Friday, December 30, 2011

Leopold Hawelka, 1911-2011.

Some sad news in the closing days of the year: Leopold Hawelka, a legendary fixture of Vienna's great coffee house culture, died yesterday at the age of 100. If you read German, check out the tributes to Herr Hawelka published in Vienna's two main dailies, Die Presse and Der Standard; for an English-language obituary confirming the international reach of the Hawelka name, take a look at this remembrance published in the Washington Post.

The news of Herr Hawelka's passing moved me in a particular way for the simple reason that I frequently visited his storied coffee house during my time in Vienna. Café Hawelka's location in the heart of Vienna's touristy Innere Stadt makes this venerable establishment a popular stop for foreign visitors, but I found that if I came in at the right time (typically in the early evening) the place was empty except for two or three local regulars, which meant that I could quietly sit with a cup of coffee (or, sometimes, a tall glass of beer) and peruse the assortment of newspapers or do my German homework without too many distractions. Though Leopold Hawelka had long since ceded oversight of day-to-day operations to his son and grandsons, the old Cafetier was still rumored to appear occasionally to see how things were going. I harbored hopes that I might catch a glimpse of this living legend on one of my visits to Café Hawelka, but it was not to be. Friede seiner Asche!

I am on the road again, currently at a retreat house northwest of Chicago for a gathering of young Jesuits in formation, after which I'll be visiting friends in various places. Posting will be sparse for the next few days, but I hope to make an appearance from time to time. Since I probably will not post again in 2011, I wish all readers a very happy new year. AMDG.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A new and wondrous mystery.

Having returned from Midnight Mass (which really did start at midnight, and where I took the above photo), I wish to repeat the annual tradition of this blog by extending to all readers my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing 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.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Christmas Eve.

Though my 'official' Christmas post will be coming in a few hours, here is a little something for readers stopping by on Christmas Eve: James Montgomery's "Angels, from the Realms of Glory," sung here by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. The tune is that of an old French carol, Les Anges dans nos campagnes, while the words are as follows:

Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation's story,
Now proclaim Messiah's birth:
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant Light:
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star:
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear:
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Peace, joy and consolation to all who read these lines. Merry Christmas! AMDG.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The child God.

As Christmas approaches, we may do well to reflect on these words from Father Alexander Schmemann, posted recently at Synaxis:
The Child as God, God as Child... Why does joyful excitement build over the Christmas season as people, even those of lukewarm faith and unbelievers, behold that unique, incomparable sight of the young mother holding the child in her arms, and around them the "wise men from the East," the shepherds fresh from night-watch in their fields, the animals, the open sky, the star? Why are we so certain, and discover again and again, that on this sorrowful planet of ours there is nothing more beautiful and joyful than this sight, which the passage of centuries has proven incapable of uprooting from our memory? We return to this sight whenever we have nowhere else to go, whenever we have been tormented by life and are in search of something that might deliver us...

It is the words "child" and "God" which give us the most striking revelation about the Christmas mystery. In a certain profound way, this is a mystery directed toward the child who continues to secretly live within every adult, to the child who continues to hear what the adult no longer hears, and who responds with a joy which the adult, in his mundane, grown-up, tired and cynical world, is no longer capable of feeling. Yes, Christmas is a feast for children, not just because of the tree that we decorate and light, but in the much deeper sense that children alone are unsurprised that when God comes to us on earth, he comes as a child.

This image of God as child continues to shine on us through icons and through innumerable works of art, revealing that what is most essential and joyful in Christianity is found precisely here, in this eternal childhood of God. Adults, even the most sympathetic to "religious themes," desire and expect religion to give explanations and analysis; they want it to be intelligent and serious. Its opponents are just as serious, and in the end, just as boring, as they confront religion with a hail of "rational" bullets. In our society, nothing better conveys our contempt than to say "it’s childish." In other words, it’s not for adults, for the intelligent and serious. So children grow up and become equally serious and boring. Yet Christ said "become like children" (Mt 18:3). What does this mean? What are adults missing, or better, what has been choked, drowned or deafened by a thick layer of adulthood? Above all, is it not that capacity, so characteristic of children, to wonder, to rejoice and, most importantly, to be whole both in joy and sorrow? Adulthood chokes as well the ability to trust, to let go and give one’s self completely to love and to believe with all one’s being. And finally, children take seriously what adults are no longer capable of accepting: dreams, that which breaks through our everyday experience and our cynical mistrust, that deep mystery of the world and everything within it revealed to saints, children, and poets.

Thus, only when we break through to the child living hidden within us, can we inherit as our own the joyful mystery of God coming to us as a child. The child has neither authority nor power, yet the very absence of authority reveals him to be a king; his defenselessness and vulnerability are precisely the source of his profound power. The child in that distant Bethlehem cave has no desire that we fear him; He enters our hearts not by frightening us, by proving his power and authority, but by love alone. He is given to us as a child, and only as children can we in turn love him and give ourselves to him. The world is ruled by authority and power, by fear and domination. The child God liberates us from that. All He desires from us is our love, freely given and joyful; all He desires is that we give him our heart. And we give it to a defenseless, endlessly trusting child.
Prayers and good wishes for all. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A new Russian Catholic priest.

Making the rounds of the blogosphere today, here is news of the ordination last month in Novosibirsk of a Russian Greek Catholic priest, Father Pavel Gladkov, translated by me from the original French report found on the Fides et Ratio weblog:
Today [on Tuesday, November 8th], Father Pavel Gladkov was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk for the service of the Apostolic Exarchate of Eastern Catholics in Russia. Father Gladkov was ordained by Bishop Milan Šašik, Greek Catholic Eparch of Mukachevo (Ukraine), acting at the request of Bishop Joseph Werth, Latin Bishop of Novosibirsk and Apostolic Visitor to the Exarchate.

Father Gladkov was born in 1982 in Kaluga and grew up in an Orthodox family, becoming Catholic in 1999. Between 2003 and 2011, he studied for the priesthood in the Eastern Rite at the Holy Spirit Theological Academy in Lviv (Ukraine), at seminaries in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg, and at the Blessed Theodore Romzha Theological Academy in Uzhgorod (Ukraine). He was married to Miss Gayane Valerovna Manvelyan on August 13th of this year and was ordained a deacon on October 14th. Thus, we congratulate him on his marriage and his ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, all within four months!
The Fides et Ratio post sadly offers no further details on Father Pavel's personal story; it would be very interesting to know about what led him to become Catholic and then to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. As Fides et Ratio notes, Father Pavel will be serving 'a minority of a minority of a minority': Catholics of any kind are a minority in Russia, Greek Catholics are fewer still, and Russian Greek Catholics are even fewer (most Greek Catholics in the country are Ukrainians who found themselves dispersed throughout the former Soviet Union). For more on the history of Russian Catholics both inside and outside Russia, click here.

The above video offers a closer look at Father Pavel's ordination to the priesthood; the narration is in Russian, but the visuals will be self-explanatory to anyone familiar with the rites of ordination. There are some Jesuits in this video: one is Bishop Werth himself, and among the concelebrating priests I recognized an American Jesuit who works in Russia and whom I know from his periodic visits to the United States; I suspect some of the other concelebrants are also Jesuits, as there a few working in Bishop Werth's diocese. Whatever your views may be on larger issues regarding relations between the Churches, I hope you'll spare a prayer for Father Pavel Gladkov and for the small and scattered flock that he has set out to serve as a priest. AMDG.

Blumen für Kim il-Sung (und Kim Jong-il).

The recent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has me thinking about one of the most unusual art exhibitions that I've ever seen, a show that I saw in Vienna in August of 2010 called Blumen für Kim il-Sung: Kunst und Architektur aus der Demokratischen Volksrepublik Korea ("Flowers for Kim il-Sung: Art and Architecture from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea"). The exhibition was put on by the Museum für angewandte Kunst, an institution that specializes in "applied arts" like furniture, housewares, and, in this instance, art influenced by politics. Given my interest in the relationship between art and politics, I naturally found the whole thing fascinating.

