Friday, December 28, 2007

Off to Cincinnati.

This is necessarily a very brief update, as I'm preparing to leave early tomorrow to attend the annual "kiddie conference" of Jesuits in formation in the Chicago and Detroit Provinces. Held every year around this time, the bi-province formation gathering is most frequently held at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House near Chicago or Manresa Jesuit Retreat House outside Detroit. This year, we'll be varying our usual routine by meeting at the Jesuit Spiritual Center at Milford, in the suburbs of Cincinnati. This is only my fourth visit to Cincinnati; my three previous trips to the Queen City were for various other Jesuit events. I probably won't have much time to explore the city on this trip, which is too bad as there are some attractions - notably the Taft Museum - that I'd like to see. I suppose there's always next time.

I've been having a restful and enjoyable time at home with my family, and I had a very happy Christmas. Over the last couple days I've been paying a great deal of attention to the news from Pakistan. No matter what Pakistani officials may say, the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto remain highly suspicious. A politician with powerful enemies as well as a considerable popular following, Ms. Bhutto knew that she was placing her life at risk when she returned from exile a little more than two months ago to contest parliamentary elections planned for early 2008. Tragic in itself, Bhutto's death has also unleashed further chaos in an already-unstable country. In this time of great anger, sadness, and political uncertainty, I hope that the readers of this blog will join me in praying for the people of Pakistan. At a time when hopes for a better future seem to have been destroyed by violence, I pray that a spirit of peace, prudence and wisdom may somehow prevail. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A new and wondrous mystery.

Just a few minutes ago, I returned home from attending Midnight Mass at the church where I was baptized. Before I head to bed, I wanted to share with the readers of this blog my prayerful best wishes for this Feast of the Nativity. As I did last year, I would also like to share with you a portion of the Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! AMDG.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd.

At the start of Advent, I posted a poem on this blog by Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Southwell. For Christmas Eve, I thought it would be appropriate to post another poem by Southwell, entitled "The Nativity of Christ":

Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter'd was by sin from man to beast;
Beast's food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!

May the peace and blessings of this holy night be with all who read these lines. Merry Christmas! AMDG.

The Rockettes and American culture.

On this Christmas Eve, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland has some thoughts on the cultural significance of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Holland starts out by bemoaning the uncertainty of American musical identity: "Is American music Aaron Copland with wide-open spaces and Farmer Brown singing the pentatonic scale? Is it grouchy old Charles Ives tinkering with the vernacular?" Then he gets to the heart of the matter, and finds a way to tie in the Rockettes:
Musical identity comes hard to immigrant nations. Israel has produced wonderful musicians but no composition of real interest that I know of. America has had more time to make its list but still can't decide. Remember that Copland's "Billy the Kid" is a Wild West celebration by a Russian Jew from Brooklyn.

I took heart, however, and may have seen the light at Radio City Music Hall. The annual Christmas show was in full swing, filling the vast, opulent and optimistic hall with singing, dancing, spectacular sets, a 3-D film sequence to knock your socks off and, of course, the Rockettes.

. . .

The Christmas show is splendid machinery that works; Detroit, take note. On its elevating orchestra pit Gary Adler and his players perform in high style. The night I was there the hungry were not fed, nor was peace restored to sub-Saharan Africa. But good work to no practical end has its own psychic value.

"The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular" might bring a sneer to the world-weary, but also an unspoken sense of wonder that so many people could be making so many other people happy. It's not the real world, you might say, but what we want to see, as opposed to what the newspapers tell us, has its own reality. Poverty, violence and political stupidity are facts, but they do not diminish the joy of the "Washington Post March" and John Philip Sousa marching down our street.

Sousa and Radio City are the best of us - the America we want to live in and occasionally do. Who is to say that simple gladness is less important than profound misery? Imitation Wagner, at any rate, gets America nowhere. Maybe the Christmas show's dancing Santas are America's answer to "Tristan und Isolde." Do you think I'm joking? Well, you will never know.
I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with my parents when they were visiting New York over Thanksgiving. Radio City doesn't claim to be the Metropolitan Opera, but it does deliver a good-natured, heartwarming and technically flawless Christmas pageant. Radio City also acknowledges the true meaning of Christmas with a reverent recreation of what the program calls the "Living Nativity" (which includes live animals as well as human actors). The Christmas Spectacular may not be high culture, but it is an exemplary piece of Americana and, by the standards of a young country, a venerable Christmas tradition. AMDG.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ohio parish celebrates 'Blue Christmas.'

