Friday, August 30, 2013

In memoriam Seamus Heaney.

The great Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. I saw Heaney once, a decade ago, when he gave a reading of some of his poems at the University of Notre Dame. My most vivid memory of that experience is the surprisingly rapturous response that Heaney received from the mostly undergraduate audience; I don't know whether that group of eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds contained many who had read Heaney's poems, or whether more knew him as the translator of the edition of Beowulf that they had been assigned to read in high school, or whether many were simply motivated by Irish pride, but that student audience at Notre Dame gave Heaney an enthusiastic standing ovation before as well as after his reading. Whatever else might be said about Seamus Heaney, I'll always remember him as the poet who brought the young men and women of Notre Dame to their feet.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Seamus Heaney lost his faith later on but retained a thoughtful appreciation for the religious culture that helped to make him a poet. In an interview with his fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll, published in the book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Heaney expressed a sort of pensive nostalgia in speaking of his youthful piety and subsequent loss of faith:
. . . Like everyone else, I bowed my head at Mass during the consecration of the bread and wine, lifted my eyes to the raised host and the raised chalice. I believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred; I went to the altar rails and received the mystery on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt time starting up again. It was phenomenally refreshing and, when I began to admit to myself that I was losing faith in it, I was very sorry. Intellectually speaking, the loss of faith occurred offstage, there was never a scene where I had it out with myself or another. But the potency of those words ['transubstantiation' and 'real presence'] remains for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw; I cannot disavow them. Nor can I make the act of faith. . . .
In the same interview, Heaney spoke thoughtfully of his experiences as a university student going on pilgrimage to the ancient shrine known as St. Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg in Donegal. As Heaney would candidly admit to O'Driscoll, his motives for making the ascetical pilgrimage were not primarily spiritual:
Curiosity had a lot to do with it. I'd been hearing about Lough Derg since I was a youngster, about people in earlier generations doing 'the black fast.' Apparently they would walk the whole way to Donegal, keeping going on black tea and dry bread. So that scenario was with me from the start and, when the time eventually came, I set off in a spirit that Chaucer would have recognized – for the company and the outing, just to see what was entailed. The first time was after the summer exams at Queen's; we travelled by special bus from the Catholic chaplaincy, in a party that included a fair number of the people I used to knock around with. A couple of years before, we’d all been college boys and convent girls, but now we were beginning to take the measure of ourselves and our freedom, so there was a flirtatious aspect to the trip. But there was a religious dimension too. The fasting and the all-night vigil had the attraction of the unknown. The first couple of times I went were basically end-of-term expeditions, although it’s possible at this stage to see them as a rite of passage. A 'been there, done that' sort of thing.

. . .

. . . Lough Derg was a ritual, it entailed the fulfillment of set exercises, the repetition of prayers, keeping a fast, going round the basilica and ‘the beds’ in your bare feet. While you were engaged in all that, you were necessarily concentrated on getting through it but not necessarily absorbed in sacred reverie. Nor were you required to be. Technically speaking, there was a plenary indulgence to be gained by completing the pilgrimage, but the real motivation was in pitting yourself against the conditions – the fasting, your bare feet on hard ground, rain or shine, keeping awake during the first night and the second day. At the end of it all, there was a definite catharsis. As you sailed away from the island, you’d sing the Lough Derg hymn, 'Hail, glorious Saint Patrick'; but, deep inside, your body and soul were singing, 'Look, we have come through!'
Seamus Heaney was far from the only person who has set out on a religious pilgrimage with mixed motives, but among such pilgrims he was relatively rare as one who, like Chaucer, found poetic inspiration in the experience. The Lough Derg pilgrimage would inspire one of Heaney's collections of poetry, Station Island. To round out this post, I would like to share some lines from Canto IV of the title poem in that collection, in which Heaney describes an imagined encounter along the pilgrim trail with a onetime acquaintance from his native place who had gone on to become a Roman Catholic priest:
Blurred swimmings as I faced the sun, my back
to the stone pillar and the iron cross,
ready to say the dream words I renounce . . .

