Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A new and wondrous mystery.

Having returned from Midnight Mass (I took this photo there; some may recognize the church) and having enjoyed a quietly festive réveillon in my Jesuit community, before going to bed I would like 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.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On Christmas Eve.

As usual, my 'official' Christmas post will appear in a few hours, after Midnight Mass. In the meantime, Christmas Eve visitors might enjoy some music. This is the English carol "In the Bleak Midwinter," with words by the nineteenth-century poet Christina Rossetti set to music in 1909 by Harold Darke; it is sung here by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury. The words are as follows:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

May the peace and blessings of this holy night be with all who read these lines. Merry Christmas! AMDG.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Headline of the day.

Apropos the much-hyped Mayan Apocalypse (this year's Y2K), this headline in today's edition of the Toronto Star made me laugh. I hope that it lightens what I expect is a stressful day for many, with last-minute Christmas shopping, holiday travel, and the like. AMDG.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Father Schall's last lecture.

I recently took note of Father James Schall's retirement from teaching and his farewell lecture at Georgetown, about which you can learn more courtesy of this report from the Georgetown Voice. Today, I'm pleased to report that the complete lecture is now online for the benefit of people like me who could not attend even though we would have liked to have been there. I've embedded the video above for the benefit of readers who may be interested in hearing what Father Schall had to say; preceded by introductions by a colleague and a former student, Schall's actual remarks begin around the fourteen-minute mark.

For another report on Father Schall's last lecture, take a look at this article from the National Catholic Register, which also includes a brief interview with Father Schall featuring this salient exchange:
REGISTER: How do the roles of a priest and a teacher fit together? Does being a Jesuit have anything to do with it?

SCHALL: At least one of the purposes of the Society of Jesus was to combine the priest and teacher into one person. A priest simply knows things that a teacher is not likely to know. To teach is also one of the duties of the priest. St. Paul said that teaching is one of the possible manifestations of the variety within the Church. To teach is to make present to another what is true and how to see it by himself. Teachers do not own knowledge. It is free.

One of my best essays was entitled “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Both teacher and student pursue the same thing: the truth itself. If they do not, both are lost.
The above passage offers a pithy encapsulation of my own reason for entering the Society of Jesus: I liked the idea of being a priest and a teacher, and many Jesuits are both. I also like what Father Schall has to say in "What a Student Owes His Teacher," an essay that you can read online here. Though I'm still sorry to see Father Schall leave the classroom, I'm consoled by the realization that he will continue to teach through his writings and (hopefully for a long time to come) through the good example of his life. AMDG.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Iterum dico, gaudete.

Today, Roman Catholics celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday on account of the first line of the Introit for today's Mass: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, this line translates as, "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice." As the figurative middle point of Advent, Gaudete Sunday is meant to be an occasion for rejoicing. As on Laetare Sunday, which similarly constitutes the middle point of Lent, the somber violet vestments prescribed for the liturgical season are exchanged today for more festive rose-colored vestments (or at least they should be; I suspect that many parishes fail to do so). The basic message of the celebration is very simple: we've passed the halfway mark of a penitential season, so let us rejoice as the Lord's coming draws nearer.

Again I say, rejoice. Though these words are proclaimed every year, they are not always easy words to respond to. The invitation to rejoice can ring hollow when we consider the suffering that surrounds us - some of it quite visible, as we see in the aftermath of natural disasters and in the carnage of war, and some of it largely hidden, silently borne by individuals whose private traumas are unknown to most or all of those around them. Today, many will certainly wonder how it is possible to rejoice so soon after the tragic deaths on Friday morning of twenty-eight people, including twenty small children, in Newtown, Connecticut. When we consider all of this, how can we seriously accept the invitation to "rejoice in the Lord always"?

To understand how we can still rejoice in trying times, I believe we must ask why we rejoice at all. For an answer, let us take another look at the words of St. Paul which form part of today's liturgy. After he offers the invitation to rejoice always, Paul provides a very simple reason for this rejoicing: "The Lord is near."

The Lord is near. He is near to us, even when he seems remote, for he chose to become one of us. We rejoice on Gaudete Sunday for the very same reason that we rejoice on Christmas: we rejoice in the great gift of the Incarnation. We rejoice because the God we worship chose to become a human being, embracing all of the joy and the pain that are part of the human condition. We rejoice because Jesus Christ suffers with us - and we rejoice because he suffered for us, dying for our sake so that we might enjoy the gift of eternal life.

We rejoice today in the coming of the Savior, because we know that the way to the manger in Bethlehem also leads to the cross on Calvary, and that the way to the cross also leads to the joy of the resurrection. There can be no greater cause for rejoicing than the knowledge that God is with us, not only in times of joy, but also in times of pain, and indeed in every moment of our lives, even when we are scarcely aware of His presence.

Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice. AMDG.

Friday, December 14, 2012

At a loss.

I feel very isolated from this morning's tragic shooting in Connecticut, having only learned of the event late in the afternoon after spending much of the day holed up in my room finishing a paper that was due today. I can think of no words of consolation or uplift at the moment; I can only share in the sense of sorrow and devastation that President Obama expressed earlier this afternoon regarding the senseless death of twenty small children: "They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own."

