Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Notes on the Memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.

Today is the Memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother who spent more than forty years as porter at the Colegio Nuestra Señora de Montesión on the Island of Mallorca. Though his formal duties consisted mainly in watching the door of the college and welcoming visitors, the wise and thoughtful Brother Rodriguez won a great reputation as a spiritual counselor whose advice was eagerly sought by other Jesuits, students at the college, and members of the general public. It is perhaps a fitting testament to the exemplary humility of this saint that I could not find a decent picture of him to illustrate this post. However, to continue what's become an annual tradition I'll complete this post by reprinting again the fine poem that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote on the occasion of St. Alphonsus' canonization in 1887:
In honour of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, laybrother of the Society of Jesus.

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic beast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hustle then from fiercest fray.

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alonso watched the door.

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, pray for us. AMDG.

Monday, October 29, 2007

"It doesn't get old."

So says Terry Francona, and he's right. I'm proud to be able to speak once again of "the world champion Boston Red Sox," even if this victory doesn't feel the same as the last one. The curse-ridden underdogs of yesteryear have become a force to be reckoned with. Transformations like this can be disorienting for fans like myself who used to wait for the Red Sox to win the World Series in the same kind of way that Simeon waited for the coming of the Messiah. Now that the Sox have won the World Series twice in the same decade, I wonder how the youngest citizens of Red Sox Nation - those whose conscious memory doesn't extend much earlier than 2004 - will look on the team in the future. With no memory of the eighty-six year drought, will the next generation know how lucky they truly are to live in times like these? Perhaps not - but they can at least be proud of their team. Go Sox, AMDG.

Friday, October 26, 2007

$1.00 (CDN) = $1.04 (US).

This morning, the Canadian dollar hit a thirty-three-year high in value against the U.S. dollar. As I wrote last month, I'm amazed and somewhat edified by the suddenly robust position of the loonie. I don't know enough about economics or monetary policy to articulate a well-informed opinion on whether the present phenomenon is a mere fluke or a sign that the Canadian dollar is on its way to becoming a strong currency like the euro or the British pound. I doubt that the loonie could ever become anything like the euro - I don't see how Canada could match the European Union economically - but I'm still fascinated by the current state of affairs. I hope that Canadian consumers take advantage and that American consumers take note. AMDG.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The comeback kings.

From today's Boston Herald:
It's probably safe to assume that there are more than a few lumps in the throats around the base of the Rocky Mountains today, considering how the Red Sox reacted to being backed into a corner by the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.

Down 3-1 in the best-of-seven format, the Sox reacted like vicious attack dogs, mauling the Indians by a combined score of 30-5 in the final three games, culminated by an 11-2 thumping last night that wrapped up the pennant and sent them back to the World Series for the second time in four years.

The Sox, who became the 11th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a postseason series, humiliated the Indians in every sense to earn the right to host the Colorado Rockies in Game 1 on Wednesday. The National League champs enter their first Fall Classic having won 21 or their last 22 games.

"When we had our backs to the wall, we didn't let our guards down and just take the beating," said Coco Crisp, whose dramatic catch against the wall in center field ended the clincher. "We fought back and fought back hard."
Read the rest here. I'm certainly not the first denizen of Red Sox Nation to express sentiments along these lines, but I think it's funny how I had to spend several years away from Massachusetts and enter the Jesuits in order to see the Sox become a winning team. Some might look at that as a mitigated, secular form of atonement (for what collective sin I'm not sure), but I don't want to encourage such speculations. Instead, I encourage you to take a look at what my sister has to say about being a Red Sox fan on the other side of the world. Go Sox, AMDG.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

One game away.

Now we're even. If the Sox win again again tomorrow, the Nation's loyal faithful will be able to start hoping for the chance to relive an event that once seemed like a harbinger of the Parousia. My skepticism regarding the signing of J.D. Drew may have been unwarranted after all. My prayer intentions for tomorrow should be no mystery. Go Sox, AMDG.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Notes on the Feast of the North American Martyrs.

Today the Church once again celebrates the Feast of the North American Martyrs, a group of seventeenth century Jesuits - Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Noel Chabanel, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier and Gabriel Lalemant - and two lay assistants - René Goupil and Jean de la Lande - who were part of the celebrated Huron Mission memorialized in the Jesuit Relations. Longtime readers of this blog and its predecessor may know that I have a great devotion to the North American Martyrs and that I chose one of them, Isaac Jogues, as my patron when I professed First Vows in the Society. My devotion to the Martyrs precedes my entrance into the Society, and today I've been pondering the mystery of my vocation and the role that Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and their Companions had in drawing me into the Jesuits.

