Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two Weeks On in Slovenia          

The visit here has been terrific.  I've been busy with travel between Ljubljana and Maribor twice weekly.  Ljubljana is the country's largest city and capitol at about 310,000 while Maribor is approximately one-third the size.  The Society has started a small residential college in Maribor to serve Catholic students at the 26,000 student University of Maribor.  In a few weeks they will open up a small residential space for men in Ljubljana.  Only recently learned that the University of Ljubljana has about 65,000 students.  Huge.  

The Slovenian universities are different from the U.S.  They do not have a central defined campus.  Rather the various faculties or departments are scattered throughout the city.  In Maribor there are a few dormitories for perhaps one-tenth of the students.  Those rooms are reserved for Slovenian nationals and one or two other groups.  Thus students have to find their own lodging.  It took several walks through Maribor to begin recognizing the various university faculties. 

MAGIS, the Jesuit residential college in Maribor, fills an important gap in that it offers a community living arrangement for men and women who are either Slovenian or from other countries and studying in Maribor.  There is a focus on community life, prayer and liturgy.  When Mass is not celebrated in the chapel at MAGIS there is a church on the ground floor of what had been the Slovenian Jesuit novitiate where there is daily Mass. The students are a happy supportive group.  Peter is hoping to have Catholic American students who wish to study in Maribor consider living in the college.  Every student living there speaks English.

Slovenia is a beautiful country.  It is most definitely a photography heaven.  It is very mountainous to the extent that World Cup skiing events are held here.  Alas, this year has been atypical in that there has been almost no snow.  Temperatures are hovering in the 40's and a bit above while dropping into the 20's at night.  Yesterday felt like a spring day back in the States.  There is snow in the higher mountains visible from my room but nothing down here on the ground in either Ljubljana or Maribor.  Once on the ground the streets, buildings, and shops supply unlimited possibilities.  I would add that there are no flowers or other accents at the moment.  I suspect it is glorious here in the spring.  Hope to find out some day.

Both Ljubljana and Maribor are very safe.  This has been confirmed by many.  I've been out at night alone with the camera without anxiety or fear.  The only place in the world I've felt the same lack of fear when out late at night with the camera is Taipei.  Certainly never felt safe after dark in D.C., even on the exclusive streets of Georgetown. 

There is a surprising amount of graffiti here.  Wish I knew Slovenian.  Some of the it is very elaborate.  It could not have been done in just a few scrawling moments. 

Love the food.  Having grown up in a Polish-American household and town (along with Slovaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and other Eastern and Central European ethnic groups it is like a flashback to childhood.  I asked one student for a recipe for a Slovak form of haluski.  Amazing.

The Jesuit community has been very friendly and supportive.  The men in our house are fairly young.  Peter, the superior who has been a friend since we lived in Georgetown, is beyond energetic.  He makes the 90 mile trip to Maribor twice weekly.  He is going tomorrow but I will stay behind because of the weather (see next paragraph).

The weather has been interesting.  Ljubljana is relatively cloudy, foggy, and rainy.  It has rained a lot.  On non-rain days the skies have been mostly cloudy.  Tomorrow's forecast is for mostly sunny.  Thus, I will stay behind when Peter goes up to Maribor  so I can go up to the castle that overlooks the city.  Was there on Sunday without the camera.  Tremendous views of the city.  I may go up tonight with a tripod to do some night shots (the skies are clearing) and then go up again tomorrow during the day.  Peter has had me taking a lot of photos of various facilities for students and now wants some atmospheric shots.  I'm pleased to oblige. 

Am going to post a bunch of photos of Slovenia with explanations.  Easier than simply trying to explain things.  I return to the States in six days (rats).  Preaching at Mass on Sunday.  Will try to post homily.
 A small home in Maribor.  I'll be this guy doesn't have to explain his choice of home decor to a homeowner's association at a condo complex. 

There is a shop on the left bank of the river in Maribor not far from MAGIS.  It takes perhaps five minutes to walk there.  I saw this silver sequined dress with the sun bouncing off it.  Immediately the song Let's Face the Music and Dance began playing in my head as Fred and Ginger danced what is perhaps their masterpiece on the screen.  Ms. Roger's dress, heavily sequined and probably over 20 pounds, was an important part of the dance because of the way it moved.  The graffiti adds a touch of absurdity to the shot of an (at least formerly) elegant dress. 

It seems that every other hilltop is crowned with a church, chapel, or shrine.

 Maribor and the bridge leading from our place into the center of town.  

Slovenians are a hardy bunch of people.  It was in the low 40's when I took this but people were still sitting outdoors at cafes drinking coffee.  Only a few outdoor cafes seemed to have heating elements in place.  Most people just sat there bundled up to drink coffee or smoke.  There is a surprising amount of smoking here. 

The interior of the Franciscan Church in Maribor.  Had been seeing the spires of the church for a few days and decided to try to find it.  Glad I did. 

A cobblestoned street in Maribor.  The rise from the river to the town is rather steep.  There are many small and tortuous streets and alleys leading up from the river.  Note the 'street art' as one friend called it, to the left.

Liked the facade of this house.  The photo would not have been as effective with the open windows.  I'm guessing some of this is student housing. Note that there are no front yards.

Two views of the interior of St. Nicholas Church.  Talk about baroque. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, January 30, 2016

First Homily in Slovenia

Jer 1:4-5, 17-19
Ps 71:1-6, 15-17
1 Cor 12:31-13:13
Lk 4:21-30

The role of a prophet is a very difficult one.  Jeremiah lived during one of the most crucial and terrifying periods in the history of the Jewish people, a time that encompassed the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.  He did not have it easy. 

The Jewish Study Bible notes that, Jeremiah "tells the reader more about himself than any other prophet, including his anguish and empathy at the suffering of his people, and his outrage at God for forcing him to speak such terrible words of judgment against his own nation."  Today's reading comes from the first chapter of Jeremiah. There are many details to follow.  But we already had a preview of what was to come in this reading:

"They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

Jeremiah railed against God for the message he had to bring to his people.  He faced hostile opposition. The opposition was particularly strong when he preached the need for the people to observe the teachings and moral injunctions of God's law in the Torah.  We should not be surprised by that hostility. He reminded the people that they had failed to observe their part of the covenant. He reminded them that they had ignored the law given to Moses on Sinai.

The people of Jesus' time were no more receptive to the reminders that they had failed to observe the covenant.  In fact, as we hear in today's Gospel, the people became murderously hostile in response to Jesus' preaching.

The Gospel shows an interesting change.  In verse 22 we hear, "And all spoke highly of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth."  Six verses later we read, "When the people of the synagogue heard this they were filled with fury."  What happened? Jesus told his listeners the truth.  He confronted his hearers with reality: they had been unfaithful to the covenant.
Jesus reminded them that during periods of trial in the past God came not to the people of Israel, the people who had been unfaithful, but to the alien, to the Gentile, to the outsider.  Jesus reminded God's chosen people that they had not held up their end of the bargain.  The people, however, did not appreciate being told the truth.  As is true today, only positive affirmations are appreciated.  Good job! That was great!  Even when it was mediocre at best to say nothing of absolutely terrible.  It is not easy to be a prophet.  It is not easy to tell the truth. It is not easy to point out the obvious to those who do not wish to hear, to those who do not wish to see. 
The truth is part of the challenge in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.  Paul wrote with remarkable economy.  In just thirteen verses he makes three important points about love. The superiority of love and the need for it.  The characteristics of love, both what it is and what it is not.  And finally that love endures forever.  Paul includes seven positive attributes of love:  patient, kind bearing all things, and so on.  Perhaps more significantly, Paul gives eight examples of what love is not.  Think about it, sometimes it is easier to describe a virtue by listing what it is not rather than defining what it is. 

This thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians is sometimes called the Hymn to Charity or the Hymn to Love.  Yes, Paul described love's grandeur but he also listed the demands that love makes. These are demands that we confront daily no matter our state in life:  married, single, widowed, or in religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  It should not come as a surprise that this reading is frequently chosen for weddings.  But Paul's description of love has little to do with the desire, the sometimes selfish desire, for physical passionate possession.  Given the divorce statistics today it is unlikely that many couples understand the meaning of what Paul wrote.

Paul's definition of love is not as simple as it looks on the surface.  He is not describing the modern, romantic, soft-focus photo, moonlight and roses, understanding of love.  It may be love when we help someone during a bad time in his or her life.  It IS love when we graciously accept the same person's help without minimizing or deflecting it when we are in need ourselves.  It may be love when the bride and groom emerge from the church to the cheers of family and well-wishers.  It IS love when the 80 year-old man spoon feeds his wife of 55 years even though she no longer recognizes him because she has Alzheimer's. 

Sometimes we get love right.  Sometimes we miss the mark. It is easy to confuse love with lust.  It is easy to confuse love with self-interest.  Only God loves with perfect love.  As we accept and return that love, as we try to love others as we love each other, we can, indeed we must, sing with the psalmist:

"For you are my hope, O Lord;
my trust, O God, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
from my mother's womb you are my strength."

The travel to Slovenia was terrific.  I had three seats on the leg from Boston to Frankfurt.  Though there was a five hour layover in Frankfurt it wasn't bad as the airport supplies free internet.  Are you listening American airports?????  Short hop to Ljubljana (heretofore abbreviated LJ).  It was a busy day.  At 9 PM Peter and I drove to Maribor, 60 miles to the northeast where we remained until the following afternoon.

While at Maribor I went with a friend of Peter's who works for Karitas, a Catholic relief organization.  We drove twenty minutes to the Austrian border.  After I was given a tour of the crossing point we waited for the train bearing Middle Eastern refugees bound for either Austria or Germany.  It was a fascinating experience to say the least.  I expect to go back a few times over the next three weeks as we will be bouncing between LJ and Maribor about twice weekly.

Back to LJ yesterday.  LJ is a charming city.  The community is not far from the old section of the city.  It is a photography smorgasbord, a smorgasbord from which I intend to overfill my photographic plate.  Most notable is the cleanliness of the city, both cities actually.  No litter.  Very small amount of graffiti that almost seems to be put there for artistic effect.  The photos below are from a short walk with one of the older fathers the day I arrived and then from a short solo walk in Maribor the following morning. 

The Franciscan church at the end of the three bridges.  One of the most famous landmarks in LJ.

The Franciscan church at sunset. 

A silhouette of the opera house.

Votive candles in the Orthodox Cathedral.  There were no holes or spikes for the candles.  They were held upright by melted wax on the bottom.

The Orthodox Cathedral as seen from the art museum

View of Maribor from the bridge.  The bridge was about five minutes from the community.  I have keys for rooms in both the LJ and Maribor communities. 

A man emerging from a cafe in the morning in Maribor.

A yarn shop in Maribor.
+Fr. Jack SJ, MD

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On the Road Again

3rd Wednesday of Ordinary Time
Mk 4:1-20

Commentaries describe verses 10 to 12 of this Gospel as obscure and difficult. “The mystery of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”

If there were ever words that could be used  to justify sectarianism and exclusivism these are prime examples.  However, 'I'm-in-with-the-in-crowd' thinking is not the only way to approach this parable. It is a misnamed parable. It is not about the sower. It is about the seeds and the quality of the soil where they land. 

The seeds are distributed to all people.  In the first example the recipients reject the seeds out of arrogance.  They are then condemned because they first rejected God.  They may be irredeemable.   

The second and third examples are fascinating because they reflect reality for many.  Without roots in prayer and meditation on God’s word, it is easy to reject God with the petulance of a cranky three year-old the moment life gets difficult.  Tribulation and suffering define what it means to be human. They are not an excuse to fall away or reject God.

The lure of riches and material goods, Jesus' third example, may be more subtle.  Gradually one has fallen away from prayer, from meditating on God’s word, from participation in the sacraments. Eventually one live in a world of egocentrism and self-fulfillment.

I suspect we all want to see ourselves as fertile, rich and fragrant soil.  And in fact we are.  Initially.  However, if we do not attend to the soil, if we do not monitor its condition it may become thin, contaminated, and unable to sustain us in times of trial and suffering.  If we don’t remove the thorns and weeds regularly through prayer, sacrifice, and the sacraments we too will be choked and suffocated.  

In the end this parable is not about predestination, fundamentalist exclusivism  or an everyone is equal inclusivism that suggests anything we do is OK because God is with us.  Rather, this parable suggests the importance of personal choice and individual responsibility.

It is approaching 11:30 PM.  Generally I am asleep.  However, am trying to remain awake a bit longer.  At this time tomorrow I should be on the ground in Frankfurt, Germany.  At that point there will be a five plus hour layover before a short hop to Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Will be there for three weeks.  The time will be spent between Ljubljana and Maribor, a town about 60 miles to the northwest.  There may be a side trip to Budapest.  Will be working primarily with Peter Rozic, SJ.  Peter and I lived in community in D.C. for several years.  It is his invitation to come over.  

Candles are a fascinating if a bit cliched photo subject.  I take a lot of candle shots if for no other reason than doing a lot of photography in churches.  

This is a bank of candles on Holy Saturday before Mass.  All candles are extinguished on Holy Thursday.  None of the votive candles are lit until after the vigil Mass.  The candles are being reflected in highly polished granite.

 This was a grab-the-camera-quick moment.  I was in the crypt chapel of Notre Dame de Fourviere.  The woman was lighting a candle.  I only got two shots.  

Two banks of candles in the crypt chapel.  

Candles reacting to the heat.  This was a bit amusing to see the candles bending from the heat rising from lower tiers. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD