Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Memorial of Saints Ann and Joachim

Memorial of Saints Ann and Joachim 
Sir 44:1, 10-15
Ps 131
Mt 13:16-17

If nature abhors a vacuum, human nature feels even more strongly about it,  particularly when the vacuum involves our history.  If there is insufficient historical data, humans will attempt to fill in the cracks with best guesses or complete fabrications.  Thus we have genealogy, anthropology, historical fiction, much of theology, tradition and, more often than anyone is willing to admit, bizarre delusional projections.  At times an iota of truth is inflated into a full-scale biography that is ultimately meaningless. 

Today’s memorial of Ann and Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Mother, is an example of no historical data or scriptural information being inflated into something it is not.  The iota of truth is that we know Mary had parents. That is all we know. 

Ann and Joachim were mentioned in the Protoevangelium of James, which is said to be fundamentally unreliable.  The writing about them is pious in the extreme.  It suggests that, like many couples in scripture, they were elderly and childless until, in their old age, they were blessed with a child.  Mary's parents were, are, always will be, and must remain anonymous.  Their anonymity is not a bad thing because it is an example of our human condition.  It allows us to identify with them. 

The anonymity of the parents of Mary allows us to identify with them because, with a few exceptions, we are all anonymous.  We will remain anonymous until death, the ultimate anonymity.  We are reminded of that in the first reading.  The King James Versions translates first verse of the reading from Ecclesiasticus or Sirach as:  “Let us now praise famous men. .”

This verse was the title of a 1941 book with photographs by Walker Evans and essays by James Agee.  The book documented the lives of three sharecropper families in the deep South.  The pictures ARE worth a thousand words while the text amplifies the images.  It is a painful and squirm-inducing book.  It illuminates the sharecroppers' anonymity and it illuminates our anonymity.  It emphasizes the anonymity of Ann and Joachim and the uncounted millions who, like us, saint and sinner alike, remain anonymous to all but God.   The book reminds us of our essential anonymity.

The anonymity does not mean that Agee’s and Walker’s subjects were without posterity or had no lasting influence.  It merely means that they lived and died unknown; just as we live anonymous lives and die; eventually forgotten except as a slab of granite with dates of birth, and death, and for Jesuits the date of entry into the Society, engraved on it. 

Thus, the question becomes one of posterity.  The reading goes on:  “Their offspring will last forever, their glory will not fade.”  How much more accurate a description of the parents of Mary is there?  Their glory has never faded.  Their glory never will fade.  We simply don’t know their names.
Pittsburgh is one city I wish I had the opportunity to visit more often.   Having grown up in Northeastern PA I never met anyone from Pittsburgh until I went to Penn State in 1968 where two of my three closest friends (still friends) were from the suburb of Penn Hills.  On that first day Paul asked if I wanted to go get a "pop."  OK, translate.  It seems that Penn State is the dividing line in PA.  Those to the east call it soda while those to the west call it pop.  Bostonians call it tonic but that is another blog entry. 

I was there visiting my lab partner from medical school with the camera in tow.  Mary Ann was very patient while I shot photos.  A few of them are below. 

The first two are views of downtown from the top of the Duquesne Incline which one approaches either by car up some hellacious hills or via a cable car that travels up a very steep set of tracks. 

We spent time at the Pittsburgh Zoo.  The polar bears were in a playful mood. 

 The Tin Angel Restaurant.  Liked the sign. 
If I call this one Tiny Bubbles in memory of Don Ho you will go around with that ear worm for the rest of the day.  Sorry. 

