Wednesday, March 15, 2017

America's America.

As suggested by my recent posting of a homily given in Palo Alto, I spent some time this month in the San Francisco Bay Area. This part of California has played a small but special role in my Jesuit life. I visited California for the first time when I was a novice, spending two months living at Santa Clara University and working at Catholic Charities in San Jose. (On one of my first nights in the Jesuit community at Santa Clara, I commented at dinner that it was my first time west of the Rocky Mountains; putting things in perspective, an elderly priest at the table commented that he didn't venture east of the Rockies until he was in his forties.) I was well enough received at Catholic Charities that my supervisors invited me to come back, and two years later I returned to spend a summer working there and strengthened the ties that had drawn me back to Silicon Valley. After I began theology studies in Toronto, I took advantage of the long summers afforded by the Canadian academic calendar to spend a couple of months after my first year of theology living and studying in Berkeley. All of this has enabled me to form friendships that give me an incentive to return to California, as I was glad to do for ten days this month.

My experience of California has been geographically limited: I've gotten to know the Bay Area well, and I've explored the coast as far north as Fort Ross and as far south as Big Sur, but I've seen little of the rest of the state (for example, I've only made one brief visit to Los Angeles, and a busy conference schedule kept me from seeing much while I was there). Nevertheless, I've seen enough of the Golden State to appreciate the mythic place that California holds in the American imagination. For generations of Americans – and perhaps especially for those who grew up in damp, wintry, long-settled places like New England – California has been an object of fascination and a repository of dreams, a lush and verdant place at the far end of the continent where people go to carve out new identities. The reality is more complicated than the myth, and one could easily cite California's many modern problems – a bloated, debt-choked state government, years of drought, a high cost of living, and so on – as evidence of a crumbling dream. In spite of all that, California retains its mythic appeal, and I still feel drawn to return there as often as I can.

Another Jesuit who appreciated the allure of California was Father Ray Gawronski, whom I met by chance in Berkeley at a time when we were both guests of the Jesuit community there. A native New Yorker who first visited California as an eighteen-year-old college student in the summer of 1969, Father Gawronski spent various periods of time living and working in the Golden State from then until his death of cancer at the Jesuit infirmary near San Jose in the spring of 2016. In an essay entitled "California Coming Home" published in the Summer 2012 issue of the journal Logos, Father Gawronski wrote very eloquently about the place in his own life and in the American imagination of a state he called "America's America." The full text of the article is currently available online through Project MUSE, but I'll share some excerpts here to give the flavor of it.

When Ray Gawronski visited California for the first time, fresh off his sophomore year at the College of the Holy Cross and wearing a three-piece suit (because "[t]hat's what a young man at a college in New England still wore in 1969"), he was stunned both by the shock of recognition and by the distance between the world in which he had grown up and the new world suddenly presented to him. The movies, music, and television of his youth gave him a sense of California as "the ultimate American place," and, visiting relatives in suburban Cupertino, he found himself "in the world I had been watching on television for my entire life... a world that was all new, all shiny, sparkling, full of hope and confidence." The beauty of the natural environment offered a vivid contrast with gray, industrial New York, as did the values that seemed to define this new place. Silicon Valley was just being born – the term wouldn't appear in print until 1971 – but its distinctive culture already stood out. As Gawronski wrote:
The sorrows of the old world were left far behind, replaced only by science and technology as sources of meaning. The world in which I had been raised was a world of tradition, family tradition above all. There was the Church. There were the traditional schools, which appealed, not so much for their academic excellence as for the simple prestige reflected by their ivy walls...

And suddenly, all this was deemed irrelevant. Science was the new religion... The old world was the world of the broken heart – the hearts broken in human experience – and salvation was found in the heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart. Here, now, salvation could be found in technological safety, free from the labyrinth of the heart.
Years later, having passed in and out of the California counterculture before returning to the faith of his childhood and entering the Jesuits, Gawronski found himself studying theology in Berkeley in the 1980s in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. By now, Gawronski had come to realize that "California represented the ultimate nonhistorical place. Not that it did not have a history, or people affected by history: but history was not part of its image, nor was it for history that people came here. People came here to get away from the nightmares of human history, and to seek refuge in the beauty of nature." After years of intensive study of Zen Buddhism and other Asian spiritual traditions, Gawronski's own efforts to escape the burden of history had led him to re-embrace his Slavic roots. He found fellowship with other "refugees from modernism" worshiping at the Russian Catholic parish in San Francisco, and he later cultivated close ties with a Ukrainian Catholic monastery nestled among redwoods a couple of hours north of the Bay Area. Reflecting late in life on his long relationship with California, Gawronski reached the following conclusions:
. . . [T]he beauty of [California] remains: the magic of the air, the smell of the ocean carried in on the fog, the night blooming jasmine. The fruit is better than any on earth, and, curiously, the bread is fantastic. Place remains.

History is something else. Perhaps California was the ultimate attempt to replace history with technology and, along with it, to undercut the sorrows of the human heart by technique. Zen (as Balthasar writes) is perhaps the ultimate technique, and the various attempts at reviving religious tradition have all foundered, I believe, because their ultimate guide has itself been technique. The only real antidote to technique is faith: that acceptance of our human limitation that trusting in a word of promise reaches out in humble confidence. Psychology as religion has proven inadequate. And original sin remains the one Christian doctrine that should be obvious to all.

In a place dedicated to timeless being in this world, where the only reality is what can be created for the future against a seemingly perfect present – occasional earthquakes being odd reminders of original sin – the only revolutionary act is tradition (the insight is that of the late Fr. Tom King, SJ, of Georgetown, who shortly before his death visited me in California, where he made a "Teilhardian" retreat). It is fidelity that is the revolutionary act, fidelity in marriage, fidelity in relationship, fidelity through time, in which the horrors of life in this fallen world are experienced, the cup drunk to its dregs. Fidelity is the only revolutionary act, not mobility, not change, which are merely of this world.

Which leaves me – leaves us – with the Cross, which is where I started back in 1969, a student at Holy Cross in old New England, where the campus had the Jesuit cemetery at its heart. All this beauty is cold and empty without the Cross. All human endeavor is folly. All human relations are variations on power trips, without the Cross.
Writing "California Coming Home" at a time when he was living and working in Colorado, Gawronski concluded by saying that "I hope to keep coming back to California all my days," a hope that now seems poignant given that he would ultimately die a few miles from the place where he first encountered the Golden State. I don't know how well "California Coming Home" will be understood by readers who didn't know Ray Gawronski or experience the state in the way that he did, but I like the essay enough to discuss it here, and I hope that it reaches an appreciative audience. AMDG.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High.

Today I was privileged to celebrate the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, California, which I've mentioned here before as the home of the St. Ann Choir, an ensemble devoted to the performance of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony directed for over fifty years by Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University. It was honor to celebrate Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas and to chat afterward with Professor Mahrt on various topics related to sacred music. For the hopeful edification of some, I'm posting the text of my homily below. The readings were those of the First Sunday of Lent (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11), with some reference made also to the liturgical propers and to the tract, which was sung in its entirety at the Mass by the St. Ann Choir.


Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent, and as we do so the liturgy gives us a few special reminders that we have entered a season of penitential preparation for Easter. In Lent, as in Advent, we hear a different setting of the ordinary parts of the Mass, with chants of the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei which are particular to the liturgical season and different from those heard on other Sundays of the year. The Gloria and the Alleluia have temporarily retreated from the liturgy, and in the place of the Alleluia we have a series of Lenten tracts, the first of which we have just heard.

I'll say a little more about the tract later in this homily, but for now I think it's worth repeating a point that you may have already noticed if you have read the leaflet for today's Mass, or indeed as you may have noticed simply from listening to the tract itself. The tract for the First Sunday of Lent is particularly long – it is much longer than the tracts that we hear on the other Lenten Sundays, though we will hear tracts of similar length again on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This fact alone suggests that there is something out of the ordinary, something unique, about this Sunday.

Why does the Church give us this special time of preparation for Easter? Why, in other words, does Easter require Lent? A theologian of the last century named Alexander Schmemann described Easter as a celebration of the gift of new life that has been given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, as Schmemann observed, we often live our lives as if the resurrection never occurred – we can easily forget about the gift of new life that Christ has given us. As Schmemann wrote, "because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes 'old' again – petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless..." "If we realize this," Schmemann continued, "then we may realize what Easter is and why it presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, that we may repent and return to it."

In today's epistle, St. Paul the Apostle contrasts the sin of Adam with the redemption brought by Christ so as to remind us of the gift of new life that we have been given. As Paul tells the Romans, "just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:19). As consoling as this message is for us, I believe we also know that it can be very difficult to break out of the patterns of sin and temptation to which we are all prone. An important first step for us is to own up to the enormity of the challenge, so as to more effectively overcome it.

The first reading from the Book of Genesis reminds us that the most subtle forms of temptation can also be the most difficult to resist. When Eve repeats God's command forbidding her and Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent offers a counterargument that proves convincing to Eve: once she and Adam eat from the tree, the serpent tells them, they "will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil" (Gen 3:5). It is the desire to discern between good and evil that clinches the serpent’s argument. Given that we know what happens afterward, it can be easy to forget how attractive the serpent's argument must have been. The serpent uses the appearance of good – namely, the desire for wisdom – in order to convince Eve to violate God’s command.

We might ask ourselves whether we have been tempted in similar ways: do we sometimes find ourselves tempted to sin in the belief that something good will result? On the same token, we can perhaps think of times when we have acted with mixed motives, doing good deeds in ways that are ultimately self-serving. I think that T. S. Eliot captured this dilemma particularly well in Murder in the Cathedral, which shows the twelfth-century English archbishop Thomas Becket anticipating his martyrdom with the awareness that he will win adulation on account of the manner of his death. As Eliot has Becket say, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

In the Gospel, Jesus faces temptations every bit as subtle as those faced by Eve. The temptations that the Devil presents to Jesus rely upon base human instincts and desires – the instinct for self-preservation, and the desire for wealth and for power. The Evangelist Matthew presents the temptation in the desert as a battle of wits waged through competing appeals to scripture – notably, the Devil quotes the very same psalm that is quoted in the tract for today's Mass. Indeed, all of the musical propers for this Mass are taken from this psalm, numbered Psalm 90 in the Latin Vulgate and Psalm 91 in most modern English translations.

Scholars suggest that this particular psalm was chosen to play such a prominent role in today's Mass precisely because of the way it is referenced in today’s Gospel. The Devil uses this psalm to attempt to mock Jesus, urging him to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple by suggesting that the Father "will command his angels concerning you," and "with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Ps 91:11-12). The liturgy for this Sunday offers a kind of rebuttal to the Devil by invoking the same psalm to call upon God for help and protection. As the Tract has it, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven. He shall say to the Lord: you are my protector and my refuge, my God, in whom I trust" (Ps 91:1-2). As we journey through Lent, the words of this psalm remind us of our need to call upon God for help and protection. This is the special invitation that God extends to us during Lent: to clothe ourselves in prayer to and to allow it to permeate our lives, just as the prayer of the Psalmist permeates today’s liturgy.

May this Lenten Season be for us an opportunity to grow in closeness to the One who has called us to new life. In our struggles to overcome the temptations that we all face, let us take heart from the example that Christ gives us in today's Gospel, for, as the Preface of today's Mass reminds us, it is he who "consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance, and by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice, so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery, we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast."


If you would like to hear the tract featured during today's liturgy, please listen to the video featured above. If you would like to learn more about Bill Mahrt and the St. Ann Choir, this article by Cynthia Haven would be a good place to start. AMDG.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Belated thoughts on Ash Wednesday.

Yesterday morning I concelebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass at Gonzaga College High School, the Jesuit boys' high school in Washington, D.C. As a procession of young men in blazers and ties came forward, I traced an ashen cross on each one's forehead and repeated the ancient formula: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. This memento mori always strikes me as poignant and sobering, but it seemed all the more such today as I addressed it to a succession of teenagers for whom death and judgment are hopefully very far away.

I've written before about Ash Wednesday as a sign of contradiction challenging a culture that seeks to deny the reality of death, and it is no accident that Lent should begin with words and gestures that remind us of our frailty and limitation. The recognition of our own mortality should prompt us to think about how we live and what we make of the time that we have been given. The formula that traditionally accompanies the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday also serves to trace a direct line between our own actions and lives and those of our first parents; the words that we hear are those with which God cast Adam and Eve out of Paradise in the Book of Genesis: "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).

In recent decades, the traditional "remember that you are dust" formula has perhaps not been heard in many churches, as the more recent editions of the Roman Missal suggest the substitution of another set of words: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." These words are taken from Mark's Gospel, forming part of Jesus' preaching in Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist (Mk 1:15). Though both formulas are taken from scripture, I think that they do different things in the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The 'modern' formula taken from Mark is rather didactic, telling us exactly what we should do during Lent. The older formula from Genesis does not tell us what to do, but instead poetically addresses an existential dilemma that affects us all. I prefer the poetic approach, so on Ash Wednesday I always say, "Remember that you are dust..."

My prayers and good wishes are with all who mark this penitential season. Conscious of our own sins and shortcomings and our need for God's mercy and pardon, may we profit from this opportunity to grow closer to the One who calls us to Himself. AMDG.