Friday, September 25, 2009

Remembering Father Tom King.

Late last evening, many current and former Georgetown students gathered at Dahlgren Chapel to honor the memory of Father Thomas Mulvihill King, the Georgetown Jesuit justly regarded by many as the veritable soul of the Hilltop. I would like to have attended the Memorial Mass, but apostolic commitments at SJU kept me away: I teach two back-to-back sections of Moral Philosophy on Friday mornings, and I knew that I wouldn't have had the energy to face a classroom full of students at nine o' clock today if I had made the six-hour roundtrip journey to Washington the night before.

In lieu of an on-the-spot report on last night's liturgy, I'd like to share a piece from yesterday's Georgetown Voice written by Father Ryan Maher, another Hoya who found his vocation as a Jesuit in part through the good example and witness of Father Tom King. I was particularly moved by Father Maher's recollections of a meeting he had with Father King during office hours while he was an undergraduate, partly because these words remind me of similar encounters that I had with Father King when I was a student on the Hilltop:
I will always remember a conversation I had with Father King one afternoon in his office in the Theology Department. I had stopped by during office hours, ostensibly to ask some questions about the material we were covering in class. In reality, I was actively entertaining the possibility of entering the Jesuits after graduation, and I wanted to hear a little of Father King's story, to hear how he understood his life as a Jesuit scholar.

I asked him why he had focused so much of his career on the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - a Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher and theologian whose work had for a long time been considered suspect by the Vatican. I asked Father King if it made him nervous to be associated with someone who had for a while been silenced by the Church because of his work.

First, he gave me a long discourse on the nature of time. I have to admit that a lot of it went over my head and I wasn't always sure what it had to do with my question, but he was wound up and once that happened, you just had to listen and wait. So I did. As I recall, his point was that change usually takes time, sometimes a very long time, and patience is a virtue both for scholars and for people of faith. That made sense to me.

Then he said something that was for a me a moment of grace, a signal moment in the gradual emergence of my own vocation. He laid out for me his understanding that in the Church, as in any organization, someone has to be willing to be ahead of the curve, even though that can be an uncomfortable and even treacherous place to be. If no one is willing to do that, he said, then progress will stall, growth will be stunted. That would be bad for the Church. Someone has to be willing to lean into the future, to take the risks associated with asking "What if?" That's why the Church has Jesuits, he said. That too made sense to me.

I left his office that day with a feeling that I had been taken seriously and treated with kindness and respect by a remarkable man of passionate faith and intellect. I also left thinking that maybe I should and could be a Jesuit after all. In his wonderfully quirky way, Father Tom King had nudged me and my life in the right direction. Turns out it was a typical day in the life of a far from typical man. Georgetown will miss him dearly. Requiescat in pace.
May his memory be eternal. AMDG.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Haitink in the Guardian.

As I've noted before, Bernard Haitink is one of my favorite conductors. Having enjoyed a distinguished conducting career that has spanned over half a century, the 80-year-old Dutch maestro is not yet content to rest on his laurels. Despite experiencing lingering pain and fatigue from back trouble that required major surgery earlier this year, in July Haitink led the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony at the BBC Proms that won instant plaudits as "one of the highlights of the musical year." (I should be able to judge for myself next month: Haitink and the LSO will be doing Mahler's 9th again in New York, and I have a ticket.) As I write this, Haitink is nearing the end of a five-city European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he has led as principal conductor since 2006. The CSO tour provides the occasion for a fine profile of Haitink by Guardian music critic Tom Service. Among other topics, Haitink reflects on his youth in wartime Amsterdam and his intensely focused approach to conducting:
Those formative years during the war still haunt him. "There was so much talent lost. During the occupation, it became clear the Germans wanted to isolate the Jewish population. However, at the time, we didn't want to believe it. We couldn't believe they would all be murdered. I remember I went to see a young Jewish violinist play a concert at his home - he played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata quite beautifully - but then, of course, he disappeared. I think the whole scene would have been different if Hitler and this whole fanatic policy had not existed. It becomes very odd and frightening when you think about it." He looks troubled. "These are very dangerous and unpleasant thoughts - but I would never have been a conductor if all of these catastrophes had not happened. There would have been more talented conductors than me."

Musicians who play for Haitink today would disagree. Concertgebouw members speak of him with reverence; no one seems to know exactly how he does it, because he doesn't say much during rehearsals, but Haitink makes them play with more concentration, intensity and freedom. Simon Rattle says he can tell when Haitink has conducted his own orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, because they sound more relaxed, spacious and expressive.

But ask Haitink how he does it and the answer is a pained expression and a few cryptic phrases. "It's very dangerous to talk about these things. I try to have an utmost concentration, focused on the music, not thinking about unnecessary things - and there are so many unnecessary things." OK, so what did he think about a huge work like Mahler's Ninth? Was there an idea, a plan? "One of the things I was thinking was: how can I keep it quiet at the end? Because it's a unique ending, this breaking off of everything and disappearing in the air. And I thought, 'Whatever I do, they [the audience] must be silent.' I don't know what I did, but they were silent! Then you have one or two idiots in the hall shouting 'Bravo!' and the whole thing is broken."
Raised in a non-religious family, Haitink nonetheless shows a respectful appreciation for the spiritual dimension of music. He also displays salutary humility in admitting what he sees as his own limitations in explaining why he turned down the opportunity to conduct one of his favorite works, Bach's Mass in B-minor:
"This piece is too great for me. That is not false modesty. The B-minor Mass comes from an enormous religious and contrapunctual upbringing. I don't share that religious background, and I don't feel ready for all that counterpoint. It is a work I love to listen to, but I don't want to struggle with it and fall flat on my face. So I said I won't do it. In a way, it's very liberating, to say, 'No, goodbye!'"

. . .

With the CSO, Haitink is touring four other composers he loves: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner. I wonder how he can find Bach's music too religious yet feel an affinity with Bruckner, one of the most devoutly Catholic composers. "This music speaks to me," he says. "Yes, there is a very strong Roman Catholic feeling, but . . ." His words dry up, so I try again. Does he find Bruckner's music - the Seventh Symphony, say - a spiritual experience? "It's very difficult to talk about this," he says at last.

Far easier to conduct it: as ever with Haitink, the performances will do the talking.
To read the rest of Service's profile of Haitink, click here. AMDG.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Notes on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Today's Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is one of my favorite days in the liturgical year. If I had more time for blogging in the crowded early days of my regency, I would compose a detailed post seeking to explain why I like this feast day so much. Not having the time for such a post, I would at least like to share a few more photos of my favorite church, which happens to enjoy a unique and critically important association with the Exaltation of the Cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre occupies what tradition regards as the location of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, together with the spot where St. Helena is said to have found the remains of the True Cross in 326. This feast day originated with the two-day celebration of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. The first photo in this set shows the Chapel of Calvary, commemorating the place traditionally regarded as Golgotha. The rest of the photos here depict some of the many crosses carved in the walls and doors of the Holy Sepulchre by centuries of Christian pilgrims. I'll let you guess as to whether I left a pilgrim cross of my own.

On a somewhat different (though not unrelated) note, I have been very consoled by the many expressions of support and sympathy that I have received since the death of my grandmother earlier this month. I am thankful to the readers of this blog who have been praying for my grandmother and my family, and I am also grateful for the many notes and cards that I have received from friends, colleagues and brother Jesuits in the last few days. Mourning for my grandmother in the midst of my first semester of regency has not been easy, but I found much grace and consolation in attending her funeral and simply being with my family last week. For me, the grief occasioned by Gramma's death has been mixed with gratitude for the gift of her life and confident hope that she has been graced with the gift of eternal life. Indeed, I can gratefully say that reflecting on her life and death has given me an even greater appreciation for today's feast. We bow in worship before your cross, O Master, and we glorify your Holy Resurrection. AMDG.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Everything is grace.

If you have ever read Georges Bernanos' classic novel The Diary of a Country Priest, you almost certainly remember the dying words of the priest-protagonist: Tout est grâce. The English translation of the novel renders these words inexactly as "Grace is everywhere," but they could be most directly translated as "everything is grace." Bernanos borrowed these words from the Last Conversations of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a transcription of the various utterances that the young Carmelite made as she lay dying. The idea that "everything is grace" may have an intuitive appeal to Jesuits, given that our spirituality encourages us to find God in all things and to consciously reflect on the ways in which God has been present to us in all the areas of our life. For me, remembering that everything is grace has been a source of great consolation not merely in times of joy - times when "it's easy to say 'thanks,'" as a Jesuit friend once put it - but also in times of considerable difficulty and struggle.

The last week has been a fairly stressful one for me, but it has also been a time of great grace. On Monday, I stepped into the university classroom for the first time as a teacher. As some readers know well from their own experience, the work that goes into teaching college courses is considerable, especially when one is teaching for the first time and has to prepare syllabi, lecture notes and other materials from scratch. For each hour that I teach, I spend several hours preparing for the next class. Though I've found myself exhausted at the end of each day and frustrated by the way in which my life seems to be fully consumed by work, I've also found tremendous consolation and happiness in simply being in the classroom as a teacher. This is a wonderful ministry, one that I feel very blessed to be a part of. Despite all the time I spend on course prep and all the assorted administrative tasks that occupy my working days, I have found abundant grace in my first days teaching at Saint Joseph's University.

Though I have found joy in my first week of teaching, I have also found sorrow these last few days following the loss of my grandmother, Victoria Davis. After several months of ill health, Gramma died early Wednesday at the age of 85. I feel fortunate that I was able to travel to Massachusetts for a couple of days last week to pay her a final visit. Though this is a time of great sadness for my family, I am grateful that my grandmother ended her earthly pilgrimage in her own home, peacefully and without suffering, as she would have wished. I am also grateful for the many expressions of support and sympathy that I have received in the past couple of days from Jesuits in my own community and elsewhere; I hope that my family can take comfort in knowing that many in the Society of Jesus have been praying for them.

For reasons that I can scarcely claim to understand, I have often felt most aware of God's loving care and presence in moments of great difficulty. I have found abundant evidence of God's presence during the past week, both in my first days of teaching and in the days following my grandmother's death. The ability to find God in difficult circumstances is a grace that I am grateful to have received. As I pray for the repose of the soul of my grandmother and for the consolation of my family, I pray also in renewed gratitude for the gift of God's presence. I pray, too, that we may all become more aware of the gifts that God bestows upon us and that we may realize more fully that everything is grace. AMDG.