Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Into Great Silence.

Into Great Silence opens today in New York, a cinematic event I've been waiting for but which probably won't get much attention overall (though A. O. Scott gave the film a very positive review in today's New York Times). Winner of the award for Best Documentary at the 2006 European Film Awards and recipient of a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Into Great Silence offers a rare glimpse at life within the walls of the Grand Chartreuse, the Alpine motherhouse of the Carthusian Order. Often described as the most austere monastic order in the Roman Catholic Church, a religious community "never reformed because never deformed," the Carthusians live a life of disciplined contemplation. Like other Carthusian houses, the Grand Chartreuse exercises no external apostolate (except, perhaps, the production of Chartreuse) and rarely accepts guests. Understandably intrigued by these mysterious monks, German filmmaker Philip Gröning sent a letter to the prior of the Grand Chartreuse in 1984 to ask whether he could make a documentary about life inside the cloister. Sixteen years later, Gröning was given the green light to film inside the Grand Chartreuse, with a few important conditions: he couldn't bring a crew or use artificial lighting, and the film he produced could have no narration or soundtrack beyond what he captured within the cloister. After spending six months at the Grand Chartreuse and shooting hundreds of hours of film, Gröning produced Into Great Silence. The various reviews I've read of Into Great Silence have been positive, with even resolutely secular critics expressing appreciation for the film. I'm planning to see it this weekend, after which I may contribute a review of my own. AMDG.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lenten reading.

Like many others, I often think of Lent as a time for giving things up. Every year, I spend the last few days before Ash Wednesday reflecting on what exactly I will resolve to forego for the season, trying to think of a Lenten resolution that I can realistically stick to for forty days while still retaining a sense that I've actually sacrificed something. Normally - and this year is no exception - this line of thought leads me to give up something edible, either a specific item (like chocolate) or a whole class of items (like sweets in general).

The sacrifices we make in Lent have a penitential character, but they are also meant to help us focus more clearly on God. This is something we do in other ways during the Lenten season - either by doing things we might not do normally (for many, this means going to daily Mass or taking up Lenten devotions like the Stations of the Cross) or by taking a different approach to things we do normally. Since I graduated from college, I've made a point of setting aside some time each day - even if it's only a few minutes - to read for pleasure or personal enrichment. During the Lent, I approach my daily routine of extracurricular reading differently by choosing books that reflect the themes of the season. Some readers might be curious what I've chosen to read this Lent, so I'll share my choices below.

As a daily spiritual companion for Lent, I've been reading The Lenten Spring, a collection of short meditations by Father Thomas Hopko. An Orthodox priest, Hopko writes from the perspective of a Byzantine Christian but does so in a way that is accessible and helpful for Roman Catholics and, I suppose, for other Christians who observe Lent. The Lenten Spring is ideally structured for daily meditation, arranged in forty short chapters corresponding to each of the days of Lent. A daily reader of a different kind is Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories, which I've resolved to read this Lent in accordance with a longstanding desire to become acquainted with a celebrated writer I haven't read until now. I haven't gotten far enough into The Complete Stories to be able to offer anything approaching a systematic evaluation of her work; at this point, all I can say is that I like what I've read of her so far. I hope to finish the O'Connor book before the end of Lent, so you may see further reflections on this topic before Easter. In the meantime, please know of my prayers for you during this Lenten season. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a day when you can tell who the Roman Catholics are. This is a day when many Catholics pack the pews - including quite a few who seldom go to Mass otherwise - in order to acknowledge that they are sinners redeemed by a loving God. Bearing the distinctive smudge of ashes on their foreheads, Catholics go forth on Ash Wednesday to subtly announce to others that they recognize themselves as sinful people in need of God's compassionate help and forgiveness. Despite being a cradle Catholic and having spent most of my life in places where Catholics are numerous, I still experience a kind of shock at the multitude of ash-smudged foreheads I encounter each year on Ash Wednesday. The shock, I believe, comes in seeing so many people who typically live out their faith somewhat anonymously make a very public and visible (albeit silent) declaration of how they see themselves before God. Ash Wednesday comes as a kind of rude awakening - an anticipation, perhaps, of the scandal of the cross and the joyful paradox of Christ's triumph over death which the Lenten season prepares us for.

