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

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