Blurred oval prints of newly ordained faces,
‘Father’ pronounced with a fawning relish,
the sunlit tears of parents being blessed.

I met a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
as if he had stepped from his anointing
a moment ago; his purple stole and cord

or cincture tied loosely, his polished shoes
unexpectedly secular beneath
a pleated, lace-hemmed alb of linen cloth.

His name had lain undisturbed for years
like an old bicycle wheel in a ditch
ripped at last from under jungling briars,

wet and perished. . . .
At this point, the ghostly young priest tells how he went off to serve as a foreign missionary after his ordination, undergoing a spiritual and physical trial that led him to conclude that "my vocation is a steam off drenched creepers." Then Heaney intervenes again, with words that cut the priest to the quick and draw an equal sharp reply:
. . .
I had broken off from the renunciation

while he was speaking, to clear the way
for other pilgrims queueing to get started.
‘I’m older now than you were when you went away.’

I ventured, feeling a strange reversal.
‘I never could see you on the foreign missions.
I could only see you on a bicycle,

a clerical student home for the summer
doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbours.
Drinking tea and praising home-made bread.

Something in them would be ratified
when they saw you at the door in your black suit,
arriving like some sort of holy mascot.

You gave too much relief, you raised a siege
the world had laid against their kitchen grottoes
hung with holy pictures and crucifixes.’

‘And you,’ he faltered, ‘what are you doing here
but the same thing? What possessed you?
I at least was young and unaware

that what I thought was chosen was convention.
But all this you were clear of you walked into
over again. And the god has, as they say, withdrawn.

What are you doing, going through these motions?
Unless . . . Unless . . .’ Again he was short of breath
and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.

‘Unless you are here taking the last look.’
Suddenly where he stood was bare as the roads
we both had grown up beside . . .
On my reading, the above verses seem to offer a double indictment. Heaney effectively exposes the weakness of the priest's faith, but the priest also calls the depth of Heaney's renunciation into question: could one who felt compelled to take "the last look" really be an unbeliever in the end? For Seamus Heaney, one might say, that "last look" extended over the course of a lifetime. As Meredith Wise observed today in a tribute to Heaney written for Dappled Things, in spite of Heaney's lack of faith one can't help but notice "the Catholic flavor of his work, a stubborn, latent water table that kept seeping up into whatever cellars of language he might build." Whether or not he ever recovered a sense of belief, it seems right and just to remember Seamus Heaney as a great religious poet. Requiescat in pace. AMDG.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Nine years on.

Somewhat suddenly this afternoon, I realized that today marks the ninth anniversary of the date on which I entered the Society of Jesus, August 21, 2004. By many measures, a great deal has changed in the last nine years. I entered the novitiate in a class of fourteen, six of whom remain in the Society; most of the eight who have left religious life are now married and well-established in secular careers. The novitiate that we all entered is gone - the building is still there, but it's no longer a Jesuit residence - and some of the other institutions that played a role in our novitiate experience (such as the parish grade school around the corner) have likewise passed on to other uses. The two Jesuit provinces that the fourteen of us entered are also gone, having been merged into one new province as part of a larger process of administrative reconfiguration on the part of the U.S. Jesuits. When I entered the Jesuits, John Paul II was pope - the only pope that I and a majority of my novitiate classmates had ever known - and since then we've seen two others and received the news that our 'first pope' will soon be canonized.

In spite of all of the above, I would say that much remains the same for me as when I entered. My essential motivation for becoming a Jesuit nine years ago and my motivation for being a Jesuit today are much the same. As I wrote in this post from last year, what drew me to the Society was not a flash of mystical inspiration, or a devotion to St. Ignatius of Loyola, or an attraction to Ignatian spirituality as it has been articulated and popularized in recent decades; rather, what drew me to the Society was an encounter with particular Jesuits whom I knew as an undergraduate at Georgetown, men who had found a way of being at once priests, scholars, and teachers that I found appealing and ultimately wished to emulate. In other words, what drew me to the Jesuits - and what continues to draw me - is its intellectual tradition, the sense in which, to borrow a term from the early Society, the Jesuits are meant to be a company of "learned priests." On reflection, it strikes me that I have also been consistently drawn by the cosmopolitan character of the Society, seen both in the diversity of its membership and in the sense of global mission that led Father Jerónimo Nadal to write that "the world is our house." My Jesuit life so far has included elements of both of these things - engagement with the intellectual apostolate and encounters with the global Society - so I can happily report that the hopes that led me into the Society have not gone unfulfilled.

