Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Long Retreat

Here begins a period of blog silence.  We leave tomorrow at 9:45 AM for the airport and thence to Adelaide.  Get picked up by a shuttle and off to Sevenhill.  The retreat itself begins on Tuesday evening 15 March after supper.  I will not be checking e-mail, writing on the blog, or anything else.  On the plus side, no distractions.  On the negative side, will not find out who wins the NCAA until around Easter.  On the other hand, Penn State certainly won't be at the dance so it doesn't much matter.  

Below are a few photos with random thoughts on each of them and a homily I gave about a year ago for a Lenten meditation service.  First the meditation and then the photos.  

Pray for the twelve of us. 

Generosity and Gratitude:  The  Foundations of Eucharistic Community

The Date:                              11 April 1988
The Place:                             The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
The Event:                             The 60th Annual Academy Awards
The Announcement:           “And the winner for best foreign language film is: . . .  .

.  .  . . . .“Babette’s Feast.”

No film captures the scope of Eucharistic community or the importance of generosity and gratitude in forging a Eucharistic community better than this exquisite Danish film.  Frequently referred to as a “food movie” it is not just that.   It is a profound meditation on the theology of Eucharist, the theology of community and the theology of generosity and gratitude; none of which can be separated from the others.

The movie, which is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, introduces the viewer to a small Christian sect founded by a now-widowed minister with two daughters, Martina and Philippa, who, following his death, continue to care for a diminishing and increasingly argumentative group of believers.  The eponymous Babette Hersant is a Catholic French woman who arrives at the sisters’ simple home during a driving rainstorm.  She is bearing a letter of introduction from one Achille Papin who had figured in the life of one of the sister’s many years earlier.  Babette is fleeing the French Revolution that had claimed the lives of her husband and son.  After some initial hesitation the sisters respond to Babette’s desperate plea and agree to take her on as an unpaid cook and servant.

The feast of the title, that takes place 14 years later, is occasioned by the minister’s centenary.  While the two sisters are planning a simple celebration of a plain meal with coffee and pastry, Babette asks permission to cook, and pay for, a real French dinner. Once again hesitating, and giving in only after a heartfelt plea by Babette, the preparations begin.

Initially there is gentle humor in watching the consternation of the two unsophisticated spinsters as Babette—with much help—brings the ingredients for the meal from the boat that transported them from France.   A dozen live quail, a huge drooling turtle, cases of wine.  It is quite a procession.  But, the sisters become alarmed—indeed they become clinically anxious, complete with nightmares—about what they are beginning to fear will be a witch’s sabbath.

As a result of their escalating panic one of the sisters approaches the flock to share her fears.  They agree that they will partake of the meal but “It will be as if we never had a sense of taste.”  Furthermore, they will not discuss the food or anything else about the meal.  The previously fractious community, perceiving an ungodly threat by outside and sinister forces, begins to lay aside petty grudges, long-nourished slights, and perceived hurts in a united response, a response that could only come about because of their gratitude to the two sisters and to Babette who has served for so many years. 

At the last moment the number of dinner guests increases by one with the announcement that General Lorens Lowenhielm, who years earlier figured in the life of the other sister, will accompany his elderly aunt.  He is unaware of the secret pact not to discuss the food. 

The courses, presented one after another, are placed on a table set with dazzling linens, white china, sparkling crystal, gleaming flatware, and a profusion of candles.   Amontillado, champagne, and multiple wines complement each course.  The congregation’s conspiratorial indifference to what they are eating serves as a comic counterpoint to the General’s increasingly ecstatic responses to the food and drink.

But, the congregation does not remain indifferent.  Through their “vow of silence” they are forced to move beyond the superficialities of sensual experience and the solipsistic absorption that such a gastronomic experience causes, to much deeper spiritual realities that, over the course of the evening, renew and restore the community.  Conversation, stilted at first, begins to drift to recollections of the minister and the effect he had on their lives and community.  As they examine and reconsider the harshness they had been showing to each other in the soft light of this banquet of thanks—a true Eucharistic banquet—previously bitter words and frown lines are replaced by apologies and unfurrowed brows. 
When the reconciled community departs they join hands and slowly dance around a stone fountain singing a simple song: 

“The clock strikes and time goes by.
Eternity is nigh
Let us use this time to try
To serve the Lord with heart and mind.
So that our true home we shall find.”

