Sunday, August 25, 2013


21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Campion 10 AM)
26 August 2007

Isaiah 66:18-21
Ps 117
Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
Luke 13:22-30

The Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel for today are not soft, fuzzy, feel-good-about-myself-because-I-am-good readings.  The readings are consoling in their own way but they are not heart-warming.  While it is more comforting to hear blessed are the poor or I am the good Shepherd, we will have to wait for another Sunday.  If anything, the readings from Hebrews and Luke may force us to ask, why bother?  Where is God? 

Hebrews emphasizes that our journey is neither easy nor guaranteed to be pleasant.  It is a journey of trial and weakness revealed.  It is life as we experience it.  It is a journey of struggle, doubt, error, and being disciplined for that error.  There is no promise that following Jesus means a life free of challenge, a life without sorrow, a life absent suffering or darkness, or a sense of abandonment by God.  

Discipline is painful to receive and painful to administer.  It can alienate the one who is disciplined from the one who disciplines.  It may take a long time before we can look the one who disciplined us in the eye without resentment, without feeling a sting or becoming defensive.   No one enjoys being disciplined even when it is deserved.  However, Hebrews offers a promise of relief:  “At the time it is administered, all discipline seems a cause for grief and not joy.  But later it brings forth the fruit of peace and justice to those who are trained in its school.”  

We learn more from our mistakes than from successes.  We grow more in adversity than in times of plenty and ease.  One of the paradoxes of being human is that, sometimes, the farther we feel from God, the closer we are, the more distant Jesus seems from us, the more likely he is walking next to us. 

The gospel, particularly in the context of this week’s readings, is a warning against spiritual elitism, sectarianism, and self-importance.  It is a warning against assuming that we are God’s favorites and everyone else is second class.

The recurring theme in the Gospel readings this past week, with the excerption of the Queenship of Mary on Thursday, has been that of exclusion.  Many are called and few are chosen, the last shall be first and the first last.  They asked the questions: How many will arrive at the gate?  Who will manage to get through?  In contemporary parlance we are called to wonder, will I make the cut?

We have all been guilty of saying or thinking along the lines of, “What is someone like her doing here?”  Or, to paraphrase Groucho, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that lets him in.”  Yet, each one of us is the potential intended of Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from.  Away from me, you evildoers!”  We are sinners.  But we are sinners loved by God.  Disturbing as they are, statements such as, "Depart from me, all you evildoers!" are important reminders that reflect a primary reality of human life, even the life of believers and those deemed to be saints.  Serving God is neither easy nor smooth.

Mother Teresa's letters were published in 2007.  They were not what many expected.  Some of the voluminous commentary on those letters was the fruit of reflection.  Some pushed an undisguised anti-Catholic bias--after all she didn't support abortion as a form women's health care--and a lot was absurd, new age psychobabble.  Her letters revealed that despite appearances to the contrary she was a woman who struggled with doubt, aridity at prayer, and the perception that Jesus was absent for decades.  It appears that much of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life was one of wailing and grinding of teeth; of hard work  with an underlying sense of dissatisfaction.  Upon reflective reading, however, these letters enhance rather than detract from her reputation for holiness because though she struggled with doubt and dryness she never rejected Jesus. 

The reading from Isaiah was from the final chapter of the book.  Two verses later, we read the prophecy

"From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
All flesh shall come to worship
before me, says the Lord."

All flesh will worship the Lord because, as Psalm 117 reminds us:

"For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the Lord
endures forever."  
Boston College has a combination retreat center/conference center/villa house (in the summer) in Cohasset on the South Shore.  I hadn't been there in at least twelve years until I recently drove a few of the men who were spending some time on villa (SJ term for vacation) there.  I'd forgotten how beautiful the place was.  During novitiate we went there one Wednesday a month for a day of recollection.  The day was done in silence.  The silence began shortly after arrival and continued for six or so hours until after Mass.  Well, the silence began once we made coffee and ate the Dunkin' Donuts we'd purchased on the way down.  Though I didn't have time to take any photos when I went to retrieve the men today  I got some last week. 

The Cohasset Yacht Club is at the bottom of the driveway leading to the house.  Boats and water are great for pix.  The scene changes moment by moment. 