No matter where I find myself on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent is always memorable for me. It's the kind of day I think of, to borrow one of Auden's best lines, "as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." Looking back over the last several years, I can still remember how I spent every Ash Wednesday - where I went to Mass that day, the things I did, the people I saw - and I can sense how my experience of this day has changed (and in many ways has not changed) as the story of my life with God has gone through various chapters and volumes. It strikes me that this year in the first in several that I haven't had any liturgical responsibilities on this day - in both of my years in the novitiate and earlier at Notre Dame, I was called upon to assist in various ways at one or more Mass on Ash Wednesday. When I went to Mass this morning at the University Church on Fordham's campus, I was just another Catholic, just another loved sinner - known to some, certainly, but on the whole an anonymous member of the congregation like everyone else. Returning to Ciszek with my ashes, I went back to my Wednesday morning routine of reading and writing conscious that today was not like every other Wednesday. I had my ashes to remind me of this, as well as the Ash Wednesday readings in my breviary and the growl of a stomach protesting against the Lenten fast. Another year and, Deo gratias, another Ash Wednesday. AMDG.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Gazette on vocations in Montreal.

The (Montreal) Gazette has a story today looking at the lives of some of the fifty or so men studying for the priesthood at the venerable Grand Séminaire de Montréal. Veteran Gazette religion reporter Alan Hustak writes on the diverse backgrounds of some of Montreal's second-career seminarians, including one Michael Leclerc:

He was a blackjack dealer in a casino, a bouncer in a Dawson City bar in the Yukon and a successful broker in charge of mutual-fund operations at Laurentian Bank Securities in Montreal. Then last week, Michael Leclerc took the first major step on his way to the Roman Catholic priesthood when he was accepted as a minister of acolyte [sic - should be "accepted for the ministry of acolyte"] at a service in the chapel of Montreal's Grand Seminary.

Leclerc, 36, is one of about 50 candidates studying for the priesthood at the seminary, a vast, sepulchral building hidden behind stone walls on Sherbrooke St. W.

. . .

Leclerc admits his route to the ministry was a circuitous one. "I would go to church on Sunday, but my religion had little effect on what I did the rest of the week," he said. "But my job as a financial analyst consumed me - I found it taking over who I was. The whole idea of shifting numbers from one column to another and worrying about decimal points started to seem empty."

To deal with the stress, Leclerc often found himself dropping into St. Patrick's Basilica on Rene Levesque Blvd. W. "My mind started focusing on the notion that maybe I should do something more with my life," he said. "Slowly I came to the conclusion I shouldn't be working with finances, that I should invest in something else - maybe along the lines of becoming a priest."

Although the numer of seminarians has been shrinking, it seems to have levelled off. Each year, about 15 candidates like Leclerc enter the seminary, according to a recently appointed auxiliary bishop of Montreal, Lionel Gendron, who was rector 20 years ago and recently returned to the job.

As Hustak notes, the number of men ordained each year for the Montreal Archdiocese - usually about four or five - is significantly lower than the number of priests who retire or pass away each year. Though every vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, there's a great deal that each of us can do to help others hear and respond to God's call in their lives. Though it's difficult to quantify the results of individual news articles, positive media attention can only help to raise awareness about vocations. I hope this will be the case with today's Gazette article and others like it. AMDG.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Chesterton at Notre Dame.

Last night, while we were both cleaning up after dinner, I got talking with my fellow Domer and brother Ciszekian Peter Folan about G. K. Chesterton and his association with the University of Notre Dame. Chesterton has a fair number of admirers at the Dome, including the people who run the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Chesterton made a celebrated visit to the Notre Dame campus in 1930, an event you can read about in Father Arthur Hope's episodic history of the university and (in much greater detail) in a 2002 talk given by Ralph McInerny. The most enduring legacy of Chesterton's time at Notre Dame is his poem "The Arena," my favorite lines of which are the following:

I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer,
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.

Among many other quotable remarks, Chesterton is also the one who opined, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." I've always gotten a chuckle at that line, though some people I tell them to find them maddening. If you want a sense of the context, here's an attempt to explain the quotation. I came upon this link and all those given above following my conversation last night with Peter. In hopes that someone out there might enjoy them, I submit them for your approval. AMDG.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Notes on the Memorial of St. Claude La Colombière.

Today we remember St. Claude La Colombière, a 17th-century French Jesuit perhaps best known for his service as spiritual director to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and for his efforts to assist her in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The work begun by St. Claude La Colombière continues within the Society of Jesus to this very day. The Jesuits play a major role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart through the Apostleship of Prayer, one of the Society's quietest works and yet one of its most effective, reaching millions of people around the world. Taking a hint from The Writer's Almanac, I'd like to offer a prayer for today taken from the writings of St. Claude La Colombière:

O God, what will you do to conquer
The fearful hardness of our hearts?
Lord, you must give us new hearts,
Tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
To replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze.

You must give us your own Heart, Jesus.
Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
And enkindle in each heart a flame of love
As strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
That I have for loving you, my God.

O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
So that I may live only in you and for you,
So that, in the end, I may live eternally with you in heaven.

St. Claude La Colombière, pray for us. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Notes on the Feast of SS. Cyril and Methodius.

In the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, today is the Feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavic peoples and principal co-patrons of Europe. Brothers from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius enjoyed careers in scholarship and diplomacy before the Byzantine emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople chose them to evangelize the Khazars (they of Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars) in 860. The brothers' mission to Khazaria was unsuccessful, but two years later they accepted an invitation from Prince Rastislav of Moravia to undertake missionary efforts in an area roughly centered on modern Slovakia. To translate the Bible and other religious texts into the Slavonic language spoken by Prince Rastislav's subjects, Cyril and Methodius developed the Glagolitic alphabet. Further work by a disciple of the two brothers led to the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet (which was not Cyril's creation, despite its name) that with some modifications has survived to the present day. The work that Cyril and Methodius undertook among the Moravians has historically been considered the beginning of the evangelization of the Slavic-speaking peoples, leading the brothers to be dubbed "Apostles to the Slavs." In 1980, Pope John Paul II made Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe, joining Benedict of Nursia. As a Polish-American and something of a Slavophile, I'm proud to celebrate this feast in honor of the Apostles to the Slavs. Today, I'll be praying in thanksgiving for their heroic efforts to spread the Gospel and for the churches brought to birth by these saintly brothers. AMDG.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Coming up for air.

First off, special greetings to any readers who may be coming to this site for the first time on account of the recent Q&A in the Chicago Province magazine Partners on new approaches to Ignatian spirituality. The words attributed to me by Partners are accurate - especially the part about how I contribute "in a small way" to the work of the Society with this blog. My accomplishments are very few compared with the other Chicago Province Jesuits profiled in the same piece, and I'm honored and humbled to be included in such distinguished company. Once again, though, I'm pleased to welcome any newcomers who may have discovered this blog on account of the Partners piece. I hope you like what you see and that you'll come back often.

In other news, my apologies for the lack of posting these last fews days - my academic workload has been piling up lately, particularly in the realm of written assignments that have to be turned in. Thus I haven't been as attentive to this blog as I would like. However, I have a couple posts in process that I hope to have up in the next few days. Of course, I'll also be sure to pass along any news items that I find particularly worthy of comment.

Last but not least, my hearty congratulations to the Jesuit novices who just completed the Spiritual Exercises in Gloucester. The Chi Prov's own Matt Dunch and Christopher Gagnon have written something about their experience of the Long Retreat here and here. Having prayed regularly for the novices during their retreat, I now hope that each and all are able to live out the graces of the Exercises in their life and ministry in the Society. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ignatius at the movies.

Since the beginning of this academic year, a small group of Jesuit scholastics here at Ciszek Hall has been meeting on Monday evenings for what we informally call "praying with film." The format for our gatherings is pretty straightforward - every week, we watch a movie and then seek to analyze it from a spiritual perspective. The inspiration for this project comes from Finding God in the Dark: Taking the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to the Movies, a book written by two Jesuits who teach at Regis College in Toronto, John Pungente and Monty Williams. Finding God in the Dark takes the meditations of the Spiritual Exercises and pairs each one with a particular film, the idea being that an individual or group using the book would pray each meditation as they would during a retreat, watch the film keyed to the meditation and then consider how the two fit together. Some of the films chosen by the authors of Finding God in the Dark easily lend themselves to comparison with the material of the Exercises - for example, Pungente and Williams effectively use films like Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance and Requiem for a Dream to demonstrate the reality of sin and its effects. Another particularly good choice on the part of the authors was to suggest watching Mystic River in conjunction with Ignatius' meditation on the Three Classes of Persons. Some of the other films suggested in the book fall into the "loose-link" category or, in a few cases, seem to present a message contrary to the one that Pungente and Williams intend. (Pleasantville, possibly my least favorite of the movies presented in the book so far, appears to twist the fall of Adam and Eve around in such a way as to endorse sin - this clearly isn't what Pungente and Williams want us to get from the film, but it's hard to ignore the apparent intentions of the filmmakers.) Pungente and Williams offer more films for viewing than most people have time to watch, but one can easily omit a few (as my cohorts and I have done) while remaining faithful to the dynamics of the Exercises.