All of the guests depart except for Christof, a hard-of-hearing elderly male who appears to be in the early stages of dementia.  He stands in front of the fountain, raises his hands to the night sky and says:  Hallelujah.  Then he too departs.

There is more; one final scene in the simple house with the two sisters and Babette.  I will leave that deeply moving encounter for you to watch.  In this final scene the generosity of the sisters toward Babette and her generous response to them become gratitude at its most profound. 

A standard dictionary defines generosity as “liberality in giving or willingness to give.”  Unfortunately the definition does not specify giving what.  If one were to ask the average individual in the street to free associate to the word generosity—if I say generosity you reply—most responses would include a reference to money:  United Fund, University alumni appeals, tossing a twenty into a proffered cup on the street.  Yet, this form of generosity may be completely antithetical to true generosity.   In fact, it may be a means of avoiding true generosity.  Tossing a twenty or writing a check is easy.  Generosity is not.

True generosity involves giving not only of one’s treasure but one’s time and talent.  True generosity is undergirded by love for the other who receives that gift.   In response to the generosity of those who sheltered her in a time of great need, Babette gave everything when she prepared the feast.  Her time.  Her talent.  Her treasure.  And, as becomes clear in the final scene, the rest of her life.  Martina, Philippa and Babette understood St. Ignatius’ prayer for generosity down to the marrow.  The community learned it. 

O Lord,
teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give
and not to count the cost,
to fight
and not to heed the wounds
to toil
and not to seek for rest
to labor
and not to ask for reward
Save that of knowing
I do your holy will.

The great French Biblical scholar Xavier Leon-Dufour writes that in common Greek usage “eucharist means the gratitude which is the source of thanksgiving.”  If true generosity is difficult for many of us true gratitude is well nigh impossible. 
The difficulty is not expressing our gratitude for the other’s generosity.  The challenge is accepting the gratitude of those to whom we have been generous.   We see ourselves in Martina and Philippa who live to serve; but who are wholly unacquainted with being served.  Being served can be as humbling as, or more so than, serving others. 

How often do we deflect, denigrate, or outright reject the gratitude of others?  The simple words “you’re welcome” have been replaced by the flippant, cynical, “Sure.”  The faux-magnanimous  “ No.  Thank yooooooooou.”  Or the stunningly inarticulate “Mmm hm” or  “Uhhh huh.”   Only when we are willing and able to accept the generosity and gratitude of others without embarrassment or equivocation will we be able to accept and respond to God’s overwhelmingly generous gift of Himself in the Eucharist of bread and wine and in the Eucharist of community. 

We are entering the first week of Lent.  On Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday we will stand chapels and churches throughout the world and hear the chilling words proclaim:  “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  We will hear again of the liberality and totality of Jesus’ gift.  We can only respond with stunned gratitude.  
During this season of Lent we must pay attention to nourishing ourselves.  The nourishment may be as complex as the meal Babette prepared or as simple as peanut butter and crackers. 
An important form of nourishment is prayer in front 
of the Blessed Sacrament. 

And it is, of course, partaking of that  Eucharistic Banquet, instituted by Christ.
It is also time to relax, meditating on that which the Holy Spirit places in front of us at the time.  Yes, even with the pooch.

As we move toward Lent we cannot forget what Jesus accomplished through his passion and death that led to the resurrection.   We come to understand Mary's sorrow. 
There is one more photo.  The tertians can only pray that the long retreat gives us the grace to look at our vocations, our ministries, and our futures with a different filter on the lens so as to get a better perspective on our unique calls. 
Have a Blessed Lent.  
+ Fr. Jack

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lent begins

I will celebrate the Mass for the community and the public Ash Wednesday afternoon.  The photo below here is one of my favorites.  I took it in May 2008 about 15 hours after arriving in Taipei.  Fr. Ignatius Hung, SJ took three busloads of parishioners on a one-day pilgrimage to an indigenous village about 3 hours away.  I think it was called Didi.  After Mass there was a terrific meal eaten outdoors.  Not speaking much Chinese I wandered around with the camera and caught this photo.   Other photos at the end of homily.

