Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Our brother, the Dumb Ox."

Statue of St Thomas Aquinas, Priory Church of St Thomas, Hawkesyard, Staffordshire (source).

For the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, celebrated today in the Roman Catholic Church, I thought I would share some fine reflections on "our brother, the Dumb Ox" by Friar Lawrence Lew of the Order of Preachers, who writes regularly on Godzdogz, the blog of the English Dominican Studentate in Oxford. Among other details, Friar Lawrence reveals that Aquinas acquired the "Dumb Ox" moniker from his teacher Albertus Magnus, who was apparently vexed by the young friar's silence in class. Friar Lawrence also has some very interesting things to say about Aquinas' vocation to the Order of Preachers:
. . . It is thought that St Thomas joined the Order perhaps as young as the age of 16, around 1242/3. Certainly, he had been clothed in the habit by April 1244. He was then a student in Naples, and he was soon sent to Rome to evade the grasp of his angry parents who had hoped that Thomas would become a Benedictine at Monte Cassino and rise to become abbot of that great monastery! Perhaps here we see another reason for his being called an 'ox.' For he showed great tenacity and refused to succumb to family pressure. Despite being kidnapped by his brother Rinaldo d'Aquino, and placed under house arrest, and locked in a room with a prostitute who failed to endanger his chastity, St Thomas refused to renounce the Order. A year later, his family gave up and delivered him back to his priory in Naples.

What attracted St Thomas to the Dominicans, which was then a new and untried kind of religious life in the Church? Was it just teenage rebelliousness? Many years later, in his well-known Summa Theologiae, St Thomas would write about the right of adolescents to enter religious life, even against the wishes of their parents because it is "better to obey the Father of spirits through whom we live than to obey our parents" (ST IIa IIae 189, 6). Of course, something of his own experience is reflected in this. Nevertheless, we see that St Thomas prioritized obedience to God, and so he must have felt very keenly a call from God to join the Dominicans.

Torrell thinks that St Thomas was particularly drawn to the Order because of his love and aptitude for study. Morever, he later wrote that "if it is good to contemplate divine things, it is even better to contemplate and transmit them to others" (IIa IIae 188, 6). So, St Thomas was not just drawn to study but to preaching and teaching of what he had studied. Hence, the formulation of the goodness of the Dominican's preaching charism became one of the mottos of the Order: to contemplate and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.

In addition, Chenu thinks that St Thomas was drawn to the Order's poverty, expressed in its mendicant lifestyle. This was then in sharp contrast with the landed wealth of the ancient monasteries, and so Chenu says that "the refusal of Monte Cassino is, for Thomas, the same gesture made by Francis of Assisi." Thus, St Thomas later defends mendicant poverty as "the prime example [of Christ] that we must imitate" and he says that "it is that nakedness on the Cross that those who embrace voluntary poverty wish to follow" (Contra Retrahentes 15).
To read the rest, click here. On this Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, I pray that he may intercede with God on behalf of all teachers of philosophy and theology. I pray, too, that the members of the Order of Preachers may find great consolation and joy today as they honor the memory of one of their own. AMDG.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The news from Hawk Hill.

The spring semester at Saint Joseph's University began a week ago today. Though I'm still keeping very busy, I don't feel nearly as stressed now as I felt at the start of the fall semester. Not having to do everything for the first time is a great source of consolation as well as a practical aid to time management. While I still put substantial time into preparing each class that I teach, the fact that I'm teaching one of my courses for the second time rather than the first means that I don't have to make everything from scratch. My current crop of students seem at first glance to be an eminently teachable group, and I look forward to getting to know them better through their participation in class and their written work. I continue to find abundant life and support in my Jesuit community, while the fascinating city of Philadelphia continues to gradually unveil its mysteries to a still very new resident.

Adding to a list of charitable organizations provided in an earlier post, I would like to call your attention to another group providing direct assistance to survivors of the earthquake in Haiti. Team Rubicon is a self-financed, all-volunteer medical rescue team made up of former U.S. Marines as well as medical professionals and emergency responders who have taken time off from their work in the United States to take part in on-the-ground relief efforts in Haiti. Based on the grounds of the Jesuit novitiate in Port-au-Prince, Team Rubicon is working together with a number of Jesuits including Brother Jim Boynton, a Detroit Province Jesuit (and former housemate of mine) who moved to Hait last year to work with JRS but now finds himself fully occupied with earthquake relief. Brother Jim has written a number of posts on the Team Rubicon blog reflecting on his experiences, and I urge you to read them. More importantly, I urge you to consider making a donation to Team Rubicon to support the critically important work that they are doing in Port-au-Prince.