My prayers this afternoon are for all who are affected by this tragedy - I pray for the victims, for their families, and, yes, I also pray for the gunman whose terrible deeds have brought suffering to many. May God have mercy on them all.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Father Schall's farewell to the Hilltop.

As previously noted on this blog, today is the date of Father James Schall's last lecture at Georgetown. To mark the retirement of this Georgetown legend, The Hoya has presented an online tribute to Father Schall including reminiscences from colleagues, friends, and former students, a collection of some of the many columns that he has written over the years for the newspaper, and an interview in which Father Schall discusses his time at Georgetown, his next steps, and his views on education. Here is a bit of what Father Schall has to say in his farewell interview with The Hoya:
THE HOYA: What led you to make this your last semester of teaching?

SCHALL: Not any one thing, of course. In a broad sense, the day comes for everyone when he must decide. Just when is the best time is prudential, a judgment. I have had a number of annoying health problems in recent years. I do not want to begin a semester that I cannot anticipate finishing. It seems fair to the [government] department to give them time to find a replacement. Jesuit superiors give good advice here. But it is not rocket science. What Socrates, Cicero and Scripture say on old age, as my students know, I take to be basically true. You make a decision and live with it. Many of my colleagues, just older than I, were required by law to retire at 70. But now we are the almost only country in the world that does not discriminate against age. I will be 85 in January. Thus, I have been able to teach 15 extra years, as it were. So it seems fitting to retire at this time.

THE HOYA: Do you have plans after you depart from campus in March?

SCHALL: Aside from the famous aphorism "The best laid plans of mice and men . . ." I will reside in the Jesuit house in Los Gatos, California, on the Bay-side slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is the large center into which I first entered the Order in 1948. I spent my first years from the time I was 20 to 24 there. It serves now as an infirmary, a residence and the offices of the Provincial of the West Coast Jesuit Province. A priest as priest does not "retire," even if he is officially retired. I have a number of writing projects that I hope to continue once I am settled in. I have family in California and old friends. It is not forbidden for stray former students to visit the place should they find themselves in the vicinity.

. . .

THE HOYA: What are some of your fondest memories of Georgetown?

SCHALL: Amusingly, one of my fond memories was on the plane from California on which I flew to take up teaching here. I was on United or some airline that had one of those company magazines. The magazine that was in the seat that I was in had an article about the 10 most "drinking" universities in the country. Lo and behold, Georgetown made this "exclusive" list of 10! That must have been in late 1977. I confess that I have not seen any current list, but I was always amused by that article. I have not myself observed much of this drinking here, but I know that it can be more of a problem than it should be. We all should know, as it were, how to drink.

As I often mention, the beauty of the Healy building, in the morning sun, in snow, in fog, in spring flowers against its base or seen from 35th Street just before Visitation or from the Key Bridge is not easily to be forgotten. I think the campus is defined by the Healy building, and that is fixed in my memory.

But I suppose my fondest memories are those in a large class after I have finally succeeded in identifying each student by name and face, to see a student suddenly catch the drift of what Aristotle or Aquinas or Nietzsche or Plato was talking about.

. . .

Sometimes I think the imagery of what a university is, the "ivory towers," is not reflected on enough. The phrase is mostly said in derision, something similar to Plato’s description in Book Six of The Republic about why the philosopher has a bad name in the city. Modern pressure to make college a training ground for certain crafts or professions, as well as the demands of departments for more time for the specialization, has left little time for reading and serious reflection. A student who spends 20 to 50 hours a week working, on a ball team, volunteering or goofing off simply misses what his time means here.

The university should be designed to protect us from the pressing world at least for a few years during which we are free to read and write and think. Even heavy class loads will interfere. Once a student leaves the front gates, he will be inundated with the world and the pressing problems of going forth to his life. The specter of the online university is no longer just over the horizon, the place where we only need a machine and an online connection. The essence of education is simple: a teacher, a student, a room and a book. I often cite Yves Simon’s remark that nothing can protect a young student from giving his soul to an unworthy professor. We have to seek the meaning of what is. This is the adventure that finally defines us.

THE HOYA: If you had one piece of advice to give to a freshman, what would it be?

SCHALL: That is easy. Students have often heard Schall’s basic advice: "Don’t major in current events." Or as my older aphorism has it: "To be up to date is to be out of date."
To read more of the interview, click here. Though I appreciate the inevitability of such things, I still feel a certain sadness at Father Schall's farewell to the classroom and his return to California. I'm sad that I won't see him next time I visit Georgetown, though the fact that he is moving to Los Gatos also makes me realize again that I'm overdue for a return visit to the Bay Area. I feel a greater sadness in the realization that the youngest Hoyas will not have the opportunity to learn from one of the Hilltop's very greatest teachers; most will probably never know what they're missing, and that's a real shame. More hopefully, I wish Jim Schall the very best as he returns home to the West Coast. AMDG.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers.