This is a cropped close up of the reflection below the boat in the middle.  It was rotated ninety degrees clockwise and enhanced a bit.   Aperture 3 is a coloring book for adults. 

The view from the Adirondack chair is conducive of meditation and prayer. 

 There is a small stone boathouse also equipped with chairs. 

The boathouse with some of the black and white filters pushed to the extreme.  

 The view from the balcony on the roof of the second story.

BC purchased the house forty or fifty years ago.  One won't see this kind of woodwork today.  

The grandfather clock reflects the scene on the water.  I desaturated all the color and then replaced it only on the clock face and the mirror.

A photo of a fish pond from the balcony above.  Two tall stories.  Telephoto lenses are great. 

Am very much looking forward to tomorrow morning. Will celebrate Mass in the large chapel with the twenty-two new Jesuit scholastics who are arriving at the theologate.  Am hoping that a few of them (one is already strongly considering it) will be interested in coming out here for some of their work with the retired men.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Viet Nam

Viet Nam: Some Loose Associations and Lots of Photos

Viet Nam was one of the places I never expected to visit.  I was at Penn State when things got real ugly resulting in the killings at Kent State, and at Temple Medical when the war ended.  Saigon.  Mekong Delta.  Words that had a chilling effect on a draft-age man.  As noted in an earlier post, the first draft lottery was televised live in either late November or early December 1969.  Chris, Paul and I had very high draft numbers.  Al didn’t.  We were sophomores at the University then.  Things began to change very quickly after Kent State in the spring of 1970. 

Some high school classmates and the siblings of others died in Viet Nam.  Their names are on the memorial in front of where Plymouth High School once stood.  It is sobering to see them.  We sat at the same desks and groused about the same teachers in school.  And then they died.  I didn’t. 

Two years ago as I write this, 20 August 2011 tertianship was officially over.  The three American tertians went to the airport together that Saturday morning.  The other two got on planes for the U.S.  I went to Saigon.  The memories of that visit continue to haunt me.  It was surreal to be there but not necessarily in a negative sense.   John Ngoc The, SJ, a tertian classmate, entered the Society in Germany.  Given that he was in the neighborhood, he arrived in Saigon a few days after I did to visit his siblings.  On 24 August he picked me up along with a Sister of St. Paul of Chartres and a driver.  A few hours later we arrived in the Mekong Delta where we spent three days at the motherhouse of the Sisters.  A trip on a boat up the canals feeding into the Mekong River blew me away.  I stood on the roof of the boot the entire time with the camera.  Each half day Sister Cecile had another adventure planned.  One morning John and I had tea with a high-ranking priest. He described the difficulty of dealing with a government that is hostile to religion as a high wire walk requiring a delicate balance.  The U.S. hasn’t reached that point of quashed religious freedom . . . yet. 

We visited families, churches, historic sites, beaches.  By the time we got back to Saigon I was almost paralyzed with fatigue and so delayed going to the scholasticate for one day.  

The reactions of the people on the streets of Saigon or in the areas we visited with the sisters were mixed.  Some stared.  Others offered massages, rides on motorcycles (more on that in a moment) or invitations to the War Museum.  I kindly declined all offers. 

I do not like riding motorcycles.  Never did and, after learning as much I have about the neuropsychiatry of head injury, I like them even less.  However, it was the only way to get around.  John drives a motorcycle very well but the 45 minutes on the back of one with him heading to the scholasticate were among the most memorable in Viet Nam.  I learned the meaning of a perfect act of contrition every time we leaned into a traffic circle that seemed to illustrate Brownian motion.  In the end, however, I would have changed nothing about those ten days. 

Vietnamese food is fantastic.  While I had heard about banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwich, I’d never had one until the second morning at the Jesuit community when one of the men went out to get some for breakfast.  I took one bite and thought that Schubert was playing a symphony on my tongue.  This sandwich is one of the most amazing combinations of flavor I’ve ever had in my life.  If only I had known about them when I lived near Falls Church.  But, I liked everything I ate there.  Though experienced with pho some of the other foods were new.  Amazing fruit.

I cherish the photo with the Vietnamese novices.  The hour and a half I spent with them was one of the highpoints of tertianship (as I wrote here earlier, tertianship did not end when the plane took off from Sydney).  I would go back in a heartbeat. 

The photos here are from that trip.  I turned 62 there.  I’ll probably forget whatever it is I do next week when I hit 64 (or maybe not as it may be a burger and a beer with another Jesuit, same as 63.  I do not do birthday parties) but 62 will not fade from memory, barring any cognitive disorders.  Even if a cognitive disorder hits, I’ve hundreds of photos culled from the several thousand I took there to remind me.  Wonder what kind of stories I'd make up?

I don’t know how I can ever repay John for the three days in the Delta.  If he gets to the U.S. I will have to try.

This is a case in which a few (or a lot) of photos speak louder than my barely articulate remarks above.   
A homemade swing in the Delta.  Three different kinds of wood but nicely finished and planed.
Cockfighting is popular in Viet Nam.  Fighting fish and fighting birds are also prized.  Wouldn't want to tangle with this dude. 
Note the motorcycles heading in opposite directions in the same lane.  And the pedestrians weaving among them.  Scariest place ever to cross a street.  Very liberal interpretations of traffic laws, if one can call them that.  No American should ever try to drive in Viet Nam.  Or ride a bicycle.
A sidewalk entrepreneur or two near the motherhouse.
Self-portrait in a hat shop window in Saigon.
Child protective services would probably frown on this.  While helmets are required of motorcycle drivers it appears they are not required of passengers, no matter how young.  No one of any age riding a bike wears a helmet. . .
. . .as illustrated below.  A downpour was just ending when I took this.  Both this and the one above were taken from a moving van.  The driver was a quiet man who was unruffled by all challenges on the road.  He chain smoked.  I wanted to join him.
The boat is the one we traveled in the canals.  The boy in the photo, probably about sixteen, carried two sacks of potatoes that the family gave to the sisters. They weighed a minimum of 75 pounds.  He carried them on his shoulders in bare feet on a rocky road.  
A church gong and confessional in a newly constructed church in the Mekong Delta.  The pastor here had been a prisoner for ten years for helping the South Vietnamese army. 
Young girl on her bicycle.

Boys on a Friday afternoon.  They were pure joy to watch as the hyperacted all over the beach and pier.  It reminded me why I still love Friday afternoons.  They mugged shamelessly when they noticed the camera.  They hadn't quite seen it at this point.  Or noticed the guy who didn't look too Asian carrying it.

"Brithday" flowers from the sisters.  John and I concelebrated Mass for the 65 sisters in the motherhouse at 5:00 AM on my birthday.  Afterwards we were invited to join them for breakfast in their refectory.  All of them sang Happy Birthday to me.  In English.  And presented me with the flowers.  The sign sits on the mantle across from the computer.  John was laughing hysterically at the look on my face when this happened.  He obviously knew because our birthdays were posted in the tertianship. All of the photos below come from that day. 
After Mass we went on a short excursion just across the Mekong River to a sort of ecology park.   There was a "monkey bridge" to cross a stream.  I crossed first, as should be obvious from some of the pictures that I titled, "Cross Over the Bridge."  Can't you just hear Patti Page singing that in the earworm part of your brain now?

The bridge. 
John thinking about it.  But he couldn't allow the old man to best him.
Both hands!!!!  Ma, he's using BOTH hands!!
By George I think he's got it!
Preparing to celebrate Mother General's feast day.  Young nuns, candidates (in the Vietnamese dress) and deaf dancers.
Deaf breakdancers.  These guys were terrific.  I was winded watching them.  I could breakdance too, with all the emphasis on break rather than dance.
Mother General (second from left) and the dancers. 
With the novices.  One of the highlights of the year for reasons I am still sorting out.  They do not wear shoes at conference or at Mass.  They also do not wear shorts or t-shirts at conference, Mass, or meals. Refreshing.  Nothing feels as good as cool granite or wood under bare feet when the air above is hot and humid.
Finally, my favorite shot from Viet Nam.  The setting is a market place not far from the SJ community.  I was shooting without much thought to composition as I feel very self-conscious and slightly guilty when doing "street" photography.  Pretty much shooting, turning, shooting and so on.  Didn't notice the young boy in the red shirt with the great hair until the photos were downloaded.  The focus was on the woman in the middle.   This is one of the few photos in my office.  It sits next to the computer.  I frequently stare at it wondering what is behind those eyes.  White-haired old man, obviously not Asian, probably American, in Saigon.  What has he heard of the war in school or from his family?  Did his dad or granddad fight in the war?  On what side?  Does the army-like hat say something or is he keeping the sun off his head?  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Vows and Idealism

On Saturday 10  August I was in DeWitt, NY, just outside the city limits of Syracuse, to concelebrate the Jesuit first vow Mass for five men.  While the drive to Syracuse with my novice master was dreadful due to periodically torrential rain, it was worth the ninety (of over 215) miles of white knuckling.  As a bonus, the drive back to Boston on Saturday was made in some of the most glorious summer weather imaginable, with minimal traffic given the reality of the Mass Pike. 

Watching each man pronounce his vows one at a time is always deeply moving.  This year, however, was even more so as some time within the next three months I will kneel to pronounce final vows in front of the same altar where I pronounced first vows in 1999 and celebrated my first Mass six years ago. 

Fourteen years ago this evening was the eve of my own perpetual vows.  Certain details of the vow ceremony, including the heat and humidity as well as a bout of hypoglycemia (running in high humidity and 80 degrees four hours before the Mass  and not eating afterwards was dumb, fortunately mom had a cookie in her purse), are seared into my memory.  The night before, however, has faded into the fog.  There was a cookout here at Campion but that is about all I remember.  I think some of my family was at the cookout but that is conjecture not memory. 

It was a seventeen-step walk from the pew to kneel in front of the Body and Blood of Christ and begin, "Almighty and eternal God, I, John Robert Siberski, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight . . . . "  Every one of those steps continues to echo in my memory.  The unworthy part is still true but I keep trying.  Immediately afterwards I was flooded with a sense of relief and quiet joy.  Just before Mass ended we were given our vow crosses.  Mine hangs above the desk, a quiet reminder of that day as well as a symbol of over 450 years of Jesuit history. During the long retreat in Australia I spent an entire day with the first vow formula.  After writing each line I reflected on it in longhand.  It took hours, hours that proved to be very important.  The vows opened up and took on a new life.   Some time soon I will have to write the vow formula three times.  It will be another opportunity to contemplate the vows. (The final vow formula is different from first vows). 

Religious life is not easy.  Starry-eyed idealism is going to be crushed.  On the other hand life in medicine isn't/wasn't easy either. Any residual idealism from med school was throttled by the end of internship.  Entering into marriage is no different.  The idealism that one carries into marriage, a new career, or religious life must be destroyed if one is going to survive and grow.  Before I entered the Society a friend, who has been in the Society for over forty years, told me, "If you stay, your reasons for staying will be different from your reasons for entering."  He was absolutely correct.  Over the years I've watched some young Jesuits struggle with their vocations after pronouncing vows.  Sometimes they left.  God knows I've watched residents in both internal medicine and psychiatry go down in flames when their ideals came up against reality, leaving medicine or making compromises rather than crafting new ideals.

It has been a deeply satisfying, happy, and challenging sixteen years in the Society.  Am looking forward to the culmination, or at least the progression, of my Jesuit vocation, when pronouncing final vows.  But, whenever those vows are sometime between October and December, I will wake up the next day and continue to do whatever it is that God is calling me to do that day, a call that may involve hauling stuff on a hand truck to the dumpster.  

At the moment I am acting rector at Campion while the rector recuperates and rests from a recent illness.  First public official act will be officiating at the funeral of Tony Paquet, SJ who died a few hours after we returned from Syracuse.  I spent some time with Tony nine days before his death.  He knew he was dying. He reiterated several times during our conversation that he was not afraid or anxious; indeed he was calm.  And he was calm.  I only hope I can greet the approach of death in the same way.
Have been playing with old photos while editing various folders.  Two are from Longwood Gardens in Chester County, PA and the others are from the first days of tertianship at Gerroa Beach in New South Wales, Australia. 

Longwood Water Lilies.  The leaf in the back was large enough to hold an entire extended-family of frogs. 

The orchids at Longwood are lovely.  The hothouse setting is quite a contrast to the Taipei Saturday Flower Market.  

Gerroa is one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever been on.  Note, I spent a total of a month on Ipanema in Brazil (with frequent walks over to Copacabana) back in the late sixties.  There was a huge swatch of beach covered with towels and sand pails but no people.  Everyone seemed to be in the water. 