Ash Wednesday
Jl 2:12-18
Ps 51
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6; 16-18

Today we observe the beginning of Lent with the ancient custom of the imposition of ashes; a custom that is apparently gaining favor in some Protestant denominations.  It is a time of at least nodding in the general direction of fasting.

Today we begin our 40-day procession through a season described as penitential.  But it is more than that.  It is, or it should be, transformational. It depends on how we approach it.

The first reading from Joel puts today into context.  He calls for an assembly, a fast in the setting of a liturgy.  Blow the trumpets.  Call an assembly.  Gather the people.  Everyone from the youngest to the eldest is invited. The same is true of the Eucharistic banquet. Everyone is invited.

Thus we gather in assembly to listen to the word of God, to receive the ashes that both remind us of our mortality and call us to undergo a change of heart so as to live more closely according to the Gospel.  And to receive the Body and Blood of Christ whose passion death and resurrection we will commemorate and celebrate at the climax of these forty days.

Lent is not just a season of “give ups”: smoking, chocolate, desert, meat, and so on.  It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, taking on time for spiritual reading, prayer or adoration.  And it is a time to heed the advice of St. Jane de Chantal, foundress of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary,  “We cannot always offer God great things but at each instant we can offer little things with great love.”  Offering those little things with great love may be a more difficult mortification than giving up desert for the next forty days.

The second reading in today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours is a letter from St. Clement, pope, to the Corinthians. It lays out a reasonable map for Lent. “We should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger.”  He then reminds us, “Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance.  Be merciful, so that you may have mercy shown to you.  Forgive, so that you may be forgiven.  As you treat others, as you will be treated . . .”

Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to be more fully what Jesus wants us to be, to be more fully what we want to be, but may not know how to become. 

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first is a reminder of our common mortality: “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The second is advice not only for the season of Lent but the rest of our lives: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.”

As we begin the holy season of Lent, we are called to
meditate on one, and to live according to the other. 

The Book of the Gospels in the Fu-Jen University Jesuit Community Chapel in Taiwan.  Whether written in English or Mandarin, it is the guide, particularly during this season of lent.  

Candles in a storage area off the sacristy at Campion Center in Weston, MA.  They will be aglow come the Triduum that leads into the joyous celebration of Easter.

This last is the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Campion Center.  On 14 August 1999 I knelt in front of the altar to pronounce perpetual vows in the Society.  On 10 June 2007 I stood behind it celebrating my first Mass.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Me and my camera

One of the joys of carrying a camera is noticing things that would otherwise escape notice.  Some of them may be very small while others are insignificant.  Other photos happen because the light is just right, the shadows intriguing or the shapes fascinating.  Back when I first started taking photos thanks to the example of Barry Slaven, MD, a classmate at Temple Medical, I used a Canon AE-1.  It was a terrific camera and weighed a ton (relatively speaking).  Once a roll of film was popped in the back that was the format to stay with.  Black and white.  High speed.  Slow speed.  Slide.  Kodachrome (can you spell Simon and Garfunklel?).  Ektachrome.  And so on.  Now with photo processing software a so-so shot in color can become a study in texture or shape when changed to black and white.  Contrast can be heightened.  Colors can be enhanced, toned down or changed (within limits).  The Aperture 3 program has an option correct for under or over exposure.  It is easy to spend hours with one hand on the mouse and the eyes glued to the screen tweaking photo after photo.  

Photographs can be a subject for contemplation; more contemporary than icons and much more personal.  They can, of course, decorate.  They are history both frozen in a moment of time and, when studied, history projected into the future. 

The other day I celebrated the public Mass.  The homily turned on the book of photographs and essays titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  The homily is attached at the end of the entry, after the photographs.  That book was one amazing use of photography.

Here are some photos of things I simply noticed and happened to have the camera on hand. .  Then the homily from the 8th Friday in ordinary time (and the Last Friday in ordinary time for a while given that Ash Wednesday is in three days).  NOTE:  Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence.  Get those pierogi that you’ve been saving since Christmas out of the freezer Tuesday night.   You may eat only four.  Unless they're small.

The first photo is a large ficus-like tree at the retreat house in Changhwa, Taiwan.  Loved the colored stones that look like jumbo Pop-rocks (remember those?).  

Some stuffed pandas in a furniture store on Roosevelt Road in Taipei.  This struck me while walking between Tien Center and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.   Polarizing the photo minimized the glare from the glass.

This is the sort of goofy stuff it is fun to notice.  These were workman's gloves in a small park in Taiwan, somewhere in Changhwa County.   I think I took about 13 shots under different exposures etc.  

The beach at Gerroa late on Sunday afternoon.  The colors were naturally nice but I will admit to tweaking them a bit with the processing software to increase the saturation and intensity of the reds and blues.  

This is the shadow of trees on a very old window shade in the hallway between my room here and the chapel balcony.  I was going to Mass when I saw this.  As it is only about 10 feet (can't get the hang of meters) from my room I grabbed the camera and went back.   As I approached the chapel I saw the photo below that is the perfect essay of a life well-lived in the Society of Jesus.  

Then there is black and white.  This bike was parked in the weeds near the river in Taipei for a bit too long.

The photo below is from the last day at Gerroa.  It was just after sunrise and I was walking back toward the house.  I like it a lot better in black and white than the original color.  
 And then there were the broken tiles that seem to have washed ashore.

When it comes to small things, check this out.  The spider was just beginning to spin a web from the arm of a chair on the deck.  I was sitting nearby editing some writing and happened to have the camera when I noticed the little dude.  Look closely and you can see the beginning of his web.  Couldn't capture the pic as he descended toward the ground while spinning the silk.  A bit too much wind.  

This next to last photo is one I took about a year ago in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.   The light was hitting just so.  I cropped it to remove an unwanted moving figure.  This was the right place at the right time. 
I did not take the last one.  But it fits with the idea that a photo is history that is also projected into the future.  It is also my favorite photo of me.  It was taken during ordination in June 2007. I'm in the middle.  Some of the men in the background are among my closest friends.  And you can't see mom who would be just behind Ann-Michelle who is kneeling.  This one sits on my desk. 
And finally, the homily that is indirectly about photography. 
8th Friday in Ordinary Time
4 March 2011
Sir  44:1,9-13
Ps 149
Mk 11:11-26

Anonymity: The quality or state of being unknown or unacknowledged.  With few exceptions we are all anonymous.  We are anonymous outside a very small circle of family, friends and associates.   And, we will remain anonymous until death, the ultimate anonymity when viewed through human eyes. 

One of the first things we learned in Scripture 101 during theology school was that whenever interpreting a scriptural text, read more than one translation.  That is excellent advice in light of today’s first reading.  In both the Revised Standard Version and the King James Version of the Bible, the first verse from Sirach—also knows as Ecclesiasticus—is translated not as illustrious men but as, “Let us now praise famous men.” This verse was used in ironic, but not sarcastic, fashion as the title of a 1941 book of photographs by Walker Evans and essays by James Agee. 

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documented the lives of three desperately poor sharecropper families in the Deep South at the height of the depression in 1936.  They suffered the additional indignity of having had their real names changed so as to further obscure identities that were, if truth be told, already obscure and anonymous. 

In this case the pictures are worth a thousand words, many more thousands of words than those written by Agee.  It is a painful and squirm-inducing book.  Many of the photographs are available on the internet.  Some of them hold iconic status in the world of photography.

The anonymity of these sharecropper families does not mean that they were ineffective or had no lasting influence, or that their lives had no lasting meaning.  It merely means that they lived and died unknown.  Just as we will live mostly anonymous lives and die to be forgotten.

But, our ultimate anonymity does not mean lack of posterity.It does not mean non-generativity.  Sirach goes on:  “Their offspring will last forever, their glory will not fade.  . . . Their descendants stand by the covenants

We are non-generative, we leave nothing behind, only if we chose  and strive mightily to do so.  We are all called to generativity, to a posterity that may or may not include biological offspring.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson defined generativity as: concern with the next generation, the virtue of caring and connection to generations to come, a love given without expectations of a specific return.