 Finally a chandelier in a restaurant. 
 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Port Lincoln

One year ago today I was coming to the end of my time in Port Lincoln, South Australia.  It remains one of my fondest memories of tertianship and, with the exception of the long retreat, the most formative experience.  I remain grateful to the parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels for their reception and friendship.  All of the photos included after the homily were taken one year ago yesterday in what was the last field trip.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time  
22 July 2012
Jer 23:1-6
Ps 23
Eph 2:13-18
Mk 6:30-34

We are not too familiar with shepherds here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  We may see the occasional sheep on a farm but I don’t remember anyone at Plymouth High School back in the 60's whose vocational goal was to become a shepherd.  In the Ancient Near East shepherds performed vital services. Thus we have the frequent image of the shepherd in scripture.  

Shepherds cared for the flocks that supplied food and wool in multiple ways. They guarded the sheep against the threat of wild animals.  They protected the sheep from the hands of rustlers. They moved them from pasture to pasture in search of food.  And they kept them from becoming lost in the wilderness.  It is no wonder that the shepherd became a metaphor for those who exercised care and authority over others.  The shepherd is a mix of contrasting if not contradictory roles and functions. 

The shepherd is a leader but also a companion.  The shepherd is strong and capable of defending the flock, but he is also gentle with the flock, knowing its condition and adapting himself to its needs.  The shepherd prods the sheep to keep them on the right path but also searches for and returns the lost sheep to the flock. The responsibilities of the shepherd are grave.
In the reading from Jeremiah we heard how many of Israel’s kings were unfaithful to their roles as shepherd of the people. They revolted against God for the sake of expediency. Today we might say they revolted for political reasons so as to push an agenda or to line their own pockets.  Their primary concern was not the flock but themselves.  Sadly we are only too familiar with leaders like that at all levels of governance.  They left the people to scatter and disperse. They were lost without direction or example.  Things haven’t changed much. 

Think of the high profile financial “shepherds” who took good care of themselves with no concern for those they were to serve.  Recall the tragic stories of parents, a unique form of shepherd, leaving young children alone while they went out to drink, do drugs, or “to take care of my needs.” Both the famous and the lowly who violate the duties of shepherd are worthy of contempt. 

We are all called to be shepherds in ways unique to each of us.  The vocation to care for others is a serious one.  It involves work, worry, and constant vigilance.  The care may be of the other’s financial resources, their health, their education, or the day-to-day needs of a family.   Woe to the irresponsible shepherd. 

Psalm 23 is the most well known and beloved in the entire psalter.  No other psalm has such a central place in the hearts of people of both strong faith as well those of uncertain, or even no, faith.  Even those who never voluntarily enter a church or synagogue have found this psalm speaking to them on occasions as varied as a wedding or a funeral, or even during a movie.  Its appeal lies in its simplicity as much as in its depth.   

The psalm’s images are comforting:  a shepherd who meets the sheep’s needs for rest, cool water, green pastures and protection.  These images appeal to our own deepest yearnings for peace and safety, for rest and care, yearnings that are increasingly difficult to satisfy in this modern world, a world in which many leaders seem more intent on caring for themselves than the needs of the people they are sworn to serve.

The reading from Mark occurs at a transitional moment in the Gospel.  The apostles had returned from their mission.  They had taken nothing for the journey: no food, no sack, no money.  They stayed in only one house.   As the Gospel noted, “They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  The apostles returned excited and enthusiastic.  One can imagine the conversation.  They were probably interrupting as they tried to top each other’s stories, commenting on how tired they are and so on.  The image suggests medical students returning from their first day working in the hospital.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, recognized their excitement.  But he also recognized their need for rest, a need that would be frustrated. Jesus suggested that they go away to rest.  But the crowd had other ideas.  Despite their taking a boat, the crowd scampered on foot to get to the place where they knew Jesus was going before He got there.  That is when we see the Good Shepherd.  We see what we are called to be.  We see how we are called to respond to the needs of others be they family, friends, or strangers. 

“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them . . . . .” Hunger and fatigue took a backseat to the needs of the sheep.  Food and rest would come later. 