On another note, I ask you to join me in praying for the repose of the soul of Jesuit Father John Deeney, a Philadelphia native who recently died in his sixtieth year as a missionary in India. Though I never met Father Deeney, I've had the opportunity in the last few months to get to know a bit about him from conversations with other Jesuits here at SJU. Having joined the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1939 at the age of 18, in January 1950 John Deeney was sent to India to join what was then known as the Jamshedpur Mission. Together with a number of other Maryland Province Jesuits, Father Deeney became a founding member of the Jamshedpur Province of the Society and devoted the rest of his life to serving the people of northeastern India. Much of Father Deeney's life in India was spent ministering to members of a tribal group known as the Ho. In the tradition of earlier Jesuit missionaries, Father Deeney helped his flock preserve their language and culture by composing a Ho-English dictionary and grammar, translating the scriptures and the liturgy into the local language, and producing a number of ethnographic works on the common life and traditions of the Ho people.

If you would like to learn more about Father John Deeney, I suggest that you read these reflections by his friend Tom Brzozowski, an Ignaciophile and dedicated Hawk who blogs under the moniker "44." Tom's blog also has a moving report on Father Deeney's funeral, including photos sent by an Indian Jesuit. Finally, Tom also posts an appeal for funds to support a cause close to Father Deeney's heart: the construction of a new school building at St. Paul Miki Church in the Ho tribal region. As I join many others in praying for the repose of the soul of Father John Deeney, I pray also that the example of his life may inspire others to give of themselves in generous service. AMDG.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help Haiti.

It is difficult to know what to say following a tragedy as devastating as the earthquake in Haiti. The first and most important thing that religious believers can do in times like these is to pray - for the dead and the lost, for the homeless and the suffering, and for all those who are now working to help the survivors of this cataclysm. The second thing that we can and ought to do is to do what we can to contribute to ongoing relief efforts. Few of us are in a position to go to Haiti to lend a helping hand, but we can give financial assistance within our means to support groups that are now seeking to provide for the immediate needs of the Haitian people as well as the more daunting project of rebuilding a devastated country.

If you are looking for specific ideas about how to support relief efforts in Haiti, I can offer some suggestions. Catholic Relief Services is soliciting financial and material donations to support emergency operations in Haiti. CRS is also offering frequent updates from within Haiti on a blog entitled CRS Voices. If you have a particular interest in relief efforts associated with the Society of Jesus, you might also consider making a donation to Jesuit Refugee Service either in the United States or through another JRS national affiliate. You might also choose to donate directly to the Jesuits in Haiti through the auspices of the Jesuit Missions Office in Montreal. I also strongly encourage you to find out what kind of relief efforts are going on in your own area and consider making a contribution at that level. By one of these means or through others, I hope that you will consider lending a helping hand to the people of Haiti in this time of great need. AMDG.

The images seen above were taken by United Nations Photo.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Traditionally celebrated on the 6th of January, the Feast of the Theophany or Epiphany of the Lord is one of the oldest and greatest feasts of the Christian calendar. As I noted in a post on this date last year, the Greek terms epiphania and theophania both point to the "appearance" or "manifestation" of Christ in our midst. This feast day celebrates God's divine self-disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ, calling us to a deeper and more appreciative awareness of the gift of the Incarnation so recently celebrated on Christmas.

As I observed last year, Eastern and Western Christians have emphasized different aspects of Christ's divine manifestation in their celebrations of Epiphany and Theophany. The Western celebration of Epiphany focuses on the adoration of the newborn Savior by the Magi (an event most Eastern Christians celebrate together with the Nativity at Christmas), while the Eastern celebration of Theophany commemorates the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Some accounts suggest that the celebration of the Baptism of Christ on this date predates the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, such that Theophany once served as a commemoration of the Nativity as well. (The conjunction of the Nativity and Theophany of Christ has been maintained by the Armenian Church, which celebrates both events today.)

The Eastern Christian celebration of Theophany includes a wonderful tradition known as the Great Blessing of Waters, which affirms the goodness of the created world as well as the healing power of baptism. I wrote a bit about the Great Blessing of Waters in last year's Theophany post, highlighting a major celebration of the ritual held annually in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The above photos depict a much humbler celebration of the Great Blessing of Waters held last year by the parishioners of Archangel Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church in Traverse City, Michigan. Whether conducted on a large or a small scale, in warm climates or cold ones, the Great Blessing of Waters reminds us that Jesus Christ came into our midst not simply to offer us a way of salvation but to redeem all of creation. As we continue to celebrate Christ's presence among us, let us also be mindful of our duty to revere and care for the world that God chose not merely to create but also to inhabit as a human being. AMDG.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Celebrating Boulez at 85.

Though yesterday's post was focused on Philadelphia, I'm currently in Chicago for a weeklong visit before the start of the spring semester at Saint Joseph's. Besides visiting friends and places I don't get to see often, my itinerary includes a concert with one of my favorite conductors (Pierre Boulez) leading one of my favorite ensembles (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) in what promises to be a stimulating program. Regarded by many as the monstre sacre of modern music, Boulez shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares to celebrate his 85th birthday in March. In today's Chicago Tribune, music critic John von Rhein has more on Boulez:
Pierre Boulez has traveled vast distances since those early years when the incendiary young modernist clawed and shouted his way to the top of the Parisian musical avant-garde. Having made the long journey from enfant terrible to grand old man, he no longer has to shout to be heard. And when he makes pronouncements, he no longer does so with lofty derision but with smiling authority.

On March 26, the French composer and conductor, one of the most distinguished figures in contemporary music, will turn 85. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which Boulez has enjoyed an exceptionally cordial relationship that goes back four decades, is celebrating that milestone with a series of concerts and discussions throughout the month that will bring audiences closer to Boulez's music, as well as give them the chance to hear him conduct new pieces along with classics of the 20th century with which he has long been identified.

Speaking by phone from his home in Paris, Boulez talked enthusiastically about his return to the CSO, which promoted its former principal guest conductor to conductor emeritus in 2006 and which he will take to Ann Arbor and New York's Carnegie Hall later this month. He spoke less enthusiastically about reaching 85.

"I accept my age when we speak about it, but when I see it in print, that's not very encouraging!" he said with a wry chuckle. That he is about to turn 85 "feels even more unreal now" than when he reached his 70th, 75th, and 80th years, he added.
In the paragraphs that follow, Boulez thoughtfully discusses coming CSO programs and expresses the hope that an upcoming sabbatical from conducting will give him time to complete some long-delayed compositions. Boulez also speaks about how conducting works written by others helps him as a composer, and he further explains how music fits into his "religion of art":
"The first result [of conducting others' works] is that I am more realistic than before. Experience, if it's any help, gives you a sense of the possible - what you can achieve in practical terms with an orchestra. I know that maybe I can achieve more now than before. The second result is that by conducting the music of these composers I learn how they exploit their musical ideas. This I find very interesting in terms of my own composing."

. . .

Much as observers like to label him as little more than a musical theoretician, the fact remains that the more one listens to his music, the more its sensuous, even seductive qualities are apt to emerge.

Does Boulez regard himself as a spiritualist?

"No, religion is not my cup of tea," he replies. "But I have the religion of art. You can express your human feelings through music - that is essential to me. If music is only a construction of logical thinking, that's not terribly interesting. I like composers who have the right balance between feeling and a musical organization that reinforces those feelings. For me, the late Beethoven quartets are a model of how to achieve that. I feel very close to that music."
To read the rest, click here. Though Boulez was a student of the devoutly Catholic French composer Olivier Messiaen, his teacher's integration of art and faith seems not to have made a lasting impression on him. Still, I do sense an integrity in Boulez's "religion of art" as well as an openness to transcendence in his music that I do not find in the glib pronouncements of 'spiritual-not-religious' types. Regardless of whether or not Pierre Boulez ever finds God, I will remain grateful to God for the gift of Boulez's life and art. AMDG.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Orthodox Philadelphia in the news.

Yesterday's edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer included a "special report" examining the health of a handful of Orthodox churches in the city neighborhood of Northern Liberties. The district in question is a onetime Slavic immigrant enclave currently being transformed by gentrification into a haven for hipsters and yuppies. As Inquirer reporter David O'Reilly observes, the loyal parishioners of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral and its sister churches carry on without drawing much interest or support from the area's newer residents:
In the resurgent neighborhood of Northern Liberties, among the smoked glass condos, hipper-than-thou restaurants, swank salons, and teeming cafes and bohemian tea shops, Old World holiness still flickers to life on Sunday mornings.

Hardly anyone notices.

The ages-old glow of Christendom's most elaborate, enigmatic liturgy no longer is a guiding light for the community. But inside St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, beneath four blue onion domes, the sanctuary is as luminous as the day it opened in 1902, if not nearly as brimful of youth and hope.

The Rev. Mark Shinn, bearded and gold-caped, appears through the "royal door" [sic - royal doors] before the altar, an ornate chalice in each hand. Murmuring a prayer, he raises the goblets toward the worshipers, who bow and make the sign of the cross under the wide-eyed gaze of saintly icons. In a gesture of humility, some sweep their fingertips across the oak floor. A flew prostrate themselves to kiss it.

. . .

On a typical Sunday, about 80 people attend. For that, the archpriest is grateful.

"We keep no rolls and collect no dues," Shinn said. "If you come, you're a member."

If you come.

Therein lies the challenge for the five historic Eastern Orthodox churches in Northern Liberties, some hanging on for dear life on this one-third-square-mile patch of Old City. Their very reason for existence - the Eastern European immigrant wave of the early 20th century - has come and gone from a neighborhood transformed into Philadelphia's trendiest avant-garde niche, population of 5,000 and climbing.

"I don't see much interest in religion in these people," said the Rev. Vincent Saverino of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, which marked its 100th anniversary last month.

Attendance may swell to nearly 300 on holy days - including the Orthodox Christmas on Thursday - but on routine Sundays it is about 60. As in the other Orthodox churches, not one member is from the neighborhood.

"They come from all over, just not here," Saverino said, twirling a finger to indicate Northern Liberties.

Stop newcomers on busy streets and chances are they will say they aren't religious so much as spiritual. The faith described is free-form, unfettered by institutions.

"It just manifests itself in different ways than attending church," said Chris Clark, 33, who works in public relations for a pharmaceutical giant. "I try to be a good person. I try to treat others as I'd like to be treated."
To read the rest of the article, click here. Though I appreciate the evident care with which the article was written, it strikes me that reporter David O'Reilly's basic premise is flawed. The exodus of Eastern European families from Northern Liberties started decades before gentrification came to the neighborhood; as some of the priests and laypeople quoted in the article suggest, most of the Orthodox churches in the area have been serving commuting congregations for many years. Given this reality, it seems probable that the indifference of secular neighbors represents less of a threat to the churches' continued survival than does the diminished religious commitment of second- and third-generation parishioners. Even so, the notion that these churches' "very reason for existence" was solely to serve the East European immigrant wave of the early 20th century" is utter nonsense. As long as there are people who are willing to maintain an Orthodox Christian presence in Northern Liberties - even if they drive long distances to do it - these parishes will have a mission to fulfill.

Like many of his colleagues in the news media, reporter O'Reilly regrettably accepts the fallacious notion that one can be 'spiritual but not religious.' To embrace this false dichotomy is to embrace a misleading definition of the terms involved; if you think that a person can be spiritual without being religious, then you don't know what spirituality is. Contrary to the views expressed by one of the newer residents of Northern Liberties quoted in the Inquirer article, the effort "to be a good person" and "to treat others as I'd like to be treated" is not a mark of true spirituality but simply a sign that one embraces basic ethical principles that need not be backed by any notions of transcendence.

Despite its flaws, yesterday's Inquirer article on the Orthodox parishes of Northern Liberties does raise important questions about evangelization. One may fairly ask whether church communities like those mentioned in the article could be doing more to educate their neighbors about what being religious is really about. Parishes should offer a warm welcome to newcomers who may be attending services for the first time, but they also need to find ways to somehow attract the attention of people who might never have thought of going to church on their own. In other words, part of the challenge is to reach people who don't know what they're missing.

Of course, it also bears mentioning that there is more to maintaining a successful parish than raking in big numbers. In my experience, small 'commuter' parishes can often be vibrant and self-sustaining communities. On the same token, large parishes can sometimes feel cold and impersonal to individual churchgoers. The fact that a particular church doesn't draw large numbers doesn't necessarily mean that it is struggling. A look at the website of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in North Liberties suggests an active and perhaps surprisingly youthful community, not the shrinking and dying congregation that may be implied by the Inquirer article. Beyond that, the concern with numbers expressed by the Inquirer reporter may be out of place when considering parish communities (including St. Andrew's) that apparently don't keep formal membership rolls. As Jesuit Father Robert Taft once said, "'Eastern' and 'statistics' is an oxymoron." In a time of change and uncertainty, may the people of St. Andrew's and its sister parishes take comfort in the words prayed during the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: "Preserve this holy house until the end of the world." AMDG.

The above photos of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia are taken from Flickr and from the parish website.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Tempus fugit.

Time seems an appropriate topic for the first post of a new year, particularly when the new year is also taken by many as the first year of a new decade. I feel compelled to write "by many" to acknowledge that the question of whether decades properly begin with years ending '-0' or '-1' is still a contested one, even though most take the answer for granted. The fact that the way decades are defined is a matter for debate should give us all pause, reminding us that time is not as objective or 'real' as we may be tempted to imagine. Our collective understanding of the past owes as much to the selective arrangement and interpretation of past events as to actual chronology: as a result, products of historical memory like 'the Sixties' or 'the Eighties' are not synonymous with particular decades understood merely as units of measured time.

Christopher Caldwell has some interesting things to say about our experience of time in a column published on New Years' Day in the Financial Times. Caldwell finds that "time is really speeding up," at least insofar as we view the events of our lifetime with an immediacy that belies their actual proximity to the present:
We are now a decade into the 21st century, and off to a bad start. Decades almost always have their partisans - hippies liked the 1960s, socialists liked the 1970s, capitalists liked the 1980s and techies liked the 1990s. But the past decade has few defenders, if we leave aside terrorists and aficionados of decline.

Maybe it is odd that the decade passed so quickly. Unpleasant things are supposed to drag on and on: dentists' visits, workplace orientation sessions, almost all speeches. Yet no one complains that "this decade seemed to last 15 years." Decades never do. Time may slow down from hour to hour, but from year to year it has a uniform tendency to accelerate.

We can demonstrate this with a little game. We are now in the year 2010. Measure the number of years back to a certain event in your life - say, your entry into university, if you attended one. Then measure the same number of years back from there. Invariably, the event in the middle will seem closer to this date than to the older date, even though it is equidistant from the two.

This works with political events as well. George W. Bush's presidency seems extremely recent. Some might even call it an open wound. Yet not all of it is that recent. Mr Bush's election (2000) is as close to Margaret Thatcher's premiership (1979-90) as it is to David Cameron's (2010 - if we take one of the safer-looking political bets of the coming months).

How about Bill Clinton? Is he a present-day president? Sort of, but his election (1992) is as close to Richard Nixon's administration (1969-74) as to today. While we're at it, Baroness Thatcher's selection as Tory leader (1975) is as close to Neville Chamberlain's government (1937-40) as it is to us.

Putting things into quantitative chronology rather than sentimental chronology can lead us to reassess a lot of historical prejudices. How new a country is the US? Benjamin Franklin's birth in Boston (1706) is nearly as close to Dante's and Chaucer's 14th century as it is to the present. That makes the US seem positively ancient, not really a New World at all any more. On the other hand, to know that Ronald Reagan's birth (in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911) is closer to Waterloo (1815) than it is to us makes the country sound as if it were just founded. How recent a problem is the automobile? Well, the first car that Karl Benz manufactured (1885) is as close to the reign of George II (1727-60) as it is to us. How modern an ideology is communism? Marx's and Engels's Communist Manifesto (1848) is closer to the English and Scottish Stuart monarchy (which ended with the Glorious Revolution in 1688) than to us.
As Caldwell points out, our collective understanding of history mirrors the way that we understand past events in our own lives. Whether a particular event or phenomenon seems close or far away in time depends in large part on whether or not we experienced it personally:
. . . The older events are, the vaguer they get, but things you have lived through remain vivid. A pop song that was a hit seven years after you were born is wrapped up in all kinds of memories and associations. A pop song that was a hit seven years before you were born is part of the history you need to be told about. Particularly if you don't read much, it gets stored in the same mnemonic trivia bin that holds the epigrams of Marcus Aurelius, the Norman conquest, the Mona Lisa, the UK's General Strike of 1926 and "Yes, We Have No Bananas."

But there is another way in which this acceleration of time is not an illusion but a reality. Although we organise our lives around time measured chronometrically, chronometry is not the way we instinctively measure time.

The relevant instinctual unit we use to reckon time's passage is the lifetime - not some hypothetical lifetime drawn from actuarial tables, but your actual lifetime as you understand it concretely at a given moment.

So for a six-year-old, a year takes up a sixth of a lifetime, and that is a vast amount of time - think of how much you learn, how much you can change in a sixth of a lifetime. That's 10 times as much "time" as a 60-year-old can fit into the span of a year. The more the years pass, the narrower they look as spaces for living life in.
The above explanation of things makes sense to me, though I'll admit that it's a bit odd to realize that the year I graduated high school was closer to the presidency of Ronald Reagan than that of Barack Obama, or that the year I started kindergarden was closer to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy than to the present. Indeed, I can even say that my birth year is closer in time to the reign of Pope Pius XII than to that of Pope Benedict XVI. None of this makes me any older than I did before, but I can say I've acquired a somewhat deeper appreciation of the interplay of time and memory. AMDG.