Today's issue of National Catholic Reporter has a brief piece on a worthwhile pastoral initiative being offered by a parish in Ohio:
For many people, Christmastime is a festive, frenzied blur of shopping, baking and merrymaking. But for just as many others, the holiday season can be a lonely, empty time, a time when loss, grief and loneliness come into sharp relief.

To help those who struggle during the Christmas season, one parish has designated a special liturgy that the lonely and the grieving can call their own.

Though it shares a name with an Elvis Presley song, the "Blue Christmas" Mass at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus has nothing to do with the King. It does, however, have everything to do with welcoming and offering healing to those who feel blue during the holiday season.

"It's a Christmas Eve Mass we do that is really for people who have a hard time with the holidays," said Paulist Fr. Larry Rice, director of the Newman Center at Ohio State University.

. . .

For the most part, "Blue Christmas" is indistinguishable from a traditional Christmas Eve Mass, but Rice said he has made some important adjustments to establish a different tone.

"There's a very clear and explicit welcome at the start that acknowledges there are people who struggle with the holidays," he said. "It's very low-key. We invite people to bring whatever they are struggling with."

Rather than including hymns that are joyful and triumphant and meant to be sung with full heart and voice, musicians select a repertoire that's quiet, reflective and primarily instrumental.

"Creating a peaceful atmosphere for folks is really important," Rice said.

The evening's preaching takes on a different tone as well, he said, "The homily is directed more toward the core, theological meaning of the Incarnation, of God joining us in all of our struggles and our pain."
I hope that other parishes have undertaken similar initiatives. Anywhere you go, you're likely to encounter people who struggle with Christmas on account of personal losses or difficulties, and the Church should reach out to them in a sensitive and supportive manner. Apparently the "Blue Christmas" Mass in Columbus has been working, as this will be its third year. I hope they keep it up.

I will not be having a Blue Christmas - hopefully I'll be having a White Christmas, though I have not seen the weather reports for Southern New England. I'll be going home tomorrow to spend the holiday with my family; I'm sure I'll be blogging from there, but until then I wish the very best to all my readers in these last few days of Advent. AMDG.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Father Nicholas Kao Se Tseien, O.C.S.O., 1897-2007.

Trappist Father Nicholas Kao Se Tseien, the world's oldest Catholic priest, died early yesterday in Hong Kong at the age of 110. Born three years before the Boxer Rebellion, Father Kao grew up during the last years of China's Qing Dynasty and the turbulent early years of the Chinese Republic. Raised a Buddhist, he became Catholic at the age of eighteen. Ordained to the priesthood in 1933, Father Kao ministered in his home diocese of Fuzhou for sixteen years before fleeing China to escape Communist rule. After engaging in pastoral ministry in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, Father Kao entered the novitiate of the Abbey of Our Lady of Joy on Hong Kong's Lantao Island at the age of 75. He professed his final vows as a Trappist in his one-hundredth year. Father Kao remained healthy, mentally sharp and active in the affairs of his monastic community until dying in his sleep yesterday morning, scarcely a month before he would have celebrated his 111th birthday.

I once posted an entry about Father Kao on my old blog, focusing on a newspaper interview in which the aged monk explained how living a life of continence offered a recipe for longevity. He also shared some words of wisdom that manage to remind one of Confucius and the Desert Fathers at the same time: "My life has been marked by two words: patience and death. . . . Patience in the struggle for excellence of conduct, in learning from Jesus' patience on the cross. Death in learning to die without fear and to die in innocence." Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. AMDG.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Nativity in New York.

