Friday, March 30, 2007

Congratulations, Liz!

I just received word that my sister Elizabeth has been accepted to study English next year at Trinity College, Dublin. Liz is very excited about going, and for my part I'm very proud of her. I hope that in the midst of her studies she'll have a chance to visit the final resting place of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (I want pictures, Boo) and to get to know James Joyce's Dublin. Anyhow, I'm sure the readers of this blog will join me in congratulating Liz and wishing her the very best as she prepares to head to Trinity in the fall. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rowan Williams on Flannery O'Connor.

"Rowan Williams" and "Flannery O'Connor" are two names I never expected to write in the same sentence. Nonetheless, I wasn't entirely surprised to discover that the present Archbishop of Canterbury once gave a lecture on O'Connor's work. A published poet as well as a theologian, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion is well-versed in the Catholic spiritual and theological tradition and has done a fair amount of reflection on the relationship between art and faith. Thus, the idea of Rowan Williams writing about Flannery O'Connor isn't nearly as random as, say, the Patriarch of Moscow writing about Walker Percy.

Rowan Williams lectured on Flannery O'Connor in February 2005 as part of the Clark Lectures given annually at Trinity College, Cambridge. Williams' Clark Lectures were later published in the book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In his lecture on O'Connor, the Archbishop examines how his subject's reading of Jacques Maritain influenced her work and, in a broader way, how her writing was shaped by an intensely Catholic worldview. To provide a small sample, here's what Williams says about O'Connor's perception of her particular role as a Catholic writer of fiction:
So: the fiction writer is out to 'do justice' to the world, in a phrase of Conrad's which O'Connor obviously liked . . . but to believe nothing is to see nothing, and every artist, like it or not, works within a framework of assumptions about humanity and its world. The visible appearances that are the indispensable building blocks of the writer's work are already organised in this way or that; and the claim of Catholic doctrine is that it offers the most comprehensive, least selective way of reading the world that could be imagined because it identifies the real finally with the good . . . in the strongest possible sense - the sense for which the good must be the lovable, or perhaps is good because it is loved. Doing justice to the visible world is reflecting the love of God for it, the fact that this world is worth dying for in God's eyes. The tightrope that the Catholic writer must walk is to forget or ignore nothing of the visually, morally, humanly sordid world, making nothing easy for the reader, while doing so in the name of a radical conviction that depends on the world being interrupted and transfigured by revelation. The event that disrupts and questions and changes the world is precisely what obliges the artist not to try and recreate it from scratch. Irony is going to be unavoidable in the exercise.

It is not a word we have encountered much so far in this discussion. For O'Connor, the artist takes the risk of uncovering the world within the world of visible things as a way of 'doing justice,' confident because of her commitment that what is uncovered will be the 'reason' in things, a consonance that is well beyond any felt harmony or system of explanation but is simply a coherence and connectedness always more than can be seen or expressed. Because of this trust, she can push towards the limits of what is thinkable and 'acceptable,' let alone edifying. She is always taking for granted that God is possible even in the most grotesque and empty or cruel situations; she pursues the unacceptable in the ironic faith that the pursuit will vindicate God, at least to the extent that God is intrinsic to whatever is uncovered in the work of writing. . . .
If you'd like to read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Praying for patience.

For a while, I've been meaning to write something about the French Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I've yet to find sufficient time and inspiration to craft the Teilhard mega-post that I'd like to see on this blog. For now, here are some words from Teilhard that have often spoken to me and may speak to you as well, either in Lent or at any other time of the year:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability -
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually - let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Often presented as a prayer, these words come from a letter Teilhard wrote to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon (note the subtly different spelling of the surname) while he was serving as a stretcher-bearer in the French Army during World War I. From this and other letters Teilhard wrote during the war years, we know that he and Marguerite corresponded frequently. Marguerite's letters to Teilhard have been lost, but from Teilhard's replies we can surmise that Marguerite often sought her cousin's advice on questions of faith and vocation. A young teacher and a writer, Marguerite was impatient to know how she could best serve God with the desires and gifts that she possessed. I believe I can identify with Marguerite in my own impatience, so I find that Teilhard's words speak to me as well.