Like any other meaningful vocation, Jesuit life includes challenges and difficulties as well as joys and rewards. I'm not the sort of person who seeks a kind of do-or-die daily affirmation or experiences dramatically shifting spiritual movements on a regular basis; my desire to be a Jesuit and a priest have remained consistent over the last decade. As I begin my tenth year in the Society, I find myself recalling with both gratitude and expectation the words of Psalm 119:116 (Psalm 118 in the Vulgate Psalter), which are included (and here my Benedictine side emerges) in the rite of monastic profession: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam; et non confundas me ab expectatione mea. "Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live; and let me not be confounded in my hope." AMDG.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Francis Xavier in Nagasaki.

Today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of a radio broadcast by Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers, bringing the deadliest war in human history to a close. This anniversary seems like an opportune time to share this arresting image from a 1949 Life photo essay by Carl Mydans, recently reproduced with commentary by Henri Adam de Villiers on the website of the Schola Sainte Cécile. In this photo, we see a relic of St. Francis Xavier - his right forearm, long preserved at the Church of the Gesù in Rome - carried in procession during a celebration held in Nagasaki in June of 1949 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan. Sent halfway around the world for the event, this relic had an undeniable significance: here was the arm that Xavier raised in blessing and the hand with which he conferred the sacrament of baptism, newly presented to the spiritual descendants of the people to whom Xavier had preached four hundred years earlier. The visit of the relic provided Japanese Catholics with a particularly tangible connection to their ancestors in the faith, a connection that they may have cherished all the more following the destruction of the Second World War.

As I study the above image, I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb's effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans' photos (shared below) reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint's hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb's victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier's body and the bodies of their kin? I can't know for sure, but I also can't help but wonder whether they might have done so.

What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, "Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates." For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption.

Though the arm of St. Francis Xavier was sent to devastated Nagasaki to commemorate a particular historical event, I believe that this image also serves to remind us of a deeper lesson. The roots of human conflict remain as strong as ever, making the choice between love and hatred as real for us today as it was in the past. In a 1991 essay reflecting on the end of the Cold War and the move towards greater economic and political integration in Europe, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that "history is marked by the confrontation between love and the inability to love, that devastation of the soul that comes when the only values man is able to recognize at all as values and realities are quantifiable values." In response to this reality, the future Pope Benedict XVI urged that "we should not hesitate to oppose the omnipotence of the quantitative and to take up our position on the side of love." As we remember the end of a global conflict that now seems very distant to us, let us be heedful of Benedict's words - and of the silent message borne by a relic that once appeared in Nagasaki. AMDG.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A monk's life remembered.

I took the above photo last year during a visit to the Cisterican Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving, Texas. That visit came to mind yesterday when a friend shared an obituary of a recently-deceased monk from Our Lady of Dallas, Father Pascal Kis-Horváth. I regret that I never met Father Pascal, who seems to have had an extraordinary life. Here is a bit about that life, as reported in Father Pascal's obituary in the Dallas Morning News:
His father died when he was still a child, leaving his mother to raise him and his older sister, Maria. As a child he contracted tuberculosis in his hip. After the removal of the infected bone, he recovered from the disease but remained handicapped for life. In the midst of these trials and suffering, his religious vocation was born. While studying in Budapest for his high school diploma, he lived in the residence of the young Cistercians attending universities there. All who lived through the long and terrifying days of the 1944-1945 siege of Budapest remembered the limping young man, full of jokes, encouragement and hope. He finished high school after the war, and on August 29, 1947, joined the Cistercian monastery of Zirc.

Pascal took his first vows on August 30, 1948, even though the Communist government had confiscated the Cistercians' land and schools. Within two years, the government had completely suppressed the Cistercians along with most other religious groups in Hungary. Six weeks before the monks were disbanded and the abbot imprisoned, Brother Pascal, who knew the country's Western border from his childhood, worked out a plan to prepare the "Great Escape" by clandestinely leaving the country for Austria. Using a chain of acquaintances, Fr. Pascal with 20 other young monks successfully crossed the Iron Curtain (with its mine fields, barbed wire fences, watch towers, armed guards and watch dogs) on September 5, 1950 and passed into Austria. However, the Austrian police under the command of the Soviet occupying forces captured nine of the refugees, and returned them to the Communist rulers of Hungary.

As the organizer of the escape and a nephew of Abbot Wendelin of Zirc, Pascal was dealt with particular harshly. In Abbot Wendelin's show trial, the government tried to use Pascal as a crown witness to prove a string of drummed up charges against his Abbot. Both Abbot Wendelin and Father Pascal were subjected to severe beatings and torture. Pascal, however, refused to testify against his abbot. He was sentenced to four years of prison. Pascal was still in solitary confinement when on August 30, 1951 his first set of temporary vows expired. As he later testified in a written deposition to the Holy See, in the absence of anyone to witness his vows, he wrote the renewal of his first vows on the wall of his prison cell. Three years later, when the time had come for his permanent, perpetual religious vows, he was still in prison. At that time, however, he was already allowed to work in a factory staffed by political prisoners with five Cistercians among them. In the lunch break of August 30, 1954, with Fr. Leonard Barta presiding, and four other Cistercians murmuring the text of their religious vows, Br. Pascal made his perpetual vows to seek Christ and his love in the Cistercian Order for the rest of his life.
As Father Pascal's obituary goes on to relate, he and a few of his Cistercian confreres were finally able to escape from Hungary during the Uprising of 1956. Ordained to the priesthood in Austria in 1957, Father Pascal ministered to Hungarian refugees there before moving to the newly-established Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of Dallas in 1959. In over fifty years in Dallas, Father Pascal became "highly regarded for his service in hearing confessions and providing spiritual guidance. Fr. Pascal had an extraordinary talent for understanding, guiding and consoling people of all walks of life and all age groups. His deep prayer life, warmth in human relations and pragmatic sense for solving real-life problems made him unforgettable for all who turned to him.... Although he never believed he was able to live up to expectations, his confreres and friends admired him as a model priest and an exceptional blessing to all those to whom he ministered." After an extraordinary life, may Father Pascal Kis-Horváth now enjoy the reward of everlasting communion with the One whom he served so well. Requiescat in pace. AMDG.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

What it's all about.

I'm currently in St. Paul, Minnesota to witness the profession of First Vows by our second-year novices here. I had hopes of marking the event with a post somewhat like this one written for a similar occasion two years ago, but I've been too busy and distracted by the demands of travel to put my thoughts together in time (though they may eventually appear here in another form). Nevertheless, nothing that I could ever write could match the eloquence and power of the words that St. Ignatius himself offered in the General Examen proposed to those making solemn profession in the Society of Jesus, words that offer the best possible explanation of what being a Jesuit is all about:
Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience, keep what follows in mind.

He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God, and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ's faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons and hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good. Furthermore, he should carry out all these works altogether free of charge and without accepting any salary for the labor expended in all the aforementioned activities.

Still further, let any such person take care, as long as he lives, first of all to keep before his eyes God and then the nature of this Institute which is, so to speak, a pathway to God; and then let him strive with all his effort to achieve this end set before him by God - each one, however, according to the grace which the Holy Spirit has given to him and according to the particular grade of his own vocation.
Please join me in praying for the novices who will make their first profession today. May God who freely gave the vovendi the desire to make this offering of themselves give them also the abundant grace to fulfill it. AMDG.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Remembering George Vass.

