Sunday, October 30, 2011


The above video presents part of the Byzantine memorial service for the dead, known as the parastás in Greek and the panikhida in Church Slavonic, celebrated here in both Slavonic and French at the Paroisse catholique russe de la Très-Sainte Trinité in Paris. If you would like to read an English text of the panikhida, click here; for more background on the service itself, click here. (And if you're viewing this post using Google Reader and cannot see the video, click here.)

Even if you don't understand the languages heard in the above video, I hope that you will be able to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of the service and its music. For example, starting at the 8'15" mark in this video, you can hear the traditional Kievan melody for the Kontakion of the Departed, which, in my particular judgment, may be the single most beautiful piece of music ever composed - at the very least, it's certainly the most beautiful music that I've ever heard.

At this time of the year, many Christians pray in a special way for the faithful departed. Roman Catholic readers will likely know that the Feasts of All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2) fall this week. In the Russian tradition, too, this is a time of remembrance: Demetrius Saturday, a special day of prayer for the dead, is observed annually on the Saturday preceding the Feast of Saint Demetrius; said feast falls on October 26 on the New Calendar and November 8 on the Old, making this year's dates for Demetrius Saturday October 22 (New) and November 5 (Old).

In these days when many of us take time to pray for those who have fallen asleep in Christ, we might choose to make our own the words of the Kontakion of the Departed: With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of your servants, where there is no toil, nor grief, nor sighing, but everlasting life. AMDG.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On the loss of sunset skies.

The Pittsford Perennialist reports that Upstate New York received the season's first snowfall yesterday; it hasn't snowed yet in Philadelphia, but weather reports suggest that it will tomorrow. The change of seasons is already perceptible in other ways: last night's overnight temperatures came close to freezing, while today was the first day of the semester that I felt compelled to wear a wool jacket when I went outside. Until recently, the walk around the Saint Joseph's University campus that I take most evenings after dinner afforded views of sunset skies likes the ones visible in this set of photographs; as the daylight hours become fewer, my evening walk now takes place after dark. Winter isn't here yet, but summer is definitely gone.

The intent of this post isn't merely to note the change of seasons, but also to share a series of photos that I took one evening on my regular walk around Hawk Hill. Though I didn't get around to downloading them from my camera until today, these photos were taken just over a month ago - when the daylight hours still lingered long into the evening. I offer these images as a kind of visual elegy for the loss of summer, a memorial to a time of year that has regrettably gone by.

As Jack Siberski once observed in one of his photo-filled posts from Australia, "The challenge of taking photos at sunrise or sunset is time." The moments when clouds and sunlight combine in a way that makes for a good image tend to pass by quickly, so one must be ready to capture them while one can. There were several evenings before the one when I took these photos that I set out for my walk, noticed the beauty of the sky along the way, and I thought, "I really should bring my camera with me sometime." When I finally did bring my camera, it was basically an afterthought: I was halfway down the driveway leading to the Jesuit residence when I looked at the sky, realized it was now or never, and went back to the house to get my camera before I proceeded any further. These photos are the result of that premeditated yet ultimately impulsive decision.

The railing, lamps and tower visible here are part of an elevated footbridge that connects the two parts of the Saint Joseph's University campus that are separated by City Avenue, a major thoroughfare that cuts between Philadelphia and its Main Line suburbs.

The building visible in silhouette on the right side of this photo is McShain Hall, a large freshman dormitory. I like the way that McShain and the trees to the left look here with the different bands of color in the sky behind.

McShain and trees again, with the sky in the background. One can see that I liked the way these elements went together at sunset!

That's still McShain on the right, but here you can also see City Avenue, if only barely. In this photo, I like the contrast between the fading light of the sunset sky and the headlights and traffic lights at street level.

This is St. Mary's Hall, another SJU domitory. Designed to look like an English country house, St. Mary's was built as a private residence and later became a nursing home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours; with the expansion of the SJU campus, the building was purchased by the university and converted into student housing. An old article in the student newspaper suggests that St. Mary's might be haunted, though I've never heard anyone talk about this in my time on Hawk Hill. In any event, I think the many-chimneyed silhouette of this building looks neat with the evening sky as a backdrop.

This is the one photo is this set in which the sky is seen only in reflection, mirrored in the windows of Bronstein Hall on the SJU campus.

This spire caps the former chapel of Episcopal Academy, a private day school that used to be located next to Saint Joseph's University along City Avenue. In 2008, Episcopal moved to new premises further out in the suburbs, selling its old campus to SJU. When I arrived on Hawk Hill, the old Episcopal chapel still contained some of its former trappings - pews, communion rail, choir stalls - even though it had been officially deconsecrated when its former owners left. Since then, the old chapel has been gutted and transformed into a multipurpose meeting space. All things must end, I suppose, but I still can't pass this old chapel without feeling some sadness that a space that was once sacred to many has been given over to entirely secular use.

Not far from the old Episcopal chapel, here is Merion Hall, a classroom and office building that is busy during the day but eerily vacant as the sun finally disappears below the horizon.

This is the O'Pake Recreation Center, formerly the Episcopal Academy school gym. The date on the building's cornerstone is 1962; though much of the structure is blandly functional in the way that postwar school buildings typically are, O'Pake does have some attractive architectural elements, such as the gently arched roof seen here.

I'd like to write more on the passing of the seasons, but I must head off to Mass and dinner. After that, I'll be heading downtown for a concert - which means that I will not be taking my usual postprandial walk tonight. Next time I take that walk, however, I'll be walking in the dark and not in the glowing sunset you've seen in these photos - and as I do so, I'll likely be mindful of the loss of the sunset skies of summer. AMDG.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Way.

Over at Dominicana, Brother Dominic Mary Verner, O.P. posted some thoughts today on the experience of making the ancient Christian pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Verner begins by describing "the usual eclectic assortment of pilgrims" that he encountered on the way - devout Catholics were apparently vastly outnumbered by secular 'seekers' of various types - and goes on to consider what the Camino de Santiago may have to offer to postmodern pilgrims:
Knowing that many saints and generations of faithful Christians from every corner of Christendom have hallowed the pilgrim route to the tomb of Saint James, one might well be disappointed by the motley band of atheists, lapsed, and spiritual seekers that tread the path today. But after having met everyone from a nominal Jew fascinated by Galician paganism to Pablo the Nietzschean spiritual atheist, I believe that there is something tragically beautiful happening on the Camino today.

The tragedy of the spiritual yet faithless pilgrim is not unlike the tragedy of a character who has forgotten his story. As if at the very foot of Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins were to suddenly forget everything about this whole Ring business, and be stuck standing still with a sinking feeling that there was something terribly important for him to do that he just couldn’t remember. The faithless pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago is such a character, walking through a beautiful medieval tapestry whose biblical messages he cannot decipher. Without the cosmic narrative of the Christian faith to give a transcendent meaning to his journey, the pilgrim has the tragic burden of either creating a story for himself or just struggling from one story to the next, looking for something that fits.