Like the lives of Jesus and his apostles as told in the Gospel our existence is alternately trouble and calm, work and rest, joy and sorrow.  A full life, like the description of the shepherd, seems to demand the coexistence of contraries: chaos and calm, search and embrace, desire and satisfaction.  When we succeed, even briefly, it is only to begin the cycle again.   Advance and regression are joined together. They are purified and brought into harmony only in God.  True rest is not passivity but the fulfillment of one's mission. 

St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity is one of the prayers a Jesuit novice learns early in his novitiate.  It summarizes these readings.   It lays out in simple terms how we are to go about being shepherds for others.  It tells all of us how we are called to live our lives. 

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
On one of my last days in Port Lincoln Gayle and Elisabeth, along with Miriam and Basil (this last is a dog) took me to a small museum on the other side of town.   It recorded the early days of PL and the fishing industry.  

The stove was part of an early household.  I'd like to see the Iron Chefs cook on this.
The end of July in Australia is the middle of winter.  These boats were overturned for the season. 
A camera makes me a voyeur.  This was taken through a ships window, hence the reflections in the foreground.  An interesting still life of potentially toxic products.
The view through a rusted hull.  
The lines of this mast against a black background are a reminder of the beauty of geometry.  Changing the photo to black and white and then applying a red filter gives the impression of a photo at night when, in fact, it was somewhere around noon, as if obvious in the other shots.
+ Fr Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, July 8, 2012

It's Too Darn Hot

The title of one of the songs from Kiss Me Kate describes the east coast.  It is perhaps unfair to whine about the heat up here as it is at least ten degrees cooler than down in D.C. with less humidity.   And we have had uninterrupted electricity.  The same cannot be said for the phones but that is a different storm.

Paul, a friend from Penn State, whom I met within thirty minutes of moving into the dorm and who, with Chris, now deceased, and Al were my closest friends, drove up on Tuesday.  We had a great time catching up.  On July 4 we drove up to Rockport, MA and wandered the streets filled with shops and views of the water.  Afterwards we drove to the Jesuit Retreat House on Eastern Point in Gloucester, MA and thence to Marblehead to see Chris' wife Chris.  Later in the evening Chris, Paul and I went down to the harbor and boarded a boat with several of Chris' friends to watch the fireworks.   We were fortunate.  The storms that began in Lebanon, NH traveled SSE rather than SE.  They had quite an impact on the crowd on the Esplanade in Boston but, except for lightening to the south and a few drops of rain, did not effect the North Shore.

Thursday Paul helped me take one of the men to the hospital for elective surgery and then we went into Cambridge and Boston.  It was a very good three days.

I meant to take the camera on July 4 but forgot.  In the end I was happy to have done so.  It is difficult to take photos and be social at the same time.  I would have really been annoying on the boat.   And, because of the gentle bobbing on the harbor it would have been difficult to get non-blurry images of the fireworks.  Perhaps next year from dry land.

I celebrated the 6:30 AM Mass in the community this morning.  Last night around 9:30 I decided to finish the homily in the morning.  That was when I thought I had the 10 AM Mass.  Good thing I checked.  It turned into a rather late night as a result.  Nap time as soon as I hit post.

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
8 July 2012
Ez 2:2-5
Ps 123:1-4
2 Cor 12:7-10
Mk 6:1-6

What was the thorn in Paul's flesh?  What was the nagging irritation that kept him from being too elated?  Don't bother with the commentaries.  There is no agreement among scholars, from Augustine to the present, on the nature of that thorn.  

Was it a physical ailment?  Some propose that it was an eye disease.  Was it recurrent kidney stones or attacks of biliary colic?   Physical explanations are possible but not probable.

Chrysostom wonders whether this thorn was persistent critics and opponents who complicated the struggle to preach the gospel.  Paul's acceptance of weaknesses, insults, and persecutions would support such an argument.  Other Church Fathers and later commentators suggest temptation.  Was it temptation to power?   Temptation to pride?  Was it lust?  Was the thorn all of the above, some of the above or something else? 

