Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Forgiveness Vespers.

Twice in years past - first in 2009 and again in 2011 - I've presented Lenten posts focusing on the service of Forgiveness Vespers, which marks the start of Great Lent in the Byzantine tradition; for more on the service and its meaning, consult those earlier posts. The intent of this post is to share a video of one of the most moving parts of that service, the rite of mutual forgiveness at the end of vespers. During this rite, clergy and parishioners seek forgiveness of one another - not just collectively, but individually, one by one, one at a time.

This video comes from St. Elias Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario, which has done a commendable job of sharing the riches of the Byzantine tradition through a regularly updated YouTube channel featuring exceptionally well-produced videos filmed at various parish services. If this video catches your interest, why not pay St. Elias a visit - either online or, if you're nearby, in person? AMDG.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The voices that the media choose to ignore.

So far, I've chosen not to comment on President Obama's decision to require religious employers such as Catholic hospitals and schools to provide coverage for contraceptive services in their employee health plans. For the record, I agree with the U.S. Catholic Bishops and many others who see the President's decision as an unconscionable attack on religious liberty. This isn't simply a 'Catholic' issue - it's an issue that should concern all Americans who value freedom of conscience, and I hope and pray that the White House mandate will be rescinded before it ever takes effect.

I don't plan to write more on this issue, partly because many others have already offered articulate and clear-sighted commentary on the situation. Rather than comment further on the President's decision, I'd like to focus attention on the way that the mainstream media have treated the ongoing controversy regarding that decision. In particular, I'd like to call your attention to what Mollie Z. Hemingway wrote about these matters earlier today at the indispensable GetReligion weblog:
. . . you wouldn’t know it from media coverage but the Obama Administration has issued a strict mandate that deeply concerns many religious liberty observers. Because that mandate requires everyone to pay for abortifacients, sterilization and contraception for their employees — even if they have religious objections to it — the media have decided to adopt the framework that this is a battle over "women" and a battle over "belief" in "birth control."

That’s not even close to an accurate description of what concerns the religious liberty activists, but it doesn’t matter. And it’s a sexist dismissal of all the women, such as myself, who care deeply and passionately about religious liberty. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the way many in the media have decided to frame the issue and they don’t care how many Jews, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics and Zoroastrians (female or male!) say otherwise, it’s going to be about birth control. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Take a look at this picture of Dr. Allison Dabbs Garrett, the senior vice-president for academic affairs at Oklahoma Christian University [posted above]. According to the mainstream media, she doesn’t exist. Neither does Dr. Laura Champion, medical director of Calvin College Health Services. See, they testified at a hearing on religious liberty. But since the talking points used by the media are, quite literally, "Where were the women at the religious liberty hearing?", they can’t acknowledge that they exist. And they can’t acknowledged that Dabbs Garrett said things such as: "While our views differ from those of our Catholic friends regarding what our plans should cover, our views are exactly the same on whether the government should be able to require individuals or institutions to violate their religious beliefs."
To read the rest of an excellent post, click here. If you want to better understand why Ms. Hemingway and many other women (and men) are so concerned about all of this, take a look at what Mary Ann Glendon has to say in a recently-penned article for America. AMDG.

Standard-Times: Baker Books to move, downsize.

From today's edition of the New Bedford Standard-Times, here is some sad news about a SouthCoast institution:
Baker Books, a community icon for 23 years, is closing its Route 6 store this spring and revamping its business in response to upheaval in the book-selling industry.

The independent bookseller is moving into a smaller space near the New Bedford line and will focus on used books and special orders, said Deb Baker, who owns the business with her husband, Ben.

Online competition and the rise of electronic readers have challenged bookstores small and large.

"We tried to make the most of it, but the lease was coming due, so that was the final blow," Baker said. "We couldn't go into another five-year lease. I don't know what's going to happen with the book-selling business in the next six months."

Baker Books, which was first located in downtown New Bedford, has occupied the Route 6 building for about 16 years. It plans to close the store April 1 but could keep it open a while longer if the new location is not up and running by then.

The store employs about 12 staff members, mostly part-time, and Baker does not know how many people they will keep on in the revamped business.
This is sad news for me, as Baker Books has been an important part of my life. As a member of the last generation to grow up without the Internet, I can say that I really learned a lot from going to bookstores and libraries: the names of many literary greats first appeared to me on the spines of books stored on wooden shelves, rather than as the 'results' of a targeted 'search.' Baker Books' original downtown location was the place where I discovered a range of authors, from Camus to Proust to Hergé, and my means of discovery was often wonderfully random: a name or a title would catch my attention as I scanned the shelves, and, almost as if I were responding to a call directed to me personally, I would reach for the book, take a look at its contents, and, as often as not, purchase it and bring it home to read.

The Standard-Times article on Baker Books' planned move also offers some striking insights on the role that bookstores can still play in helping to build a robust sense of local community, even in an age when more and more of life seems to take place online and the book business in general is struggling. Here are the key paragraphs:
Customers visiting the store Thursday afternoon said independent bookstores are an integral part of the community and they were saddened to lose Baker Books, at least in its current form.

"My husband and I are very sad they are closing," said Barbara Najjar of Dartmouth as she left with a bag full of books. "We like them because they are local. It's really a shame."

Richard Mello, who owns an Adecco staffing agency franchise next door, said he often visits Baker Books to clear his mind and rejuvenate. He extolled the virtues of being able to browse and enjoy the serendipitous discovery of a book he didn't know.

To underscore his point, Mello noted he just came across a book on baseball legend Mickey Mantle, "The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy, which brought him back to his childhood.

Bookstores bring people with different interests together, he said.

"There are few opportunities in society for people to gather and have a sense of community," said Mello, who is also one of the leaders of the Southcoast Education Compact, a partnership of business leaders and educators. "Bookstores and libraries are the only two places you can go to and have a sense of community."
All of this reminds me that part of what has made Baker Books special to so many people on the SouthCoast is its particularly local focus. The store often hosts readings by local authors, and the "Local Interest" shelves boast an unparalleled selection of books about New Bedford and the surrounding area, including some that simply aren't available anywhere else. (By contrast, I recall that the first Borders in the area filled its "local" section with books about Boston and Cape Cod - neither place is "local" for residents of the SouthCoast.) With the downsizing of Baker Books, the SouthCoast stands a step closer to losing a precious part of its regional identity. For people like me who care about such things, that's something to be sad about. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday as a sign of contradiction.

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris.

"Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." This is the formula traditionally recited by the priest as he imposes ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as part of the Roman Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I love these words, which so eloquently express a dilemma that lies at the heart of human experience: we all know that we will die, and our response to that knowledge determines how we live our lives. Though we may want to try to ignore or resist our mortality, our awareness of the fragility and impermanence of our earthly existence can serve to spark within us a creative striving for transcendence; we can find evidence of this striving in the work of great artists and writers, but we need not look that far: even in small daily acts of love and generosity, we can discover signs of the human desire to bear witness to things greater than death.

Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. As I noted above, these are bracing words, and as such they should catch our attention. The symbolic act that accompanies these words should likewise draw attention: it’s hard not to notice that someone has ashes smudged on his or her forehead, even if one chooses not to comment on that fact. Churchgoers stand out on Ash Wednesday – even if, as is not infrequently the case, this is one of the few days on which the ash-smudged Christians in question actually go to church.

Though many will be seen with ashes today, the length of time that each individual goes about with ashes on his or her forehead varies considerably. Having received ashes at Mass, some bear them for the remainder of the day, while others wash them off as soon as they can. As a child, I took the first approach to be normative – that is, I got the impression that the ashes should be 'kept on' as long as possible – and I still instinctively treat that as the 'correct' approach, even though I haven’t always followed it. Then again, I know some who argue that washing off one’s ashes as soon as possible is the better approach. A friend who does this cites Matthew 6:17-18: ". . . when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret . . ."

I disagree with my friend's position, for at least two reasons. First, the citation to Matthew's Gospel seems to imply that wearing ashes is a kind of spiritual gloating, a way of showing oneself as exceptionally devout, but I doubt that many people who wear ashes today actually feel that way; if anything, the wearing of ashes is a sign of unfeigned humility, an explicit recognition that one is a sinner in need of God's mercy. Second - and perhaps more substantively - it strikes me that the wearing of ashes today is a necessary sign of contradiction, a reminder to ourselves and to others of the perennial tension that exists between the values of the Gospel and the values of the world. At a time when the place of the Church in the public square is so regularly questioned and even attacked, such signs of contradiction become all the more important.

Returning to the words that began this post, perhaps we can find another sign of contradiction in the admonition that most particularly characterizes Ash Wednesday: Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. These words offer a challenge to the values of a culture that often fails to recognize and respect human frailty and limitation, a challenge that reminds Christians who we truly are as human beings and - perhaps paradoxically - exhorts us to be courageous in living out the call that we received at baptism. As we begin our Lenten journey, may we answer the call with joy. AMDG.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why we need Lent.

I don't have survey data to back this up, but I suspect that most regular readers of this blog start Lent this week: some began last night with Forgiveness Vespers, while others begin the day after tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. Though readers who follow the Julian Calendar won't begin Lent until next week, the intervening days of Maslenitsa or Cheesefare Week do anticipate the coming season, as many eat their fill of dairy products before giving them up for Lent. Let us all begin the fast with joy and stay the course so that we may rejoice more fully in the Pascha of the Lord.

Each year at the start of Lent, I try to make time to reread Father Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. One reason that I make an annual return to this book is that it reminds me why we - and why I - need Lent. As Father Alexander explains in his introduction, the Lenten season, like the Christian faith in general, can only be understood with reference to the great Feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate at the end of these forty days:
When a man is going on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, "the Feast of Feasts." It is preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation." We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is "brighter than the day," who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. But what is that joy about? . . . the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we "were buried with Christ . . . unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and to live by it. . . .

Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the "new life" which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? All this because of our weakness, because of the impossibility for us to live constantly by "faith, hope, and love" on that level to which Christ raised us when he said: "Seek ye, first of all, the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." We simply forget all this – so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations – and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes "old" again – petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless – a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our "enjoying life" it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various "sins," yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
Lent reminds us of the gap that too often exists between the faith that we profess and the lives that we live, but it also offers us the means to restore what we have lost. As Father Alexander explains, Lent is a "school of repentance" that helps us to turn away from our 'old' lives and rediscover the new life in Christ:
If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. . . . The entire worship of the Church is organized around Easter, and therefore the liturgical year, i.e., the sequence of seasons and feasts, becomes a journey, a pilgrimage towards Pascha, the End, which at the same time is the Beginning: the end of all that which is "old"; the beginning of the new life, a constant "passage" from "this world" into the Kingdom already revealed in Christ.

And yet the "old" life, that of sin and pettiness, is not easily overcome and changed. The Gospel expects and requires from man an effort of which, in his present state, he is virtually incapable. . . . This world through all its "media" says: be happy, take it easy, follow the broad way. Christ in the Gospel says: choose the narrow way, fight and suffer, for this is the road to the only genuine happiness. And unless the Church helps, how can we make that awful choice, how can we repent and return to the glorious promise given us each year at Easter? This is where Great Lent comes in. This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the "old" in us, as our entrance into the "new."

In the early Church, the main purpose of Lent was to prepare the "catechumen," i.e., the newly converted Christian, for baptism which at that time was performed during the Paschal liturgy. But even when the Church rarely baptized adults and the institution of the catechumenate disappeared, the basic meaning of Lent remained the same. For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return – the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own "passage" or "pascha" into the new life in Christ. . . . For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
If these excerpts pique your interest, pick up a copy of Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent to learn more. To repeat the prayer I offered at the start of this post, let us begin the fast with joy! AMDG.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A new Jesuit cardinal.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, Pope Benedict XVI announced that 22 new cardinals would be created at a consistory to be held on February 18th. The list of new cardinals included an 83-year-old German Jesuit, Father Karl Josef Becker, longtime professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. This month, Father Becker's name mysteriously disappeared from the list for the February consistory, then reappeared a few days later. In any event, Father Becker was present for today's consistory in Rome and is now Cardinal-Deacon of San Giuliano Martire. To learn more about Cardinal Becker's scholarly work as a theologian, click here; to learn about his new titular church of San Giuliano Martire, visit the parish website. I hope that you will join me in praying for Karl Josef Becker and the other new cardinali on the day of their elevation. Ad multos annos! AMDG.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"What it's like to be a monk," revisited.

Posting today at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly offers his own response to the AP story that I shared yesterday about a course at Penn that purports to give students "a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a monk." As Mattingly admits, there could be much more to the course than meets the journalistic eye - that is, the focus on physical discipline that AP reporter Kathy Matheson highlights in her story might be balanced by a close reading of monastic texts that explain the spiritual purposes of practices like celibacy and fasting. If that deeper content is missing, though, then students enrolled in a course like this may fail to grasp what religious life is really about, as Terry Mattingly observes:
Monks, you see, have to have tradition. Tradition is the frame that surrounds the life of a monk. The goal is to live a tradition and to be transformed by it.

. . .

. . . it’s easy to see that this story has a gigantic hole: It contains no information whatsoever about the prayer and worship life of these monks. There is no hint that this class teaches any spiritual disciples, that it attempts to introduce students to any particular worship tradition or to a fusion of several traditions.

Monks without prayer? Monks without worship? This is something like birds without air, fish without water, journalists without questions that yield crucial information.

So what is the bottom line? What is the point of monasticism, if not transcendence, submission and union with Another? What is the purpose of this class?
To read the rest, click here. I think that Mattingly is making the same point that I sought to make yesterday, which leads me to a concluding question: can a course solely focused on a do-it-yourself approach to "experiential learning" really provide an adequate sense of "what it's like to be a monk"? Can one hope to understand and appreciate a complex tradition merely by imitating some of its external practices, without dealing with doctrine or history? As you can probably tell by now, I have my doubts. AMDG.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Penn religion professor seeks to show students "what it's like to be a monk."

For your edification this Monday, here is an AP story that caught my eye over the weekend regarding a very unusual religious studies course being offered this semester at the University of Pennsylvania:
Looking for a wild-and-crazy time at college? Don't sign up for Justin McDaniel's religious studies class.

The associate professor's course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They'll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. - without an alarm clock.

That's just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each constraint represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order.

"I've found in the past that students take this extremely seriously," said McDaniel, who has taught the class twice before. "I've had very few people who try to get away with things, and you can always tell when they are."

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptops are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don't even think of checking your cellphone for texts or email.

The course, which focuses primarily on Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions, stems in part from McDaniel's own history. An expert on Asian religions, he spent a portion of his post-undergraduate life nearly 20 years ago as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and Laos and says he's both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.
To read the rest, click here. I'd like to see the syllabus for this course, as I'm curious what the students are reading while they undergo the regimen described in the article. The disciplines that the students take on during the semester may serve as a beneficial consciousness-raiser, but they can't really see "what it's like to be a monk" (or a nun) if they don't study the traditions from which the disciplines came.

Are the students in McDaniel's course reading monastic and religious texts that help them to put their ascetical practices in context? Are they given actual opportunities to interact with monks and nuns? I hope that the answer to both questions is 'yes'; otherwise, what can they expect to gain from their selective asceticism? McDaniel says that the course is "about building hyperawareness of yourself and others." I simply hope that this awareness extends to the heart of the monastic traditions studied and isn't limited to consideration of external practices. AMDG.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

More on the glorification of St. Alexander (Schmorell) of Munich.

Following up on Tuesday's post on the elevation to sainthood of White Rose member Alexander Schmorell, I would like to share Jim Forest's moving eyewitness report from last weekend's canonization:
The frigid air was challenging — it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street [from the Russian Orthodox cathedral], its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day — 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. . . .

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers — a panikhida — was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. . . .

"When they brought out the icon," Nancy told me later that night, "it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own."
To read the rest, click here. Also, take a look at Jim Forest's set of photos from the canonization, from which the above images were taken. For those of us who would have liked to have been there but could not be, may this vivid account and these images be sources of consolation and inspiration. AMDG.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Jesuit bell in a Zen temple.

Earlier today at Quantum Theology, Michelle Francl-Donnay shared a story about a surprising link between a group of Catholic martyrs from sixteenth-century Japan and a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto:
Monday was the feast of Paul Miki and companions, martyrs for the faith in 16th century Japan. The Jesuit homilist gave a brief description of the group, who were marched hundreds of miles from Kyoto to Nagasaki in the winter. In addition to Paul Miki and two other Jesuits, six Franciscan priests and a number of lay people, including some children (altar servers according to one account I read) were crucified on February 6th in Nagasaki, preaching and praying up to the last. Catholicism went underground in Japan for the next two centuries, there were several hundred thousand Catholics still practicing their faith when the Church officially returned in 1867.

I knew the story, but for the first time had a visceral connection. When I was in Kyoto last fall, we visited Shunko-in, a Zen Buddhist temple founded in 1590. The temple has the bell that hung in the first Catholic Church in Japan, Nanban-ji, founded in 1576 by the Jesuits. The temple kept the bell safe not only through this first persecution, but the abbot (the grandfather of the current vice-abbot) hid it again when the authorities would have confiscated it to melt down for weapons in WW II.
A page on the Shunkō-in website takes note of the distinctive Jesuit markings on the Bell of Nanban-ji:
On the surface of the bell, three Jesuit seals were engraved. Those Jesuit seals contains a Christogram "IHS". "IHS" is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣ (Jesus is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ in Greek). Also, "IHS" is connected with a Latin phrase, "Iesus Hominum Salvator", or "Jesus, Savior of Man". In addition, "IHS" is sometimes interpreted as a another Latin phrase, "In hoc signo vinces", or "in this sign I shall conquer". Under a "IHS" Christogram, there are three nails on the Seal of the Society of Jesus. Three nails symbolize the Crucifixion of Christ. Also, Arabic numerals, 1577, were engraved on the surface.
So readers who find themselves in Kyoto have something else to see - and I have another reason (among many) to want to go there! AMDG.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

From John Carroll to "distilled Jesuitism."

In today's edition of The Hoya, Georgetown student Michael Fischer (SFS '13) offers a cogent and provocative op-ed on matters pertaining to the religious identity of America's oldest Catholic university - and, by easy analogy, the religious identity of all Jesuit universities in the United States:
As they pass the statue of John Carroll, tour guides are advised to suggest to prospective students that our Jesuit founder would be proud of where we are today. As our annual celebration of Jesuit Heritage Week came to a close Sunday, I found myself deeply reflecting upon the question: What would past Jesuits think of Georgetown today?

Certainly, Georgetown's Jesuit forebears would marvel at its impressive growth. They would commend the university for breaking down barriers of race, creed and sex to cultivate and educate students who were once marginalized. They would be proud that students here commit themselves to engaging the greater community, especially those in most need.

Yet my reflections also lead me to worry that these men to whom we owe so much would also deliver a scathing critique of Georgetown today and perhaps say that we've entirely missed the point of this university.

In recent years, Georgetown has cultivated its identity through an approach I call 'distilled Jesuitism,' the abridged works of Jesuit thought and values for the masses. Even when we seek to broaden our understanding and appreciation of our Jesuit inheritance through events like Jesuit Heritage Week, we still speak in catchy buzzwords: "social justice," "contemplation in action" and "God in all things." Reliance on these phrases generates misconceptions that Georgetown is a pseudo-Jesuit, but not Catholic, institution.
I have to commend Fischer for his use of the phrase "distilled Jesuitism," which describes a real problem that Jesuits and others who care about our work need to seriously examine. We often allow our charism to be packaged and presented in terms of catchphrases like the ones listed above, offering a view of Jesuit identity that is selective at best. Depending on the catchphrases that we employ, we also run the risk of leaving out what is really distinctive about Jesuit institutions: their religious identity. Saint Joseph's University can proudly point to its commitment to "educating the whole person," but Penn and Temple could easily do the same without thereby committing themselves to a Catholic worldview. Boston College can state that it cares about "social justice," but few eyebrows would be raised if Harvard and Tufts made identical claims.

In short, I think it's clear that the problem of "distilled Jesuitism" is not unique to Georgetown. Frankly, I don't even think that it's unique to Jesuit higher education, or to Jesuit education in general: similar concerns could be raised about the way that themes from Ignatian spirituality are sometimes 'marketed' to contemporary 'spiritual consumers.' Rather than go off on one or another tangent connected to these themes, let me return to what Michael Fischer has to say:
It is impossible to be Jesuit without being Catholic. Georgetown does not offer a Jesuit education, but instead a Catholic education preserved by Jesuit sweat. A Catholic education does not require a Catholic faith, but it does nevertheless require observance of Catholic principles and values.

Jesuits founded Georgetown in order to educate under these convictions and beliefs. But the Latin root of the verb "to educate" means "to lead out." Its derivatives in Italian, Spanish and French all mean "to civilize."

Outsiders may say this sounds elitist. Yet from the start, a Jesuit education targeted the gifted and the graced, because St. Ignatius knew that their souls were at great risk: They had the potential to do the utmost good or the worst evil.

Georgetown was not founded primarily to train students to run governments, teach students to make money or provide students with the resources to cure diseases, though all these might be valuable consequences.

In 1989, [then-President] Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., reminded students that at Georgetown, "we have never bowed to either of two heresies: that the bachelor's degree is for making a living rather than for life itself or that one can debase the arts and sciences to make them ‘value-free.'"

Yes, the university should want to open up minds, break down prejudices and fill the vaults of knowledge. Yet at a Catholic school, under Jesuit guidance, education is primarily meant to build conviction, enshrine virtues and make truths known. The chief mission of Georgetown is not to send forth smart, skilled or even world-changing graduates but instead gentlemen and gentlewomen, individuals of substance, character and virtue.
To read the rest, click here. Naturally, I could say a lot about these topics, but for now I'll confine myself to the above comments on "distilled Jesuitism" and let Mr. Fischer otherwise speak for himself. Readers with thoughts on all this are, of course, more than welcome to add their own comments. AMDG.

St. Alexander (Schmorell) of Munich.

Via Orthocath and St. Elias Today come reports of the elevation to sainthood of Alexander Schmorell, a leading member of the Weiße Rose movement who was executed at age 25 on July 13, 1943 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. I visited Alexander Schmorell's grave last July as part of my St. Ignatius' Day pilgrimage in Munich, and I am pleased that he is now recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. To learn more about Schmorell's life, read this article by Jim Forest.

To commemorate the glorification of St. Alexander of Munich, I would like to share one of the letters that 'Schurik' wrote to his father and stepmother from prison before his death. Provided to me by a brother Jesuit with a great devotion to the members of Weiße Rose, this letter was translated from the original German by Cathy Constable and may be found online with translations of other letters by Schmorell; the original German texts may also be found on the same site. I hope that this letter written on May 30, 1943 conveys something of the luminous spirit of the saint who was glorified this weekend:
My dear parents,

I can't report anything new here, everything's just the same as always. There is one thing, however, that I want to tell you, so that your pain may be a little bit easier to bear. Should a pardon be rejected, please believe that 'death' does not mean the end of every life, but in fact, the opposite - birth, a transition to a new life, one which is wonderful and will last forever. Death is really nothing terrible. The separation is quite hard. But it will be less so if you think of it this way, that we won't be separated forever, but just for a time - like for a trip - in order for us to meet again forever and in all eternity in a life that is infinitely more beautiful than the present one, and that there will be no end to us being together. Believe this, and then the burden will undoubtedly become easier for you. Hugs and kisses,

Your Schurik
Holy Passion-bearer Alexander, pray to God for us! AMDG.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine.

Today's Feast of the Meeting (or Presentation) of the Lord in the Temple is one of the greatest days of the Christian year. The joyful encounter between the Christ Child and the elderly Simeon and Anna that we commemorate today offers much to reflect upon, as I noted in this post from last year. The canticle of praise proclaimed by Simeon upon meeting the Christ Child, widely known as the Nunc dimittis, has gained its own special place in the cultural patrimony of Christendom through its use in the divine office in both East and West and through a wide variety of musical settings composed over the centuries, some of which I would like to share in this post.

First, we have a setting of the Nunc dimittis in traditional Kievan plainchant, performed here in English translation by the Men's Choir of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary under the direction of Hierodeacon Philip Majkrzak.

Remaining within the Russian tradition but moving forward to the early twentieth century, here is the setting of the Nunc dimittis produced by Sergei Rachmaninov for his All-Night Vigil (1915), sung here by the Moscow State Chamber Choir conducted by Vladimir Minin.

Moving to the Anglican choral tradition, here is a setting of the Nunc dimittis by George Dyson (1883-1964), performed here by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury.

Still British, still twentieth century, and still Cambridge: Gustav Holst's setting of the Nunc dimittis dates from 1915 (the same year as Rachmaninov's) and may be heard above in a performance by a group of undergraduate singers from various Cambridge colleges conducted by Dominic O'Connor Robinson.

Finally, a selection from the twenty-first century: Arvo Pärt's Nunc dimittis (2001), performed by the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble directed by Carmen Helena Téllez. Posting this piece, I should add a note of gratitude to Michelle Francl-Donnay of Quantum Theology, for the simple reason that she introduced me to the music of Arvo Pärt. It's hard to say which of the above settings of the Nunc dimittis I like best, but I hope that interested readers/listeners of this post can find something here that they appreciate. AMDG.