Within this tragedy is revealed the beauty of the restless soul wounded by sin that cries out in desperation for a second chance and the transcendent hope that a secular post-Christian culture cannot offer. This cry itself is a sign of the presence of the Creator, who has made our hearts to be restless until they rest in Him. . . .
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.

Orthodox Hoyas in the news.

Today's edition of The Hoya has an article on Georgetown students who worship off campus, focusing largely on one Orthodox Christian Hoya's Sunday routine:
It is a crisp Sunday morning in mid-October, and Ivan Plis (SFS '12) is awakened sharply by the sound of his 7 a.m. alarm. He dresses, says his prayers, laces up a comfortable pair of shoes and prepares for his mile-and-a-half walk to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church [sic: 'Cathedral'] for a morning service.

When he arrives at St. Nicholas, Plis enters through one of the side doors, making the Sign of the Cross while venerating icons along the walls.

"It is like coming into a house and greeting family members," he said.

He proceeds to take his seat in the upper section of the church where he sings tenor for the choir. As he walks in, the congregation mills around him, since the worshiping space lacks traditional pews and possesses few chairs.

For Plis, the walk up Massachusetts Avenue with a few other Orthodox Christian Georgetown students is just part of his weekly routine.

"I made the effort to find other students of Orthodox background as soon as I knew I was going to Georgetown," Plis said.

. . .

From his seat in the choir, [Plis] recognizes the familiar faces of fellow Georgetown students and faculty in the congregation. But for Plis, getting out of his Georgetown comfort zone is the greatest draw to St. Nicholas'.

"Being connected to an off-campus worship space has put me in touch with people I otherwise would not connect with," he said.

After liturgy Plis oftens meets with student parishioners from nearby American University for a weekly breakfast.

He is also working with other Orthodox Christians to increase their presence at Georgetown.

"More recently, some fellow students and I have held talks to see if once a month we can have Divine Liturgy on campus," he said.
To read the rest of the article, click here. Orthodox Hoyas may not have a regular Divine Liturgy on campus (at one time, a weekly Divine Liturgy was apparently offered in Dahlgren Chapel for Greek Catholic students, but that ceased decades ago), but Georgetown's Orthodox Christian Fellowship does gather on Tuesdays in term time for Vespers in Copley Crypt.

The Hoya article notes that a number of Georgetown students and faculty regularly attend services at St. Nicholas Cathedral, which also happens to have been served by a number of clergy with ties to the Hilltop: Georgetown's longtime Orthodox chaplain, Father Constantine White, is also a former dean of the cathedral; another former dean, the late Father Dmitry Grigorieff, also taught Russian at Georgetown; and veteran Georgetown philosophy professor Father Denis Bradley is also an Orthodox priest attached to St. Nicholas. Come to think of it, the Georgetown/St. Nicholas connection goes back a long way - but perhaps that could (or should) be a topic for another article, or at least another post on this blog. AMDG.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lisiecki plays Liszt.

Franz Liszt (or, if you like, Liszt Ferenc) was born two hundred years ago today in what was then the Hungarian village of Doborján, which now lies in Austria and goes by the name of Raiding. To mark this anniversary, here is Jan Lisiecki (previously seen and heard here) performing Un sospiro from Liszt's Trois études de concert. AMDG.

Friday, October 21, 2011

AsiaNews: Catholicism growing in Nepal.

AsiaNews yesterday reported that the Roman Catholic Church has been experiencing rapid and dramatic growth in predominantly Hindu Nepal, despite occasional attacks on Christians and government efforts to thwart religious conversions. Here is an excerpt from yesterday's report:
Catholics in Nepal are growing, despite the anti-conversion laws proposed in parliament. According to the latest estimates there are over ten thousand, four thousand more than in 2006, the year of the fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of a secular state.

AsiaNews sources emphasize that the Hindus and Buddhists [who are] eager to learn about Christianity, and for this reason attend Sunday Mass, now even match the number of Catholics in attendance. Enrollment in catechism classes for the years 2011-2012 have exceeded the places available. This is a challenge to conservative politicians who have recently proposed a series of laws in parliament to put a halt on conversions. They dismiss any act of communicating one's faith to another person as proselytism and more serious cases considered carry a penalty of five years in prison.

Bhim Rai, a catechist at the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption in Kathmandu, said that this year the number of young people and adults of other faiths has increased. "The students," he says, "come from all social classes. Most of them are of Hindu tradition, but there are many Buddhists. At Easter 2012, 25 young catechumens will be baptized."
To read the rest, click here. For more information on the Roman Catholic Church in Nepal, take a look at this March 2010 interview with Bishop Anthony Francis Sharma, a Nepalese Jesuit who four years ago become the country's first Catholic bishop. AMDG.

P.S.: If you're wondering whether or not there are any Nepalese Orthodox Christians (I was wondering, so I did some Googling), the answer is apparently yes, though the Orthodox presence in the Himalayas is both very new and very small. There doesn't seem to be much on the Internet about Orthodoxy in Nepal, but you can find some information on the topic here and here.

Are Egypt's Copts "democracy's collateral damage"?

Ross Douthat poses the above question in this op-ed published last Sunday in the New York Times:
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing its roots to St. Mark the apostle and the first century A.D. Coptic Christians have survived persecutions and conquests, the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam. They have been governed from Constantinople and Ctesiphon, Baghdad and London. They have outlasted the Byzantines, the Umayyads and the Ottomans, Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Empire.

But they may not survive the Arab Spring.

Apart from Hosni Mubarak and his intimates, no group has suffered more from Egypt’s revolution than the country’s eight million Copts. Last week two dozen people were killed in clashes between the Coptic Christians and the Egyptian Army, a grim milestone in a year in which the Coptic community has faced escalating terrorist and mob violence. A recent Vatican estimate suggests that 100,000 Copts may have fled the country since Mubarak’s fall. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood consolidates political power, that figure could grow exponentially.

This is a familiar story in the Middle East, where any sort of popular sovereignty has tended to unleash the furies and drive minorities into exile. From Lebanon to North Africa, the Arab world’s Christian enclaves have been shrinking steadily since decolonization. More than half of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
To read the rest, click here. As always, please join me in praying for the Copts and for all of the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East - and do what you can to let others know what is happening to them. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Iesous Ahatonnia.

For today's Feast of the North American Martyrs, here is a hymn attributed to one of the martyrs: the hymn "Iesous Ahatonnia," also known as the "Huron Carol," believed to have been written by Jean de Brébeuf sometime betwen 1641 and 1643. "Iesous Ahatonnia" ("Jesus is born") is a Christmas carol, with words in the indigenous language of the Wendat ("Huron") people whom the North American Martyrs served, set to the tune of a traditional French folk song, "Une jeune pucelle." In the above video, "Iesous Ahatonnia" is performed by Quire Cleveland under the direction of Peter Bennett, following a choral arrangement by Ross W. Duffin.

Below, you may find the Wendat text of "Iesous Ahatonnia" attributed to Jean de Brébeuf, followed by a modern English translation by John Steckley; I have made a few minor stylistic changes to Steckley's text, none of which alters the sense of the original. The Wendat text and Steckley's translation (absent my modifications) may be found in the January 2011 bulletin of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

Estennailon de tsonoue Iesous Ahatonnia
Onnaouateoua d'oki n'onouandaskouaentak
Ennonchien skouatrihotat
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.

Aloki onkinnhache eronhialeronnon
Iontok ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Ouarie onnaouakoueton ndio sen
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.

Achink ontahonraskoua d'hatirihouannens
Tichion halonniondetha onhoua achia ahatren
Ondaie te hahahakoua tichion halonniondetha
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.

Thoi chien stahation tethotondi Iesous
Ahoatatende tichion stanchiteaouennion
Ahalonatorenten iatonk atsion sken
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.

Onne ontahation chiahonalen Iesous
Ahatichiennonnianon kahachiahandialon
Te honannonranouannion ihontonk oërisen
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.

Te ekouatatennonten ahekouachiendaen
Ti hekouannonronkouannion de sonouentenrade
Outoleti skouannonhoue ichierhe
Iesous Ahatonnia, Iesous Ahatonnia.


Have courage, you who are humans, Jesus is born.
Behold, the spirit who held us captive has fled.
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts our minds.
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

The angels are spirits, coming with a message for us,
They are coming to say, "Rejoice!"
"Mary has just given birth - rejoice!"
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

Three elders have left for such a place,
A star that has appeared over the horizon leads them there.
He who leads them there will seize the path.
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

As they arrived where Jesus was born,
The star was stopping, he was not far past it.
They told themselves to come close to the star.
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus.
They praised him, saying, "Hurray, he is good in nature!"
They greeted him with reverence, saying, "Hurray!"
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

We will give him praise for his name.
Let us revere him, as he comes to show us compassion.
It is providential that he should love us and wish to adopt us.
Jesus is born! Jesus is born!

Some readers may know that I have a special devotion to the North American Martyrs, and that the religious name I took at the time of my First Vows in the Society of Jesus comes from one of them, Saint Isaac Jogues. On this bright Feast, I pray that Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, and their Companions may intercede for us all and remember our individual needs and intentions. AMDG.

Monday, October 17, 2011

At home in the world: In memoriam F. J. v. Beeck.

The above photograph was taken from a balcony at the back of a Jesuit residence in central Amsterdam, where I stayed for a few days (not all of them consecutive) on my way to and from Jerusalem in June of 2008. Summer evenings in Northern Europe are very long: the above photo was taken around ten o' clock. I find this lingering twilight captivating and even bewitching, and when I recall my too-brief visit to the Netherlands, I think of that evening sky and the effect that it had - and still has - on me.

When I think of the Netherlands, I often think also of Frans Jozef van Beeck - or "Joep," as I and many others knew him. A Dutch Jesuit who spent over thirty years teaching theology in the United States, first at Boston College and then at Loyola University Chicago, Joep died last Wednesday at the age of eighty-one; his funeral was held today in the Netherlands. I got to know Joep a bit while I was a candidate for the Society; during the occasional weekends that I spent with the Jesuits at Loyola Chicago, Joep and I typically crossed paths late at night in the community rec room, where I had gone to read and where he had gone for a nightcap. Our chance encounters invariably turned into long conversations about culture, theology, and life in the Church; I usually came away from these chats with new ideas for reading and listening (Joep and I shared a love for music), as well as a slightly deeper sense that the Society of Jesus was a good place to be.

Declining health led Joep to retire to the Dutch Jesuits' infirmary in Nijmegen in 2006, and I regret that I did a poor job of keeping in touch with him after that. Even so, I did see him once more after he left the States: three years ago, during the aforementioned trip to the Netherlands, I went to visit Joep in Nijmegen in the company of a friend and fellow Jesuit who knew him well from his years in Chicago. A bit frailer and slower, noticeably more forgetful and scattered, Joep was still very much himself; he didn't offer any great words of wisdom during that visit, but I'm still glad that I saw him one more time.

Joep van Beeck was, to say the very least, a singular individual. He had his flaws and shortcomings, as we all do, but he had strong points to compensate for them. As Father Robert Imbelli wrote in a recent tribute published at dotCommonweal, Joep "was, in every way, an out-sized personality who wrote voluminously, conversed pungently, and enjoyed life with great verve." I would add that Joep was an ebullient contrarian, one who routinely went against the grain but did so with a sense of joy that was both disarming and infectious. Joep also seemed to like the double-outsider status that came with being an expatriate: he had great affection for both his native country and his adopted one, but he also regarded both with the critical distance of one who knew that the grass wasn't always greener on the other side.

As a Jesuit, Joep van Beeck was at home in the world. By this I don't just mean that he had made his peace with his surroundings and with the vicissitudes of human existence - no, what I'm getting at goes deeper than that: Joep van Beeck lived out the implications of early Jesuit Jerónimo Nadal's statement that "the world is our house." Part of what Nadal meant by this was that the Jesuit vocation is meant to be lived not in isolation or in opposition to the world, but publicly and in dialogue with the cultures that surround us. Matteo Ricci did this by adapting to Chinese society in the interest of spreading the Gospel in a place where it was unknown. Many Jesuits in the United States do the same today by assimilating into the "publish or perish" culture of American academia in the conviction that our presence in higher education is worth maintaining. On another level, many Jesuits learn that "the world is our house" as we travel abroad and find a fraternal welcome in Jesuit communities around the world, where markers of the universal culture that is the Society of Jesus remain present despite differences in language, geography and local traditions.

As a Jesuit whose ministry and study took him to various continents and countries, Joep van Beeck understood very well that "the world is our house." Joep also knew that his experience was not unique: in an autobiographical essay entitled "Not for the Kennel," he admitted, "I am by no means the sole Jesuit for whom the Society of Jesus is in the first place and very palpably something international." In the same essay, published in his final book (Driven Under the Influence: Essays in Theology, 1974-2004), Joep also had some thoughtful things to say about the specifically international character of the Society of Jesus, the early modern literary culture that helped to shape the Order, and what all this means for the spiritual life of the Jesuit. Prompted by a visit that Joep made to Spain in the 1970s, these reflections are worth quoting at length:
About three days after leaving Seville I am staying in Madrid, at the Calle Almagro Jesuit community. Time for a day trip to the Escorial, the colossal building ordered by Philip II: monastery, school, palace, all in one. . . . So this is where he lived and where he died, a Spaniard through and through, and over there, in the chaise longue, he lay reigning to the bitter end, his eyes fixed on the tabernacle in the church, just visible through a paneled opening. Ruling, administering. By mail. Philip II was the architect of the first modern government, based on correspondence: folders, archives, portfolios. The written word as the nervous system of a global empire. . . .