For me, one of the most challenging things about being a Jesuit in formation is having the sense of always being in motion without quite knowing where I am going. To put it more concretely, the challenge comes in not being able to answer for myself what I will be doing in the future. As Teilhard writes, I often want "to reach the end without delay" and to have a clear sense of where I will be two, ten or twenty years from now, skipping the "intermediate stages" of discernment, dialogue and plain old waiting that are a characteristic part of Jesuit life - or, in a slightly different way, of life as a student or simply life in general. Thus, I find myself praying for patience - not simply in the sense of being content with "being on the way" to an unknown destination, but also in the sense of being thankful for the gift of my present circumstances without losing a sense of wonder in anticipating what is to come. As I pray for this sense of patience, I find consolation in Teilhard's counsel: "Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete." AMDG.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Flannery O'Connor and the Society of Jesus.

If you're anything like me, you've probably had an experience like the one I'm about to describe. You start by embarking on what you optimistically describe as a "working vacation," bringing along essential reading and paperwork in the hope that you'll find the time to attend to academic or professional obligations while still managing to relax and enjoy a break from your normal routine. Projects like the "working vacation" are seldom a complete success, the constituent elements of "work" and "vacation" being an uneasy mix even under the best of circumstances. At the end of your vacation, you realize that though you've had a lot of fun you haven't made much of a dent in the pile of books and papers you brought along with you. As a result, the days following your vacation are devoted to catching up on all the work you intended to do during your vacation - often racing against the clock, for you probably wouldn't have planned on a "working vacation" in the first place if you didn't have a cluster of deadlines or due dates awaiting you on your return to work or school. Sound familiar?

My week at Georgetown was enjoyable in all respects, but my inability to get much work done while I was there left me with a lot to do this week. Now that I'm at last coming out of the tunnel, I'm free to devote some time to this blog. One item that seems worthy of immediate attention is an update on the state of my Lenten reading. I'm still reading the daily meditations contained in Thomas Hopko's The Lenten Spring, and I'm deep into Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories. As is often the case with collections of short stories, some of the stories in the O'Connor volume are far more stimulating than others. The justly-celebrated "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is my favorite so far, with "The Displaced Person," "Good Country People" and "A View of the Woods" as runners up. One of the stories in the collection, "The Enduring Chill," contains a surprising - if amusing - reference to the Society of Jesus.

"The Enduring Chill" tells the story of Asbury Porter Fox, a young man who returns to his hometown in the South after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living as a writer in New York. Suffering from a mysterious and possibly terminal illness, Asbury finds himself deeply unhappy both with his own failures and with the parochial surroundings in which he is to spend what he believes to be his last days. After rejecting a suggestion from his mother that he accept a visit from a local Methodist minister, Asbury offers another proposal:
For a time [after Asbury rejected a visit from the minister] they sat there in silence. Then his mother looked up. He was sitting forward again and smiling at her. His face was brightening more and more as if he had just had an idea that was brilliant. She stared at him. "I'll tell you who I want to come," he said. For the first time since he had come home, his expression was pleasant; though there was also, she thought, a kind of crafty look about him.

"Who do you want to come?" she asked suspiciously.

"I want a priest," he announced.

"A priest?" his mother said in an uncomprehending voice.

"Preferably a Jesuit," he said, brightening more and more. "Yes, by all means a Jesuit. They have them in the city. You can call up and get me one."

"What is the matter with you?" his mother asked.
At this point, I should probably offer a little more context. Earlier in the story, Asbury recollects a meeting he had with a particular Jesuit he had met in New York, Ignatius Vogle, S.J. Asbury had encountered Father Vogle at a public meeting on Buddhism and had been impressed by the priest's polite but confident assertion of Christian doctrine in the face of dismissive questions and comments by other meeting attendees. On his putative death bed, Asbury recalls his meeting with Father Vogle and thinks about how "the priest appealed to him as a man of the world, someone who would have understood the unique tragedy of his death, a death whose meaning had been far beyond the twittering group around them." To explain to his incredulous mother why he wants a visit from a Jesuit, Asbury offers the following:
"Most of them are very well-educated," he said, "but the Jesuits are foolproof. A Jesuit would be able to discuss something besides the weather." Already, remembering Ignatius Vogle, S.J., he could picture the priest. This one would be a trifle more worldly perhaps, a trifle more cynical. Protected by their ancient institution, priests could afford to be cynical, to play both ends against the middle. He would talk to a man of culture before he died - even in this desert! Furthermore, nothing would irritate his mother so much. He could not understand why he had not thought of this sooner.
Eventually, Asbury's mother sends for a priest, who - to Asbury's dismay - turns out to be an elderly, half-deaf and one-eyed moralist rather than an urbane sophisticate. Asbury's - and perhaps O'Connor's - view of the Jesuits mirrors a particular perception of the Society of Jesus commonly held by many of our friends as well as our foes. The worldly, cynical, cultured Jesuit is a stock figure in Catholic fiction, a caricature with some basis in fact that nonetheless represents only a small part of the broad spectrum that makes up the Society of Jesus. The underlying truth in O'Connor's "Jesuit" vignette goes beyond the perception that Jesuits are "able to discuss something besides the weather," as I hope to explain below.

From our earliest days, Jesuits have ministered to people on the margins - not simply those on the margins of society, but those on the margins of faith. In the era of the Counter-Reformation, this ministry bore great fruit in the writing of apologetic and catechetical literature and in often clandestine ministry to persecuted Catholics. Throughout the Society's history, the Jesuit commitment to serving those on the margins of faith has also extended to Eastern Catholics, who have often been maligned both by other Eastern Christians (who denounced their allegiance to Rome) and by Roman Catholics (who frequently failed to respect their Eastern traditions). Our ministry to the margins of faith has also included efforts to reconcile science and religious belief and to narrow the gap between faith and modern culture. On an individual level, it's also included ministry to people like the fictional Asbury Porter Fox, seekers whose struggle to believe has led them to seek spiritual counsel from members of the Society. Like Asbury, some of these seekers may come with less-than-laudable motives. However, by the workings of grace many such people have unwittingly found their ways to God. Oftentimes, God has gotten through to the Asbury Porter Foxes of the world through the improbable instrument of this or that Jesuit. As Jesuits, we are often the instruments by which God and those who unwittingly seek Him are brought together. For this great gift, and for the many ways in which God works in each of our lives, I give thanks on this Lenten Friday. AMDG.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Charles Taylor the Montrealer.

I'm taking a very brief break from a wonderful week at Georgetown to comment on an item you may have seen in this morning's paper (or, alternatively, that you may have learned about from Matt's blog). The Templeton Prize, a $1.5 million award given annually to an individual who has aided "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities," has been bestowed upon Montreal-born philosopher Charles Taylor, a longtime professor at McGill who now teaches at Northwestern. This well-deserved award offers an opportunity to reflect on how its recipient's thought was shaped by the bilingual and bicultural realities of the city, province and country in which he was born and raised. As Peggy Curran writes in today's Montreal Gazette:
Imagine Canada as a laboratory, an incubator where many of the issues troubling today's multi-ethnic, culturally diverse, western communities had a dry run.

The earliest experiment was Quebec, a place where two linguistic groups and assorted religious denominations have spent the past 400 years hammering out a sometimes uneasy peace.

Fifty years ago, Quebec launched the Quiet Revolution, a startlingly swift transformation into a modern, dynamic, self-confident society during which it would shuck off much of its Roman Catholic baggage without a backward glance to become one of the most secular societies in the Western world.

Philosopher Charles Taylor says there's no mystery to the topics that have occupied his mind and dominated his academic research for more than half a century. It's right there in his biography, in the tug-of-war between Quebec and the rest of the Canadian mosaic, and in Montreal, the bicultural city he still calls home.

"There's no question, almost everything I have done has been shaped by where I come from," Taylor, 75, said in an interview from New York, hours after winning the world's largest monetary prize for a lifetime spent trying to reconcile the secular and the spiritual realms.

His anglophone father, Walter, was a partner in a steel factory. His mother, Simone Beaubien, was a dress designer and a French-speaking Catholic. Taylor grew up immersed in two languages and two cultures - his sister is the journalist (and former McGill University chancellor) Gretta Chambers. Talk at the dinner table was of politics and Quebec's place in the Canadian puzzle.

At McGill, Taylor studied history, but was fascinated by theology, particularly by the authors of writings that inspired the church's overhaul in the Second Vatican Council.

In 1952, at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, he studied philosophy, but was troubled by the "unstructured hostility" toward religious belief. It was there he began to challenge the virulent secularism that he felt pervaded the social sciences.

Back home in Quebec, the gangly, soft-spoken Taylor - now married with five daughters - tested the political waters. He ran unsuccessfully for the New Democratic Party four times, once against the young Pierre Trudeau in 1965, before settling down at McGill.

There, he delved deeper into the concepts that still preoccupy him - our sense of identity, the struggle to balance individual and collective rights, and understanding when the needs of groups within a society require protection. Taylor endorsed the notion of Quebec as a distinct society, and believes citizens should have a more active role in how democracies run.
Read the rest here. While you're at it, read the Gazette's other articles on Taylor's life and influence and on his new award. AMDG.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Though spring break doesn't begin until tomorrow, I spent most of last week away from Fordham - in Montreal, to be precise. The trip fell into a category that a former law professor of mine described, in response to a question about whether a particular trip was made for business or pleasure, as "pleasurable business." My explicit purpose in going to Montreal was to help out another Jesuit who had to go there on official business. My companion had never been to Montreal and doesn't speak French, so I went along to assist both as one who knows the city and speaks the language. Montreal is one of my favorite places in the world, so I was very happy to have a reason to return there for the first time since I entered the Society.

This trip also provided my first experience to get to know some of the Jesuits who live and work in Montreal. On previous visits to the city, I would sometimes attend Mass at the Gesu downtown, but I never got to know any of the Jesuits who work there. On this visit, I stayed at the provincial residence of the Jesuit Province of French Canada and got to know some of the men who live there - a diverse group that includes artists, scholars, hospital and prison chaplains and retirees. I also had a chance to meet some Jesuits from the anglophone Upper Canada Province who live and work in Montreal. Among these was Jesuit film scholar Marc Gervais, whose cameo role in my vocation story I have written about before. We spent a long while talking about Ingmar Bergman, film in general, and the Society's creative engagement with modern culture. Finally meeting Marc Gervais was a treat, but so was being back in Montreal and getting to know some of the Jesuits who contribute to the life of the city.

With my real spring break imminent, I'll be spending this coming week in Washington. I'll be returning to familiar haunts in Georgetown and catching up with old friends, some of whom I have not seen since I entered the Society. I'll be back in New York - and back to blogging - on March 19th, my name day. AMDG.

Palestinian Christians in the NYT.

Today's New York Times considers the position of Palestine's shrinking Christian population a year after Hamas assumed control over the government of the Palestinian Authority:

Jack Massis, 51, a grocer here in [Taybeh, the] last entirely Christian village in the West Bank, speaks matter-of-factly about how two of his teenage sons were beaten with clubs last month.

They had argued with members of a Muslim family that had moved three years ago to the edge of Taybeh, a picturesque village in the hills near Ramallah with a dwindling population of 1,300. Mr. Massis' sons had used a road that ran along the newcomers' property, which the newcomers insisted was private. The sons spent the night in the hospital, and five members of the Muslim family spent a few days in jail.

In the year since Hamas came to power, some of the fears of a newly Islamist cast to Palestinian society are being borne out. Christians have begun quietly complaining that local disagreements quickly take on a sectarian flavor. And reports of beatings and property damage by Muslims have grown.