Billed as the first exhibition of North Korean art in the West, Blumen für Kim il-Sung aimed for political neutrality, though the fact that all of the works on display were lent by the North Korean government implies that Pyongyang exercised strong veto power over the curators' choices. That being said, the works were surprisingly varied: in addition to the expected socialist realist tableaux of happy workers and smiling children, one also found paintings influenced by older Western styles like French Impressionism. Putting style aside, though, all of the people in the paintings were either smilingly cheerful or stoically determined, all the landscapes were pristine and all the cities were vibrant, with no evidence of the grimness of life in a hermit state ruled by a brutal family dynasty.

To make your own judgment on Blumen für Kim il-Sung, take a look at the above video produced by the Museum für angewandte Kunst. For another outsider's view of a strange and reclusive dictator, why not have a gaze at Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, an oddly compelling Tumblr photoblog that has gone viral in recent days. AMDG.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Sapientia.

For Roman Catholics who pray the Divine Office, this is the evening when the first of the seven 'O Antiphons' is recited at Vespers. In the above video, you can hear tonight's antiphon, O Sapientia, sung by CantArte Regensburg under the direction of Hubert Velten.

Addressing the expected Messiah with the various titles given to him in the Old Testament - 'O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High,' 'O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel,' 'O Root of Jesse,' 'O Key of David,' 'O Dayspring,' 'O King of the Nations,' 'O Emmanuel' - the O Antiphons help create a sense of heightened anticipation in the last seven days preceding the Feast of the Nativity. To learn more, consult Fr. Z's "O Antiphon" Page for details of the history, scriptural sources and spiritual significance of these treasured prayers.

Having given the last of my three final exams, I am now deciphering blue books and beginning to calculate cumulative semester grades for all of my students. Given the task that I'm focused on this weekend, the invocation found in the antiphon O Sapientia strikes me as particularly apt: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly, come and teach us the way of prudence. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sankta Lucia.

For today's feast of the fourth-century Sicilian martyr Saint Lucy, here is some music from Sweden, where St. Lucy's Day is celebrated with great mirth as a kind of festival of light in the midst of winter darkness. The above video shows part of the annual Luciakonsert at the Storkyrkan, Stockholm's Lutheran cathedral. The Swedish carol sung here as Sankta Lucia, ljusklara hägring is set to music borrowed from a traditional Neapolitan folk song, which seems appropriate given the Italian origins of this feast. The girl marching at the head of the choir wearing a crown of lighted candles represents Saint Lucy herself, whose very name, coming from the Latin lux, identifies her as a bearer of light.

Taken from the same concert at the Storkyrkan, here is a tune that needs no introduction, the traditional Advent hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel. As we await the bright Feast of the Nativity, whether we do so in the darkness of a Northern winter or, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the middle of summer, may the light celebrated today on St. Lucy's Day be for us a source of consolation and hope. AMDG.

On the Holy Ancestors.

In the Byzantine tradition, the second Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity is the Sunday of the Holy Ancestors, commemorating the human forebears of Jesus Christ. As Father Stephen Freeman noted yesterday, this reminder that Jesus had ancestors challenges those of us who live in a culture in which, to borrow from the title of a book on a different, but not unrelated, topic, many are 'without roots':
Such feasts [as this one] are absent in most of Christianity – as though Christ had come at a point in time without preparation – without ancestors. Just as many Christians refuse to recognize the blessedness of Mary, from whom Christ took flesh, so do they also refuse to recognize that "flesh" involves ancestry. It is a bothersome aspect of the incarnation of Christ. It would be so much easier for many to speak of Christ’s humanity if His humanity did not involve any other humans. Thus there are Christians who worship a God made man, who is no man at all.

The traditional title for the grandparents of Christ (the parents of the Virgin Mary) is "the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna." They are honored at every liturgy, being invoked as part of the dismissal. If the title, "Mother of God," can be tolerated by some, the title, "holy and righteous ancestors of God," is yet more problematic.

In many ways this is not surprising. The modern world is largely devoid of ancestors. Ancestors are inherently part of tradition, and modernity despises tradition – it rebels against tradition. Living in America, I am deeply aware the many of the current generation cannot cite their ancestors further back than grandparents. It is as though we were a culture that came from nowhere. Perhaps this has an element of truth.

To come "from somewhere," is to come with restrictions on freedom. It is to come with a history – perhaps a history of friends and enemies. This can, indeed, be destructive and counter-productive. But it also means that we come into the world without identity, and thus find the need to "invent" ourselves. And so it is that modern Christians think nothing of inventing their own version of Christianity – for they themselves have no inheritance – no received tradition.
To read the rest of Father Stephen's post, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

St. John Climacus on everyday asceticism.

Over at Synaxis, a blog of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Father Philip Rogers recently presented some thoughts from Saint John Climacus on everyday asceticism:
One of the greatest monks in history, St. John Climacus, wrote a 30-step treatise called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This book was written specifically for those who were monks and laid out step by step the way to the Kingdom of God. Though he wrote it in the 7th century, it is still read today during Great Lent in many of the monasteries in the Orthodox world. In this work, St. John doesn’t just address the monks, however. He was presented with this same question over 1500 years ago: "Do I have to be a monk?" He responded by saying:

"Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: 'We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?' I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.'"

Notice that St. John doesn’t start off by mentioning what we should avoid and not do, but what we should actually do. "Do all the good you can" is very different from "avoid doing bad." If the answer was to avoid doing bad, we would be better suited to stay in our homes and be alone as much as we can; or, if we are outside our homes, to focus on the task that we are doing and not pay attention to anyone else that is around us. St. John is encouraging all of us to pay attention to the moment that we are in and look for the good that we can do. How often do we drive down the road talking on the phone or listening to the radio and mindlessly make our way to our destination? In my case, too often. In attempting to "do all the good you can," try instead to pay attention to where you are going, your surroundings. You might notice an opportunity to do good. . . .
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Notes on the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.

Widely celebrated on this date, the Feast of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, is one of my favorite days of the church year, in part because of the many wonderful traditions associated with this feast. One such tradition is the enthronement in some English cathedrals of boy bishops like the young prelate seen above; typically chosen from among the ranks of the cathedral choristers, the boy bishops traditionally took office on St. Nicholas' Day, retaining their honorary prelacies until the Feast of the Holy Innocents three days after Christmas. For more on boy bishops, consult this post from two years ago.

Here is some video footage of another annual tradition involving St. Nicholas, this one from the Netherlands. As seen above, Sinterklaas annually arrives (purportedly from Spain, and preferably by boat) in mid-November to inaugurate several weeks of festivites leading to the exchange of gifts on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day. I offer this video chiefly for the edification of my sister Liz, who was once on hand in Amsterdam to greet Sinterklaas on his arrival in the city.

Here's one more video from Amsterdam, showing Sinterklaas on parade through the city, accompanied by his traditional - and nowadays quite controversial - assistant Zwarte Piet. My sister has told me that at the time of Sinterklaas' arrival one finds hordes of Zwarte Pieten in the streets giving away homemade cookies - a fine act of generosity and an acknowledgment of community that, for various reasons, one would be much less likely to encounter during analogous celebrations in the United States.

Finally, something from Pennsylvania: a fragment of the traditional Carpatho-Rusyn hymn O kto kto Nikolaja l'ubit, heard here at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Harrisburg. On this Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, celebrated so brightly and with such great variety by Christians throughout the world, I pray that the holy Bishop Nicholas may intercede for us before Christ our God for the good of all and for the salvation of our souls. AMDG.

Friday, December 02, 2011

What does it mean to live a spiritual life?

