Monday, October 29, 2012

Photo of the day.

As Hurricane Sandy makes its way up the East Coast of the United States - and also makes itself known here in Toronto, where it started to rain about half an hour ago - here is a photo for today, with a caption taken from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment Facebook page:
Spc. Brett Hyde, Tomb Sentinel, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), keeps guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during Hurricane Sandy at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Oct. 29, 2012. Hyde lives by the Sentinel's Creed which in part says "Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability." (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)
Soldiers of The Old Guard have stood watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery since 1948, and they will continue to do so throughout the hurricane.

Prayers for all in harm's way. AMDG.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Schall on "20-year-oldness."

In a column published in yesterday's edition of The Hoya, the great Father James V. Schall, S.J. - seen and heard many times before on this blog, most recently last month - offers some timeless words on the intelligence and academic potential of twenty-year-olds:
A professor who has been many years at a school is often asked by visitors: "Do you notice any difference between current students and those from previous decades?" I always answer that question pretty much the same way: "Look, all the students I ever have are around 20 years old. A 20-year-old is a 20-year-old. The students I had 30 years ago were just as intelligent and capable as those I have today — no more, no less."

What really counts to a teacher is not relative intelligence but what the student reads and knows, whether he wants to know and whether he is suddenly awake to ultimate things. All generations of 20-year-olds stand before the same reality, before what is. Any professor worth his salt at this or other university can recall his own "20-year-oldness," a time when something happened that woke him up to something beyond himself.

When I reread with a class the following lines from Allan Bloom in his Shakespeare’s Politics, I think of this question about the intelligence of students: "The beauty of words is but a reflection of the beauty of the thing; the poet is immersed in the thing, which is the only source of true beauty." Bloom brings poetry into the context of political philosophy; after all, Socrates’ main prosecutor at his trial in Athens was a poet. Bloom comes from a tradition suggesting that we cannot understand political things unless we have some idea of all things in their order.
In light of my own experience of university teaching, I couldn't help but smile when I read the next few paragraphs in Father Schall's column, which also made me ponder again that dangerous question sometimes posed by student to teacher, "Did I miss anything?":
But getting students to come to class prepared for that moment of immersion is an uphill battle.

It starts with the question of missing class. I confess to being somewhat of an idealist. Enforcing attendance is a duty in justice to whoever is footing the bills, but I also think students should come to class prepared. They should have read intelligently the matter at hand. But human nature, being what it is — in a condition of "fallen-ness," as the Orthodox theologians say — manages to miss class now and then.

When this happens, I often get a note from the missing student telling me that he has flu, is at lacrosse practice or works in the White House or some law firm downtown. He tells me that he will "get the notes" from his friend Fred, who unfortunately did not have such a pressing reason to miss class. By this time, I have often written and stated in class: “Please, never tell me that you will 'get someone's notes,' Class is not about notes, even mine, but about the text at hand." This text is what is follow-up inspections did not enforce the timeline required by violators to be read, not someone’s notes.
To read the rest - and I hope you will - click here. AMDG.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Australian Jesuit recognized as world's oldest teacher.

Earlier this month, 99-year-old Australian Jesuit Father Geoffrey Schneider was officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest serving teacher. Here is more on a remarkable Jesuit, by way of The Australian (article also available sans paywall via UCAN):
As the world’s oldest full-time teacher, Sydney priest Geoffrey Schneider knows a thing or two about how to bring the best out of students.

The secret, according to the 99-year-old, is "a mountain of patience."

"If things are going wrong, don’t start shouting. Just proceed quietly and things will settle down eventually," said Father Schneider, who turns 100 in December.

"Their books will eventually open."

The Jesuit priest has taught at schools in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, shaping the intellects and values of leading figures of Australian government, business, academia and sport, including Tony Abbott.

But as most workers switch between jobs or eagerly plan their retirement, Father Schneider yesterday signalled no intention of ending his 47-year tenure at Sydney's St Aloysius' College, where he is touted as the world’s oldest full-time teacher.

Nobody has so far come forward to challenge that title.

"Retirement?," he says.

"So I can read the paper every morning and then forget what’s in it?"

"That's what a retired friend told me happens to him," he said, recounting a recent visit to a home for retired priests.

"At 3pm there's afternoon tea and if you don’t turn up in the first minute they come knock on your door and say, 'It’s tea time now.'"

"Really, I shouldn't be frightened of it, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. I just feel I can be more useful here."
Later in the same article, Father Schneider comments on a unique tribute paid to him by some of his former pupils:
[Father Schneider] enjoys a fierce popularity at St Aloysius'.

In the early 1990s, Year 3 students were asked to name a new building after their favourite Jesuit saint. Innocently, they chose "Saint" Schneider.

"I didn’t worry about it at the time, really, but after that we received a direction that the Jesuits were not to have any buildings named after them while they are alive," he said.

"I don’t believe it wasn't a direct consequence of what happened, but they managed to name the building before that order came down."
How does he do it? In an interview with Australia's Catholic Weekly, Father Schneider emphasizes the importance of physical and spiritual health:
"Jesuits don’t retire while ever we’re on our feet," Fr Schneider says.

"The ones who do retire it’s because sadly their bodies have let them down. I’m still active."

"I make sure I take walks regularly and I still do some simple exercises."

"My health is good, immunity fine and I haven’t had to have any 'repairs' carried out."

Fr Schneider says his spiritual health is equally important.

"My other strength I gain from St Ignatius, St Francis Xavier and the Ignatian spiritual exercises; and what a man Francis Xavier was."

. . .

"What I particularly learnt in my novice days was that you realised you had to work hard, you had to do a good job, to show what you were made of, and to demonstrate that, yes, you would make a Jesuit," Fr Schneider says.

As he did. And what does he say about the Jesuit community?

"A life of good works and prayer. A Jesuit has to have compassion and love. To be a good community man."

"Our prayer life is constant all the time. The task is to confirm or reinforce what we learnt as novices, always."

"It gets me closer to God through Christ, and I am walking in the steps of great saints."
There is a lot of wisdom in Father Schneider's words on the importance of having a regular prayer life and following the example of the saints, and I can't help but admire this near-centenarian for his dedication to the apostolate and his continuing hard work. For a few more words from Father Schneider and some of his current and former pupils, here is a profile presented earlier this year by Sky News Australia:

After all that, what can I say but 'ad multos annos'? AMDG.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Daley, Brague receive Ratzinger Prize.

Last month, I noted the happy news that American Jesuit Father Brian Daley and French philosopher Rémi Brague had been chosen as the recipients of the 2012 Ratzinger Prize in Theology. The prize was formally awarded on Saturday at a ceremony in Rome presided over by Pope Benedict XVI himself, who had this to say to the two recipients (original text available here):
. . . I warmly congratulate Father Daley and Professor Brague, who by their personalities illustrate this initiative in its second edition. And here I mean "personality" in the full sense: the character of the research and the whole scientific endeavor; the precious service of teaching, which both have undertaken for many years; but also their being, naturally in in different ways – one a Jesuit, the other a married layman – working in the Church, active in offering their qualified contribution to the Church’s presence in today’s world.

In this regard I noted something that led to some reflection, and that is that this year’s two recipients are competent and engaged in two matters that are decisive for the Church of our times: I am referring to ecumenism and the encounter with other religions. Father Daley, studying the Fathers of the Church in depth, has placed himself in the best school for knowing and loving the Church one and undivided but in the richness of her different traditions; thus he carries out a service of responsibility in relations with the Orthodox Churches. And Professor Brague is a great scholar of the philosophy of religions, particularly the medieval Jewish and Islamic. Well, fifty years after Vatican Council II, I would like to re-read two conciliar documents with them: the declaration Nostra Aetate, on non-Christian religions, and the decree Unitatis redintegratio, on ecumenism, to which, however, I would add another document that has shown itself to be of extraordinary importance: the declaration Dignitatis humanae on religious freedom. Certainly it would be very interesting, dear Father and dear Professor, to listen to your reflections and also to your experiences in these fields in which a relevant part of the Church’s dialogue with the contemporary world takes place.

. . .