Earlier in the week, I mentioned that Garrison Keillor spoke about his experience teaching Christian doctrine during a public reading and book signing that I attended Sunday night. Keillor offers further reflections on that experience in this week's edition of his syndicated newspaper column. I post some excerpts from that column because they offer a sort of coda to my earlier post, and also because I think they're worth reading on their own. Keillor starts by setting the scene, a Sunday School classroom in an Episcopal church on the Upper West Side:
We sat in a sort of triangle, two couches at a right angle, a line of chairs, a window looking out at the snow on Amsterdam Avenue, and talked about the rather improbable notion that God sent Himself to Earth in human form, impregnating a virgin who, along with her confused fiancé, journeyed to Bethlehem where no rooms were available at the inn (it was the holidays, after all), and so God was born in a stable, wrapped in cloths and laid in a feed trough and worshipped by shepherds summoned by angels and by Eastern dignitaries who had followed a star.

This magical story is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and I am sorry if it's a big hurdle for the skeptical young. It is to the Church what his Kryptonian heritage was to Clark Kent - it enables us to stop speeding locomotives and leap tall buildings at a single bound, and also to love our neighbors as ourselves. Without the Nativity, we become a sort of lecture series and coffee club, with not very good coffee and sort of aimless lectures.

On Christmas Eve, the snow on the ground, the stars in the sky, the spruce tree glittering with beloved ornaments, we stand in the dimness and sing about the silent holy night and tears come to our eyes and the vast invisible forces of Christmas stir in the world. Skeptics, stand back. Hush. Hark. There is much in this world that doubt cannot explain.
Keillor quickly moves from the easy prospect of finding God amidst the familiar imagery of a traditional American Christmas Eve to the more challenging task of finding God in the midst of modern urban life:
New York is very gaudy at Christmas, and the Santa Clauses on Fifth Avenue swing their bells with style, and the store windows glimmer and the city at dusk is ever magical, but all New Yorkers know that loneliness is a part of life and can't be extinguished, not by entertainment or pharmaceuticals.

I walked around the city that Sunday night - two homeless people were camped on the steps of a Lutheran church on 65th, in the midst of grand old apartment buildings, and the opera crowd was wending toward Picholine and the Café des Artistes for the lobster bisque, and on the uptown subway we all sat and did not stare at the crazy old man boogeying in his sleeveless t-shirt and singing incoherently and watching his own reflection in the glass - and how 17-year-old kids should mesh New York with the Nativity, I was not able to tell them. God prefers admitted incompetence to fake authority.

. . .

A day in New York can show you such startling sights, including a band of doubting teenagers clustered in church on a snowy morning, that the birth of the child in the hay seems not so impossible after all, even appropriate, even necessary.
Please know of my continued prayers for a blessed Advent. AMDG.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Notes on the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.

Today the Church remembers St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia, whose example of Christian charity and generous service to all in need provide the historical basis for the benevolent figure of Santa Claus. The historical Nicholas of Myra was, it must be noted, very different from the modern Santa Claus. Saint Nick did not preside over a toy factory at the North Pole, but instead led the Church in a part of Greek-speaking Anatolia that today falls within the borders of Turkey. As a bishop, Nicholas is widely believed to have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, which was called to confront the Arian heresy. Arius appeared at the Council to defend his views, and the Bishop of Myra reputedly became so upset with what Arius said that he struck the heresiarch in the face. (I enjoy repeating this story, both because it offers a view of St. Nicholas that differs from the norm and because it gives me a rare opportunity to use the word "heresiarch.")

Many stories have been told about the great generosity that St. Nicholas of Myra showed toward all in need, particularly the poor, children, and people in captivity. The website of the St. Nicholas Center includes a page retelling some of these stories, and reading them it's easy to see how the good bishop became a popular saint in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Over the centuries, devotion to St. Nicholas has taken on many forms. In the eleventh century, a group of Italian sailors took St. Nicholas' relics from Myra - over the strenuous objection of the locals - to the Italian port city of Bari. The saint's relics may now be found at the Basilica Pontificia San Nicola, which remains an important place of pilgrimage for devotees from the East as well as the West. The Palestinian city of Beit Jala holds an annual festival honoring St. Nicholas on his feast day, recalling a pilgrimage that the saint made to the Holy Land as a young man. Many parts of Europe once observed the tradition, still followed in England, of selecting boy bishops from among the cathedral choristers on St. Nicholas' Day; these purely honorary prelates would typically hold office until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th.

Under the name of Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas plays a particularly important role in holiday celebrations in the Netherlands. The Dutch custom is to exchange gifts not on Christmas but on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, and the weeks leading up to December 5th are celebrated with great festivity. Sinterklaas' official arrival in Amsterdam is apparently a very big deal, as one can tell not simply from the official website of the event but from the eyewitness testimony of my sister Elizabeth, who saw it all herself. For myself, I can say that St. Nicholas' Day was a special event at my novitiate: on the morning of the feast day, each novice found a pair of stockings and a bag of candy at his door. I presumed this to be a custom unique to Loyola House, but Jesuits here who were novices elsewhere reported similar experiences. We don't follow the same custom at Ciszek Hall, but we will be having our community celebration of Christmas tonight. My prayers and best wishes go out to all readers, regardless of how you do (or do not) celebrate the memory of St. Nicholas of Myra today. AMDG.

Beethoven in the Bronx.

There's an article in today's New York Times on the Bronx Symphony Orchestra, a little-known community institution with a proud past and an uncertain future. Here' s a sample:

The music started in an adult education class not long after World War II, with veterans and survivors seeking to lose themselves in Mozart and Beethoven.

Sixty years later, the Bronx Symphony Orchestra is still performing, its chairs filled by professional musicians who supplement a core of amateurs. Together, they play classical music for a dwindling audience in a borough more noted for its rap and reggaetón than its Rossini and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Yet, while the orchestra has survived television and crime waves, changing tastes and internal squabbles, it may not live through a policy change by the city that has put dozens of small arts organizations in competition for public money, ending decades of automatic annual financing. The intent, the city said, was to help out new groups.

For the musicians of the Bronx Symphony, the question is how long an itinerant orchestra that performs for nothing and rehearses in a cramped high school music room with lousy acoustics can get by in an age of competition — one in which even small arts groups have hired professionals to raise money and court corporate sponsorships.

And so the city’s effort to strengthen its cultural offerings might end up as an elegy for a Bronx tradition.

“Not long ago, we used to do eight concerts a year; now we’re down to four," said the Bronx Symphony’s vice president, Andre Quiñones, 42, a violinist who works full time as a train service supervisor for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“We’re a mix, and it’s lovely to look at the orchestra — black, white, Asian, you are welcome as long as you can play,” he said. “But I don’t know how long we’re going to survive.”

To read the rest of the article, click here. Better yet, take a look at the Bronx Symphony Orchestra's website to learn more about the group (and, perhaps, to see how you can lend them a helping hand). AMDG.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

From pagan Russia to the shores of Lake Wobegon.

In today's New York Times, music critic Bernard Holland has a write-up on a series of a concerts at Carnegie Hall by the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, directed by Valery Gergiev. I attended Saturday night's concert, during which the Kirov performed Act I of Mikhail Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila followed by Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, with a dance from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden offered as an encore. Written in different periods and reflecting very different musical styles, the three pieces seemed to have little in common beyond some shared subject matter; in one way or another, all deal with pre-Christian Russia. The Kirov played well throughout the concert, with highly capable assistance from the Mariinsky Theatre's resident chorus and selected soloists for Ruslan and Lyudmila. Gergiev lived up to his high reputation, conducting with great energy and bringing out the best in the orchestra. On another note, I must say that Carnegie Hall grows on me more and more with each visit. The cramped seats leave a lot to be desired, but the acoustics in the hall are perhaps the best I've encountered in my admittedly limited experience.

On the evening of the First Sunday in Advent I attended a public reading and book signing by Garrison Keillor at McNally Robinson, an independent bookstore in a section of Manhattan that I used to think was part of SoHo but which is really known as Nolita (North of Little Italy). Keillor's visit was intended to promote a new novel of his, but much of his comments during a relaxed forty-minute talk dealt more with the process of storytelling, the writer's vocation, and the various differences between New York and the Midwest. New York, Keillor said, is a place where straight-laced and taciturn Midwesterners go to be honest with one another; presumably Keillor knows this from experience, since he owns an apartment on the Upper West Side and spends a fair amount of time here. In response to a question from the audience, Keillor said that he likes to write about Lutherans because he isn't good at writing dialogue and Minnesota Lutheranism is a faith of inarticulation.

Keillor's Christian faith plays an intriguing and, it seems to me, a carefully-modulated role in his self-presentation. Keillor makes no secret of the fact that he is both a believer and a churchgoer, and his faith often comes up in interviews and in articles about his work. On Sunday evening, Keillor mentioned to the assembled audience that he had taught a Christian doctrine class earlier in the day at an Episcopal church in Manhattan (he went so far as to name the parish, though I won't do so here), talked about angels and grace, and even got the audience to sing along with him as he performed a Norwegian Christmas hymn. No one in the audience seemed overtly bothered by this, but since they were presumably fans of A Prairie Home Companion I suppose they knew what they were getting themselves into. However, as I stood in line with my Roman collar on waiting to have Keillor sign a book for me, a woman directly in front of me asked me whether I thought Keillor had actually taught Sunday school that morning. The woman's tone suggested a certain skepticism, as if she assumed Keillor's profession of religiosity was simply an act. I replied very simply that I had no reason to doubt that what Keillor had said was true.

The book signing line moved very slowly, mainly because Keillor wanted to chat briefly with each person and get a sense of who they were and where they came from before he signed their books. When it was my turn, I mentioned that I was a long-time listener of The Writer's Almanac and asked him to sign a copy of Good Poems for Hard Times, an anthology of verse read on the show. Given my clerical garb, Keillor wanted to know where I was "stationed," which led to an exchange regarding Fordham (he'd seen our Lincoln Center campus, but had never been to Rose Hill). As author events go, this one was pretty good. If Keillor does a reading in a bookstore near you, check it out. You'll be well-entertained, you'll be able to speak with Garrison Keillor face-to-face, and you won't spend nearly as much money as you would if you bought tickets for A Prairie Home Companion. AMDG.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Notes on the Memorial of SS. Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Companions.

Today we remember the Jesuit Martyrs of England and Wales, who gave their lives seeking to bring the sacraments to persecuted English and Welsh Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Jesuit martyrs commemorated in today's liturgy number ten: Edmund Campion (†1581), Robert Southwell (†1595), Edmund Arrowsmith (†1628), Alexander Briant (†1581), Philip Evans (†1679), Thomas Garnet (†1608), David Lewis (†1679), Henry Morse (†1645), Nicholas Owen (†1606) and Henry Walpole (†1595). Though Campion and Southwell are the best-known names in this group, all of the Jesuit Martyrs of England and Wales labored heroically to keep the Catholic faith alive during a time of intense persecution. Some of the martyrs were famous men in their time, while others ministered in obscurity and attracted widespread notice only after their deaths. Through the work they did during their lives and in the manner of their deaths, the Jesuit Martyrs of England and Wales sought the greater glory of God and a closer sense of union with Jesus Christ.

Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell are the best-known of the saints commemorated today in part because both wrote prolifically and well. Campion's Challenge to the Privy Council, better known as "Campion's Brag," offers a stirring apologia for the missionary activities that cost Campion his life. Of a somewhat different nature but no less eloquent are the poems of Robert Southwell, many of which deal with the person of Christ and the events of his life. Here is one of Southwell's most famous poems, "A Child My Choice," which strikes me as a very appropriate meditation for Advent, which begins tonight:
Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.

I praise Him most, I love Him best, all praise and love is His;
While Him I love, in Him I live, and cannot live amiss.

Love's sweetest mark, laud's highest theme, man's most desired light,
To love Him life, to leave Him death, to live in Him delight.

He mine by gift, I His by debt, thus each to other due;
First friend He was, best friend He is, all times will try Him true.

Though young, yet wise; though small, yet strong; though man, yet God He is:
As wise, He knows; as strong, He can; as God, He loves to bless.

His knowledge rules, His strength defends, His love doth cherish all;
His birth our joy, His life our light, His death our end of thrall.

Alas! He weeps, He sighs, He pants, yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears, His sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.

Almighty Babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!
Best wishes for a blessed Advent! AMDG.