Perhaps Paul was struggling with the realization that he was a sinner.  Perhaps it was the conscious awareness, an awareness from which he couldn't escape, of the human condition, a condition he suffered in the same way we do today.  I suspect that Paul was burdened by the awareness of his sinful self, a burden that was increased by guilt when he recalled his complicity in the persecution of Jesus' early followers or the painful memory of his silent assent to Stephen's martyrdom, standing there as the cloaks piled up around his feet.

How often do we cringe at a memory?  How often do we wish we could forget how we hurt another?  How often do we want to take back words that we said or pain that we caused when we realize that we acted wrongly?  How often do we regret our prejudices?  That question leads us to the gospel.  It is a fascinating gospel because it exposes one of the most satisfying and most self-destructive of all sins:  smugness. 

Smugness is defined as self-righteous complacency.   Smugness would lead most of us to assume that had I been present at this scene I never would have criticized Jesus for being a local kid come back.  I would never have felt that Jesus was the boy down the street who is so full of himself.  In reality, chances are greater than 50-50 that had any of us been standing with the crowd we would have said and/or felt the same thing they did.  We would have joined in the chorus of disapproval. “Who does he think he is?” “Where did he get all of this?”  While it doesn’t matter whether or not we nurture fantasies of standing apart from the crowd in this gospel story, complacent self-righteousness, which is not informed by many facts, can devastate our relationships in community, in our work, in family life, and just about everywhere else. 

One of the greatest challenges we face is that of honoring the “prophets” in our midst, the prophets in our families, and the prophets about whom we think "I remember him when . . . "   We mutter sotto voce “I remember him when he was a novice.  Didn't have ANY Greek.”   We grumble to ourselves, “Listen to him.  He never DID finish that degree." 

Smugness is destructive pride.  It is prejudicial in the extreme.  It causes us to exert premature closure on something we may need to hear.  It may cause us to reject the truth out of hand simply because we know the messenger.  That was the sin of Jesus’ critics.  They knew everything about him—or so they thought.

In his commentary on this passage, Jesuit Father Dan Harrington describes the crowd’s attitude as the “prejudice of familiarity.”  It is a particular risk for those of us living in religious community because we know each other so well.  At times it is true that familiarity breeds contempt. 

“Where did he get all of this?”
“Who does he think he is?"

These are not reactions peculiar to the villagers of 1st century Palestine.  To paraphrase the most famous of all of Walt Kelly's Pogo cartoons: We have met the people in their synagogue and they are us.


Two photos from Campion Center and three from Australia

It is nice to have a telephoto lens when photographing bees.  They aren't necessarily cooperative with the project.  Best to have room to run.
The brightness of the yellow against the pink suggest a preppie convention.   Where are the pants with the whales?
The night sky at Sevenhill,  South Australia last year.   Even on the hottest of days it cooled off quickly at night.
Sevenhill had a lot of old rusted farm machinery scattered over the grounds.  The wheelbarrow in front of the house was put to use as a flower container.
This was the road a few of us walked several times daily in the treks between the houses where we stayed and the retreat house that held the rest of the men.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, July 1, 2012

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nice day in Boston.  Cannot imagine the suffering of the people down in D.C. and surrounding suburbs who are enduring the after effects of the storm on Friday night: downed trees, no electric power and temps over 100.  We remembered them in prayers at Mass a few minutes ago.

1 July 2012
Wis 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Ps 30:2,4,5,6,11-13,
2 Cor 8:7,9, 11-13
Mk 5:21-43

One of the most spectacular choruses in Handel's Messiah is a study in contrast.   In the superb recording by Boston Baroque it begins with a short minor chord on the organ after which the chorus sings a cappella: "Since by man came death, since by man came death." Then the organ and orchestra explode into joy as the chorus proclaims: "By man came also the resurrection of the dead" three times.  Another somber chord leads into another a cappella passage:  "For as in Adam all die, for as in Adam all die."  That is followed by another explosion of rejoicing as organ, orchestra and chorus proclaim:  "Even so in Christ shall all be made alive"  four times.  This contrast is apparent in today's readings. 

