Friday, December 31, 2010

No surprises.

This is the final post of the calendar year, posted automatically while I'm attending an annual gathering of young Jesuits at Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan (for a report on last year's meeting, click here). This evening, my brother Jesuits and I will celebrate New Year's Eve with a service of Eucharistic adoration and benediction ending in the traditional Te Deum, a festive dinner, and a late-night gathering for drinks and snacks to mark the passage from one year to another.

Though I look forward to this evening's festivities, I generally think of New Year's Eve as an opportunity for reflection rather than celebration - a time to pause and examine how one has lived one's life over the past twelve months and to consider what may happen in the next twelve. In harmony with this view of New Year's Eve, my innate preference is to spend at least part of the evening in quiet solitude - reading, perhaps listening to some music, and thinking about the year just ended and the year about to begin.

I don't know a thing about the Alcantara Piano Quartet, an ensemble you can see and hear in the above video, but their instrumental version of Radiohead's "No Surprises" strikes me as appropriate music for New Year's Eve. To all readers, I extend my best wishes for today and the coming year. See you in 2011! AMDG.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Northeastern United States was battered earlier this week by a major winter storm that left many people unexpectedly housebound and stranded thousands of weary travelers at major airports. Despite all of this, on Monday I managed to drive from my parents' house in Massachusetts to my residence in Philadelphia in only six hours, a feat made possible by mostly well-plowed and ice-free highways (the only real exception being the New Jersey Turnpike, which was a slushy, snowy mess) and sparse traffic. Deo gratias.

Though I made it to Massachusetts and back without difficulty, my winter travels are not yet finished: later today, I'll be flying to Detroit for a three-day gathering of Jesuits in formation, and after a week back in Philadelphia I'll take off again for a short visit to Chicago. An unexpected storm could wreak havoc with these plans, so I'll be praying fervently for good weather in the coming days.

As a musical offering to the primal forces that govern the universe, here is the first movement of Antonio Vivaldi's L'inverno (Winter) from Le quattro stagioni. This performance features the English Chamber Orchestra with Gidon Kremer ("when he had hair," as my father might say) as leader and soloist. Vivaldi was a Roman Catholic priest as well as a composer, but I don't know whether or to what extent he regarded his two vocations as complementary; regardless of what the composer may have thought, I present this selection from his work not simply as a reflection on the recent storm but also in thanksgiving for travels safely completed in inclement weather. Whatever the weather may be like in your locale, I hope that you enjoy the music. AMDG.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Iraq.

Christmas celebrations were subdued once again in Iraq this year, as the country's ancient Christan communities continue to mourn the victims of recent attacks and face an increasingly uncertain future. For more on the current situation, consider this report from the Wall Street Journal's Sam Dagher:
Christmas festivities in Mosul, an ancient center for Christianity in Iraq's north, as well as in Baghdad are being shunned in favor of prayers and masses to protest the targeting of Christians, especially in Mosul, one of the most volatile cities in Iraq. Chief on worshipers' minds will be victims of a church siege in Baghdad at the end of October that killed nearly 60 people.

Extremists have targeted Iraqi Christians and their churches repeatedly since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein and sparked a near civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Iraq's relatively peaceful political transition and the approval of a new government this week haven't lessened the sense of persecution among Christians, according to Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, who leads the Chaldean Diocese of Mosul.

"These are the worst and most perilous times" for Christians, Archbishop Nona said in a recent interview.

Since the end of October, almost 1,000 Christian families have fled Baghdad and Mosul to the relative safety of the northern Kurdistan region and the adjacent Nineveh Plain, which is also under de facto Kurdish control, according to a statement issued last week by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR said that between the start of November and last Friday, 400 more Iraqi Christians had fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria.
To read the rest of the WSJ article, click here. You should also read this recent statement from Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, who recently received the 2010 International Prize for Peace from Pax Christi International in recognition of his outspoken defense of religious minorities in an increasingly inhospitable Iraq. Here is some of what Archbishop Sako has to say about this year's "Christmas of mourning" in Iraq:
A sense of sadness and mourning prevails among Christians. There is much concern for the future of young people. For the past two months, they have been unable to go to university. The same is true for many families that fled north who now must plan a future without any concrete bases.

No one expects anything from the government as far as protecting Christians. Political leaders are too caught up in setting up a new administration.

Security is slightly better in Kirkuk than in the capital, but here too abductions and threats occur. For this reason, we have decided for the first time since the war began not to celebrate Midnight Mass. We shall simply not have any feast, period. . . .

Yet, despite everything, we shall pray for peace this Christmas and help the poor families of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. So far, 106 families have arrived from Baghdad and Mosul.

In my [Christmas] homily, I am going to focus on such problems, on the clashes and on people’s fears but also on the fact that Christmas brings a message of hope. Of course, heaven and earth are two different realities. The Massacre of the Innocents followed Christmas. Thus, for us in Iraq, Christmas is a time of hope and joy as well as pain and martyrdom.

Peace is a goal that people of good will should make happen. If we Christians want to be Christian and welcome Christmas and its message, we must be peacemakers, and build harmony among our Iraqi brothers and sisters.
Let us join Archbishop Sako and his community in praying - and working - for peace, and let us pray also for the Christians of Iraq as the continue to share in the sufferings of Christ's Passion in this season of the celebration of the Nativity. AMDG.

NYT: Newcomers revive Russian church in changing Brooklyn neighborhood.