Concern with the next generation.
Caring and connection with generations to come.
Love given without expectations of a specific return. 

That is what we are called to. A calling that we can only fulfill imperfectly at best.

Concern with the next generation.
Care and connection with unknown and unnumbered generations yet to come.  
Love given without expectation of a specific return. 

That. . . .
is what God does perfectly.

 +Fr. Jack

Friday, March 4, 2011

This is for the birds . . . . literally

“When the red, red robin
comes bob, bob, bobbin' along, along
There'll be no more sobbin'
when he starts throbbin'
his old sweet song
Wake up, wake up you sleepy head
Get up, get up
get out of bed”  (Harry Woods)

“Sing for your supper,
And you'll get breakfast.
Songbirds always eat
If their song is sweet to hear”  (Lorenz Hart)

One need not be in Australia long to realize that some of the birds did not pay attention in sweet singing class.  Sweet?????? You have not lived until you’ve been awakened to the sounds of a flock of cockatoos.  Sulphur-crested cockatoos.  Birds whose individual “song” is reminiscent of the sound of a ’57 Ford with worn brake pads coming down a steep hill, or, for those of a certain age (hint: you can draw on your Social Security) the sound of Phyllis Diller.  Laughing.  In your ear.  First thing in the morning.  On the pillow next to you.  (Poor Fang). Cockatoos do NOT sing.  The squawk.  Loudly.   As a group they sound like an angry mob that just discovered Starbucks stopped supplying free WiFi, without the whiny quality one would expect in such a situation.

Though they are apparently monogamous to a point they don’t seem to like each other much.  Last night I went for a walk with one of the other tertians.  We were in a part of Pymble with very nice houses.  The cockatoos were apparently returning to their nests or wherever they spend the night.  Poor homeowners.  They were chasing each other with nasty intent.  Kind of like the Cabbage Patch riots of a few Christmases ago (though a bit more civilized).  The noise level was amazing.

The other morning I captured the photos above at 7:10 in the front yard.  Why not?  Sleep was certainly impossible.  Might as well do something productive.  Actually, I generally wake at 4:30 and the birds just afterwards at the very first faint rays of light begin to appear.  The bird below was feeding in a tree at the Pymble train station the night of the marathon walk with Michael (see earlier blog entry).  

He is putting a dainty morsel in his mouth.  

Of course Australia has more than cockatoos.  Just about the time they seem to have settled down in the morning the kookaburras begin.  Wikipedia puts it well:  “Kookaburras are best known for their unmistakable call, which sounds uncannily like loud, echoing human laughter — good-natured, but rather hysterical, in the case of the renowned Laughing Kookaburra, and maniacal cackling in the Blue-winged Kookaburra  . . .”
RATHER hysterical?  How about totally, awesomely, amazingly hysterical?  Maniacal is a good word.  It understates the situation, but it is a start.  The photo of the kookaburra is courtesy of Steve. 

And then there are the magpies.  The young ones have a “feed me” call that sounds like a primitive Betsy-Wetsy-turn-me-over-and-I-cry doll from the ‘50s.  But this doll is bleating into the kind of sound system generally associated with KISS concerts.  It takes a few hours here to realize that it is not the sound of an abandoned 3 week-old child somewhere in the hedges.  Completely unnerving.  The first photo below is young magpie, the one that cries.  The other is the adult.

There are some spectacular birds here.  Last night I got a bunch of pictures of rainbow lorikeets.  Spectacular plumage.   There was one sitting on a chair at breakfast this morning but the camera was up in my room.  Sigh.  These are the lorikeets below. 

The gullah birds are yet another form of parrot while not unique to Australia, are, like the lorikeets above, found in a limited range of Australasia.  The gullah is below. 
This last is one of the pelicans seen floating around Gerroa while we were there.  Steve took this one too.

In answer to the question, no, I haven’t seen any kangaroos yet.  Perhaps during the long retreat at Sevenhill (population slightly over 400) which is rather isolated.  They get up early in the morning but so do I.  Some of the guys went to a zoo that contains examples of many of the signature animals of this place (kangaroos, koalas and so on) but other commitments interfered with me being able to go.  

Time for the long retreat is rapidly approaching. 

+Fr. Jack