Earlier this week, Father Stephen Freeman offered some thoughts on living a spiritual life, beginning with a nod to those who claim to be 'spiritual but not religious':
It has become a commonplace to hear someone say, "I’m spiritual but not religious." Most people have a general understanding of what is meant. I usually assume that the person holds to a number of ideas that are considered "spiritual" in our culture, but that they are not particularly interested in "organized religion." I understand this, because organized religion can often be the bane of spiritual existence.
Regular readers will recall that I wrote about the 'SBNR' phenomenon in early September and that I've promised to revisit the topic. The post that you are now reading is not that promised follow-up, which I still hope to produce once I feel free enough from other responsibilities (namely, teaching and everything that comes with it) to pull together the various thoughts on the whole SBNR business that have been percolating in my mind since that initial September post. Stay tuned.

Though I plan to say more on issues related to the SBNR phenomenon in another post, for the moment I would like to remind readers of my skepticism regarding the 'spiritual' part of the term 'spiritual but not religious.' I'm sure that Father Stephen is correct in suggesting that some SBNRs "hold[] to a number of ideas that are considered 'spiritual' in our culture," but I also have the impression, based on reading as well as various personal encounters, that some other SBNRs are wholly indifferent to anything that might be labeled as 'spiritual' and simply embrace the SBNR label because it sounds better (or more thoughtful, or less judgmental) than simply admitting that they aren't interested in the realm of the transcendent.

In any event, the real reason that I decided to call your attention to Father Stephen's post is to highlight some paragraphs that explain very well what SBNRs are missing out on:
I am an Orthodox Christian – which is not the same thing as saying that I have an interest in "organized religion." There is much about organized religion that I dislike in the extreme, and I occasionally see its shadow seep into my experience within Orthodoxy. But I repeat unashamedly that I am an Orthodox Christian and admit that one clear reason is that I am not very "spiritual." Without the life of the Church and its Tradition – I could easily drift into a shapeless secularism – living a mediocre existence, marking time until my time is done.

The shapeless contours of spirituality often reflect nothing more than the ego within. How can I escape the confines of my own imagination? It is, of course, possible to ignore the question of the ego’s input and be satisfied with whatever we find comfortable as our "spirituality." But, as noted above, I do not think I am an inherently "spiritual" man.

The Church is spiritual – indeed it is far more spiritual than "organized." It is standing in the midst of the holy (whether I am aware of it or not) and yielding myself to that reality that largely constitute my daily "spirituality." I pray and when something catches my heart, I stop and stay there for a while.
The point that Father Stephen makes here about tradition is critically important. Life with other religious believers can be messy and difficult, frustrating and even disillusioning, but it also provides the only context in which being 'spiritual' makes sense. As Lillian Daniel wrote in the article that prompted my first SBNR post, "There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself." Without the support and guidance of authority and tradition, 'spirituality' can too easily turn into navel-gazing solipsism.

All of this leads me to the following question: what do we actually mean when we use the term 'spirituality'? One of the reasons that I insist so strongly that 'spirituality' is inseparable from religion is that, without religious moorings, 'spirituality' comes to mean whatever its speaker wants it to mean, losing any stable sense of meaning that can be shared with others. I have sometimes found it easier to establish common ground with adherents of other religious traditions than to do so with 'SBNR' types. People of different religious necessarily disagree on foundational matters, but we can at least agree that foundations are essential. By contrast, the SBNR position seems to treat all foundations as superfluous.

At times, I have jokingly labeled myself as 'religious but not spiritual,' if only to emphasize the critical grounding that religious practice provides for those who wish to live a spiritual life. If I were not rooted in a particular religious tradition that includes concrete beliefs and rituals, I would not be capable of the kind of inner movements that might be termed 'spiritual.' Thus, it may be hard for me to appreciate the motives that some might have for labeling themselves as SBNRs. Nevertheless, I do take the SBNR phenomenon seriously as a pastoral problem, and that is the dimension that I intend to focus upon next time I write about this issue. AMDG.