In fact, this ideal meeting already occurred in reading their publications, some of which are available in various languages. I feel a duty to express particular appreciation and gratitude for this labor of communicating the fruits of research. This is a grave but precious task for the Church and for those who work in the academic and cultural world. In this respect, I would simply like to underscore the fact that both of the recipients are university professors, very much involved in teaching. . . . Personalities such as Father Daley and Professor Brague are exemplary in the transmission of a knowledge that unites science and wisdom, scientific rigor and a passion for man, to bring about the discovery of an "art of living." And it is proper to people who, through an enlightened and lived faith, bring God closer and make him believable to man today, something that we need; people who look steadily to God and draw from this source true humanity to help those whom the Lord places along our path to understand that Christ is the way to life; people whose intellect is illuminated by the light of God so that they may be able to speak to the minds and hearts of others. They work in the vineyard of the Lord, where he calls us, so that the men and women of our time may discover and rediscover the truth "art of living": this was also one of the great passions of Vatican Council II, which is more relevant than ever in the work of the new evangelization.
As I wrote in September, I am grateful for the guidance and support that I have received from Father Daley and I am happy to see him and Professor Brague receive this well-deserved honor. Like the Holy Father, I hope that the positive witness that Brian Daley and Rémi Brague offer as scholars who unite the life of the spirit and the life of the mind will inspire others to follow them in lives of intellectual service that will help us all to discover anew the "art of living." AMDG.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

A seventeenth-century Mohawk woman who was baptized at age 20 and died at 24, Kateri Tekakwitha will be canonized this weekend in Rome, becoming the first member of North America's First Nations to be recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Some call Kateri "an ambiguous saint" in light of the complexities of her life as well as the tangled history of relations between the Church and the aboriginal peoples of North America. For a view of the canonization from the Mohawk reserve in Quebec that serves as Kateri's final resting place, here is a report from today's Montreal Gazette:
Floors of the old shrine have been freshly swept, the gift shop is stocked with candles and holy cards, and firefighters are up a ladder out front hoisting a giant banner.

It’s not every day a local girl becomes a saint.

Even when that local girl actually grew up somewhere else and died about 25 kilometres away 332 years ago.

At St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, all is in readiness for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century maid who will become North America’s first aboriginal saint this Sunday.

Hundreds of indigenous people from across the continent will be in Rome Sunday when Pope Benedict XVI bestows sainthood on Catherine (Kateri) Tekakwitha, also known as the "Lily of the Mohawks."

Among those attending will be Albert Lazare, who has spent most of his life waiting — and working — for this day to come.

"It’s hard to explain how I feel," Lazare, 78, said during a tour of the beautiful mission and shrine where Tekakwitha’s white Carrera marble tomb has a place of honour near the altar.

"People come and pray at the tomb. There is a basket where they leave their intentions."

Lazare was just 17 when he got a part-time job working for Rev. Henri Béchard, the Montreal-based priest overseeing the case for Kateri in the years after the Vatican declared her venerable in 1943.

After he finished school, Lazare became the full-time office administrator.

For 61 years, first alone, and later with help from his wife, Eileen, Lazare has done the bookkeeping and handled the mail, filled with pleas, intentions and poignant tales of favours received and would-be miracles attributed to Tekakwitha on the long road to sainthood.
For more on Kahnawake's reaction to Kateri's canonization, here is a report published today in the Globe and Mail:
The canonization of Kateri is bringing out mixed feelings among native Canadians, for whom the Catholic church has a dark legacy of colonialism, conversions and the trauma of residential schools. For some, the Pope’s move to bestow the church’s highest honour on a native woman is a milestone in their relations with the church.

"This is part of the healing process. It’s acceptance," said Arnold Lazare, Albert’s son, who is accompanying his parents to Rome. "In the early years of residential schools, native kids were considered second-class citizens. By recognizing Kateri, the church is saying she’s one of the chosen people. By accepting her, they’re accepting native people and our traditions, whereas before, they weren’t."

. . .

Response to her sainthood varies in Kahnawake, where Catholic religious observance is on the wane and interest in longhouse traditions has gained strength. Only a few hundred feet from the Kateri shrine, a sales clerk and a customer in a tax-free cigarette shop expressed profound indifference to Sunday’s canonization.

For others, Kateri represents a bridging of Catholic and native spirituality. Even the non-observant see a moment of pride in Sunday’s canonization. Kahnawake grand chief Mike Delisle Jr., who considers himself a non-practising Catholic, was preparing to board a flight for Rome on Friday. He is one of more than 2,000 pilgrims who are expected in Rome this weekend, many of them aboriginals from across the United States and Canada.

"I’m going to pay homage to a proud Mohawk woman who stood up for what she believed in, right up to her death," Chief Delisle said. "She was part of this community, this nation, this culture, and she’s a Mohawk regardless of your religion or culture. We’re matrilinear," he said, "and people should take pride."
May our mother among the saints Kateri pray to God for us. AMDG.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

News from Orthodox South Africa.

Here are a couple of items that caught my attention in the last few days, both pertaining to the Orthodox Church in South Africa, and both of interest to me and, I hope, to some readers of this blog.

The first piece of news comes from a friend and reader of this blog, Macrina Walker, who writes regularly at A Vow of Conversation and also does outstanding work as a craft bookbinder. For the better part of a year, Macrina has been commuting regularly between Cape Town and a small town two hours east called Robertson, where she has been working to establish an Orthodox house of prayer called Life-Giving Spring. As she announced recently on her blog, Macrina finished her work in Cape Town at the end of September and moved full-time to Robertson to focus on the development of Life-Giving Spring. Here is a bit more from Macrina on her work in Robertson, courtesy of the Life-Giving Spring website:
The Orthodox Church around here is still small and fragile and we have limited resources. Yet we are also immensely privileged and have a heritage that is largely unknown in this country. While the tasks ahead of us are great, we need to create the space to nurture an inner life, enter into a rhythm of prayer, and allow ourselves to be formed by the tradition of the Church. All Christian life is geared towards theosis, in which we become partakers of the Divine Nature, but this requires a process of purification, of self-knowledge and repentance, a learning of humility, so that we can reflect the transfiguring Light of Christ to those around us. The path to salvation that is offered to us in the Church exists to equip us with the tools that we need on this way.

Throughout the history of the Church there has been a movement to the desert in which our Fathers and Mothers in faith sought to distance themselves from the clamour of the world in order to seek God in truth, simplicity and prayer. This new venture is a small and tentative initiative to make something of this tradition available to those who seek God in our context. Although informed by the monastic tradition, it does not claim to be a monastery but is simply a small step whose future will become clear with time.
Macrina's work at Life-Giving Spring enjoys the blessing of the Greek Orthodox Archbishopric of Good Hope in Cape Town, but more support is needed. The Life-Giving Spring website has a page with information on how financial contributions may be made to provide for the physical needs of the house as well as to help build up the library. More fundamentally, I hope that readers will join me in supporting this developing initiative with their prayers.

The second item that I'd like to share today comes from Orthodox Deacon Stephen Hayes, who blogs at Khanya and Notes from the Underground. Deacon Stephen and I enjoyed a somewhat spirited exchange two years ago regarding the legacy of the Bush-Blair war policy on Iraq, during which Deacon Stephen offered a line that still makes me smile: "I wouldn't presume to argue with a presumed Jesuit on moral culpability." I still read Khanya and Notes from the Underground with some regularity, and I was pleased to learn (via Khanya) that Deacon Stephen's home parish of St. Nicholas of Japan in Johannesburg is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend. Marking this milestone online, Khanya has a history of the parish which includes an explanation of why St. Nicholas of Japan was chosen as the patron of the community:
At the time that the Society of St Nicholas started most Orthodox Churches in South Africa were “community” churches, that is to say they were established and run by ethnic communities (kinotites) and they functioned more or less as ethnic chaplaincies, using the language of the particular ethnic community, such as Greek, Serbian etc.

St Nicholas was intended to be a mission church, and multi-ethnic, with services mainly in English. St Nicholas of Japan was chosen as the patron saint because he was a Russian missionary who went to Japan, but started a Japanese Church, not a Russian one. So the aim of the society and the parish of St Nicholas was to be a South African Orthodox Church, which people of any ethnic background could join. . . .
Later, Deacon Stephen notes the way in which the St. Nicholas community has assimilated liturgical practices from various corners of Orthodoxy, thanks to the multi-ethnic nature of the congregation as well as a succession of parish priests from different countries:
[As parish priest] Fr Mihai also introduced some Romanian liturgical customs — I was ordained as deacon while he was in the parish, and learned the Romanian pattern of censing from him, or at least the Romanian modification of the Russian-American pattern established by Fr Chrysostom. Also, the Romanian version of the prayers at the Proskomide (Preparation Service) listed just about every possible way in which a person could die. I think nearly everyone was moved when he prayed, at the Great Entrance, "for those for whom no one is praying any more."

As a multi-ethnic parish St Nicholas has been rather eclectic in such things, drawing on customs from different parts of the Orthodox world. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday we have had the Greek custom of the bringing out of the cross, and the taking down from the cross, which doesn’t seem to be part of Russian practice. And at Pascha we have the Russian style Easter kiss, which many of the Greek parishes seem to neglect. We have adopted the Serbian custom of the Slava, which seems to fit in very well with the understanding of the importance of ancestors in many parts of Africa. And perhaps from these different strands, a truly African Orthodoxy can be woven.
My prayers today are for the clergy and people of St. Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg as they celebrate twenty-five years as a community. Going forward as a church made up of people who come from different cultures but share a common faith, may they succeed in weaving a truly African Orthodoxy. AMDG.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pew report: Protestants no longer U.S. majority.