. . .

But few point directly at Hamas, looking instead to the overall stresses on Palestinian society and its increasing thuggishness. As Mr. Massis said of his sons' beatings, "There are such problems every day."

While it is hard to gauge what role intimidation and nationalist sensibilities play, there is widespread denial of any official persecution. Some prominent Christians praise the Hamas leadership for allowing the Christian community its religious freedom and conducting itself in a more honorable fashion than the previous government did.

. . .

To explain their troubles, many Palestinians point to the economic hardship and unemployment caused by the cutoff of outside aid and Israeli security measures that bar most Palestinians from working inside Israel; the disruptions from internal Palestinian instability and lawlessness; and in some cases, corrupt elements connected with the secular Fatah party that dominated the Palestinian Authority for the decade before 2006.

Other factors make the Christians particularly vulnerable. In the Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, their numbers are now down to 55,000 or 60,000, or 1.7 percent of the Palestinian population. Those who remain must struggle to preserve their weakened communities and lands from encroachment by stronger parties. And Christians lack the protection other Palestinians claim from large clans or their own militias.

The Christians' problems are writ large in Bethlehem, where most Palestinian Christians live. Fifty years ago, its population was 90 percent Christian; that has fallen, because of emigration and relatively low birth rates, to just 35 percent.
Read the rest here. AMDG.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Et moi, je me suis laissé séduire.

On Saturday night, I joined several of my cohorts from Ciszek Hall at a sold-out showing of Into Great Silence at the Film Forum in Manhattan. The first thing I have to say about this film is that I loved it and that I would happily see it again. As I noted in my last post, Into Great Silence was produced under unusual conditions. After having waited over a decade to receive permission to film within the cloister of the Grand Chartreuse, director Philip Gröning was given unprecedented access to one of the most austere Catholic monasteries in the world. For six months, Gröning became an unobstrusive fly on the wall in the cells and corridors of the Grand Chartreuse, filming the monks at prayer, during meals, on walks and in the midst of activities both ordinary (such as chores around the house) and exceptional (like the reception of two new novices). Gröning's privileged access to the intimate details of the monks' lives came with a price: he was not permitted to interview the monks (though one offers some valuable spiritual reflections on camera) and he could not give the film any narration or a soundtrack beyond the sounds he captured within the monastery. To say that Gröning made the most of these restrictions would be an understatement. Into Great Silence is a truly extraordinary film, unlike any I've ever seen.

Into Great Silence doesn't merely show us what life at the Grand Chartreuse is like - it gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a Carthusian feels like. The film's lack of dialogue and unconventional structure draw the viewer's attention to details that one would likely miss if one were distracted by speech and focused on following the 'story' to its expected conclusion. Into Great Silence reveals a way of life that unfolds according to timeless rhythms, a life in which monks live in harmony with the seasons and dress, pray and work much as their predecessors did in the Middle Ages. At the same time, telling vignettes remind the viewer that the Carthusians aren't as disconnected from the modern world as one may be tempted to think. At one point, Gröning observes a monk (the prior, I presume) working on a laptop at a desk cluttered with bills that must be paid and letters that need to be answered. In another scene, Gröning listens in on the conversation that goes on during the monks' weekly recreation period (despite common conceptions about a "vow of silence," monks can and do talk to one another, though reticence is generally encouraged). The monks of the Grand Chartreuse compare certain aspects of their practice with that of some other Carthusian houses. Conversation soon turns to one monk's impending trip to South Korea, which shows that these Carthusians not only can travel but can go very far from the monastery when circumstances warrant it. I applaud Gröning for including scenes like this in his film, for the sense of surprise they can evoke offers a salutary reminder that Carthusian life doesn't always conform to somewhat romanticized external perceptions of how monks do or should live. There's more I could say about this terrific film, but I'll stop there. I hope that you'll take the opportunity to see it yourself if it should appear in your area. AMDG.