Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Three views of the Annunciation.

Today many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the Archangel Gabriel's revelation to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear the Son of God in her womb. Though it often falls in the midst of the penitential season of Lent, the Feast of the Annunciation offers an anticipation of the joy that we celebrate at Christmas. Though exactly nine months separate the Feasts of the Annunciation and the Nativity, both invite us to reflect upon the wondrous event of the Incarnation. From a Christian perspective, there could be no more compelling proof of God's love for humanity than that He would choose to become a human being and take upon Himself the burdens and limitations of the human condition. This is a point that we would do well to contemplate at all points of the year, not simply on feast days like this one that draw particular attention to the Incarnation.

Among the very many artistic representations of the Annunciation, I thought I would share three images for your prayerful consideration. The first image is a 14th century icon of the Annunciation from the Church of St. Bogoridica Perivlepta in Ohrid, Macedonia. What strikes me the most about this icon is the Virgin's right hand, which could be raised either in response to the Archangel Gabriel's greeting, or in a protestation of unworthiness ("How can this be, for I am a virgin?"), or perhaps in surrender to God's will ("Be it done to me according to thy word"). The ambiguity of the raised hand is appropriate, I believe, as it offers us an opportunity to reflect upon Mary's movement from confusion to acceptance. When I showed this image to one of my Jesuit confreres earlier today, he suggested another interpretation: the relative position of Mary's hands - her right hand lifted upward, her left hand resting on the arm of her chair - could also be taken to anticipate the union of divine and human natures in Christ, as the Theotokos seems to point upward and downward at the same time.

Attributed to Fra Angelico, the 15th century Virgin Annunciate (second image) is part of a diptych that also includes an image of the Archangel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation. Both paintings are part of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I saw them as a novice. Aside from the loveliness of the Virgin's face and the graceful crossing of her arms, what I like about this painting is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a recurring element in Western iconography of the Incarnation. In Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand - she even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever. We may be able to recall similar moments in our own experience - moments when God reached into our lives to invite us to something new and different. As much as we may have wished to say 'yes' at such moments, we may have also been conscious of other commitments that already bound us. Like Mary holding on to her book, we may have felt the desire to embrace a new vocation while clinging to elements of our prior life. This is one of the basic challenges of the Christian life, and it is one that Mary confronted herself at the moment she accepted her call.

The third and final image is a painting by the late-19th and early-20th century African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, simply titled The Annunciation. The son of a minister, Tanner had a strong interest in religious subjects and visited the Holy Land in 1897 in search of artistic as well as spiritual inspiration. First exhibited in Paris in 1898, Tanner's painting The Annunciation quickly found a home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it remains to this day. Influenced by the realism of his teacher Thomas Eakins, Tanner depicts Mary as the teenage girl that she would have been when she became the mother of Jesus. Mary's garments and the contents of her bedroom faithfully represent an Eastern Mediterranean cultural milieu, with details like the fold in the rug offering even greater verisimilitude. Careful to present Mary and her environment as accurately as possible, Tanner is also inventive enough to depict Gabriel not as a winged human figure but as pure light. By presenting Gabriel in a new way, Tanner forces us to think more carefully about Mary's experience of the Annunciation. Imagine how you would react if a beam of light suddenly appeared in your bedroom and began to communicate with you; perhaps you would find yourself transfixed, but you would probably also be confused and perhaps even terrified. I suspect that Mary felt many different emotions when she learned that she was to be the Theotokos. I believe that we would do well to reflect on what some of these emotions may have been.

I hope that the above images are of some help to you as you reflect and pray on the significance of this Feast of the Annunciation. As we celebrate God's coming among us in the flesh, I pray that we may take strength and inspiration from the Virgin Mary's confident acceptance of her unique vocation. May this strength and inspiration remain with us as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage. AMDG.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech."

We've made it almost halfway through Lent, and regular readers may have noticed that posting on this blog has been very sparse. This is more by accident than by design: I've simply been too occupied with prayer, schoolwork and preparations for regency (about which I'll write more later) to devote much time to blogging. Be that as it may, it also strikes me that this relative reticence serves a salutary purpose during Lent. At least some of the time I might otherwise have spent blogging has gone to additional prayer and spiritual reading, which has helped me to focus more fully on the themes of the season.

An important element of my Lenten practice this year has been a prayerful reading of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which includes many valuable reflections on the need for economy of speech. For example, it is written of one of the Fathers, Abba Or, that he never "spoke without necessity." Sitting in his room, the same Abba Or told one of his disciples "never to let an irrelevant word come into this cell." Then there is the following account of a meeting between Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria, and the desert monk Abba Pambo:
The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, "Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified." The old man said to them, "If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech."
I hope readers have been properly edified by my relative silence during Lent. Updates to this blog will likely continue to be fairly sparse for the remainder of the season, after which I post to write a bit more often. In closing, I'd like to propose that we all reflect on Abba Pambo's words. Do we edify others by our silence? (On the same token, we might also ask whether our speech is as edifying as it could be.) In a broader way, what role does silence play in our lives, particularly during Lent? AMDG.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Survey: New England Catholic population plummeting.

Today's Boston Globe has a story on the findings of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Connecticut. Comparing data from identical surveys conducted in 1990, 2001 and 2008, the team at Trinity College found evidence of a dramatic decline in the number of self-identified Catholics in the Northeast and a perceptible increase in the Catholic population of states like California and Texas. Here's more from the Globe:

The Catholic population in New England, long the most Catholic region in the country, is plummeting, according to a large survey of religious affiliation in the United States.

The American Religious Identification Survey, a national study being released today by Trinity College in Hartford, finds that the Catholic population of New England fell by more than 1 million in the past two decades, even while the overall population of the region was growing. The study, based on 54,000 telephone interviews conducted last year, found that the six-state region is now 36 percent Catholic, down from 50 percent in 1990.

In Massachusetts, the decline is particularly striking - in 1990, Catholics made up a majority of the state, with 54 percent of the residents, but in 2008, the Catholic population was 39 percent. At the same time, the percentage of the state's residents who say they have no religious affiliation rose sharply, from 8 percent to 22 percent.

. . .

The study confirms findings by other studies, particularly by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that have found the size of the Catholic population in the United States to be relatively stable - about one-quarter of the nation's population - as immigration by Catholics, mostly from Latin America, makes up for a decrease in American Catholics whose families emigrated from Europe.

The Trinity study finds that, even as the number and percentage of Catholics in New England are falling, the percentage in the Southwest and West is growing, so that in California the population is 37 percent Catholic, up from 29 percent in 1990, and in Texas it is 32 percent Catholic, up from 23 percent.
To read the rest of the Globe story, click here. If you'd like to read the survey report and parse the data for yourself, take a look at the ARIS website. This survey confirms the findings of the Pew Forum report released last year, suggesting that the Catholic population in the United States is holding steady thanks to immigration. Catholic decline in the Northeast and the Midwest and the growth of the Catholic population in the West and Southwest seem to be taking place independently: while the level of religious practice and identification among Catholics is falling in areas that were once predominantly Catholic, a new wave of Catholic immigrants seems to be revitalizing the Church in parts of the country that were traditionally less Catholic.

Echoing a point I made last year in response to the Pew Forum report, I think that the ARIS survey needs to be thoughtfully and prayerfully received by American Catholics. The question of how to respond to the influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America and Asia has already received a lot of attention, as well it should. However, I think we need to think much more seriously about the impact of secularization on the Catholic Church in this country and the questions that this phenomenon raises.

The reason that the Catholic population has declined so much in New England isn't that Catholics are moving away or changing religions; the reason that the Catholic population has plummeted is that many Catholics there have given up religion altogether. In other words, most of them haven't abandoned Catholicism in order to become Mormons, join Protestant megachurches, or practice Wicca - they've simply lost interest in religious practice. My experience with cradle Catholics who have joined the ranks of the religiously "unaffiliated" is that many of them retain a sense that Catholicism is unique and distinctive. In a way, many of them see the Catholic Church as 'the only show in town' as far as religion is concerned: they may have become disaffected with the Church for any number of reasons, but they would never consider affiliating with any other religious group.