The first reading began with "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living."  God is not a sadistic marionetteer who induces personal tragedy in random fashion. Nor is God a benign magician who guides a desperation pass into the arms of a receiver in the end-zone.  Both ends of this continuum represent a faith that is fit only for three year-olds.

God created the world for humankind. God created us in His own image to be imperishable.  We promptly rejected the gifts of that creation--we continue to reject the gifts of that creation--for the hubris of being completely self-determining.  Thus death entered the world.  And so it remains: hubris, sin and death.  But then we see hope in today's long Gospel reading.

It would be easy to spend most of a semester on this particular Gospel passage.  Faith, death, ritual impurity, the significance of a 12 year-old girl and a 12 year duration of blood flow.  Sociology, medicine, theology, philosophy and more, all wrapped up in one reading.

In the gospel we hear what is sometimes called a "Markan Sandwich", the beginning of a narrative, then an interruption by another self-contained narrative, and the conclusion of the first narrative.  The themes uniting both are faith and the most dire forms of ritual impurity: menstrual blood and death.

The woman was excluded from full-participation in the land of the living by her chronic state of ritual impurity.  That state was due to what today is called dysfunctional uterine bleeding.  She was not only continuously bleeding but she was also infertile; itself a great curse.  Merely being touched by her, unintentionally, as when she waded into the crowd, or intentionally, as when she touched Jesus, would transmit that ritual impurity.  That contagion of impurity was a very bad thing for all concerned.  In the situation of the young girl Jesus risked ritual impurity by touching her dead body.  Of course today we are much too sophisticated to believe in ritual impurity.  We are too modern to believe that contact with another individual could defile or contaminate us.  Yeah, right!

Try being a smoker.  Banished to the physical margins, a portico, a store overhang, the back porch, and being treated with utter disdain by a certain self-righteous tribe.  Suggest that animals have their place, a place that does not equal that of humans, and one may be castigated or accused--horror of horrors--of being a "speciesist," whatever that might mean.   Are you against abortion?  Would you rather not kill grand pop because he is demented?  Don't admit that at a cocktail party in Cambridge.  "I could never ever socialize with someone with such unenlightened views" would be a plausible retort.  We still believe in ritual impurity.  We call it by other names but we still believe in it.

"Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead."  We heard this reiterated in the Alleluia verse:  "Our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life to light through the Gospel."

He offers that life to all of us through faith, the faith of the woman who had heard about Jesus, a woman who was sufficiently daring to mingle with a crowd to whom she could impart her impurity, to risk touching Jesus' clothing so that she might be healed.  He offers that life to us through the faith of the little girl's father who was willing to endure the crowd's ridicule to seek help for his daughter.

Jesus offers us the same.  He offers us the same healing in the sacraments of the Church: in baptism that cleanses us from original sin and begins our journey into full communion in the Church, in confession that removes the stain of the sins we consciously choose to commit, and in the Mass where we are privileged to hear His word and receive His body and blood.

In light of this great gift we can only sing with the psalmist:

"You changed my mourning into dancing:
O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks."

The photos below were taken in antique stores in Australia.  I enjoy antique stores for photos because of the museum-like experience without the fussiness or the guards.  

This is the outside of a combined free-range pig farm, restaurant (that serves a lot of pork) and antique store.   The place is midway between Port Lincoln and Coffin Bay in South Australia.  That particular field trip remains one of my favorite memories of  the time spent in Port Lincoln at St. Mary of the Angels.

Inside one finds an old bicycle suspended from the ceiling. 
And there was a typewriter.  I learned to type on a next-generation version of this. 

Some old office supplies.  Not certain I would put the ink into one of my fountain pens. 
And finally some of the progenitors of my Olympus E-510 camera.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD