Friday, February 28, 2014


The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound...

In the weeks leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Canadian Olympic Committee presented a series of visually striking ads featuring members of Team Canada with the slogan (invariably presented as a Twitter hashtag) "#wearewinter." The best of these ads is the one shown above, matching the image of snowboarder Mark McMorris with a few lines taken from nineteenth-century Canadian poet Archibald Lampman's "Winter Uplands." The twenty-year-old McMorris showed considerable grit and determination by heading to Sochi despite having broken a rib in competition less than two weeks earlier and became the first Canadian athlete to win a medal at this year's Games. For his part, Lampman earned an enduring reputation as the author of nature poems like "Winter Uplands" despite suffering years of weak health and spending most of his working life as a postal clerk in Ottawa. To my mind - and I say this with great love and respect for a country which has welcomed me very hospitably - the combination of Lampman's poetry and the "#wearewinter" slogan conveys the particular blend of sullen fatalism and stoic determination that typify many Canadians' relationship with this season.

The words "We Are Winter" have an ironic resonance these days given the sort of winter we have been having, which has been harsh even by Canadian standards; a report that I heard today on CBC Radio stated that this is the coldest winter Canada has experienced in twenty years, with temperatures unlike to rise above freezing until mid-March. I don't share the bitterness that Globe and Mail writer John Doyle expressed on the topic earlier this month, but I can't help but be struck by the fact that the "We Are Winter" campaign (no doubt devised by marketing gurus months ago) comes at a time when many Canadians are understandably pining for warmer weather.

Other than "We Are Winter," I think the best words to sum up this year's winter in Toronto were ones that I overheard yesterday from an undergraduate on the U of T campus. Bounding out of the doors of his residence hall, bundled in a woolen pea coat and scarf but still bareheaded, the young man shouted to some friends at a distance to wait so that he could catch up with them; just a moment later, he shouted, "Damn it, I need a flippin' tuque!" and immediately went back inside.* Yes, I thought to myself, you do need a tuque on a day like this, in spite of that sense of youthful invincibility which may have led the student to think he could get by without one. When this winter ends and one can once again comfortably go about bareheaded and without a heavy coat and gloves, then I - and probably also that U of T student and many, many others - shall be very grateful. AMDG.

* - I should note that the young man really did say "flippin'" and not a variation on another term famously euphemized by Pierre Elliott Trudeau as "fuddle duddle." For readers who do not know, a 'tuque' is simply a knit cap.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fra Angelico in Detroit.

Posting on this blog has been very sparse lately, owing to general busyness and various distractions, and I don't expect that to change in the immediate future. Having said that, I was intrigued to learn via the English Dominican Students' blog Godzdogz that today is the feast of Blessed Giovanni da Fiesole, a fifteenth-century Dominican more widely known as the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico. This year, Fra Angelico's feast day finds me in Detroit, where I've come for a few days of rest during the University of Toronto's winter reading week. As it happens, the Motor City's Detroit Institute of Arts is home to three paintings by Fra Angelico, including the Virgin Annunciate (c. 1450/55) which illustrates this post. I regret that I haven't gotten to the DIA during this visit - I thought about it, but the schedule and the weather didn't cooperate - but I am happy to say that I've been there several times in the past, and I like the fact that the residents of Detroit can claim ownership of a municipal art collection that includes works by Fra Angelico as well as the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Cézanne, van Gogh, and Picasso.

I have a bit of a history with the DIA and with Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate. I remember being moved by the painting when I saw it at the DIA as a Jesuit novice, and I later bought a reproduction of it which I've carried with me to New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto but have never gotten around to framing and hanging on the wall. For a bit more on my reactions to Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, here are some thoughts that I posted here nearly four years ago:
Aside from the loveliness of the Virgin's face and the graceful crossing of her arms, what I like about this painting is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a recurring element in Western iconography of the Incarnation. In Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand - she even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever.
Looking at the painting now, I remain struck by the finger in the book, but I'm also caught by a few other elements. I take particular note of the ring on a finger of Mary's right hand (a mark of her betrothal to Joseph, her consecration to God, or both?) and the fact that Mary is depicted as the teenager she likely was and not as the adult figure common in later iconography. I also notice the color of her garments: the red dress indicative of her humanity and the blue mantle suggestive of the divine benediction which she received in being chosen to be the Mother of God.

This post also seems like a good place to talk about the current status of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city where Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate makes its home. Founded in 1885 and nurtured by decades of donations by local philanthropists with familiar surnames like Ford and Dodge, the DIA has maintained its position as one of the leading art museums in the United States at the same time that Detroit has struggled with depopulation, crime, and perennial economic woes. The future of the city-owned collection at the DIA has been uncertain since Detroit's municipal authorities filed for bankruptcy in July 2013 in an effort to deal with the city's $18 billion debt and multimillion-dollar budget deficit; some creditors and policymakers have suggested auctioning parts of the DIA collection to help the city pay off its debts, with a few questioning whether Detroit can afford to keep an art museum at all.

Though the future is still uncertain, the situation has brightened a bit in recent weeks: state leaders and philanthropic foundations have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the DIA's collection and to prevent cuts in pensions to retired city workers, while a federal bankruptcy judge has put the brakes on proposals that could lead to the sale of some artwork. The City of Detroit, its retirees, and the DIA are not out of the woods yet, but hope is not lost. Perhaps this is a good time for prayers to the Virgin Annunciate ('Our Lady of Detroit'?) that all might emerge intact. AMDG.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Senex Púerum portábat: Puer autem senem regébat.

For many people in North America, today is Super Bowl Sunday, or Groundhog Day, or perhaps both. The feast celebrated today by the Church commemorates an event greater than any football game, and certainly much greater than a Pennsylvania rodent's awakening from hibernation. This feast goes by many names – the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, the Presentation of the Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Candlemas – and the very multiplicity of names reminds us that there is a lot going on here. In obedience to the Law of Moses, a firstborn male is consecrated to the Lord and his mother marks the ritual purification that follows childbirth; while the Holy Family is at the Temple in Jerusalem, they encounter two devout elders who recognize the newborn child as the long-awaited messiah, the "light of revelation to the Gentiles" whom we recognize in a special way today with the blessing and carrying of candles.

There is much that can be said about today's feast, but I would like to focus upon one element: the Lord's encounter with Simeon. All we know of Simeon comes from a brief mention in Luke’s Gospel, where we learn that he was a devout man who "awaited the consolation of Israel" (Lk 2:25) and had received a special revelation from the Holy Spirit informing him that he would not die until he had encountered the Christ (Lk 2:26). Luke offers no details that would give us a sense of Simeon’s life or background, in marked contrast with his brief yet vivid description of the 84-year-old prophetess Anna, whose family lineage, life history, and daily activities are neatly sketched in just two lines (Lk 2:36-37). In spite of this, one might say that we know all that we really need to know about Simeon on account of his profession of faith of the newborn Christ, which comes down to us as the Nunc dimittis (Lk 2:29-32). In a very real sense, the encounter with the infant in the Temple is the moment which sums up and gives meaning to Simeon's whole life, an event which so completely fulfills his hopes and expectations that he can contentedly say, "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace..." (Lk 2:29).

In the older form of the Roman liturgy, one finds a striking reference to Simeon's meeting with Christ in a verse sung as part of the Alleluia at today's Mass: Senex Púerum portábat: Puer autem senem regébat. This may be translated, "The old man carried the child: but the child ruled the old man." Borrowed from a sermon of St. Augustine, this verse pithily sums up Simeon's place in the history of salvation. It may seem strange to think of a tiny infant "ruling" over anyone, yet it was the expectation of the Messiah's coming that served to order and govern Simeon's life. We all have our own hopes for the future, and we may find that our lives are governed by expectation. What is the consolation that we await, and what do we hope to see or encounter before we make our own Nunc dimittis?

To complete this post, here is a musical setting of the verse Senex Púerum portábat by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd, heard in a performance by the Hereford Cathedral Choir (a group that knows something about youthful rulers). My prayers are with all who are celebrating this bright feast. AMDG.