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.


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