Whenever I go home to Massachusetts to visit my family, I see evidence of the religious decline that the ARIS survey points to. Attending daily Mass on weekday mornings, I'm usually the youngest person present by several decades. Though I may see some parents with small children at Sunday Mass, young adults are very scarce. Outside of large metropolitan areas, it's difficult to find programs at the parish level that reach out to young Catholics or give them a reason to stay active in the Church after they've received the sacraments of initiation. In a way, my own vocation confirms my sense that the local Church in New England hasn't offered much to young adults: it wasn't until I went to Georgetown that I really experienced the Church as something truly compelling and vibrant.

Secularization is a complex phenomenon with many causes, and I think that it is best understood as a reality within which the Church must work and not as a "problem" that we can try to solve or overcome. Focusing on a 'faithful remnant' who are increasingly removed from the cultural mainstream does not strike me as an adequate pastoral strategy. We must be willing to reach out to people who were baptized into the Catholic Church and may retain a nebulous sense of cultural Catholicism (represented by the 'only show in town' mentality that I noted above) but who are presently "unaffiliated" or effectively unchurched. We must find ways to show these Catholics that faith can make a positive difference in their lives. I hope and pray that we will have the courage and the creativity to respond to this challenge. AMDG.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

U2 at Fordham.

As some of you have may have already heard from various sources, U2 came to Fordham yesterday to perform a few songs from their latest album for Good Morning America. Many Fordham students apparently camped out all night to guarantee spots in the audience for the early morning performance. I can't really call myself a fan of U2, though I appreciate the concern that the band's members have shown over the years for various humanitarian causes. I also suppose that the U2 visit will also help boost Fordham's national profile, which can only be a good thing.

Given my lack of devotion for the band and my unwillingness to sacrifice a good night's sleep to camp out on Edwards Parade to ensure a spot in the audience, I did not attend the concert. The scholastics who did attend say that they had a great time, and I'm glad for them. The event was meant to be limited to Fordham students, staff and faculty, but a story in today's New York Times makes it clear that a few intrepid gatecrashers managed to get in:
On Fordham Road, among the residents headed to subway and bus stops, five women — who looked generally disoriented — searched for the next campus entrance. They had already been turned away at several spots, they said.

The women said they were hairdressers from Grand Rapids, Mich., and had come to New York City on vacation because they heard U2 was playing at a college in the city, to be televised on "Good Morning America."

“We heard it was a free concert — we didn’t know you needed ID to get in,” said one of them, Liz Jones, 28. “We’ve tried begging, pleading, jumping the fence. We can’t get in.”

They approached Officer Richard Black, who was posted on Fordham Road.

“Please, can you get us in?” Ms. Jones said.

“Look where they put me,” Officer Black said. “Do you think I could get you in? I can’t even get myself in.”

The women tried a different entrance and told the security guards there: “We don’t have any weapons. You can strip-search us.”

The guards declined, and the women tried the next entrance. They heard a roar go up from inside the campus, and one of them, Felicia Duron, 24, grabbed the fence and groaned. Finally, at the campus entrance at Bathgate and 131st Street [sic: it's actually 191st], near Finlay Hall, they approached the security guard and once again asked to be let in.

“Where ya’s from?” he asked, looking them over.

“Michigan,” they intoned, in unison.

He paused, looked at them and said: “O.K., I’m going to turn my head now. I didn’t see anything.”

They whooped and ran in, and headed toward the grassy quad in front of Keating Hall, where the band was playing for several thousand students, faculty members, alumni and campus employees.
When I read the above bit this morning in the NYT, the first question that came into my mind was, "What's going to happen to that security guard when his boss reads this story?" I then thought, "What, if anything, should happen to him?" There's more than one way to answer that question, and I suspect that different readers will come to different conclusions. Still, I wonder what answers the people in charge will have to offer. AMDG.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Haitink at 80.

The great Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink marks his 80th birthday today with a concert in his home city of Amsterdam. I could have written that Haitink 'celebrates his 80th birthday today,' but 'celebrates' might be too strong of a word, as Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein makes clear in a recent profile:
Bernard Haitink hates birthdays. Especially his own.