When Gabriel uttered to you, O Virgin, his "Rejoice!,"
At that sound the Master of all became flesh in you, the Holy Ark.
As the just David said, you have become wider than the heavens,
Carrying your Creator.
Glory to Him who dwelt in you!
Glory to Him who came forth from you!
Glory to Him who freed us through birth from you!

(Theotokion for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost)


Term papers and imminent exams make these busy days for me - more on that later, perhaps - but as we begin to prepare for the Nativity of Christ I wanted to share a relevant passage from a book that I've been reading purely for personal enrichment in my diminishing free time:
In their attempt to supplement Mary's virginal birth with the explanation that neither Scripture nor tradition provided them, the Church Fathers, in putting Luke's Annunciation passage under their relentless hermeneutical scrutiny, unearthed the aural imagery that lay therein. For once, it made sense to take the ear as the very medium through which the Word entered the virginal body ("for the sense of hearing is the natural channel of words"). As Proclus has Mary explain, "I heard a Word, I conceived a Word, I delivered a Word." The complementary character of spoken (annunciation) and heard word (conception), and the underlining dialectics of sound and silence offered the great preachers of the fifth and sixth centuries a seemingly inexhaustible source of rhetoric that sustaied anything from the longest to the shortest homily. (A personal favorite is the - Christmas? - homily of Cyrus of Panopolis, which in its entirety reads as follows: "Brethren, let the birth of God our Savior Jesus Christ be honored with silence, because the Word of God was conceived in the holy Virgin through hearing alone. To him be glory forever. Amen.")

What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers, however, was the typology entailed in the momentous encounter of Gabriel with Mary. The passage in Luke became the contrapuntal text to Genesis: as Eve in her disobedience (παρακοή) had "given birth" to death, so Mary, the second Eve, through hearing (ἀκοή) gave birth to Life. Whereas Eve obeys (ὑπακοῦειν) the serpent, Mary listens to (ἀκοῦειν) the salutation of the angel. To God's creation of man (Adam), humanity responded with the re-creation of man in the New Adam (Christ). Although both creation and Incarnation are the deeds of the Father's love, Christ's birth could not have happened without Mary's response. Tha's why Mary's fiat mihi in "let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38) repeats and completes God's fiat as in "let us make man" (Gen 1:26). Both creational formulas share the same paradox: as God creates the world through a self-contraction, that is, a self-limitation of His will,so Mary assents to God's plan of the Incarnation by willfully abandoning her will; "let it be done to me."
This passage was taken from God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, by John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a book that has inadvertently become part of my devotional reading for Advent. There is more where that came from, so I suggest that you get your hands on Manoussakis' book if the above excerpt piques your interest. Prayers for all in this time of expectation. AMDG.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say.

I rarely post strictly 'intramural' items on this blog, but here is some local Jesuit news that I'd like to share. This past Wednesday, a reception was held at Regis College to honor Father Michael Shields, S.J. on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and the completion of thirty-two years of full-time work at the Lonergan Research Institute at Regis; you can see Father Shields at the center of the above photo, plate in hand, offering his thanks to the assembled crowd. Serving very ably as the Institute's librarian for almost three decades, Father Shields has also undertaken the monumental task of translating Bernard Lonergan's numerous Latin works into English, helping to make many previously unpublished texts by one of the great philosopher-theologians of the twentieth century accessible to a broader scholarly audience. By his own estimate, Father Shields has rendered 1.2 million Latin words into 1.7 million English ones - a sign, he says, that Latin possesses a greater economy of expression than English. Though he has begun what he calls his "semi-retirement," Father Shields will continue to work at the Lonergan Research Institute on a part-time basis and intends to devote some of his newfound free time to other scholarly projects - including an article on Lonergan's use of the Latin language, a topic about which this veteran translator can write with unparalleled authority.

I mention Father Shields here in part because he is a good Jesuit, an outstanding gentleman, and a fine scholar worthy of recognition. I also mention him because it occurred to me while attending the reception in his honor that Michael Shields is an example of the sort of Jesuit whose witness nurtured my vocation to the Society of Jesus. I never met Father Shields before I came to Toronto, but I knew Jesuits like him when I was an undergraduate at Georgetown: erudite yet self-effacing scholars who united the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, finding God in lives dedicated to the pursuit and increase of human knowledge. The words that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez apply just as well to the many Jesuit scholars who, like Father Shields, spent many years working quietly in archives and libraries to produce academic work of enduring value. Even as an undergrad, I believe that I already recognized the Jesuit scholar's life as poignant yet ultimately heroic; I saw this as a way of being in the world that attracted relatively little public notice yet helped to further the great intellectual mission of the Society of Jesus. The Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq once wrote a book on medieval monasticism called The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, but I can say that the conviction that the same two traits could also be found in the Society of Jesus helped to bring me where I am today. I am grateful to all those whose good example has helped me to remain firm in that conviction, including Father Michael Shields. As I commend Father Shields on his fifty years of priestly ministry and his thirty-two years at the Lonergan Research Institute, I pray that his example may inspire others as well. AMDG.