Earlier this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of a recent survey indicating that one in five Americans - and one in three adults under 30 - now claim no religious affiliation. The survey also suggest that, for the first time, Protestants may be a minority in the United States. Here's a snippet from the Pew Forum's executive summary of the report:
While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline. Currently, 19% of U.S. adults identify themselves as white, born-again or evangelical Protestants, down slightly from 21% in 2007. And 15% of adults describe themselves as white Protestants but say they are not born-again or evangelical Christians, down from 18% in 2007. There has been no change in minority Protestants’ share of the population over the past five years.
The survey results include a lot of fascinating data, so I urge readers who are interested to take a look at the full report. For now, I'd like to look at a couple of questions that are not included in the report. One question is this: where are Americans who have moved into the ranks of the unaffiliated in recent years coming from? The Pew report notes that the share of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly steady in recent years, fluctuating between 22 and 23 percent in each of the last six annual surveys. At the same time, there seems to be at least some degree of correlation between the drop in the Protestant population and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated or "Nones": the percentage of Americans who identify as Protestant dropped by 5 points between 2007 and 2012, falling from 53 to 48 percent, while the "Nones" increased by 4.3 points over the same period, going from 15.3 percent to 19.6 percent. In the absence of more data to fill out the picture, it seems safe to conjecture that the greatest number of those moving into the "None" column over the last five years have come from the Protestant churches.

My second question is this: how do "Nones" who came from a religious tradition relate to that tradition once they have left? Does it still mark them somehow, even if they no longer place themselves within the fold? This may be a difficult question for statisticians to formulate and analyze, but I think it's a question worth asking. According to the Pew report, a majority of the "Nones" still claim a belief in God, and a high plurality (41 percent) pray at least monthly; a third of "Nones" also affirm that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives. Given all of this, I think it's fair to ask whether the religious traditions that the "Nones" came from still have some hold on them insofar as those traditions shaped their views on God, prayer, and religion in general.

Answers to the questions that I pose above could serve to test the Pew report's assertion that Protestants are now a minority in the United States. Is it fair to make such a claim if it can be shown that many of the "Nones" remain 'cultural Protestants' on some level? More broadly, what would it mean for a person to be a 'cultural Protestant'? Even today, one still encounters people who left the Catholic Church but remain cultural Catholics to the core: their identity is still at least partly shaped by their Catholicism, even if they personally reject everything that the Church teaches. I'm curious about the extent to which this does or does not happen in a Protestant context, as I've long wondered whether the Protestant Reformation opened the door to a deeper and more pervasive form of secularization than might have been possible in a purely Catholic society, insofar as the privatization of faith weakened the bond between religion and culture in the West (I believe that Brad Gregory makes a similar claim in his recent book The Unintended Reformation, which I'd like to read but haven't gotten to yet). The presence of cultural Protestants - if they are present - could tell us something about the relationship between faith and culture in the contemporary United States.

As I ponder the possibility of cultural Protestantism, I think of people like the British astrophysicist Martin Rees, who once said that he was not religious but still chose to attend Anglican church services because "those are the customs of my tribe." I wonder how many American "Nones" could say something similar - I really don't know, but perhaps there are agnostic ex-Episcopalians who retain a distant affection for the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, or lapsed Lutherans in the Upper Midwest who still respect the link between church and community. For my part, I'll admit that I can more readily understand non-believers who retain an aesthetic or intellectual appreciation for the cultural legacy of Christianity than I can understand people who buy into all that SBNR business and dismiss the faith of their ancestors as entirely disconnected from their sense of self.

If the Pew report is correct and Protestants are no longer a religious majority in the United States, what should we make of that fact? In practical terms, Protestant hegemony has long since become a thing of the past. A couple of years ago, the media quietly noted the fact that there were no longer any Protestants on the United States Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens; some have also pointed out that 2012 is the first year in which neither major party presidential ticket includes a white Protestant. The apparent end of the Protestant majority may not be that surprising or dramatic, but it's still something of a milestone given the historic dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture in the United States. As one who takes milestones seriously, I suggest that we give this one its due. AMDG.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Thanksgiving in Canada.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, so school is out and the traffic in Toronto is much lighter than usual. As The Canadian Encyclopedia will tell you, the historical roots of this holiday are rather tangled. Like its U.S. counterpart, Canadian Thanksgiving was partly inspired by the tradition of European harvest festivals, brought to North America by early English settlers. One could also look at the holiday as an unlikely by-product of the American Revolution, as some defeated Loyalists took the traditions of American Thanksgiving with them when they fled northward. Some also like to trace the origins of Thanksgiving in this country to a 1578 celebration held by the English explorer Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew in what is now northern Canada; this theory conveniently provides Canadian Thanksgiving with a starting point earlier than the 1621 Pilgrim celebration cited as the inspiration for American Thanksgiving, but it also necessarily downplays the fact that Frobisher and his companions were not celebrating a harvest - they were in the Arctic, after all - but rather their survival after a dangerous journey through treacherous and uncharted waters. Though Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually as a national holiday since 1879, the date of its celebration varied from year to year until 1957, when it was firmly set for the second Monday in October.

As in the United States, the experience of Thanksgiving in Canada is spread over a long weekend, with many traveling long distances to celebrate the holiday with family. I stayed local this year: the furthest I went over the weekend was to the suburb of Brampton, only twenty-five miles from downtown Toronto, and today I'm staying within the city limits. Our Jesuit community celebration of the holiday took place Friday evening, when we had a festive meal featuring fare typical of Thanksgiving celebrations on both sides of the border: turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, squash, and so on. I've spent most of today doing schoolwork: I have a paper due tomorrow, with three more assignments to turn in later in the week. I'm also taking time to enjoy Ontario's fall foliage, which can be partially glimpsed in the above photo, taken earlier this afternoon on the street outside my residence. On this holiday devoted particularly to expressions of gratitude, I'm most thankful for a successful start to the academic year (though it feels strange being a student again after teaching at a university for three years), for the fellowship and hospitality of the Canadian Jesuits who've welcomed me here, and for the gift of a vocation that makes these other gifts possible. I hope that readers who are celebrating this holiday can find some time today to thank God for the gifts that we receive throughout the year and throughout our lives. AMDG.

Monday, October 01, 2012


Here is an unsettling and thought-provoking story from Israel published in today's edition of the New York Times:
When Eli Sagir showed her grandfather, Yosef Diamant, the new tattoo on her left forearm, he bent his head to kiss it.

Mr. Diamant had the same tattoo, the number 157622, permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Sagir got hers at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. This month, her uncle followed suit.

"All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust," said Ms. Sagir, 21, who has had the tattoo for four years. "You talk with people and they think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history. I decided to do it to remind my generation: I want to tell them my grandfather’s story and the Holocaust story."

Mr. Diamant’s descendants are among a handful of children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors here who have taken the step of memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies. With the number of survivors here dropping to about 200,000 from 400,000 a decade ago, institutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.

. . .

"We are moving from lived memory to historical memory," noted Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles who is among the foremost scholars of the memorialization of the Holocaust. "We’re at that transition, and this is sort of a brazen, in-your-face way of bridging it."

Mr. Berenbaum, himself the son of survivors, said that "replicating an act that destroyed their name and made them into a number would not be my first or second or third choice," but, he added, "it sure beats some of the other tattoos that some of the young people are drawing on their skin."

It is certainly an intensely personal decision that often provokes ugly interactions with strangers offended by the reappropriation of perhaps the most profound symbol of the Holocaust’s dehumanization of its victims. The fact that tattooing is prohibited by Jewish law — some survivors long feared, incorrectly, that their numbers would bar them from being buried in Jewish cemeteries — makes the phenomenon more unsettling to some, which may be part of the point.

"It’s shocking when you see the number on a very young girl’s hand," Ms. Sagir said. "It’s very shocking. You have to ask, Why?"
To read the rest, click here. Like Michael Berenbaum, I'm not sure that I like this "in-your-face" approach to honoring those who survived the Holocaust; then again, my perceptions may be colored by the fact that I dislike tattoos in general. As I've noted in a number of historical memory posts - most recently in April - something important happens when the last living witnesses to a major historical event pass from the scene. If nothing else, I hope that this unlikely discussion about tattoos will help to keep the memory of the Holocaust vivid when no survivors remain to tell their stories. AMDG.