"If there existed a society for the abolishment of birthdays, I would at least want to be vice president," the maestro recently said, furrowing his dour Dutch brow.

In fact, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor will be treating Wednesday, when he turns 80, just like any other day. Haitink will begin his ninth decade in his native Amsterdam, rehearsing and conducting Beethoven and Bruckner with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the great ensemble most indelibly associated with him during his 55-year career.

"I thought that was the way to do it, because I have had such a long and close relationship with that orchestra," said Haitink, who directed the Concertgebouw for 21 seasons, roughly two decades before the CSO chose him to head the transition team that would secure the orchestra's artistic fortunes between the directorships of Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti.

Haitink shows no signs of slowing down. CSO musicians report that the vigor he displayed on the podium during the orchestra's recent Far East tour was undimmed from Yokohama to Beijing...
On his always-excellent classical music blog On An Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton notes today that he has more Haitink LP's in his collection than recordings of any other conductor. I can make a similar claim, though all of my Haitink recordings are on CD. (To my regret, LP's had largely left the retail market by the time I got interested in music.) Though Bernard Haitink is one of my favorite conductors, I've heard him live on only one occasion, when he appeared at Carnegie Hall with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 2008. Nonetheless, I hope to hear him again this coming May when he is scheduled to lead the CSO in two more concerts in New York.

I like what the aforementioned post from On An Overgrown Path has to say about Haitink as "the ultimate musician's musician," a modest man who "resoundingly disproves the rule that you need an odious personality to be a great conductor." Boston classical music blogger Justin Locke has a bit more on this theme in a post explaining why musicians enjoy playing for Haitink. As a non-musician who admires and appreciates Haitink's conducting, I'm pleased that the maestro commands sincere respect from the musicians that he works with. If you'd like to sample some of his work, one place to start may be the free downloads of some Haitink recordings that will be available next week from the Dutch network Radio 4. For my part, I hope that Bernard Haitink enjoys many more happy, productive and rewarding years. AMDG.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lenten love and forgiveness.

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I'd like to share a couple of additional texts for reflection in these early days of Lent. Last time, I offered an excerpt from Father Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. In this post, I'll be referring to The Lenten Spring, a book by Father Schmemann's son-in-law and academic colleague Father Thomas Hopko. Composed of forty chapters corresponding to the forty days of Lent, The Lenten Spring was a part of my spiritual reading for this season two years ago. I haven't reread the book since, but I picked it up again last week to take a brief look at what Hopko has to say about the start of Lent. Here is some of what he has to say about Forgiveness Sunday, which in the Byzantine tradition is the last Sunday before the start of Lent:
The Sunday before Lent begins, the day on which the Church liturgically remembers the fall of Adam and Eve, is called Cheesefare Sunday. This is because it is traditionally the last day of eating dairy products before the time of fasting. This day is also called Forgiveness Sunday since everyone must enter the lenten effort by forgiving and asking forgiveness of others. In many churches, schools and monasteries this is done through a special "rite of forgiveness" following the evening vespers at which the Church formally inaugurates the lenten season. The significance of the act of giving and receiving forgiveness is obvious. God does not forgive if we do not forgive each other. It is that simple.

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:14-15).

. . .

Love between sinners is essentially expressed in forgiveness. There is no other way. It cannot be otherwise. Forgiveness is the singular expression of love in this fallen world. If, therefore, we desire to be loved and forgiven by God - and even more, if we know that as a matter of fact we are so loved and forgiven - then we must love and forgive each other. The lenten season exists for this purpose: to express the love of God for one another through mutual forgiveness. . . .
As Father Hopko's words remind us, we all stand in need of forgiveness. If we pause to examine the course of lives, each of us can think of areas in our lives that manifest this need - we may think of people that we may still need to forgive, and we may also think of people who still have not forgiven us. Lent is a time for reconciliation - not simply between God and the individual Christian, but among Christians as well. In these early days of Lent, it may be helpful for us to pray and reflect on these questions: where in my life is there a need for forgiveness? whom do I need to forgive? who has yet to forgive me? AMDG.