I recently received word of the death of Father George Vass, a Hungarian Jesuit whom I lived with in Innsbruck three summers ago. A long-time professor of dogmatic theology at Heythrop College and at the University of Innsbruck, Father Vass died on July 28th at the age of 85. To learn more about his life, you may consult this obituary from the Austrian Jesuits (auf Deutsch), also available in English translation on the Heythrop College website. Father Vass was a man of many names: in his native tongue he was known as ‘György’; in the Jesuit catalogue and on the door to his room he was identified as ‘Georg’; in his books and articles and in conversation he was known, by his own preference, as ‘George.’ As a child in Hungary, George had learned both English and German, and, as he would freely admit, of the two he preferred English even though he spoke both languages (plus a few others) with equal fluency.

Though George had lived in Innsbruck far longer than he had lived anywhere else, the years that he had spent in England as a student and as a professor at Heythrop made him an inveterate anglophile. At various points of the day George could be found in the refectory drinking tea that he had made in his own English teapot; George’s fondness for tea made him somewhat special, as most of the men in the house preferred coffee. He often had a book with him, usually a work of contemporary English fiction or poetry. When I or one of the other Jesuit language students in the house came along, George would inevitably strike up conversation in English – much to the consternation of the rector, who preferred that we speak only the German language which we’d come there to learn. Naturally, George Vass was not trying to prevent us from learning German; he simply enjoyed speaking English when the opportunity presented itself, and I believe he also wanted to give the struggling Sprachschüler a break from the task of learning a difficult new language.

I spoke with George Vass for the final time during breakfast on the morning of my departure from Innsbruck. Knowing that I had recently gone to the Salzburger Festspiele, George was eager to hear about the performances that I had attended. (We had spoken about music a number of times before; George was an enthusiastic concert- and operagoer.) As I prepared to go, George gave me a firm handshake, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m glad to have met you.” The implicit sense of those words was that we would not meet again, as indeed we did not, at least not on this side of the Eschaton. Glad to have met George Vass, I pray for his peaceful repose and for the consolation of all who mourn him. AMDG.

Notes on the Memorial of St. Dominic.

In the modern Roman calendar, today is the Memorial of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. I usually post something on this date as a token of my affection for the Dominicans, and this year is no exception. The photo that illustrates this post shows the facade of the Dominikanerkirche in Vienna, which is where I most usually attended daily Mass when I was studying German in the Austrian capital two summers ago. The Dominikanerkirche is a mere five-minute walk from the Jesuit residence where I was living and, since the timing of the Dominicans' daily Mass fit my schedule much better than Mass with the Jesuits - 5:30 pm at the Dominikanerkirche, versus 7 am at the Jesuitenkirche - I made that walk very often. Celebrated with quiet reverence and sobriety, that Mass at the Domikanerkirche proved an excellent way to mark the shift from afternoon to evening and to begin to wind down the day. As I reflect on the many things that I miss about Vienna, Mass at the Domikanerkirche is near the top of the list.

Moving a bit closer to the place where I spend most of my time, it strikes me that today is a good day to share the trailer for Alléluia, a documentary by French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier that had its premiere last fall at the Montreal International Documentary Festival. Alléluia follows four young men who have made the profoundly countercultural choice of entering the Dominican Order in secular Quebec. I would be very interested in seeing the rest of the film if it ever reaches a screen in Toronto or appears on DVD, but for now the trailer offers a bit of a teaser.

On the Memorial of St. Dominic, I pray for all members of the Dominican family, both in gratitude for their contributions to the life of the Church and in the hope that God will grant them great consolation. I hope that you will join me in praying for these intentions. AMDG.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Transfiguratione D. N. I. C.

According to the Gregorian Calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Perhaps appropriately, this was also the last day of my eight-day retreat in Sedalia, Colorado. This photo of the sunset over the Rockies (which, again, strikes me as appropriate for the Transfiguration) is one of many that I took during my retreat; I may post a few more retreat photos at some point, but that task will have to wait until I return to Toronto early next week.

My peripatetic wanderings continue for the next few days: I'll be in Denver until Friday, followed by an overnight visit to St. Paul to witness the profession of First Vows by our novices, with a weekend in Chicago after that. This sort of travel may not be what the early Jesuit Jerónimo Nadal had in mind when he wrote that "the world is our house," but it does capture one facet of this Jesuit's life. That being said, expect a few more posts between now and next Monday, timed for release at opportune moments in the coming days. AMDG.