Wednesday, March 15, 2017

America's America.



As suggested by my recent posting of a homily given in Palo Alto, I spent some time this month in the San Francisco Bay Area. This part of California has played a small but special role in my Jesuit life. I visited California for the first time when I was a novice, spending two months living at Santa Clara University and working at Catholic Charities in San Jose. (On one of my first nights in the Jesuit community at Santa Clara, I commented at dinner that it was my first time west of the Rocky Mountains; putting things in perspective, an elderly priest at the table commented that he didn't venture east of the Rockies until he was in his forties.) I was well enough received at Catholic Charities that my supervisors invited me to come back, and two years later I returned to spend a summer working there and strengthened the ties that had drawn me back to Silicon Valley. After I began theology studies in Toronto, I took advantage of the long summers afforded by the Canadian academic calendar to spend a couple of months after my first year of theology living and studying in Berkeley. All of this has enabled me to form friendships that give me an incentive to return to California, as I was glad to do for ten days this month.

My experience of California has been geographically limited: I've gotten to know the Bay Area well, and I've explored the coast as far north as Fort Ross and as far south as Big Sur, but I've seen little of the rest of the state (for example, I've only made one brief visit to Los Angeles, and a busy conference schedule kept me from seeing much while I was there). Nevertheless, I've seen enough of the Golden State to appreciate the mythic place that California holds in the American imagination. For generations of Americans – and perhaps especially for those who grew up in damp, wintry, long-settled places like New England – California has been an object of fascination and a repository of dreams, a lush and verdant place at the far end of the continent where people go to carve out new identities. The reality is more complicated than the myth, and one could easily cite California's many modern problems – a bloated, debt-choked state government, years of drought, a high cost of living, and so on – as evidence of a crumbling dream. In spite of all that, California retains its mythic appeal, and I still feel drawn to return there as often as I can.

Another Jesuit who appreciated the allure of California was Father Ray Gawronski, whom I met by chance in Berkeley at a time when we were both guests of the Jesuit community there. A native New Yorker who first visited California as an eighteen-year-old college student in the summer of 1969, Father Gawronski spent various periods of time living and working in the Golden State from then until his death of cancer at the Jesuit infirmary near San Jose in the spring of 2016. In an essay entitled "California Coming Home" published in the Summer 2012 issue of the journal Logos, Father Gawronski wrote very eloquently about the place in his own life and in the American imagination of a state he called "America's America." The full text of the article is currently available online through Project MUSE, but I'll share some excerpts here to give the flavor of it.

When Ray Gawronski visited California for the first time, fresh off his sophomore year at the College of the Holy Cross and wearing a three-piece suit (because "[t]hat's what a young man at a college in New England still wore in 1969"), he was stunned both by the shock of recognition and by the distance between the world in which he had grown up and the new world suddenly presented to him. The movies, music, and television of his youth gave him a sense of California as "the ultimate American place," and, visiting relatives in suburban Cupertino, he found himself "in the world I had been watching on television for my entire life... a world that was all new, all shiny, sparkling, full of hope and confidence." The beauty of the natural environment offered a vivid contrast with gray, industrial New York, as did the values that seemed to define this new place. Silicon Valley was just being born – the term wouldn't appear in print until 1971 – but its distinctive culture already stood out. As Gawronski wrote:
The sorrows of the old world were left far behind, replaced only by science and technology as sources of meaning. The world in which I had been raised was a world of tradition, family tradition above all. There was the Church. There were the traditional schools, which appealed, not so much for their academic excellence as for the simple prestige reflected by their ivy walls...

And suddenly, all this was deemed irrelevant. Science was the new religion... The old world was the world of the broken heart – the hearts broken in human experience – and salvation was found in the heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart. Here, now, salvation could be found in technological safety, free from the labyrinth of the heart.
Years later, having passed in and out of the California counterculture before returning to the faith of his childhood and entering the Jesuits, Gawronski found himself studying theology in Berkeley in the 1980s in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. By now, Gawronski had come to realize that "California represented the ultimate nonhistorical place. Not that it did not have a history, or people affected by history: but history was not part of its image, nor was it for history that people came here. People came here to get away from the nightmares of human history, and to seek refuge in the beauty of nature." After years of intensive study of Zen Buddhism and other Asian spiritual traditions, Gawronski's own efforts to escape the burden of history had led him to re-embrace his Slavic roots. He found fellowship with other "refugees from modernism" worshiping at the Russian Catholic parish in San Francisco, and he later cultivated close ties with a Ukrainian Catholic monastery nestled among redwoods a couple of hours north of the Bay Area. Reflecting late in life on his long relationship with California, Gawronski reached the following conclusions:
. . . [T]he beauty of [California] remains: the magic of the air, the smell of the ocean carried in on the fog, the night blooming jasmine. The fruit is better than any on earth, and, curiously, the bread is fantastic. Place remains.