For (New Calendar) Christmas, the New York Times offers a report on the revival of the century-old Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. After seeing its congregation wither as the children and grandchildren of the founding parishioners moved away, Holy Trinity has become vibrant again thanks to the efforts of an energetic pastor who has worked to draw a new wave of Russian immigrants into the church. How did he do it? The NYT's Nida Najar offers some answers:
As the church declined, a succession of priests came and went. But in 2001, the Orthodox Church of [sic: 'in'] America assigned Father [Vladimir] Alexeev, a Siberian-born priest who was in New York for six months to study English at Columbia University, to the church. His placement was temporary — until his bishop told him that Holy Trinity would be closed if he left.

Father Alexeev turned down a professorship at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland, where he had earned a doctorate in theology, to stay in East New York.

He had a plan: repopulate the congregation by reaching out to the new wave of Russian immigrants in the city.

“I thought, ‘What do people need?’ ” he recalled. “They feel lost in a new country with a foreign language and foreign law. They are looking for warmth.” He promoted the church on Russian-language television and radio programs. He made himself available to parishioners, answering their phone calls in the middle of the night.

One of his young recruits, Gleb Ivanov, a well-known concert pianist, can be seen during Sunday services in the choir balcony, singing hymns in his deep baritone. Sometimes, after a service, he plays the grand piano, a recent gift from a wealthy parishioner.

“It is very difficult to find the priest who gives all the time he can give to the church,” said Mr. Ivanov, who moved to the United States five years ago. “If a family is broke, he goes up there and puts it together. If there is some divorce, he goes there and puts it together. I’ve just never seen it before.”

Through Father Alexeev, the church has become a place where many recent immigrants who were raised in the forced secularism of the Soviet era can connect to a past they never knew.
For the rest, click here. The revival of Holy Trinity strikes me as noteworthy given the struggles that many other urban parishes (Catholic as well as Orthodox) face as the ethnic communities that founded them leave their traditional neighborhoods and becomes less connected to the institutions that their immigrant ancestors founded when they came to the United States. (For more on this issue, see this post from January.)

The arrival of a new wave of Russian immigrants to New York has obviously played a key role in the renewal of Holy Trinity, and I know of other instances in which a new influx of members of the founding group has helped to rejuvenate ethnic parishes. In most cases, however, churches in straits similar to the ones that Holy Trinity faced a decade ago cannot count on a similar infusion of new blood from the old country. Sometimes, the revitalization of traditionally ethnic parishes actually depends on new parishioners who do not belong to the founding ethnic group; this sort of movement brings its own challenges and tensions, but it can also give old churches a new lease on life.

Even if the revival of Holy Trinity depends partly on uniquely local circumstances, Father Vladimir's example of dedication to pastoral care and evangelization remains one that could be emulated elsewhere. A pastor can do a great deal to make or break a parish, and in some cases (Holy Trinity apparently being one of them) the right pastor can restore a dying church back to health. I pray that Father Vladimir's efforts will continue to bear great fruit, and I pray that other priests may learn from his example. AMDG.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jauchzet, frohlocket!

For your listening pleasure and prayerful reflection this Christmas Day, I am happy to present the opening chorus of Johann Sebastian Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248, performed here by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. For readers interested in such things, this is a 1981 recording (hence all the shaggy hair) made at the Stiftskirche in Waldhausen im Strudengau, Austria.

Here are the words to the chorus Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, first in German and then in an English translation provided by the indispensable Bach Cantatas Website:

Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!


Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day,
praise what today the highest has done!
Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation,
begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation!
Serve the highest with glorious choirs,
let us honour the name of our ruler!

Again, prayers and best wishes to all. Frohe Weihnachten! AMDG.

A new and wondrous mystery.

In keeping with the tradition of this blog, having returned from Midnight Mass I would like to pass along my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and share a portion of a Nativity sermon preached by 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! Glorify him! AMDG.

Friday, December 24, 2010

On Christmas Eve.

To cheer readers who may be visiting this blog on Christmas Eve, here is the Sussex Carol, a traditional English Christmas song, performed above by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. The authorship of this very old song remains uncertain, but the following words were collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams early in the twentieth century:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"

May this carol bring you joy and consolation, and may the peace and blessings of this holy night be with all who read these lines. Merry Christmas! AMDG.

Snoopy's Christmas.

Much tends to be written at this time of year about the lamentable secularization of Christmas and even about the War on Christmas. I won't enter into any of those debates in this post, the first of two that I have planned for Christmas Eve. Instead, I'd like to make some space for a 'secular' Christmas song that I always look forward to hearing at this time of year: "Snoopy's Christmas" by The Royal Guardsmen, which can be heard in the above YouTube video.

My reasons for liking "Snoopy's Christmas" are easy to explain. My fascination with the First World War is such that I can't help but enjoy a song that mentions the Red Baron and pays indirect tribute to the Christmas Truce of 1914. I'm also hopeful that the yearly playing of this song may lead at least a handful of listeners to be more mindful of a period of history that I think is worth caring about. At the same time, I also believe that a cheerfully silly but ultimately earnest song like "Snoopy's Christmas" can help prepare us for the joy of the Nativity in a way that many other secular 'holiday' songs cannot.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! AMDG.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

NPR: ". . . habits are the new radical."

Though I should be packing for my trip, I couldn't pass on the opportunity to share a very positive NPR story on the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville, Tennessee. I suspect that many readers of this blog know a thing or two about the Nashville Dominicans, but those who do not may learn something from the first few paragraphs of this report by NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty:
For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.

The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 — four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.

They enter the chapel without saying a word, the swish of their long white habits the only sound. It is 5:30 in the morning, pitch black outside — but inside, the chapel is candescent as more than 150 women kneel and pray and fill the soaring sanctuary with their ghostly songs of praise.

A few elderly sisters sit in wheelchairs, but most of these sisters have unlined faces and are bursting with energy. Watching them, you wonder what would coax these young women to a strict life of prayer, teaching, study and silence.

And did they always want to be nuns?

"No," says Sister Beatrice Clark, laughing. "I didn't know they still existed."

Clark, who is 27, says she became aware of the religious life when she was a student at Catholic University in Washington. In her junior year, she began feeling that God was drawing her to enter a convent. Over Thanksgiving vacation in 2004, she broke the news to her family.

"My parents just sat there and looked at me," she says. "And they cried. And I said, 'I think I'm supposed to enter soon.' And my father said, 'This is the time of life to take leaps.' "

She joined the Nashville Dominicans on her 22nd birthday.
One of the things that I really like about this story is that it makes the point (not always apparent in some media coverage on vocations) that religious life is a viable option for intelligent and well-adjusted young people who could have opted for successful careers in the secular work world if their hearts hadn't led them elsewhere. Consider, for example, what Hagerty writes about Kelsey Wicks, a onetime Notre Dame basketball standout now known as Sister Joan of Arc:
[Wicks] says she worked on refugee issues after college, then received a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School. But her plans shifted when she went on a medical mission trip: In Africa she saw abject physical poverty, but it was nothing compared with the impoverishment she saw when she came home.

"When I came back to the U.S., I saw our true poverty of the heart and of the mind. And I saw the loneliness," she says. "It really made me give my life to the church, so I was more open to the advances of God when he asked, 'Lay down your life!' "

Her parents did not share her certainty.

"I remember my mother sent me Notre Dame Law School bumper stickers when I was deciding, because she did not want me to pass up that opportunity," she says with a laugh.

Sister Joan of Arc forsook law — but not basketball, entirely. Now in her second year, she regularly drills her sisters on the court behind the convent. They dribble and shoot in their long habits — the first-year postulates [sic: postulants] in black, the second-year novices in white. And when they break into the three teams — Our Lady of Victory, Cecilia and the Martyrs — they scream and chant with a fierce competitiveness that is not all that, well, sisterly.
The Nashville Dominicans may be smart and devout, but Hagerty effectively makes the point that they're also normal people who like to have fun. She also points out the positive effect that they're apparently having on students in the schools where they have their primary apostolate:
Catholic bishops beg the Nashville Dominicans to send their young sisters to their parochial schools, and more than 100 of them now teach in 34 schools in 13 states. The sisters are a big hit with the students as well because they don't fit the stereotype.

"You hear stories from your parents about getting spanked with rulers and stuff, and that's not true at all," says Breanne Lampert, one of [Sister Beatrice] Clark's sophomores [at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville]. "But seeing the sisters here compared to other schools — they're so much younger. I don't know, they understand you really well."

"The young sisters are really inspiring," says Brady Diaz-Barriga, "because you're like, 'Oh, I could never do that. I just love Facebook and my cell phone and my computer too much to give that up!' But you see how much joy your life can be with less and not having all of that."

Isabelle Aparicio says the young sisters' lives have a surprising appeal. "Seeing these young women make these really hard decisions and then seeing so many of them make it, it's kind of inspiring," she says. "And it's actually made me think about it, possibly."
To read the rest of the article, click here. I hope that Barbara Bradley Hagerty's story on a dynamic group of young religious sisters leads NPR listeners and readers to think more positively about vocations in general. At the very least, I'd say that this story makes for a fine Christmas gift from NPR. AMDG.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jesuit reading.

As I prepare to drive to Massachusetts tomorrow to spend Christmas with my family, I'd like to make brief mention of two new Jesuit blogs that may be of interest to some readers. One is the work of a Jesuit novice who hopes to profess First Vows this coming year, while the other is written by a Jesuit priest who will soon begin tertianship, the stage of formation which prepares Jesuits to profess Final Vows in the Society of Jesus. Taken together, these two blogs provide a glimpse of Jesuit formation at both "ends" - during the novitiate, and during tertianship.

The first blog, Going Forth, is the work of John Roselle, a second-year novice of the Wisconsin Province. In his posts so far, John has written about life in the novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota and has offered sundry reflections on topics spiritual and theological. In January, John will begin his Long Experiment working in campus ministry at John Carroll University in Cleveland; I'm sure that John will write more on that and other topics in the coming months, so keep an eye on Going Forth for updates. More importantly, please pray for John Roselle and his brother novices as they continue their discernment and prepare to apply for First Vows in the Society.

The second blog, simply titled Fr Jack SJ MD, is the work of Father Jack Siberski, a Jesuit of the New England Province who will begin the seven-month experience of tertianship in Australia in January. Jack began his Jesuit life later than most - he was just short of 48 when he entered the novitiate - and he came into the Society after two decades as a practicing physician. A geriatric psychiatrist by training, Jack has spent the last seven years at Georgetown teaching in the medical school and seeing patients regularly at the university hospital. Jack is also a friend of mine, so I'll be following his adventures in tertianship with particular interest. As with the novices, I ask you to join me in praying for Father Jack Siberski and his fellow tertians as they go through the 'third probation' of tertianship.

Finally, I offer my prayers for you, readers, at a time of year that many find hectic, draining and maybe even somber as well as (or perhaps rather than) joyful and restful. Please pray for me, too, as I prepare to take to the traffic-clogged highways of the Northeast during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. AMDG.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fifteen authors, part two.