The above photo depicts the grave of Saints Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant at Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons in Midland, Ontario. The home base for the Jesuits' Huron Mission, Sainte-Marie is where Brébeuf and Lalemant were interred after they were martyred in March 1649 at nearby Saint-Ignace. Not all of the two saints' remains were buried at Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons; Jesuits conscious that Brébeuf and Lalemant would likely be canonized saw fit to remove their companions' bones for future use as relics. While the bones of these two saints were sent to Europe, their flesh rested in the earth where they given their lives for the Gospel. Though the village of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons was destroyed the same year that Brébeuf and Lalemant died, archaeologists were able to find sufficient evidence of their remains three centuries later for the gravesite pictured above to be faithfully recreated together with the village chapel that surrounds it.

While the relics of Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant are faithfully preserved at the Martyrs' Shrine close to Sainte-Marie, when I visited Midland I felt a greater sense of the presence of these two saints when I prayed at the rustic grave with its dirt mound and single candle. That's not to say I didn't like the Martyrs' Shrine itself - on the contrary, the whole experience of being there was profoundly moving, and I hope to make it back there. For me, there's simply something special about being in a place that the saints would have recognized in their time on Earth. In much the same way, I felt a more vivid sense of Christ's earthly ministry when I walked through the valleys of rural Galilee than I did in the streets of modern Nazareth and Jerusalem - streets that have their fair share of enchanting sights, but which still aren't the same streets upon which Jesus would have trod.

As I recall my short visit to Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, I'll be praying for a greater awareness of how the Jesuits of the Huron Mission felt as they struggled to preach the Gospel amid hardships much greater than any I've faced. At the same time, I'll be praying in gratitude for the vocation that allows me to call men like Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues my brothers. AMDG.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Terror's Advocate.

This weekend I saw Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder's new documentary on Jacques Vergès (pictured above), a French lawyer who won fame in the 1950s by defending Algerian rebels and has since carved out a niche for himself as a counselor to the notorious. In Terror's Advocate, Schroeder deftly mixes interviews with Vergès and various associates, foes and former clients (including convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who speaks by phone from prison) with archival footage and investigative reporting in an effort to understand how an attorney who started his career as an ideologically-driven anti-colonialist became a defender of Nazi war criminals and former dictators and an apologist for the Khmer Rouge.

As a number of critics have observed, Terror's Advocate has some things in common with two of Schroeder's earlier films - the 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada and 1990's Reversal of Fortune. As was the case in General Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder made Terror's Advocate with the cooperation of a subject who seems blithely unaware of how badly he comes across on film despite his personal charm and apparent sense of humor. As presented by Schroeder, Vergès has something in common with two of the principal protagonists in Reversal of Fortune. Like Claus von Bülow, the socialite accused of attempting to kill his wife with an overdose of insulin, Vergès appears to knows more than he's willing to say. Like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who masterminded von Bülow's successful appeal of his conviction for attempted murder, Vergès comes across as a lawyer who has allowed a commitment to an abstract principle to bring him into league with an assortment of disreputable characters. On another level, there's also a plausible parallel between Schroeder's depiction of Vergès and the portrait of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Errol Morris' The Fog of War. Like McNamara, Vergès is an elderly man who offers some frank admissions about his life in the public eye while indicating that there are clear limits to what he is willing to reveal about himself.

Pitched by its director as a sort of history of global terrorism, Terror's Advocate is really a character study of a man who evidently evolved from a youthful idealist to a cynical opportunist without voicing any apparent regrets. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a father from the French overseas territory of Réunion, Jacques Vergès volunteered for the Free French Forces as a seventeen-year-old because he believed that "France was Montaigne, Diderot, the Revolution, and it was intolerable to me that that could disappear." Later on, Vergès claims, this same vision of France - combined with a lifelong hatred of colonialism - led him to take on the case of Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian independence fighter whose 1957 terrorism trial became a cause célèbre and brought fame to Vergès as well as Bouhired. The way Vergès talks about this and other cases suggests that he was motivated as much by a thirst for adventure and romance as by his political convictions; it's no coincidence that Bouhired later became Vergès' wife, or that the lawyer tried to woo a later client, convicted terrorist Magdalena Kopp, by bringing her gifts during her incarceration. (Kopp appreciated Vergès' attention enough to knit him a sweater behind bars, but after her release she rebuffed him and took up with Carlos the Jackal.)

In the end, Jacques Vergès' attraction to dangerous people seems to have guided his actions and choices much more consistently than any sense of political commitment. Over time, Vergès' clients shifted from Algerian rebels and Palestinian hijackers to a motley group of Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, mercenaries and various others whose belief in the values of "Montaigne, Diderot, [and] the Revolution" seems extraordinarily unlikely. Interviewed by Schroeder, Vergès clearly delights in the excitement of it all and appears oblivious to his own bad reputation. He refuses to respond to allegations that he may have been a little too friendly with some of his more infamous clients (like Carlos the Jackal and Pol Pot, both of whom speak of Vergès as a longtime friend in interviews for Terror's Advocate). At the end of the day, Vergès claims to uphold the responsibilities of a conscientious attorney: he emphasizes his duty of zealous advocacy and he calls attention to the sacrosanct quality of attorney-client privilege..

Terror's Advocate is a disturbing, harrowing and ultimately very powerful film. On one level, it raises hard questions about the role that attorneys play in societies governed by law. On a much deeper level, though, it considers the complex blend of motives that lead men like Jacques Vergès to act as they do. Ultimately, Terror's Advocate suggests that the line between courage and cowardice isn't always as clear as we might wish. AMDG.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Madama Butterfly.

Last night I went to see the Anthony Minghella production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met was one of the great discoveries of my first year at Ciszek; though I've always enjoyed classical music, I wasn't much of an opera fan before I came to New York. That started to change last year as I had the opportunity to attend several performances of the Metropolitan Opera thanks to a group of subscribers at Fordham who had season tickets they couldn't always use. As it happened, the first opera I saw at the Met was Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a six-hour epic that "has shining moments and interminable half-hours," as one Jesuit opera aficionado (and admitted Wagner buff) aptly put it. Having survived Wagner, I took in performances of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare and Richard Strauss' seldom-performed Die Ägyptische Helena. The Met production I really wanted to see last year and missed was Madama Butterfly, so I was happy to have a chance to see it this season.

In my admittedly limited experience, I've noticed a healthy tension between tradition and innovation in the Metropolitan Opera's programming. At the risk of making a sweeping (and perhaps unjustified) generalization, my sense is that the Met's most loyal subscribers are relatively conservative in their artistic tastes. They seem to have a strong preference for lavish productions with elaborate sets, period costumes and swarms of extras, and they'll pay to see the same production season after season as long as it suits their tastes. At the same time, Met loyalists appear to be somewhat suspicious of innovation, liking decidedly traditional (and admittedly very lovely) interpretations of their favorite operas more than new and sometimes shockingly different productions. That's not to say there isn't a market for innovation for the Met, because every season features several new productions. To their credit, the old-line subscribers seem willing to give new productions a try, but they reserve the right to grumble about them afterward. Each Met season offers a carefully blended mix of new and old, balancing new (or newish) productions with the old favorites that are guaranteed to please the most loyal subscribers.

The Anthony Minghella production of Madama Butterfly fits the bill for innovation at the Met, and as a result it has its share of detractors. Criticisms of the production tend to focus on the fairly minimal sets (not much more than Japanese screens) and Minghella's decision to use a bunraku-style puppet to represent Cio-Cio-San's three-year-old son rather than a real child. I liked the sets and didn't mind the puppet, though I'll admit that since this was my first time seeing Butterfly on stage I don't have the same perspective a seasoned fan might. Soprano Patricia Racette did a fine job as Cio-Cio-San and tenor Roberto Alagna offered a nicely nuanced performance as B. F. Pinkerton, who might otherwise have come across as a cardboard cad. On the whole, I enjoyed Minghella's Butterfly enough that I would very happily see it again.

The cultural, racial and sexual politics of Madama Butterfly have attracted much comment in recent years, and I don't wish to add to the debate. From my perspective, the great tragedy of Madama Butterfly comes from the heartbreaking devotion of Cio-Cio-San and the striking naïveté of Pinkerton. The fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio-San is probably at least somewhat aware of the conventions that govern "temporary" marriages like the one she enters into with Pinkerton, but her love for the American sailor is so strong that she believes that he will remain as loyal to her as she is to him.

Pinkerton, who knows how the "temporary" marriage game is played, is at least superficially captivated by Cio-Cio-San. However, Pinkerton fails to perceive that his young bride's professions of love are much deeper than his. The angst that Pinkerton reveals when he returns to Nagasaki with his American wife and learns of Cio-Cio-San's genuine feelings suggests to me that the American sailor was ultimately just as heartbroken as the Japanese geisha that he unknowingly betrayed. Pinkerton may not be bound by the traditions that lead Cio-Cio-San to commit suicide, but the son he brings back to the United States offers a permanent reminder of his sin. I'm sure some would disagree, but I think Rivers Cuomo got Pinkerton right. AMDG.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A rainy Thursday in the Bronx.

It's raining heavily outside, which makes it glad that this is a day of the week when I normally stay inside. I don't have class on Thursday this semester (or on Friday, for that matter), which makes this a good day to catch up on tasks I tend to neglect during the rest of the week. This includes blogging, though I have a couple of good excuses for not having posted anything since Wednesday of last week.

The first excuse is that I was up in Massachusetts this weekend to attend a diaconal ordination at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and to visit my parents and my brother. The nine Jesuit ordinands included three men from my province - Bill Murphy, Peter Nguyen and Andrew Wawrzyn - and the blogosphere's own Mark Mossa. I enjoyed seeing my family, even if only briefly, but I noticed that the house is a lot quieter now that my sister is in Ireland. On the whole, I had a very enjoyable weekend, but I got virtually nothing done in the way of homework.

This leads to my second excuse for not blogging, which is the mountain of reading and writing that I've had to do for various classes over the past several days. Tuesdays and Wednesdays this semester are stressful even under the best of circumstances, as three of the four classes I'm taking meet within twenty-four hours. Though I enjoy having Thursdays and Fridays off, there are times when I wish my classes were more evenly spread out - particularly on Wednesdays, when I'm invariably fighting the clock to finish a written summary of the week's reading for my Church History class. This week was even busier than normal, as the reading I would normally do over the weekend had to be done on Monday and Tuesday. Finding myself thoroughly burned out Wednesday night, I made an effort to recuperate by lying down and listening to Pergolesi. By this morning, I'd recovered enough that I could look at my next assignments.

On a more important note, the situation in Myanmar remains quite grave. Despite the efforts of the Burmese junta to keep a continuing crackdown on dissidents under wraps, the reality of what is happening is still being reported by the world media. Press reports today detail the mistreatment of imprisoned monks and the torture and killing of pro-democracy activists by the Burmese military. Please continue to pray for the people of Myanmar and, while you're at it, contact your elected representatives and urge them to do something about the situation. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Jesuit marathon runner beats the odds.

This past weekend I had a visit from my Mom and Dad as well as my Aunt Frances and Uncle Stanely. As they did on their last visit to Ciszek, I think my parents got a positive impression of this part of the Bronx, and my aunt and uncle seemed to like it as well. On Saturday we went to The Cloisters, which was another big hit. It's always good to see one's customary surroundings through the eyes of others, and these family visits tend to give me a greater appreciation of my neighborhood than I may manifest on a day-to-day basis. Beyond that, it's always great to see my family, and I deeply appreciated the visit.

On another note, I received a message today from a Jesuit friend in the Wisconsin Province about an inspiring article that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune just ran on Father Philip Shano, a Jesuit of the English Canada Province who serves as master of novices at the tri-province Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2004, Father Shano underwent surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor from his brain. Side effects of the surgery left Shano partially deaf and forced him to relearn how to walk and to talk. Overcoming his own frustration and his doctor's skepticism, Shano also managed to return to an avocation he loved: running. Here is some of what the Star-Tribune has to say about this remarkable Jesuit:
There was one time -- only one -- when Philip Shano let the frustration come through. Shano, a Jesuit priest, was still in Toronto, recovering from surgery that had taken much of his mobility and his hearing. He was outside one day, moving slowly down a path with his walker when it happened.

"I pushed the walker away and yelled, 'Why me, God, why me?'" Shano said. "The walker fell and I fell. I eventually got up after some trying. What I thoroughly realized at that point is that God only allows things to happen if he wants to use it. It was a sense of 'My life is not over, but it's changed.'"

And so on Sunday, Shano, 51, once told by his surgeon he would never run again, will run in his second consecutive Twin Cities Marathon.

. . .

"In retrospect, [the doctor] knew I'm stubborn," said Shano, who had been a recreational runner before the surgery. "He knew I would turn around and go out and try my best to start running. So I eventually stopped using the walker and started running on my own. the I used a treadmill. Then I started moving better and eventually..."

He was transferred to St. Paul in 2005. The Novitiate is right on the marathon course and that fall he and a novice were watching the race when the young man suggested Shano try it the following year.

"For a second it was, 'Well, look at me,'" Shano said.

Then he took a second look. Already the surgery and his recovery had given Shano another view of his own faith and his personal priorities. During his recovery he had been inspired by Lance Armstrong's story of recovery from cancer. Why couldn't Shano be an inspiration as well?

"As one friend had told me, my life had been changed, not ruined," Shano said. "I took that to heart. I thought, 'Well, I need to keep challenging myself,' so when that young man suggested I run the marathon, I thought, why not? . . . I can show that there is hope. As I always say, if I can do it, anybody can."
For the rest of the story, click here. I've met Philip Shano a couple of times since I entered the Society, once when I was a novice and once here at Ciszek. I've admired the determination with which he has responded to and largely overcome physical challenges, and I admire him even more now. I post the Star-Tribune article here in the hopes that readers of this blog may be as inspired by Shano's story as I have been. AMDG.