History is something else. Perhaps California was the ultimate attempt to replace history with technology and, along with it, to undercut the sorrows of the human heart by technique. Zen (as Balthasar writes) is perhaps the ultimate technique, and the various attempts at reviving religious tradition have all foundered, I believe, because their ultimate guide has itself been technique. The only real antidote to technique is faith: that acceptance of our human limitation that trusting in a word of promise reaches out in humble confidence. Psychology as religion has proven inadequate. And original sin remains the one Christian doctrine that should be obvious to all.

In a place dedicated to timeless being in this world, where the only reality is what can be created for the future against a seemingly perfect present – occasional earthquakes being odd reminders of original sin – the only revolutionary act is tradition (the insight is that of the late Fr. Tom King, SJ, of Georgetown, who shortly before his death visited me in California, where he made a "Teilhardian" retreat). It is fidelity that is the revolutionary act, fidelity in marriage, fidelity in relationship, fidelity through time, in which the horrors of life in this fallen world are experienced, the cup drunk to its dregs. Fidelity is the only revolutionary act, not mobility, not change, which are merely of this world.

Which leaves me – leaves us – with the Cross, which is where I started back in 1969, a student at Holy Cross in old New England, where the campus had the Jesuit cemetery at its heart. All this beauty is cold and empty without the Cross. All human endeavor is folly. All human relations are variations on power trips, without the Cross.
Writing "California Coming Home" at a time when he was living and working in Colorado, Gawronski concluded by saying that "I hope to keep coming back to California all my days," a hope that now seems poignant given that he would ultimately die a few miles from the place where he first encountered the Golden State. I don't know how well "California Coming Home" will be understood by readers who didn't know Ray Gawronski or experience the state in the way that he did, but I like the essay enough to discuss it here, and I hope that it reaches an appreciative audience. AMDG.

1 Comments:

At 3/16/2017 1:05 PM, Blogger JF said...

Most interesting for at least two families of reasons, not necessarily related to one another.

1st: Because of what it reveals of the man who wrote this. After all, to view the world in the terms of this dichotomy indicates that one is a certain type of person. Not all people apprehend the world in the terms of this technique versus tradition dichotomy. And I can't help noticing that this refers to two ways of being nerdy (Silicon valley nerd and monkish nerd). Tolkien vs Asimov, Sci-Fi vs Fantasy. Even within the paradigmatic dichotomy of Martha and Mary, not all would view Martha as technique and Mary as enamoured with liturgy. In addition, not all would apprehend the world in terms of the Martha vs Mary dichotomy (vita activa vs vita contemplativa). Many, for instance, would apprehend it in terms self-seeking pleasure and ambition vs service onto others. Stendhal vs Francis of Assisi. Others would view it in more metaphysical terms, that is in terms of futility vs meaningfulness, to be or not to be, Beckett vs Vanier, etc.

2nd: Because the particular dichotomy you explore seems to me to be that in which Loyola found himself. On the one hand the dying world of medieval traditions, with its vestments and colours worn by different social classes and social functions, and on the other hand the rising world of technique, with everybody wearing black (the roman collar being the ancestor of the three piece suits, especially the black and dark suit meant as the uniform of the proverbial men in black!). Loyola's originality in all that is precisely his refusal to be either / or. Which meant for instance, that he founded an order most closely associated with the modern drabness of suit and liturgy (which he used more as the equivalent of today's t-shirt and blue jeans than as the equivalent of today's business suit) while, at the same time, being the order most closely associated with individuation, marginality and openness to peripheries, exceptions, and eccentricities (the very things that proceed from neither technique or tradition).

In any event, I would personally find it a rather nightmarish vision to have to choose between a 19th century East Coast cemetery in the Fall and a high tech silicone valley fablab under the sun. I would feel quite the urge to find something else, quick!

 

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