Picking up where I left off, here is the second half of my response to the 'fifteen authors' meme. If you're coming to this post without having read the first half, or if you would simply like to review its contents, click here before reading further. For the sake of clarity and convenience, here is a restatement of the rules of the meme:
15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.
The first seven authors are listed chronologically in order I first read them in my earlier post, together with more or less detailed explanations of my experience with each author's work. My treatment of the final eight authors will be somewhat briefer, mainly because I'd never finish this post if I tried to do otherwise. So, without further delay, here are the remaining eight authors promised earlier:

8. WILLIAM DALRYMPLE is a Scottish travel writer and popular historian whom I encountered by way of his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (the U.S. edition received a different subtitle - A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East - which offers a concise summary of the book's narrative content but is nonetheless much less enchanting than A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium). From the Holy Mountain remains the only one of Dalrymple's eight books that I've read, but that one work had enough of an impact on me to earn its author a spot on this list.

A vivid, thoughtful and often highly poignant travel narrative lamenting the steady decline of the world’s oldest Christian communities, From the Holy Mountain confirmed and deepened my longstanding if sometimes latent attraction to Eastern Christianity. My first reading of Dalrymple's book took place after, in in some sense in reaction to, a trip to the Holy Land in March of 2000 during which I had a number of vivid (and, to be quite candid, life-changing) encounters with Christian communities that are (to quote the title of another book) 'dying in the land of promise.'

Writing about From the Holy Mountain leads me to recall a particular encounter that I had ten years ago in Jerusalem, a conversation with a very elderly Armenian Catholic priest whom I met on the Via Dolorosa. We spoke in French, our only common language. The old priest carried himself with a kind of stoic dignity; born around the time of the Armenian Genocide and long resident in Jerusalem, he had spent a lifetime in the shadow of tragedy and conflict. He spoke matter-of-factly about the worsening conditions of life that had led many local Christians to emigrate, and he admitted that discrimination and harassment were a daily reality. As for acts of violence directed against members of his community, the old priest said elliptically, "Il y a des histoires..." Over the past decade, I have often thought of that priest and his words; I never knew his name and I have no idea what happened to him afterward - I presume that he now sleeps in Christ - but our brief meeting has haunted me since. From the Holy Mountain is haunting in its own way, so I very much encourage you to read the book if you have not.

9. I have occasionally written about ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN on this blog, and I regret that I haven't had the time to write even more, as it's hard for me to think of another modern theologian who has done as much to shape my understanding of the Christian life as Father Schmemann. Though I know that I read Schmemann's For the Life of the World for the first time when I was a Jesuit novice, I can't recall exactly how I discovered the book; it may have been suggested to me by a Jesuit priest on the novitate staff who was acquainted with Schmemann's work, or I may have simply found it on my own. In any event, For the Life of the World got me hooked on Schmemann and led me to read as many of his books as I could get my hands on, including The Eucharist, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, and O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?.

Each of the above books has had its own particular influence on my life, but I don't think any of Schmemann's works has had quite as much impact as the Journals that he kept during the last ten years of his life. I would not recommend the Journals to someone who has never read Schmemann before - For the Life of the World is probably the best place to start - but I would recommend them to those who are not only acquainted with the author's work but are also ready for a book that will challenge and perhaps even fundamentally change their view of life in the Church. The Journals are candid, sober and utterly unsentimental, but they are also full of a spirit of true Christian joy which makes many other expressions of that sentiment seem trite and empty by comparison. I ought to write more about this, but (as I've noted before) the most important things in life are often the hardest to write about. If you would like to learn more about Father Schmemann and sample some of his writings, visit this website.

10. METROPOLITAN ANTHONY (BLOOM) OF SOUROZH was another author I discovered in the novitiate, for we had several of his books in our house library and I was eager to read anything I could find on Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Anthony's short books like Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer have a simplicity, directness and practicality that instantly won me over when I first read them; I still return to Beginning to Pray with some frequency, and I happily recommend the book to any readers who may be coming across Metropolitan Anthony's name for the first time. A lot of Metropolitan Anthony's talks, sermons, and shorter writings are available on the Internet - the Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Archive and the Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Library both have a lot of excellent material online, making it particularly easy for the spiritually curious to begin their initiation.

11. The ANONYMOUS AUTHOR of the Russian spiritual classic known variously in English translation as The Way of a Pilgrim or The Pilgrim's Tale is another writer I first came into contact with as a Jesuit novice. (In passing, I should note that this author's identity is no longer the mystery that it once was: careful research and textual analysis by Russian scholar Aleksei Pentkovsky apparently proves that the primary authors of The Pilgrim's Tale were two nineteenth-century monks, Mikhail Kozlov and Arseni Troepolski.) The Pilgrim's Tale amounts to a popular treatise on the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), blending pious exhortation with personal testimony on the fruits of the prayer in the lives of the narrator and other people he meets or hears about. The practice of the Jesus Prayer has traditionally been regarded as a means of reaching the goal of unceasing (and unconscious) prayer; in other words, if the remembrance of God is always on our lips, that remembrance will ultimately rest in our hearts as well. I can hardly say that I pray without ceasing, but the Jesus Prayer is the prayer that I repeat most frequently. Accordingly, I think it would be fair to say that The Pilgrim's Tale (read in this translation) has had an important effect on my life.