Something dawns on me. Did Ignatius have a similar insight? Franciscans and Dominicans are organized as provinces: their respective general superiors are not so much leaders as coordinators, presiding over federations of independent provinces. That just might be a relic of the age-old abbatial stability traditions. The preaching and mendicant friars do roam town and countryside, but they are at home in a province. For Ignatius the Society is at one as the wide world is one. Could it be that he felt the same relationship between being worldwide and being literate? For him, at any rate, letters amounted to a lot more than tools to issue orders; his letters form the largest body of correspondence that has come to us from the sixteenth century - about eight thousand of them. He insisted that Jesuits keep each other posted as to what was going forward wherever they were. Writing letters, he thought, was something "constructive" or "edifying" - hence the name literae aedificantes: letters of edification.

No wonder Jesuits have always been enormous letter-writers; just look at the letters that fill the volumes of the Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu. Ever seen the Relations, that enormous series of letters, reports, and narratives of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Nouvelle France, which consisted in a long ribbon of settlements from Quebec to New Orleans? Thus, writing as they went, Jesuits have been experiencing the whole world as their world. In their own way, letters also accommodate the Ignatian culture of obedience: well-thought-out, balanced, realistic accounts of matters and of consciousnesses and consciences, followed by orders and recommendations that do justice to those data.

That leads me to another idea. A learned American Jesuit, the late Walter J. Ong, professor in the humanities at Saint Louis University, spent at least thirty of his years teaching the world that the modern Western mind largely goes back to literary developments in the mid-sixteenth century. In those critical decades the Society, too, saw the light of day. This was when the Western world made the change-over from a largely speaking and dialoguing and remembering ("oral-acoustical") culture to an evermore writing and reading and learning-by-accumulating ("visual") culture. This, of course, had everything to do with the printing press. It enabled concentration on (largely printed) texts - a new phenomenon. It also enabled (to name only one thing) natural science; not even the best memory can keep up with the ever-accumulating scientific data - for that, you need books (and eventually computers), in which you can "literally" store your (objective!) truths in order to retrieve them later.

But this new learned literacy also succeeded in putting enormous pressure on the whole world of inner human experience and stretching it to the utmost. Just think of all the classical authors newly edited by the humanists; all at once, it became impossible to read them the way the Christian Middle Ages had done. Even the Bible changed: the modern study of the Scriptures started, but at the same time every heretic started to find his own favorite text. Such an intensely developing world of reading demands the utmost in interpretation - i.e., an ever-developing inner world of imagination: the bigger and more brimful the libraries, the more massive the data to take into account and process and discern inside. Add to this, in due time, so sheer a quantity of news and information and products from distant parts as well as the distant past. Th world blossomed into a fullness. To contend with this kind of new world, you have a lot of inside labor to go through. Increasingly, the New Learning began to regard as prejudice what an earlier, more naive world had accepted as faith and loyalty. The New Learning began to demand as much freedom of exploration as the voyagers of discovery did. Ever since the mid-sixteenth century, research and study have demanded pride of place and gotten away with it. No wonder a tempest of discord and disharmony was the result. No wonder the inside world turned troubled on the rebound. Inner openness to the whole world is a lot more challenging than staying at home - or (what really amounts to the same) tourism.
Joep van Beeck was many things, but he was not a tourist: in my experience, he was a Jesuit who managed to retain the "inner openness to the whole world" which he writes of here. In the above reflections, Joep leaves out a lot that would undermine his optimistic thesis: he says nothing of the "provincialism" that too often restrains our decision-making, and he says nothing about the reality of Jesuit subcultures, though he certainly had his fair share of experience with both of these phenomena. Even so, I believe that Joep's words on the oneness of the Society contain a great deal of truth. On this, the day of Joep van Beeck's funeral, may these words stand as an appropriate memorial to a truly memorable Jesuit. AMDG.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tim Kelleher on Patriarch Sviatoslav and renewal in the UGCC.

Yesterday at On the Square, a blog on the First Things website, Tim Kelleher offered some thoughts on Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk) and some of the challenges presently facing the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As I've noted before, Tim is an old acquaintance of mine: we share a common mentor in Father Tom King, and we were companions on a trip to the Holy Land that Tom led a bit over a decade ago. Tim and I chatted a bit about Eastern church matters during that trip, so I was not surprised when I later heard that he had formally become Greek Catholic and was studying at a Ukrainian seminary. Commenting on Archbishop Sviatoslav's election earlier this year as leader of the UGCC, Tim starts by offering some historical perspective:
To begin, the election entrusts to his care the souls of some four and a quarter million Christians, all heirs to a lineage of tragedy that spans centuries and includes the Soviet-perpetrated monstrosity of the Holodomor, in which an estimated three to ten million people were programmatically starved to death in the single year, 1932-1933. Throughout this and other episodes of national suffering, the UGCC acted largely to protect the people and lead in the resistance to both Nazi and Soviet tyranny.

During the turbulence of the twentieth century, Shevchuk’s predecessors distinguished themselves as heroic, sometimes pugnacious leaders—more prophets than princes of the Church—who regularly placed themselves at personal risk. The names Sheptytsky, Slipyj, and Husar come quickly to mind.

It is in the stead of such giants that Shevchuk now stands—at the remarkable age of forty. Such youth comes with its share of advantages and liabilities. Among the former, one may assume there is energy. He’ll need it.
Tim goes on to discuss some pressing issues, principally the rise of "Putinism" and attendant efforts by the Moscow Patriarchate to increase its influence in Ukraine to the detriment of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has enjoyed an impressive revival in its ancestral homeland over the last twenty years after spending decades underground during the Soviet era. After touching on this, Tim moves on to another problem - one that affects the Ukrainian Catholic diaspora just as much it does as the Church in Ukraine:
Since 2001, the bishops of the UGCC have held at least fifteen international synods, at a considerable expense of time and money. From them, one word perennially emerges to express the collective discernment and serve as the clarion call for going forward: Evangelization.

I should admit that mine is a somewhat unusual point of view. I wasn’t born into the UGCC. Neither was I drawn to it by any outreach on its part. In fact, I stumbled into an intimacy with it that, in addition to reception into the Church, has included the privilege of entering one its seminaries.

There are many things to say from this perspective. Preparing to serve a people whose faith I shared but whose story I did not know has been humbling. But as my appreciation for the Church’s gifts has grown, so too has my discouragement when failure to adapt, develop and share them seems willful. In countless conversations, cradle-born members of the UGCC have expressed incredulity at my enthusiasm for the Church, while seeming to view their own participation as a form of ethnic fealty.
Any non-"cradle-born" person who is drawn to the Eastern churches and has spent time with Eastern Christians must sooner or later confront the "ethnic fealty" phenomenon. I recall a particularly cutting example that once appeared in the combox on Wan Wei Hsien's sadly defunct weblog Torn Notebook. The story goes that a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church was being interviewed by a radio host who was an ethnic Greek. Apparently, the host's first question was, "How did you become interested in our Greek culture?" Some presume that ethnicity and religion necessarily go hand in glove, even going so far as to confuse religious practices shared by several churches for ethnic customs limited to a particular national tradition; to offer just one example of this, I've sometimes heard January 7th referred to as "Ukrainian Christmas" - as if only Ukrainians used the Julian Calendar!

