding,
You must arise and go to him!


For the text of the remaining movements, in the original German and translated into assorted other languages, together with an exhaustive discography and a lot of other information, consult the BWV 140 page on the aforementioned (and authoritative) Bach Cantatas Website. To better appreciate the context in which Pope Benedict XVI made mention of this cantata, here are the relevant paragraphs of last week's address:
On several occasions in recent months, I have recalled the need for every Christian to find time for God, for prayer, amidst our many daily activities. The Lord himself offers us many opportunities to remember Him. Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that "via pulchritudinis" - "way of beauty" - which I have spoken about on many occasions, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another - before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music - to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter - a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds - but something far greater, something that "speaks," something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man's need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.

But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty - indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and our spirit upward, while at the same time, we feel small and yet yearn to be filled. . . . Or when we enter a Romanesque church: we are invited quite naturally to recollection and prayer. We perceive that hidden within these splendid edifices is the faith of generations.

Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that makes the chords of our heart resound, our soul expands and is helped in turning to God. I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - in Munich in Bavaria - conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt - not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart - that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: "Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true" - and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth.
Sandro Magister identifies the unnamed cantata referenced by the Pope as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, going on to provide further information about the sources of the textual material, the Sunday of the liturgical year for which the cantata was written, and the concert at which the future pontiff heard the cantata performed. Magister (or perhaps only his editor) goes a bit far in describing BWV 140 as "Ratzinger's favorite Bach cantata" - Benedict did not say that this cantata was his favorite, just that it had deeply moved him - but I still think that the Pope's reference to Bach remains worthy of note.

"Whoever has listened to this knows that faith is true." It may be worth listening to this cantata and considering whether or not you agree. I will readily admit that I do agree with Pope Benedict on this, or, to put it better, that my intuitive response to Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme seems to be similar to Ratzinger's.

Having made the above admission, I must also admit that the via pulchritudinis has been, for me, an exceptionally reliable way to God. I have had numerous experiences to confirm this, involving music, paintings, architecture, moments during the liturgy, and so on. At times in my youth when I was not a regular churchgoer, these brief and flickering encounters with the beauty of the sacred offered a critically important reminder that God not only existed but had a real claim on me. Even today, I find that the via pulchritudinis often still suffices to get me through those moments of struggle that are unavoidably present in any life lived with God.

This perspective may not sit well with those who - undoubtedly with the best of intentions - regard beauty as a strictly secondary element of Christianity or perhaps even as a unwelcome distraction along the way of faith. If I've bothered you, please bear in mind that I also regard a single Bach aria as a better introduction to Christianity than Of Gods and Men - and that I once approvingly cited Father Alexander Schmemann's suggestion that "if people would really hear [the services of] Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology." So, provocative or not, there you have it. AMDG.

Au Pied de Cochon.

The Georgetown Metropolitan posted something yesterday that put me in a nostalgic mood: a remembrance of Au Pied de Cochon, a longtime fixture of the Georgetown dining scene which closed in 2004. Au Pied de Cochon (yes, it's "de" - not "du" as GM would have it) is a place that I remember with great fondness and still mention from time to time in conversation, typically as an example of the wonderful particularities that made Georgetown a great place to go to school.

Affectionately known as "The Pig's Foot" or simply as "Au Pied," Au Pied de Cochon was a greasy spoon French restaurant, open twenty-four hours a day and with prices and portions that suited the budgets and stomachs of thrifty yet hungry undergraduates. If you wanted a croque-monsieur at three in the morning, Au Pied was your place; no one would ever mistake this restaurant's humble offerings for haute cuisine, but the amiably surly help and charmingly divey ambience nonetheless inspired a certain kind of devotion among repeat customers, myself included.


As noted in Au Pied's DCist obituary, this greasy spoon featured in a chapter of Cold War history. In November 1985, a KGB agent who had defected to the United States, Vitaly Yurchenko, dined at Au Pied with his CIA handler. As the above-pictured plaque in a booth at Au Pied points out, this was Yurchenko's last supper in the United States: excusing himself during the meal, Yurchenko ran to the nearby Soviet Embassy and reversed his defection. Described by Time as "the spy who returned to the cold," Yurchenko was awarded the Red Star when he returned to the Soviet Union; after the fall of Communism, he reportedly ended up working as a security guard at a bank in Moscow.

Au Pied de Cochon has been gone for a while, but I still miss the place - whenever I'm back on the Hilltop, I invariably notice the glaring absence of Au Pied as well as other extinct businesses that played some part in my Georgetown experience, like Sugar's Campus Store at the corner of 35th and O Streets, Olsson's Books on Wisconsin Avenue, and even the Orleans House across the river in Rosslyn. Here's hoping that Martin's Tavern at least remains in business, yea, even unto the end of the world. AMDG.

Monday, September 05, 2011

One week down.


Today is Labor Day, a U.S. federal holiday, so regularly-scheduled classes at Saint Joseph's University were not held today. As it happens, classes were cancelled last Monday - on what would have been the first day of the semester - because of Hurricane Irene, so Monday classes have yet to meet this fall. Barring unexpected natural disasters, next week should be the first to follow a completely normal schedule, Monday classes and all.

My own courses are off to a good start, I think. This semester, I'm teaching two sections of a required course in philosophical ethics (a course that I've taught every semester I've been at SJU) as well as an upper-division philosophy elective on the social and political thought of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Augustine course is brand-new: the university catalogue had no courses specifically devoted to Augustine when I came here, so I created one from scratch. Having put a great deal of time and effort during the spring and summer into developing this new course, I'm happy that I've finally started teaching it. I'm enjoying the experience so far - hopefully my students are able to say the same.

The work of preparing and teaching this course means that much of my recent reading has been focused on St. Augustine. My first and most essential task was to reread the Confessions and the City of God, taking copious notes as I went along. Since then, I've been occupied with a wide and eclectic variety of secondary literature, examples of which include Robert Dodaro's Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine, Garry Wills' newly-published Augustine's Confessions: A Biography, and an edited volume entitled Orthodox Readings of Augustine. Some of the books I've been reading have little or no direct connection to the course I'm teaching - Orthodox Readings of Augustine, for example, deals with themes far removed from political philosophy - but most have been on my "to be read" list for a while, so I'm happy to have the opportunity to get to them.

Prayers and best wishes for all readers who are moving into a new academic year, both as students and as teachers. Guided by the Holy Spirit, may we all grow in wisdom and understanding. AMDG.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

"Spiritual but not religious" and all that.


Making the rounds earlier this week in the blogosphere and on Facebook was Congregational minister Lillian Daniel's response to those who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" - a response so perfect that I decided to post it here in full:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
The above reflections may strike some readers as a bit snarky, but perhaps religious believers should be more pointedly critical in responding to individuals who profess to be "spiritual but not religious." As I've previously noted in passing (more than once, in fact), members of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd tend to rely on a mistaken understanding of the terms "spiritual" and "religious," thinking that the two can be easily separated, when they are actually facets of the same phenomenon. We may be tempted to think that we can simply be "spiritual" on our own personal terms without any kind of authority, community or tradition to both challenge and support us, but (as Daniel points out) this approach tends to lead to nothing more than self-indulgent navel-gazing.

To develop the above point a bit further, I should note that I'm not at all sure that "spiritual but not religious" people operate with a clear working definition of the term "spirituality": I take it that they understand "religion" to mean "organized religion," but it's not clear what "spirituality" means for them beyond a vague appreciation for the ineffable aspects of human experience. In practice, as Lillian Daniel observes above, this seems to boil down to a kind of religious naturalism - finding God in sunsets and mountains and the like. Daniel rightly notes that the Christian tradition encourages us to find God in nature, though I would add that the idea of treating appreciation of the natural world as a self-sufficient substitute for religious practice is hardly new. (One can find ample evidence of this sort of religious naturalism in the various strands of Romanticism prominent in Western culture in the 19th century, and probably in earlier movements as well.)

Though I suppose that the term "spiritual but not religious" might really mean something to someone, I also wonder how many people who describe themselves in this way really mean what they say. Most of the "spiritual but not religious" individuals I've known have not professed any explicit interest in spiritual things, not even in a 'sunsets and mountains' kind of way. I suspect that many who embrace the "spiritual but not religious" label do so because it gives them a sense of collective identity and belonging which they desire on some level even though they aren't interested in organized religion.

On another level, I wonder whether the popularity of the "spiritual but not religious" label in this part of the world reflects a broader cultural tendency to favor the appearance of flexibility and open-mindedness over strong commitment to unchanging principles. Secular North American anglophones may be more inclined to describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" than to admit that they're not spiritual at all; to many North American ears, saying that one is simply indifferent to spirituality and religion may come across as harsh or presumptuous, or perhaps expressive of a subtle judgment against those who feel differently. The desire to avoid such perceptions could lead many to claim to be "spiritual but not religious" even if the label doesn't fit them. (As an aside, I suspect that an opposing cultural tendency may be operative in western Europe, such that it's easier for many people to simply choose the "secular" label and disclaim any interest in spirituality than it would be to say that they're "spiritual but not religious." Of course, that could be a topic for another post.)

A lot more could be written about all of this, but I'll stop for now. For a gentler but still pointed argument against being "spiritual but not religious," take a look at this article by Father James Martin, S.J. published last year on Busted Halo. AMDG.