12. SAINT ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA is an author I first encountered in graduate courses at Fordham, a fact which gives me some regret as I wish I had begun to read his work much earlier. (In this and other contexts, "better late than never" could serve as the motto of my intellectual life.) Athanasius' Life of Antony and On the Incarnation of the Word each had an immediate and very powerful effect on me when I read them for the first time, albeit in very different ways. The Life of Antony affected me on a primarily intellectual level, deepening an ongoing interest in the history of Christian asceticism and monasticism and leading me to read more (and think more) about the topic. On the Incarnation held considerable intellectual interest as well, but it also moved me on a much more affective level: this, I felt, was quite simply the best exposition of the core of the Christian faith that I had ever read. I still feel that way today, and I try to make time to read On the Incarnation over again each year at Christmas. When I head home to Massachusetts in a couple of days, my well-worn SVS Press copy of On the Incarnation will be going with me.

13. Continuing the "better late than never" theme, SAINT BENEDICT OF NURSIA is another author I read for the first time at Fordham. I never gave much thought to becoming a Benedictine when I was discerning my vocation; for me, the Jesuits were always the only show in town. That being said, for virtually as long as I've known the Jesuits I've also had some interest in monasticism and even made a couple of retreats at a Benedictine monastery and visited scores of others. When I did decide to enter the Society of Jesus, a couple of people I knew told me that they weren't surprised I had chosen to pursue a religious vocation but that they had expected me to become a Benedictine. In spite of all of this, I somehow managed to avoid reading the Rule of Saint Benedict until after I had completed my novitiate in the Society, professed vows, and gone off to study philosophy in New York.

That being said, Benedict's Rule really threw me for a loop when I read it for the first time. The Rule seemed to reflect a realistic appreciation of human frailty and imperfection that I found very appealing - here, I thought, was an eminently humane approach to asceticism. Reading the Rule as a Jesuit, I could not help but see a contrast between Benedict's apparent realism and the idealism that permeates the Constitutions and other instructions by St. Ignatius of Loyola. There is a subtle point to be made here which stands in need of greater elucidation and development, so I had better stop there and leave further consideration of this topic for another time.

14. Macrina Walker correctly states that the DESERT FATHERS really cannot be considered "an author"; even so, Macrina and I both have an acknowledged debt to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, also known as the Apophthegmata Patrum. Reading the Apophthegmata had been on my 'to do' list for several years before I actually tackled the text, though I should note that I read a variety of ancient ascetical and monastic texts before attempting this one, including John Moschos' Spiritual Meadow (which I was inspired to pick up on account of frequent mentions in William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain) and The History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus as well as sundry scholarly works focused on the period in which the Desert Fathers lived, such as Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, Ramsay MacMullen's Christianizing the Roman Empire and Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, and Pierre Chuvin's A Chronicle of the Last Pagans.

(As an aside, I'd like to note that my once-intense interest in the historical process by which Christianity replaced various traditional Mediterranean religions reflects a broader - and still very strong - interest in the nature of cultural and social change. One book that helped to further stimulate this interest and deals with a context other than Late Antiquity is Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic. Another work on related but more contemporary themes that has affected me very strongly is a book by Dutch journalist Geert Mak that was originally published as Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd - "How God disappeared from Jorwerd" - but found itself rechristened in English translation as Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe and, more recently, An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village. No matter what title you find it under, Mak's book deserves your attention.)

Getting back to the Desert Fathers, what has impressed me most about them is their utterly direct and unvarnished honesty. There is nothing saccharine or romantic about the spirituality of the Apophthegmata; in this text, one finds the stories of men (and some women, of course - there were Desert Mothers as well) dedicated to following God in a very harsh and difficult environment. Spiritual tourists expecting pious and edifying words of salvation from the desert ascetics of the Apophthegmata more often received stern admonishments, sometimes delivered with what seems like a dose of ironic wit. Not having the book or my notes on the text in front of me, the best I can offer right now by way of example is contained in this post from last year.

15. In a sense, this list comes full circle with CHARLES REIS FELIX. Like Herman Melville, the first author on the list, Charles Reis Felix produced a masterpiece set in New Bedford, the city of my birth. Unlike the New York-born Melville, though, Felix is actually a New Bedford native; in his evocative and sprawling memoir Through a Portagee Gate, Felix describes what it was like to grow up as the son of Portuguese immigrants in New Bedford in the 1930s and '40s. Felix is also the author of a second memoir recalling his service as an infantryman during World War II (Crossing the Sauer) and two autobiographical novels (Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 and Tony: A New England Boyhood), but I think that Through a Portagee Gate ought to be considered his greatest work, in part because its descriptions of New Bedford are almost the best to be found (I say "almost" only to acknowledge the peerless greatness of Moby-Dick - after that book, Through a Portagee Gate is probably the greatest literary work with ties to New Bedford).

So there's the rest of the list. Once again, I'm sorry that it took me so long to get the whole thing posted. Hopefully you'll find something here that you've never read (or perhaps even heard of) and might want to pick up. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lacrimosa dies illa.

This is not the continuation of the 'fifteen authors' post, though that long-promised sequel really is on its way. My experience as a writer (outside as well as within the blogosphere) has been that the more introspective a piece of writing is, the longer it takes to produce - I tend to be even more of a perfectionist than usual when writing about my personal history or about aspects of my interior life, and it often takes me a frustratingly long time to put my thoughts on these topics into words that I would willingly submit for public consumption. I have been making incremental progress on part two of the fifteen authors post since I posted the first part, and I hope to have something to present by the end of this week.

I've had less time than usual for blogging in the last couple of weeks on account of the usual crush of activity that comes at the end of an academic term. This is exam week at Saint Joseph's University, so I'm currently working my way through piles of papers and bluebooks. The time of finals can be harrowing for students and teachers alike, which leads me to the musical selection shared above. If I had to choose a liturgical text that fits the general mood of exam week, it would probably be the following section of the sequence Dies Irae from the Latin Requiem Mass:

Lacrimosa dies illa
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. Amen.

For those who may want an English translation of the above lines, the following does so in terms more literal than lyrical:

Tearful that day,
on which will rise from ashes
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God:
Compassionate Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

The text of the Latin Requiem Mass has been set to music countless times, and I suspect that many readers could name their favorite settings of individual sections of the text as well as their overall 'favorite Requiem.' Saint-Saëns famously regarded the Pie Jesu from Fauré's Requiem as "the only Pie Jesu." At times, I have similarly thought of the Lacrimosa from Verdi's Messa da Requiem as the only Lacrimosa; this is admittedly only one of many fine settings of the Lacrimosa, but it's also the one that I (usually) find the most moving.

If you haven't heard Verdi's Lacrimosa - or if you simply haven't heard it for a while, or if you want to hear it again - then I invite you to watch and listen to the video above. In this recording from the 1980s, Herbert von Karajan leads the Wiener Philharmoniker and the combined forces of the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor and the Chorus of the Sofia National Opera together with soloists Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, and José van Dam. There are other great recordings of the Verdi Requiem to choose from, but this remains one of my favorites.

Prayers and good wishes to all readers for whom this is a particularly busy or stressful time, especially to those who are either writing or grading term papers and exams. May these days of academic judgment be not tearful - or at least no more tearful than absolutely necessary. AMDG.

Monday, December 06, 2010

S-T: Another SouthCoast synagogue set to close.

Following up on a story that I shared here in October about the anticipated closing of New Bedford's Ahavath Achim Synagogue, this past weekend the New Bedford Standard-Times offered a similar report on another Jewish congregation in nearby Fall River:
In 1966, Jeffrey Weissman attended a Rosh Hashanah service at Fall River's Congregation Adas Israel that was standing-room only. Now, with a congregation that is moving, aging and dying — and a Hebrew school that long ago fell silent — the synagogue where he married his wife, Janet, is for sale.

"If we keep this building, we're only going to be here three more years," said Weissman, the synagogue's president. "We'll be out of money by then."

If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is. Weissman's confirmation that the Robeson Street synagogue is on the market comes on the heels of an announcement by officials at fellow Orthodox synagogue Ahavath Achim that it will close by year's end. Together, the Fall River and New Bedford congregations tell the tale of two synagogues with rich pasts and uncertain futures.

. . .

The board of directors at Adas Israel, which was born decades ago from the merging of several synagogues, hasn't yet decided to close. But Weissman recently estimated the membership is down to about 100 people, including people in nursing homes.

"The average age right now is probably about 87," he said. "I'm 68, and I'm a baby."

This stands in stark contrast from 1960s-era photos, which depict a crowd of middle-aged couples at the synagogue.

"Ninety-nine percent of (them) aren't even here anymore," said Weissman, who is in charge of Fall River's two Orthodox Jewish cemeteries. "I remember burying a lot of them."
To read the rest, click here.  To repeat what I said in response to October's story on Ahavath Achim, reports like these remind us that the oft-reported decline in religious involvement by Catholics in the United States is part of a broader social phenomenon that affects all religious groups. Some religious leaders, rank-and-file believers, and public commentators cling to a version of American exceptionalism which presumes that this country's religious consciousness will remain robust while other 'highly developed' nations become more secular. The truth is that American society is becoming more secular, albeit at its own pace and in its own way. Those of us who care about the future of religion in the United States would do well to recognize this reality and to thoughtfully (and prayerfully) reflect on our role as people of faith in an increasingly secular society. AMDG.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fifteen authors, part one.

Better late than never (or so I hope), here is the first half of a two-part response to the fifteen authors meme that Macrina tagged me with a while back. The rules of the meme are as follows:
15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.
It didn't take me long to come up with a list of fifteen authors, but it has taken me longer than I would have liked to find the time to respond in a way that does justice to Macrina's request and doesn't merely consist of a list of names. With apologies for the delay in my response, I must note that I would be happy to hear from Macrina and other readers who may be interested in the authors and titles listed.

This is the first of two 'fifteen authors' posts; the first seven authors are presented below, with the remaining eight discussed in another post. Following Macrina's lead, I've arranged the list in roughly chronological order by the time in my life when I first read the author in question. I have elected not to tag anyone else, but readers who wish to follow in my footsteps are welcome to do so.

1. HERMAN MELVILLE is an author that I've been aware of since childhood, largely because the first few chapters of Moby-Dick are set in the city of my birth and because the novel has long held an important place in local lore. Having read a comic book version of Moby-Dick in fifth grade, in junior high school I decided to read the real thing - on my own, and not because it was assigned for class. In high school, I reread Moby-Dick alongside other great American classics by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. (In general, we were assigned very little that was written after the nineteenth century, and very little - Cooper's work was a major exception - that was written outside of New England; this fact offers one explanation why, to this day, I've never read anything written by Ernest Hemingway, and only one book by John Steinbeck.)

Of all the New England classics I read in high school, Moby-Dick is far and away the book that influenced me most. Melville's magnum opus is more than the account of an ill-fated whaling voyage - Moby-Dick is a book about everything, a extended rumination on faith and doubt, obsession and longing, and the meaning of human existence. I try to reread Moby-Dick from start to finish every few years, but in between I often return to sections that I particularly enjoy for one reason or another, like Ishmael's description of the "insular city of the Manhattoes" in Chapter One, Father Mapple's sermon in Chapter Nine ("... what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"), amusing tangents like the scene at the "Golden Inn" in Lima in Chapter Fifty-Four, and, above all, the destruction of the Pequod, "which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her," after which "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

2. GEORGE ORWELL is an author I encountered almost as early in life as I did Herman Melville. Animal Farm was assigned reading in my fifth grade class, a fact that now surprises me though it naturally did not when I was ten years old. Soon afterward I read Nineteen Eighteen-Four on my own, which doesn't surprise me as I read a lot of literature that way in my bookish and intellectually precocious childhood. I don't remember why I liked Orwell so much, but I was sufficiently taken with his work to read several of his lesser-known books by the time I reached high school, including Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia.

Down and Out in Paris and London has left a stronger imprint on my consciousness than any of Orwell's other books, thanks largely to its extraordinary vivid depiction of life in the Parisian slums (for some reason, the London section of the book isn't nearly as interesting). One episode that remains etched in my memory concerns a self-declared atheist who seeks to end five days of hunger by praying before what he believes to be an image of a local saint: "Dear Sainte Éloise, if you exist, please send me some money... to buy some bread and a bottle of wine to get my strength back." With help from a friend, the atheist quickly finds the money that he needs for a meal. Briefly convinced of the power of prayer, the atheist quickly abandons his newfound faith when his friend informs him that what he thought to be a holy image was really a portrait of "Suzanne May, the famous prostitute of the Empire." As a skeptical youth, I regarded this episode as proof of the inefficacy of prayer. On a more recent reading, however, the atheist's prayer struck me as both sincere and truly answered even if the image he first saw as Sainte Éloise really bore the likeness of Suzanne May.

3. RYSZARD KAPUŚCIŃSKI is another writer whom I read in high school, but in this case almost entirely for fun. Polish journalist Kapuściński spent four decades as a roving correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, during which time he "witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times," as the author blurb on the English-language editions of his books consistently proclaimed. The best known of Kapuściński's works to be published in English is likely The Emperor, a meditation on the fall of Ethiopia's longtime monarch Haile Selassie that Kapuściński partly intended as an allegorical portrait of Poland under Communism. In this book as well as works like Shah of Shahs (on Iran's Islamic Revolution) and Another Day of Life (on the last days of Portuguese rule in Angola), Kapuściński tried to give a voice to ordinary and generally powerless people seeking to carry on with their lives amid political upheaval. Some critics have taken Kapuściński to task for various factual inaccuracies in his work, but this initiator and master of a genre he called "literary reportage" was always less concerned with cataloguing specific facts than with conveying what he saw as broader truths concering human existence.

I started discussing Kapuściński by noting that I began reading his work "almost entirely for fun," a statement that invites further explanation. I first discovered Kapuściński in the course of doing research for a high school paper on Haile Selassie (this was in the days when research was still almost entirely rooted in card catalogues and bound periodical indexes). Reading The Emperor got me hooked, and I quickly read everything else I could find by Kapuściński. As a teenager with a thirst for foreign travel and a particular desire to go to Africa (where I still have not been, alas), I was enthralled by Kapuściński's accounts of a fascinating and sometimes dangerous world. In time, I came to savor the literary craft of his work even as I continued to enjoy his accounts of harrowing escapes and meetings with unusual people. In college, I passed on the chance to hear Kapuściński speak at the National Press Club in order to write a paper or study for an exam; to my eternal regret, I thereby lost my only opportunity to encounter Kapuściński in person - he died in 2007 - and the fact that I can no longer remember what exactly I had to write or study for that evening perhaps confirms that I made the wrong choice. All of Kapuściński's books deserve to be read and reread, but for some reason the one I like most is Another Day of Life.

4. It's probably to be expected that a Jesuit would list SAINT IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA among the authors who had most influenced his life. The first work by St. Ignatius that I read was the Spiritual Exercises, a book that people are usually urged not to read outside the context of a retreat. As a Jesuit novice I would 'make the Exercises' in the traditional sense, but my first encounter with the text came in a course on Ignatian spirituality that I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown. My initial reading of the Exercises was less focused on the dynamics of the retreat experience than on the theology embedded in the text and particularly on Ignatius' Christology. I can't say that this course had much influence upon my decision to enter the Society - I had begun thinking about a vocation sometime before that - but I suppose it's worth noting that I first read the Exercises in an academic context.

In addition to making the Long Retreat as a novice, my experiences in Jesuit formation so far have given me abundant opportunity to study the writings of our founder. In the novitiate, we were expected to read some of Ignatius' letters (some readers may be surprised to learn that most of the more than 6800 surviving letters by Ignatius have yet to be translated into English; the most complete English-language edition so far is a collection of 370 'letters and instructions' edited by Father John Padberg) as well as selections from the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Though it wasn't expected of us as novices, I decided to read the full text of the Constitutions before taking vows so that I could more truthfully promise (in line with the words of the vow formula) that "I understand all these things according to the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus."