Don't get me wrong: I believe that ethnic pride is a very good thing. Particularly in the diaspora, people should be very concerned about preserving the particular customs and cultural practices that provide them with a unique heritage and identity. Many nations possess distinctive religious cultures that have been shaped by national influences, but these cultures nonetheless remain a part of something greater and more universal. Ukrainians are rightly proud of the Kievan tradition, but that tradition is also part of the broader tradition of Byzantine (and global) Christianity. For all its cultural and historical particularity, the Kievan tradition has much to offer the whole Church: it can provide a spiritual home for people who are not Ukrainian by birth or ethnicity, just as the Latin tradition of the Church of Rome provides a spiritual home for many who are not Italian or have no familial connection to lands that were once within the territory of the (Western) Roman Empire. (For another perspective on this, that of Patriarch Sviatoslav himself, click here.)

With all of this in mind, let's consider what Tim Kelleher says next about the problems - and promise - facing the UGCC and other Eastern Catholic churches today:
In many parishes, a sense of desolation is palpable, with services attended by a startling disproportion of elder faithful. This graying — or ghosting – of the parishes is a crisis to which innovative remedies seem noble exceptions rather than the broad harvest of episcopal action matching synodal rhetoric.

On the same soil, Orthodox Churches, dealing with formidable challenges of their own, are finding ways to grow communities true to their lineage and attractive to those outside it, cooperating in projects designed to engage the wider culture.

To be sure, these impressions are anecdotal. Yet, I can’t think of a single person in formation with me who would fault these observations, except perhaps for being too restrained. Within its walls one often hears the frustration that the UGCC is essentially a Latin Church in Byzantine clothing, burying its distinctive gifts like the talents of the Gospel parable. Indeed, not long ago, Rome itself issued a rather stringent exhortation to the Eastern Churches in communion with it to commit themselves to the realization of the charisms unique to their traditions.

Although I have presented what may seem a gloomy forecast, we know how quickly things can change. And I remain hopeful.

The Eastern Churches bear an aspect of the Christian faith that is profound and astonishingly rich, with the power to amaze a culture that wrongly presumes it has seen it all. I also believe our culture is in urgent need of the vast treasure and deep beauty that have been entrusted to these Churches.
Amen to all that. I hope and pray that Tim's optimism is well-founded. The challenges facing Patriarch Sviatoslav and his flock are many, but with God's help - and with a great deal of creativity and ingenuity on the part of the faithful - they can surely be overcome. AMDG.

Tough times for Friendly's.

I was saddened to read last week that Friendly Ice Cream Corporation has filed for filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Since its founding in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935, Friendly's has grown from a single small ice cream shop to a chain of several hundred sit-down restaurants offering trademark sandwiches like the Fishamajig and Big Beef hamburgers and unique ice cream specialties like the Fribble, the Cone Head Sundae, and the summer-only Wattamelon Roll. Though Friendly's restaurants may be found up and down the East Coast and as far west as Ohio, the chain has long enjoyed a special place in the culinary culture of Massachusetts: Friendly's is a place that many Bay State natives (myself included) frequented growing up, a place blessed by its association with positive childhood memories of childhood. The idea that Friendly's may soon cease to exist - or might simply be changed beyond recognition through corporate restructuring - fills me with sorrow and dread.

Yesterday's edition of the Boston Globe carried an article in which various marketing and restaurant industry professionals offered "some Friendly advice" on how the venerable chain could emerge from bankruptcy in better shape. All of the pros more or less suggested that Friendly's should dramatically reinvent itself: two advised cutting out meals and focusing on ice cream, another proposed moving to a "fast business casual" model (which apparently necessitates higher prices - I guess that more expensive food is meant to project a certain kind of image), while a fourth proposed turning Friendly's into a sort of glorified Starbucks with ice cream. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don't care for any of those ideas: I want Friendly's to stay as it is.

Though they offered different prescriptions, each of the Globe's interviewees spoke of Friendly's in the same glib and condescending terms. One suggests that restaurants like Friendly's offered "great concepts during the day. But our lives have changed." Another airily dismisses Friendly's longtime business model: "That parade has passed." The third - and harshest - assessment is this: "Average is over. For a time, average is what Americans wanted. The Gap. Chevrolet. Friendly's. Average is totally over. Make Friendly's fresh and fun instead of tired, boring, predictable, and dirty with food that stinks."

As a person who generally doesn't care much about what's new, fresh, or trendy, I'll admit that I'm probably a marketing professional's nightmare. At any rate, the sort of shtick that one finds in articles like the one cited above tends to imply that opinions like mine don't matter - which naturally makes me less than receptive to suggestions that organizations need to constantly reinvent themselves to stay 'current' or 'relevant.' To try to express my objection in more charitable terms, I would say that arguments for change and innovation are value-laden: they tend to presume that innovation is a positive good, but they seldom stop to articulate the values that underlie this presumption or seek to defend them.

The point that I'm trying to make here goes beyond the fate of Friendly's. The same problem appears in many other contexts, including religious ones. Some use "open to the Spirit" as a synonym for "open to change," as if the Holy Spirit would never favor keeping anything as it is. Of course, all of us in the Church are called to ongoing conversion, to a continual work of spiritual renewal; to paraphrase a comment attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and cited recently by Pope Benedict XVI, the first thing that needs to change in the Church is you and me. None of us is exempt from the difficult task of self-examination, of asking how we must die to ourselves on a deep, interior level in order to be more faithful to the Gospel and to the tradition that has been entrusted to us. As a part of this process, we must recognize that, in a world of constant change, some things are worth clinging to and preserving - some things are, in fact, timeless: O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new...

The above paragraph may seem a bit tangential; I'm somewhat surprised to have wandered from Friendly's to Saint Augustine ("ever ancient, every new") in a single post, but I suppose that such moves come with the territory when one is committed to finding God in all things. On the religious or theological side of things, there are ideas here that perhaps should be presented in greater detail, but that's a task for another time. I certainly would not attribute anything like timelessness to Friendly's, but I do think that this venerable restaurant chain is worth preserving in something like its present form. Though I'm not optimistic, I hope that the Friendly's I know and love will endure. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Dominican considers "Picasso's sublime tragedy."

Earlier this week, I discovered Dominicana, a blog written by a group of young Dominican friars in formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. Somewhat in the same vein as Godzdogz, the blog of the English Dominican Students at Oxford, Dominicana offers daily postings on culture, philosophy, theology, and related topics. As a sample of what you'll find at Dominicana, consider this post by Brother Reginald Mary Lynch on Pablo Picasso's 1903 painting Tragedy. Here is an excerpt:
The subject of Picasso’s work is something that should be inherently undesirable. There is nothing beautiful about tragedy. Although we may be slow to say so, the sight of others’ suffering has the power to repulse and to send us searching for a distraction. Nonetheless, there is something intuitively beautiful about Picasso’s Tragedy that strikes us as paradoxical only on second thought. The painting seems to exert an immediate draw that transports us directly onto Picasso’s gray-blue beach, bringing us close to the figures and to their nameless tragedy as well; it is only on further reflection that we realize how strange it is to be attracted by something so plainly awful.

Picasso draws our attention directly and simply to their pain itself, with no outside referent to distract or to offer impartial resolutions. When considered critically, there seems to be nothing attractive about this. And yet Picasso has presented tragedy simpliciter, and we are drawn by it not as we might be by a depiction of pleasant scenery, but as a father might be drawn by the suffering of his son. Picasso has portrayed the human experience of tragedy in such a way that we feel no revulsion – no burning need to distract ourselves from the human suffering before us. Tragedy is here framed in such primary and universal terms that it necessarily resonates with us all, evoking not pious sympathy, but real empathy.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Deir Mar Musa.

In a comment on a recent post on Syria, Macrina mentioned Deir Mar Musa, a Syriac Catholic monastery about fifty miles north of Damascus. The original monastery on this site dates to the sixth century, but the monastic community that currently makes its home here was founded in 1991 by an Italian Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. The above video by Canadian filmmaker Yasmin Fedda offers a brief introduction to Deir Mar Musa, focusing on the monastery's efforts to foster cooperation and dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Yasmin Fedda returns to Deir Mar Musa in this twenty-five minute film entitled Milking the Desert, which looks at life in the monastery as experienced by a seasoned Syrian monk and a young Frenchman who becomes a novice of the community. If you want to know where the community at Deir Mar Musa stands on the current situation in Syria, take a look at the monastery website, which includes some recent statements emphasizing the need to pray for reconciliation and non-violent solutions to conflict.

If you'd like to hear more detailed comments on the Syrian situation from the monastery's founder and leader - and if you have some time on your hands - watch this lecture by Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, delivered earlier this year at the University of Scranton. The actual lecture is fairly brief, but it is followed by a long and frank question-and-answer session in which Father Dall'Oglio offers interesting and provocative comments on many different topics (for example, he explains that he chose to embrace the Syriac Rite in part because "it never was the culture of an empire . . . just a local church, never in power"). Like me, you may find yourself in disagreement with some of what Father Dall'Oglio says, but I hope that you'll agree that his perspective is worth hearing. AMDG.

More on Syria's Christians.

Recently, I offered a post on the response of Syria's Christians to the ongoing unrest in their country. More recently, I've read a troubling report from CNS suggesting that Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai may have been denied a meeting with President Obama during a U.S. visit this month because the Maronite leader disagrees with White House policy on Syria. The above video report from Al Jazeera dates from July, but I suspect that the snapshot of public opinion presented here still accurately reflects views held by many Christians in Syria; given what has been going on in Egypt, I don't see how one could blame Syrian Christians for being wary of regime change. AMDG.

Egyptian protests: "It is chaos."

Last night, Egypt was rocked by a night of violent protests that the New York Times calls "the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February." The protests apparently began as an expression of Egyptian Christians' anger and frustration following over a recent attack on a Coptic church, but media reports suggest that last night's clashes offered a further flashpoint for sectarian tensions. Here's a brief summary of what happened, courtesy of Toronto's Globe and Mail:
The protest began in the Shubra district of northern Cairo, then headed to the state television building along the Nile where men in plainclothes attacked about a thousand Christian protesters as they chanted denunciations of the military rulers.

"The people want to topple the field marshal!" the protesters yelled, referring to the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Some Muslim protesters later joined in the chant.

Later in the evening, a crowd of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis turned up to challenge the Christian crowds, shouting, "Speak up! An Islamic state until death!"

Armed with sticks, the Muslim assailants chased the Christian protesters from the TV building, banging metal street signs to scare them off. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.

Gunshots rang out at the scene, where lines of riot police with shields tried to hold back hundreds of Christian protesters chanting, "This is our country!"

Security forces eventually fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. The clashes then moved to nearby Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising against Mubarak. The army closed off streets around the area.

The clashes left streets littered with shattered glass, stones, ash and soot from burned vehicles. Hundreds of curious onlookers gathered at one of the bridges over the Nile to watch the unrest.

After hours of intense clashes, chants of "Muslims, Christians one hand, one hand!" rang out in a call for a truce. The stone-throwing died down briefly, but then began to rage again.
A protester quoted by the NYT may have offered the best summary of last night's events: "It is chaos." At the start of a new week, I hope and pray that the coming days will be better - for Egyptian Christians especially, but also for all in the Middle East seeking to find their way through a confusing, unstable and often violent period. AMDG.

UPDATE (3:25 PM, 10/10/11): A story on the aftermath of the protest posted this afternoon on the New York Times website includes this paragraph:
In a statement, the Coptic Church, which represents about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, accused military and police forces of allowing anti-Christian instigators to turn what had been a peaceful protest into a sectarian riot, then used the violence as a pretext for deadly force directed largely against the Coptic protesters.
Sad if true, but also unsurprising: Egypt's security apparatus has never been particularly evenhanded in its treatment of the country's different religious communities. Elements of the military could be sympathetic to anti-Christian forces or merely indifferent to the rights of religious minorities, though some military leaders may want to play up religious divisions simply to excuse a broader crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. All the more reason to pray for peace and unity in Egypt. Kyrie, eleison.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Friede ihrer Asche!

Earlier this year, I offered a post on Jewish Innsbruck. Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, so I thought this might be an appropriate time for a post on a related subject. In early August, two days before I left Vienna, I visited the old Jewish section of the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, the largest cemetery in Austria (with over three million interments, the Zentralfriedhof is also one of the largest cemeteries in Europe). Between 1880 and 1938, nearly eighty-thousand Viennese Jews were laid to rest here. Desecrated on Kristallnacht and heavily damaged by aerial bombing during World War II, this part of the Zentralfriedhof has seen few burials since 1945 (newer Jewish graves are located in another part of the cemetery) and has decayed steadily over the succeeding decades.

Before the Second World War, Vienna was home to a large and prosperous Jewish community, whose members made a significant contribution to the cultural and political life of their country. For example, consider this memorial to Michael Kulka, who served as k.k. Gewerbeoberinspektor (Senior Trade Inspector for the Imperial and Royal Government), received the Order of the Iron Crown from the Emperor, and was declared an honorary member of the Jewish community of Leipnik (a Moravian village that now lies in the Czech Republic). Similarly impressive inscriptions are etched on nearby tombstones, but many are no longer legible due to long neglect.

The neglect of this part of the Zentralfriedhof is part of the legacy of the Shoah. Many of the children and descendants of the people laid to rest here perished in the Holocaust, while others who survived the War often chose to rebuild their lives elsewhere. As a result, the graves here have largely been orphaned: those who would otherwise care for them are gone.

Beyond the general state of decay, there is little direct evidence here of the Holocaust: some tombstones include newer inscriptions remembering victims of the Nazis (the grave of the Buch family, seen above, is one example - click on the photo to enlarge the image, and you'll learn that Hermann Buch died at Auschwitz), but these are very few. More common are inscriptions like that honoring Ignatz Nathan Blumka, "a most dearly beloved, unforgettable, faithful spouse" who died at age 61 in 1910, or the one remembering Lazar Bromberg, "snatched away by inexorable fate in the nineteenth year of his hope-filled life" in 1921 - memorials to individuals whose earthly lives were untouched by the monumental horrors of a later time.

Pictures and symbols often tell vivid stories. The tombstones in the first and third photos of this group bear the image of two hands associated with the Nesiat Kapayim, a traditional Jewish blessing reserved to the priestly caste of the Kohanim. (Star Trek fans may recognize a similarity to the "Vulcan salute," which Leonard Nimoy based on the Nesiat Kapayim that he remembered from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing.) The use of this symbol here is presumably meant to invoke a blessing upon the dead.

A symbol of a very different kind appears on the grave of Julius Löwy, seen in the second of these three photos. The Masonic Square and Compass suggests that Löwy was a Freemason; I suspect that Diese Kette reiße nie (which translates to "this chain will never be broken," or something similar) is the motto of a particular Masonic Lodge, but I haven't been able to find more information.

I've included photos of the above tombstone largely because of its unique design. The decorative motifs seen here are really striking - a golden sun with beams emanating from the top of the headstone, and what appears to be a Greek temple surrounded by flowers at the bottom - and I encourage you to click on the middle photo for a closer look. The identity of the family buried here is also a real mystery to me: the name looks like Spessl or Speßl, but I have not been able to locate either name (or several related variants) in the searchable database on the Friedhöfe Wien website. I'm sure that there is an interesting story here, but so far it remains elusive.

Of course, there are many stories in the Zentralfriedhof. I wonder, for example, why the tombstone of Friedrich Porges (seen in the first photo of the above group) identifies him as "der Brasilianer." Was Porges born in Brazil? Did he spend a significant portion of his life there? Did the "Brazilian" title have a special meaning for Porges and his friends - a meaning mysterious to others, and now lost to history? I may never know. In the absence of such knowledge, I will end this post with a wish and prayer akin to one found on many tombstones in the Zentralfriedhof: Friede ihrer Asche! - "Peace to their ashes!" In other words, may they rest in peace. AMDG.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Voice on Schall.

This week's issue of the Georgetown Voice features a glowing profile of Father James V. Schall, S.J., who was also recently seen on film in a post on this very blog. Voice writer Aodhan Beirne begins his profile with a consideration of Father Schall's distinctive pedagogy:
In the moments before his Elements of Political Theory class, Father James Schall, S.J., stood in the hall, chatting with early-comers about the weather, the readings, and other courses. Schall not only knew all of his current students by name, but also recalled almost all of his recent students. He made introductions among the students standing in front of him, and a large, comfortable conversation started.

This conversation seemed to carry over into class. The period involved little group discussion, but was rather a series of conversations between Schall and individual students.

To Schall, this conversational teaching style fosters students’ intellectual engagement.

"College students learn most from talking to each other. You have to have ways for students to converse," he said. "That’s why education is fostered by a good campus."

When class began, Schall asked if he had failed to call on anyone during the course so far. "I don’t want anyone to feel left out," he said. With 100 students crowded into a large White-Gravenor classroom, it would seem easy to be left out during a 50 minute class period.

However, Schall’s custom of pacing the aisles — addressing questions and comments to students at random — makes it difficult to shirk participation. Despite his sniper-like questioning style, his students appeared calm, seemingly unfazed by the possibility of being called on at his whim.

Although his quiet voice could easily be drowned out by coughing, his students remained attentive and prepared to be called on. The conversations ranged from Plato, to the etymology of names of the months, to Shakespeare.
Later on, Beirne quotes Schall on the nature and purpose of liberal education and the role of the professor:
Schall is wary of the loaded schedules most Georgetown students take on, weighted with extracurricular activities and internships, in addition to their academics.

"All universities should build walls, not to keep people in, but to keep the world out," he said. A confined campus is conducive to traditional learning, based on discussion and contemplation. His ideal education is a comprehensive experience that includes conversation, studying, and socializing.

"The point of a liberal education is not preparing you for business," he said. "It’s giving you the freedom to learn about the ultimate questions."

. . .

Schall’s view of the role of a professor is simple, but profound.

"A professor is a person to whom people come because he has studied his way and can say, 'Okay you will do this,' or 'We can read this together.' Students are being guided to read things, but in a sense, they are being prodded to believe that this thing is more important than this thing," he explained.

There is a certain level of trust students must have in their professors, he said but he quoted a friend who warned, "The worst thing that can happen to a student is to give his soul to an unworthy professor."

. . .

He will continue to teach — and teach in the manner he see most purposeful — in spite of the trends most other Georgetown professors are following, because to him it is always about the students.

"I do not think students ever change that much, thank God," he said. "All 20-year-olds are 20-year-olds. I do not believe in progress in this sense. We cannot bypass free will and basic good sense. Basically education is not about Georgetown, it’s about truth and honor."

Schall relates this to his life as a Jesuit. "As a priest, you have to do the same thing, get them to see the kind of life they should live and why. But they have to see it. You cannot force them," he said.
To read the rest, click here. Though the Voice does a fine job of summing up Schall's vital contribution to the Hilltop, there was one paragraph in Beirne's profile that made me cringe:
Schall is the last of the old guard: one of the few remaining Jesuits who still shape Georgetown students’ intellectual, spiritual and personal education in the mold of classic Catholic tradition. As the University becomes more secular, global, and pre-professional, some students yearn for the traditional education that seemingly only Schall can still provide.
Why do I cringe at this? It's partly a question of language: references to "the last of the old guard" and "the few remaining Jesuits" give the impression that members of the Society of Jesus are on the verge of disappearing from the Hilltop. I will readily admit that diminishment is a reality: the number of Jesuits at Georgetown and other Jesuit-sponsored universities has dropped sharply in recent decades, and we no longer have the level of influence that we once took for granted in institutions founded by the Society of Jesus. That being said, it is important to emphasize that the Jesuits are still committed to having a presence and a voice on campus: there are young Jesuit faculty members on the Hilltop who are in a position to "shape Georgetown students’ intellectual, spiritual and personal education in the mold of classic Catholic tradition" for decades to come. They may not do things exactly as Schall does, but that's to expected: we're all unique. In short, the Jesuits are still right where you need them. AMDG.

Black Robe.

On Tuesday, The Pittsford Perennialist offered an appreciation of Bruce Beresford's 1991 film Black Robe. Based on a novel of the same title by Brian Moore, Black Robe tells the story of Father Paul Laforgue, a (fictional) French Jesuit missionary in seventeenth-century Canada. As the Perennialist writes, Black Robe "is a story of conversion, not so much of the Indians but of the priest, and not to some politically correct relativistic eco-religion as you might expect, but to the hard gospel of love as preached by Jesus Christ." That's a fairly accurate summary of the film as well as the novel on which it was based; I won't reveal exactly how Laforgue's conversion takes place because I want readers to discover Black Robe for themselves. See the movie and read the book - you won't regret having done so.

As an incidental sidenote, the Perennialist's linking of Black Robe and The Last of the Mohicans sent me on an affectionate journey down memory lane. The American literature curriculum at my public high school laid heavy emphasis on nineteenth-century classics: we read Hawthorne and Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, Longfellow and Whittier - and little written after 1900, the most notable exception being The Great Gatsby (to this day, incidentally, I've read only one book written by John Steinbeck and none by Ernest Hemingway). We also dipped into James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, on which account we viewed the then-recent 1992 film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I haven't seen the film again since, so I don't think that I could accurately say that it made a lasting impression on me. On the other hand, I still remain sincerely grateful for the quality of the education that I received in the public schools of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I agree with the Perennialist when he writes that Black Robe is a better film than The Mission, but we part company in our views on the latter film: this may seem like a surprising admission for a Jesuit to make, but I've never cared for The Mission. I didn't see The Mission until I was in the novitiate, but I was biased against the film before I ever saw it. As a long-time fan of Black Robe, I resented the fact that The Mission was much more popular; the ubiquity of Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" (sorry, folks - it's schmaltz) also gave me certain preconceived notions about the film for which that piece was written. Much like "Gabriel's Oboe," The Mission proved too sentimental for my taste - and, for lack of a better way to put it, too 'heroic' in a purely secular sense. Compared with The Mission, I find both the film and novel versions of Black Robe to be stronger and more realistic in their depiction of spiritual struggle.

In tandem with something I once wrote about the idea of suggesting Of Gods and Men as an "introduction to Christianity," I would not recommend The Mission as an introduction to the Jesuits or to anything else; on the other hand, I might very well recommend Black Robe in such a context. Of course, Black Robe also deserves to be appreciated on its own merits and not merely as an "introduction" to something else. If you have not seen the film or read the novel, I urge you to give both a try. AMDG.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Notes on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

As I wrote last year, I have never been particularly taken with Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast falls on this date. I was confirmed under the name of one of Francis' twentieth-century followers, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, but the fact that Kolbe was a Franciscan had no bearing on my choice. My real-life encounters with Franciscans have been relatively few, most taking place in an academic context: one of my professors in law school was a Franciscan priest (and a doctor utriusque juris to boot), and a few of my classmates in graduate courses at Fordham were Franciscans of various sorts. While they are known more widely today for their work with the poor, the Franciscans also have a significant intellectual tradition represented historically by such luminaries as Saint Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham, so one should not be surprised to find members of the Order laboring in the groves of academe.

Perhaps inevitably, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi leads me to reflect upon my own encounters with members of the Franciscan family. The most vivid of these was not one of the 'academic' encounters noted above, but rather an experience I had as a Jesuit novice. Like many other Jesuits, I made a 'pilgrimage' as part of my novitiate. The pilgrimage is often imagined by people outside the Society as a period during which all novices are sent out to wander for a fixed period of time, begging for food and shelter and discovering their absolute dependence on God's providence in the process. Not all pilgrimages are like this, of course: the cultural and geographic circumstances of individual novitiates and the different ways of thinking of particular novice masters mean that the pilgrimage can take a variety of forms. I know of a Latin American novitiate that typically sends its novices to live and work with migrant farmworkers; I also know of a novitiate in Europe that has sent novices to the Holy Land in imitation of Saint Ignatius (unlike Ignatius, as far as I know, none have been expelled by the Franciscan Custos). In some novitiates, and for very sensible reasons, the pilgrimage has been dispensed with altogether.

I mention the novitiate pilgrimage because mine took me to a Franciscan community: for a few days, I lived with a group of friars in the American Midwest. In exchange for room and board in the cloister, I did odd jobs around the house and at an adjacent shrine church run by the friars - I cleaned bathrooms, replenished the stock of candles provided for pilgrims to light in the church, and counted the dimes, quarters, and crumpled dollar bills that pilgrims left as offerings. Attending prayer, meals, and recreation with the friars, I also learned something about the Franciscan approach to community.

Coming from another religious order, I found some aspects of life among the Franciscans a bit surprising. For example, in contrast with my novitiate - and all of the Jesuit communities I've known since - this Franciscan community had retained the old monastic practice of sitting in assigned places at a U-shaped table, with the religious superior seated in the center. At the same time, the Franciscans had not retained the practice of reading and silence during meals, so there was conversation at table; the refectory and the dining table itself were both relatively small, so the sixteen or so members of the community could all hear one another quite well during meals. The effect of all of this was that conversation at table had to involve all members of the community - in consequence, all talk during meals was rather formal and (or so it seemed to me) somewhat superficial.

Another experience from my days with the Franciscans remains deeply etched in my memory. One of the friars suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which had advanced to a point at which he could no longer move his limbs and had difficulty speaking. The Franciscans that I stayed with during my pilgrimage had nothing like a province infirmary, so the friar with ALS remained in the same community he had lived in before he was ravaged by disease - the alternative would have been to send him to a nursing home, to effectively put him out of the community, and that was something no one wanted. With the help of a live-in caretaker, the friars of the community cared for their infirm brother at home - feeding him, bathing him, changing his clothes, and generally going out of their way to make sure he was able to participate as fully as possible in the life of the community.

Though the Franciscans took these extraordinary steps partly out of necessity, it appeared to me that they did so with real joy - not 'joy' of the effusive and outwardly ecstatic variety, but rather the quiet satisfaction of people who were confident that they were faithfully living out the vocation that God had given them. When they became Franciscans, none of these men knew that living out this vocation would mean devoting countless days and hours to the physical care of one of their own - the sort of ministry that attracts no public notice, a way of preaching the Gospel (not necessarily with words, as Francis would have it) that leads to the conversion of no one, except perhaps the caregiver himself. My brief experience with the Franciscans on pilgrimage taught me an enduring lesson about the nature of ministry and religious brotherhood; on this Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I give thanks for that. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was taken at the Kapuzinerkirche in Innsbruck.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Protecting Veil.

For many Byzantine Christians following the Gregorian (or Revised Julian) Calendar, October 1st is the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, about which I've written before. In observance of this feast, I would like to share a modern musical composition inspired by the Protection of the Theotokos, John Tavener's The Protecting Veil. A convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Tavener described The Protecting Veil as "an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound" and an effort "to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God." Premiered at the BBC Proms in 1989, this composition for cello and strings is heard here in a 1998 recording featuring Maria Kliegel on cello and the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa. If you would like to learn more about The Protecting Veil, click here; for more about John Tavener, visit his official website. AMDG.