Though I may quibble with some of the cinematic choices made by the authors of Finding God in the Dark, I've found the book helpful both as a tool for personal reflection and as a starting point for some thought-provoking conversations with my fellow scholastics. In a broader way, Finding God in the Dark has helped sustain my abiding interest in faith and film. Many Jesuits have been active in this area, some as film scholars (such as Richard Blake, Marc Gervais and Gene Phillips) and others as filmmakers (like Mark McGregor and my hallmate Jeremy Zipple). With Finding God in the Dark, John Pungente and Monty Williams offer their own contribution to the Jesuit tradition of creative engagement with modern culture. At the same time, their work also represents an effort to present the gift of Ignatian spirituality in a new and innovative way. As a member of the group that gathers every Monday night at Ciszek to "pray with film," I appreciate what Pungente and Williams have set out to do with Finding God in the Dark. Their cinematic take on the Spiritual Exercises is worth a look, and I hope their efforts will inspire others to do more work on the same subject. AMDG.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

In Search of Flannery O'Connor.

Today's New York Times includes an intriguing piece entitled "In Search of Flannery O'Connor," offering an account of NYT writer Lawrence Downes' visit to O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. Visiting sites associated with O'Connor's life, Downes seeks to better understand a quiet Southern woman who died at 39 and in death won recognition as one of the greatest American Catholic writers of the 20th century. Here's how Downes explains O'Connor's appeal:

O'Connor's short stories and novels are set in a rural South where people know their places, mind their manners and do horrible things to one another. It's a place that somehow hovers outside of time, where both the New Deal and the New Testament feel like recent history. It's soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God. He may have fled the modern world, but in O'Connor's he sticks around, in the sun hanging over the tree line, in the trees and farm beasts, and in the characters who roost in the memory like gargoyles. It's a land haunted by Christ - not your friendly hug-me Jesus, but a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, pursuing the unwilling.

Many people - me for instance - are in turn haunted by O'Connor. Her doctrinally strict, mordantly funny stories and novels are as close to perfect as writing gets. Her language is so spare and efficient, her images and character's speech so vivid, they burn into the mind. Her strange Southern landscape was one I knew viscerally but, until this trip, had never set foot in. I had wondered how her fictional terrain and characters, so bizarre yet so blindingly real, might compare with the real places and people she lived among and wrote about.
I regret to say that I've never read anything by Flannery O'Connor, though I've been aware of her since I was in college and numerous people have recommended that I read her work. In my room I have two of O'Connor books (The Complete Stories and The Habit of Being, a collection of her letters) waiting to be read, and with their aid I hope soon to remedy a grave deficiency in my education. Reading Downes' account of his visit to Milledgeville also makes me want to see O'Connor's hometown for myself. God willing, perhaps I'll do that some day too. AMDG.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Notes on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a commemoration of the pilgrimage that Mary and Joseph made to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after the birth of Jesus to consecrate their child to God in accordance with Jewish custom (Lk 2:22-40). Celebrated at least as early as the fourth century, today's feast also honors Mary in that her visit to the Temple was an act of ritual purification following childbirth. For this reason, the Feast of the Presentation is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. A veritable feast of many names, this celebration is also known as Candlemas on account of the blessing of candles that often occurs today. In the Christian East, this feast is sometimes called that of the Meeting of the Lord, placing special emphasis on the encounter between Jesus and the devout elders Simeon and Anna, who recognized the month-old infant as the Messiah they had long hoped for.

Simeon and Anna are at the heart of today's feast, and in reflecting upon their encounter with Jesus we can place ourselves with him in the Temple. St. Ignatius asks us to do exactly this during the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, offering a contemplation on the Presentation with points devoted to both Simeon and Anna. When I made the Long Retreat as a novice, I recall that Simeon and Anna struck me as the kind of individuals you may encounter in any parish. In some sense, Simeon and Anna were extraordinary people - Luke tells us that Simeon was "righteous and devout, and the Holy Spirit was upon him," while Anna was recognized as a prophetess and furthermore "never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer." Reflecting on Luke's description of these two, I inevitably think of some of the older people I've encountered over the years in different parishes I've been a part of. The people I'm thinking of are strong in their faith yet hopeful of greater things to come, devoted to the Church and to the particular church communities they've chosen to be a part of. You've probably met men and women like Simeon and Anna - like their counterparts in the Gospel, they go to church every day to pray and to bear prophetic witness to Christ's presence in the world. On this Feast of the Presentation, may we thankful for all those who, like Simeon and Anna, offer us a good example of the joy with which we should greet the God who has so graciously come among us. AMDG.

"Chain migration" in Florida and elsewhere.

Just in time for Groundhog Day, today's New York Times marks the annual southward migration of Snowbirds with a report on the striking pattern of "chain migration" in Florida:

It's not exactly regimentation, and there are plenty of exceptions to be found, but Florida's winter arrivals clearly like to settle in clumps. Even in the sunny South, they seem to want to be among their own - occupying turf in the company of their clans, their neighbors, their golf buddies and, in general, people who share the cadences of their accents and the colors of their license plates.

That's why the Miami area is called the Sixth Borough - and why Palm Beach County voters lamenting the weaknesses of the butterfly ballot in 2000 so often sounded like Long Islanders.

It's why Memphis families returning from spring break will be walking around with white sand from the Panhandle town of Destin (not Fort Myers, certainly not Miami) between their toes.

It's the reason two newspapers in French, with a Québécois tilt, are published in the Fort Lauderdale-area city of Hollywood and a big Quebec bank, Caisse populaire Desjardins, has started three branches nearby, complete with French-flashing A.T.M.'s.

New Englanders settle around Sarasota, and Philadelphians camp out nearby in Clearwater. Minnesotans congregate on Sanibel Island; Ohioans on the Gulf Coast east of Panama City. Carolinians find their own in Daytona.

In the beginning, all of this segmentation was a function of the Interstates. From the Midwest, the most direct route to Florida, I-75, goes to the West Coast. From the Northeast, I-95 follows the East Coast straight down to Miami. From Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, it's a comfortable drive to the Panhandle.

Now, of course, you can board a flight to just about anywhere in Florida. But Northerners cling to the old patterns anyway.

"They're like birds," said John Tuccillo, an economist in Arlington, Va., who serves as a real estate consultant to businesses and government agencies. "They keep to their flyways." Demographers have a name for it: chain migration. "People who live near each other share information about where to retire, where to vacation," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administraton at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "They tell their friends and neighbors, and then they end up in the same place."

To read the rest, click here. The story mostly confirms my own ancedotal impressions of the patterns of seasonal migration to the Sunshine State. It also seems to me that the phenomenon of "chain migration" isn't particular to retirees and vacationing families who go to Florida every year to flee the cold but may be applied to migration in general. A couple years ago, while doing some research on my own family history, I was struck by a detail often recorded on the passenger manifests of ships arriving at Ellis Island. One column on the manifest was reserved for each passenger's intended destination in the United States. From this, I got the impression that people very often ended up where they did because other people they knew had gone there before - in the case of my ancestors and relatives, their intended destination often read something like "home of sister, New Bedford, Mass." or "staying with cousin, New Bedford, Mass." At the same time, people from particular towns in the old country tended to congregate in the same American cities. Looking at the places of origin given for passengers on those same Ellis Island manifests, I came to realize that not only my ancestors but a great number of the Polish-surnamed people in the area where I grew up had roots in a single village in Poland, a place called Niebieszczany. I've found evidence of similar patterns in other places I've lived, including here in the Belmont section of the Bronx, the Italian residents of which seem to have common roots in the area around Naples. You may or may not find this whole phenomenon as interesting as I do, but one way or another I submit it to your attention. AMDG.