If I were pressed to select my 'favorite' among Ignatius' works, I would probably have to choose the Autobiography that Ignatius dictated to Portuguese Jesuit Luis Gonçalves da Câmara during his last years in Rome. Scarcely one hundred pages in length, the Autobiography offers a concise account of Ignatius' conversion as well as the events that led to the foundation and approbation of the Society of Jesus. The Autobiography covers only about a third of Ignatius' life: the reader learns nothing of Ignatius' pre-conversion activities beyond the fact that he was "a man given to worldly vanities . . . having a vain and overpowering desire to gain renown," and the text is likewise silent on Ignatius' years as General of the Society. In spite of these omissions, the Autobiography offers a uniquely direct and lively sense of Ignatius' personality and human qualities, which is why it's usually the first book that I recommend to people who want to know more about the Society of Jesus and its founder.

5. It would be wrong to say that JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J. has influenced me primarily as a writer, for the first and most significant way in which he impacted my life was as a classroom teacher at Georgetown. Classes with Father Schall were as unique as they were unforgettable; he almost never lectured, preferring to proceed according to the method of asking a series of questions directed at individual students (who were always called at whim and not because they had volunteered, and who were always addressed in the classroom by their family names), and at the end of the semester he shook hands with each student, thanked him or her for taking the course, and offered best wishes for the future. Father Schall is also the only teacher I ever had who assigned precise and specific paper topics to every student in the class without asking the students themselves what they were interested in writing on; thus, for example, I was tasked with writing a paper discussing the views of John of Salisbury on tyrannicide - a topic that I never would have thought to write about on my own, but one that proved sufficiently interesting to me that I went on to write a number of other papers in college, law school, and graduate school concerning the views that various ancient and medieval thinkers held on whether or not tyrannical rulers could licitly be killed by their subjects. It's not for nothing that many Georgetown undergraduates and alumni proudly say that they "majored in Schall" - that is, that they took as many of his courses as they possibly could.

Though Father Schall influenced me first and foremost as a teacher, I have derived substantial benefit from reading some of his many books. Another Sort of Learning was the first Schall book that I ever read, and probably a good start for anyone who has not yet read any of Schall's work but would like to know what he has to say; beyond that, his various collections of essays like The Distinctiveness of Christianity, Idylls and Rambles, and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs are all worth reading. As an aside, I could also point out that Father Schall writes frequently for The Hoya and other student publications at Georgetown, and his meditations on aspects of life on the Hilltop are perhaps the most eloquent pieces of writing concerning Georgetown that I've ever encountered; I once told him that he should collect some of these essays in a book called Schall on Georgetown, though I fear that the audience for such a work would be limited enough to discourage most publishers from printing it.

Though I've derived great benefit from Father Schall's various books and essays, I think my old prof would be pleased to know that I've reaped even greater rewards from the many other authors whose works I first delved into under his tutelage or at his suggestion. This list includes the major works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as well as such gems as Christopher Dawson's Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Josef Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life, and an unforgettable little book by Régine Pernoud called Those Terrible Middle Ages! (Pernoud's thesis, as perhaps the exclamation point in the title subtly lets on, is that the Middle Ages were really far from terrible.) All of these books have enriched my life, but having known the teacher who introdued me to all of them has enriched me to an even greater degree.

6. Australian writer GERARD WINDSOR was another discovery of my college years. I've only read one of his books - a book that I came upon entirely by chance while browsing the stacks at Georgetown's Lauinger Memorial Library - yet that book has had a strong and enduring impact on my life. Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit is a memoir of the seven years that Windsor spent as a Jesuit in the 1960s, moving from his entrance into the novitiate as an eighteen year-old in 1963 to his departure at the end of the decade. Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit is shot through with a special kind of wistful affection that makes it quite unlike any other book I've ever read - in an odd and unexpected way, this obscure little book from Australia probably had a greater impact on my decision to enter the Society of Jesus than any of the other books that I read while discerning my vocation. The only way that I can explain this is to say that Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit conveys the essential poignancy of religious life better than anything else I've ever read, and that this book helped me convince myself that the vocational stirrings that I felt were worth acting upon.

7. WALTER J. CISZEK, S.J. is yet another author whose name I first heard at Georgetown, though I didn't read his two books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me until after I arrived at Notre Dame. The first American Jesuit to be ordained in the Byzantine Rite, Father Ciszek spent much of his religious and priestly life engaged in clandestine ministry in the Soviet Union. Arrested by the NKVD in 1941, Father Ciszek spent five years in Lubianka and a decade in the Siberian gulags before being released from hard labor in 1955. Though Soviet authorities had ordered him to cease his pastoral ministry, after his release Father Ciszek spent several years serving underground 'parishes' in several Siberian cities before returning to the United States in 1963 as part of a Cold War prisoner exchange. Back in his home country, Father Ciszek produced the aforementioned books and spent the remaining two decades of his life giving retreats and serving as a spiritual director.

While I was at Georgetown, Father Tom King suggested that I read With God in Russia as part of my discernment of a possible vocation to the Jesuits. After graduating from college and moving halfway across the country to attend law school, I finally followed this advice and liked With God in Russia enough that I decided to read He Leadeth Me as well. While my personal experiences with Jesuits played a much larger role in my decision to enter the Society than any books that I read (including Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit), I nonetheless found great inspiration in the story of Walter Ciszek, a self-described "tough Pole" from a Pennsylvania mining town who managed to combine an exemplary gentleness and humility with the strength and guile needed to survive years of imprisonment and exile behind the Iron Curtain. Having read each of Ciszek's books over again since I entered the Jesuits, I've found that I get even more out of them now that I'm able to relate Ciszek's words a bit more to my own lived experience.

My thanks to readers who have been patient enough to read this lengthy post all the way to the end. With gratitude for your continued indulgence, I ask you to stay tuned for part two. AMDG.