One morning I went out early as the sun was rising.  The first is the earliest ways of the sun.  This was hand-held as I did not yet have a tripod. 

Two runners on the beach.  Oh for the opportunity to run again.  But, that ain't never gonna happen.  Ever.  The boat sailed and sunk. 

I love this photo.  It says everything there is to say about summer morning on a deserted beach. 

The last two are the same photo.  Sort of.  The first is a play area at the edge of the water.  The second resulted from cropping the first and then adjusting a number of sliders to change the color.  Color studies is one of the real advantages of digital photography and processing.  The bottom study would make an interesting fabric pattern for something like a pillow cover.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major

21 Rev:1-5
Judith 13:18-19
Lk 11:27-28

St. Mary Major has existed as a church structure in Rome since the mid-fourth century. The church was rededicated by Pope Sixtus III shortly after the Council of Ephesus affirmed Mary's title as Mother of God in 431.

It is difficult to comprehend the violent disagreements that marked the early Church. However, one need only listen to the hectoring arguments on any number of theological topics today to realize that, though there is a less a threat of physical violence, human nature has changed very little since the fourth century.  The debate can still get nasty where God is concerned. 

Nestorius and his followers insisted that Mary was the mother only of the human Jesus.  Thus Nestorius decreed that Mary would be named "Mother of Christ" in his diocese.  When the Council of Ephesus refuted Nestorious, believers took the streets chanting in agreement "Theotokos." Greek for "giving birth to God."  Of course, Mary is Christotokos as well.  But, Theotokos includes a specific Christological understanding. Today's readings echo this understanding. 

"Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race."  That indwelling of God with the human race began in a specific way with Mary the Theotokos.  "Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who tell of the might of God."  The sound of Mary's fiat has echoed throughout the universe down the millennia.  It will continue to echo until the end of the universe and beyond that end into eternity.  Mary is indeed, "the highest honor of our race."  Chapter VIII of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is titled simply, "Our Lady."  Section 66 begins with the following: "Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ."

Today we commemorate Mary, the Theotokos who said, "May it be done unto me according to your word."  We can only reply, "Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners."
Had to go to Plymouth on Tuesday of last week.  My Aunt Irene Gabriel, mom's youngest sister died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 90 and was buried on Thursday.  Like her two older sisters, Aunt Irene lived alone in her own home until the day of her death.  Like her three older siblings, she never fell and broke a hip. None of the cousins ever had to deal with the question of a nursing home because of dementia.  Now, for the first time in 113 years, none of the four Yob siblings reside in Plymouth.  They had quite a run of continuous residence in the town.  The travel down was easy and the weather cooperated though I was exhausted upon returning home on Friday.  I wandered through St. Mary's Church with the camera the day before the funeral. 

St. Mary's (formally Nativity of the B.V.M.)  was flooded by the Agnes flood of 1972.  There is a brass plaque on the main entrance showing how high the water reached.  It is practically a full flight of stairs to enter via the front door but the water was still several feet deep.  Aunt Irene lived in the house across the street until she moved to something one floor about 4 years ago.  Her house had the steepest staircase I've ever seen in a house.  The water stopped one step from flooding her second floor.  My parents had "only" seven feet in the living room and dad's office.  The church was redone, once very badly and then, after the consolidation of St. Stephen's and St. Vincent's, in much better taste bringing together significant items from the other two church buildings into St. Mary's.  

The main altar.  This was brought from St. Vincent's.  It replaced a truly ghastly "remodeling" with a lot of garish white marble that was done some time in the 80's. 
The view of the organ and choir loft from the ambo.  The stained glass in the windows was undamaged during the flood.  It is over 100 years old now.  
A detail of the stained glass in the main doors.  This was done by the Baut Studios in Swoyersville, a nearby town.  Swoyersville may be a tiny town but the Baut reputation is international.
The baptismal font was also brought from St. Vincent's.  The altar and font are over 130 years old. 
A bank of votive lights reflecting in polished granite.  I did not have the tripod handy at the time thus I had to shoot at a very high film speed with a wide-open aperture, thus the grainy appearance called noise. 
These last two are from Campion Center.  They illustrate why it is good to carry the camera.  It was sunset in the rotunda.  I happened to have the camera over my shoulder.  This lasted only a few minutes and then was gone.  
And shooting straight up. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD