Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi.

Today is the traditional date of the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi. I've never felt drawn to the figure of St. Francis (as I quipped a few years ago, this fact is "one reason . . . why I became a Jesuit and not a Franciscan") but I am respectful of the role that narratives about Francis' life have played in the history of Western religious art. The image of St. Francis receiving the stigmata has been of particular interest to artists over the centuries; for an early example of the genre, take a look at the above depiction of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, produced around the year 1250 - scarcely twenty-five years after Francis' death - by an artist known as the Master of San Francesco Bardi. I like this image because it comes from a time when the conventions of Eastern and Western iconography were not as far apart as they would later become, and this seems an appropriate time to share it on this blog.

The Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi also provides me with a welcome excuse to share some music by Olivier Messiaen, whose space-age compositions have been featured here before. The only opera written by the fervently Catholic Messiaen - an opera that has also been featured here before - was devoted to the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise is a long work that places considerable demands on audiences as well as performers, and as a result the opera is infrequently performed. One reason that Saint François d'Assise can be difficult for audiences is that it eschews conventional narrative in favor of a series of essentially self-contained vignettes from the life of the title character, including the above scene of the reception of the stigmata. I may not be an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi, but I appreciate the fact that his life has inspired many others, including Olivier Messiaen. Moreover, I hope that the remembrance of the Stigmata of St. Francis may lead others to reflect more deeply on how they have also been marked, albeit less visibly, by the wounds of Christ. May our father among the saints Francis of Assisi pray to God for us. AMDG.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cuarenta años después.

With some changes, this post reproduces the content of a post that first appeared here five years ago. As I do each year on this date, I plan to take some time today to pray for and remember those who died in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. I'm also mindful that this is the fortieth anniversary of the first 9/11, the coup that toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende and inaugurated the seventeen-year rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Driven by an abiding interest in historical memory, I spent a month in Chile in the summer of 2008 in hopes of learning more about how Chileans had dealt with the legacy of the coup and the years of military rule that followed it. What interested me then - and still interests me now - are the ways in which nations like Chile preserve a collective memory of traumatic experiences and transmit the meaning of those traumas to younger generations with no memory of the events in question. I was especially curious to find out what was being done to memorialize the more than three thousand Chileans who were killed for political reasons or 'disappeared' under Pinochet's rule. The photos shown here reveal some of the results of my inquiry, starting - appropriately, I think - with this iconic image of the broken remains of Salvador Allende's trademark coke-bottle glasses; preserved by a presidential aide after Allende shot himself in the head on the day of the coup, this macabre relic is now displayed at Santiago's Museo Histórico Nacional. This image of Allende's glasses is not mine: it was found on Flickr. All of the other photographs in this post are my own work.

2008 was the centenary of the birth of Salvador Allende, leading to various exhibitions and other public commemorations of the socialist head of state whose government was overthrown by the 1973 golpe de estado. Though the celebratory tone of these events undoubtedly offered a kind of catharsis for Allende supporters who suffered under military rule, objective assessments of Allende's administration seem to have gotten lost in the process. During my time in Chile, the state-owned television network TVN was running a series called Grandes chilenos de nuestra historia ("Great Chileans of Our History"), profiling notable historical figures such as Salvador Allende, Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, nineteenth-century naval hero Arturo Prat, and even Jesuit Father Alberto Hurtado. Each installment of Grande chilenos featured a contemporary cultural figure making a case for the subject of that episode's documentary, arguing why he or she was the greatest Chilean in history. After all of the episodes had been shown, the series ended with a national poll in which anyone could vote by telephone (and, if I recall correctly, by Internet), the result of which was that Salvador Allende narrowly defeated Arturo Prat for the title of "Greatest Chilean." The strong vote for Allende probably received a boost from veritable secular canonization that he received on his centennial. Emblematic of that spirit, the statue of Allende seen above stands a few feet from the presidential palace in which he died; the statue's heroic depiction of Allende and politically sensitive location stirred some controversy when it was first installed, but I never heard anyone suggest that it should be removed.

Most of the remaining photos in this set were all taken at Santago's Cementerio General, the largest cemetery in the capital - and, as the final resting place of appoximately two million people, one of the largest burial grounds in Latin America. The Cementerio General contains the graves of many famous Chileans (including Allende) as well as thousands of ordinary citizens who made their own distinctive if often quiet contributions to the country's history. The Cementerio General also includes memorials like this one, which purportedly includes the names of all the people who were killed or disappeared by the military regime.

Near the memorial wall seen above, one finds niches set aside for the bodies of some of those who were killed for political reasons or died in detention during the dictatorship; visiting these graves can be an especially poignant experience, as many of the families of the people buried there have left not only flowers but personal messages, photos, and mementos of the deceased. The ranks of those who disappeared or died in detention under Pinochet include people of all ages and walks of life; as the dates given indicate, the boy buried in this niche died less than a month before his fourteenth birthday.

Another section of the Cementerio General - Patio 29 - has long been set aside for paupers and for individuals whose bodies were unclaimed or unidentifed after their deaths. A number of still-anonymous victims of the dictatorship are buried here, their grave markers reading "NN."

On one of the grave markers in Patio 29, a graffiti artist with a deep sense of irony wrote the name "Augusto Pinochet Ugarte," who is not actually buried here. Cremated following his death in 2006, General Pinochet was never placed in a tomb because his family feared that his grave could become a target for vandals. In a sense, then, Pinochet symbolically rests among the unknown.

The best general statement that I can offer about el 11 de septiembre in Chilean memory is provided in the final photo in this set. I spotted this small plaque - perhaps appropriately part of an exhibit on the Allende centenary - at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda in downtown Santiago. The inscription is inspired by a line in a famous poem by Pablo Neruda (a poem that many Chileans I met could recite from memory), a poem that begins, Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche - "Tonight, I can write the saddest lines." Deep in this poem is the line Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos - "We, of that time, are no longer the same." The plaque in the photo says nearly the same thing - "We, of before, are no longer the same." The difference is a subtle one, but I suppose that "before" draws a sharper distinction between the past and the present than "that time" does.

Repeating my earlier promise to pray for those who died on 9/11 and their loved ones, I pray also for the people of Chile and for all who lost their lives as a result of the coup of 1973 and its aftermath. I also hope and pray that the coincidence of these two anniversaries inspires greater reflection on the ways in which we can work for peace and reconciliation. AMDG.