Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.Read more
On the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God Pope Francis gave a fine homily, in which he reprised one of Pope Benedict's key themes. Francis said:
Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst.
This morning, reading through the January issue of the monthly meditation aid, Magnificat, I came across this letter of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to her Sisters:
I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus – one to one – you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel – but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus – not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? Ask for the grace; he is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear him saying, "I thirst," in the hearts of the poor.
Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person – not just the idea. (Varanasi Letter: March 25, 1993)
Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form. (And I miss some of those Christmas card updates, too.) This year, I got an unusual surprise: a cousin eager to make use of the theology Ph.D. in the family, asking questions like “what is the difference between the Apostle’s creed and the Nicene creed?” and “what did Luther do?” and “where can I find a summary of the whole story of the Bible?” (I welcome suggestions on that last one.)
The surprise is the demographic identity of my cousin: a 22-year-old recent state university business grad, who is single, who grew up mainline Protestant, who had shipped off to a distant city to take a management training job. Over the summer she found a nice trendy urban apartment complex in a city neighborhood. Shops and restaurants. The whole thing. And somehow she not only found her way to a Lutheran church, but also came home over Christmas with these questions noted down in her smartphone. All the surveys say: this is not supposed to happen. I wanted to joke that sociologists of religion would want to do in-depth interviews and publish a study. Data on this group is usually dismal: Christian Smith’s most recent results from his massive longitudinal survey continue to suggest the rise of the “nones.”
Did my cousin’s case provide an answer? I think the answer to what drives people to show up at church is individual and complex. I wouldn’t presume to know why people check out possible church involvement. There are many reasons. But what keeps them there isn’t nearly as complicated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my cousin reported that she was welcomed personally by the pastor and her name was remembered. And that the pastor preached substantial messages that were meaningful and delivered with real care and conviction. The congregation, led by the pastor, was providing meaningful belonging. Not just belonging, and not just meaning, but both. The result? Someone asking good questions and growing in faith.
That’s the kind of gift a theologian likes to discover on the trip home. It doesn’t even take up any extra space in the luggage on the flight back…
We’re in the midst of the annual highest-days-of-travel now that Thanksgiving is near. With weather conditions changing, and the inevitable crowds, I am sure tempers will often be frayed. Perhaps you are reading this in an airport even now, wondering how much longer you’ll have to wait to get where you want to go. Well, better to read dotCommonweal than to brood—or fume. (I’ve often wondered why some people feel free to vent their feelings of frustration upon airline personnel who, as far as I’m aware, have no control over the weather.)Read more
Friday's PBS Newshour featured a segment with the poet Gregory Orr, who discussed the accidental shooting by a nine-year-old girl--with an Uzi submachine gun--of her instructor at an Arizona gun range August 25. He wasn't there to talk about the root causes of the tragedy (political, sociological, cultural), but rather its aftermath and potential effect on the child at the center of it. When he was twelve, Orr himself accidentally killed his younger brother in a hunting accident, an incident he documented in his 2002 memoir The Blessing and which has figured prominently in his poetry over the course of a dozen or so collections, having in large part led him to writing in the first place, in which he has since found solace. "Because poems are meanings," he has said, "even the saddest poem I write is proof that I want to survive. And therefore it represents an affirmation of life in all its complexities and contradictions."
On Newshour, Orr reads his poem "A Litany" (go to the 38-minute-mark in the video below), which deals explicitly with the day he and his father and three brothers went out hunting. It opens with Orr's recalling "the dark stain seeping" across his brother's parka hood and includes the image of the deer "we had killed just before I shot my brother" hanging near the barn, as seen by Orr from the bedroom he'd retreated to on returning home. It's a haunting reading, the look in Orr's eyes and the sound of his voice adding something more to what is already pretty powerful on the page.
Orr, when asked, also talks about what should and shouldn't be done for children who have witnessed or been the cause of a death, warning specifically against "premature consolation," or the tendency of well-meaning adults to tell a child that it was "all a part of God's plan"--words that he, as a twelve-year-old, found "more terrifying" than reassuring. He had written more at length about this a week earlier in the New York Times:
[W]hen I try to think of what I might say to that girl, I think also of the danger of words used as premature consolation and explanation. I lost a (naïve and conventional) religious faith the day of my brother’s death, because a well-meaning adult assured me that my dead brother was already, at that very moment, sitting down in heaven to feast with Jesus. How could I tell her that my brother was still near me, still horribly close to me — that every time I squeezed shut my eyes to keep out the world, I saw him lying lifeless at my feet?
But even worse, Orr says, is not to speak of it at all: "Silence quickly transforms guilt into shame, and shame builds walls of isolation that can be almost impossible to breach." That, he has said, is what happened inside his own family. He offers very basic counsel: "Hold the child, and make her feel safe." And that simplicity of gesture, of giving oneself to another, seems in keeping with what Orr has suggested might be the larger purpose of the kind of lonely work he has dedicated himself to:
[T]he lyric (poem or memoir) is committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.
Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the removal of my cancerous prostate, and I'm not sure if I should celebrate it with a special cake or a good cry.
The operation itself went well enough. The doctor opened me up with some sort of robot, but then compensated me with some really good pain medication. True, I also awakened with a catheter installed (which turned out not to be as pleasant a thing as I had been led to believe). But after the catheter came out in a couple of weeks, it was time to get to work on the side effects of the operation.
The first of these was that my bladder leaked like a sieve and I had to wear an adult diaper. "Without a prostate you will have to learn to hold your bladder like a woman" said the urologist. "But most women manage it and you will learn how to also." And he was right.Read more
It is well known that during his convalescence, Ignatius of Loyola read the Life of Christ and this reading prompted his radical turning to the Lord. The author of the book that so influenced Ignatius was Ludolph of Saxony, also known as Ludolph the Carthusian, though he had been a Dominican Master of Theology before entering the Carthusians.
The fine "General Introduction" to the Paulist Press volume, Ignatius of Loyola, says of Ludolph:
Ludolph wanted his readers to have a warm piety firmly based on sound doctrine, and he hoped to lead them toward salvation and rich spiritual development. In all this he exerted a deep formative influence on Ignatius' mentality by orienting him in the same direction.
Ludolph gives directives for reading the life of Christ meditatively and prayerfully. This was the procedure used by Ignatius in his readings at Loyola, and it was to reappear in his Exercises, but totally reworded and fitted to his own purposes.
The "Introduction" then quotes from the beginning of Ludolph's Life of Christ a passage that reflects Ignatius' own procedure in the Spiritual Exercises. Rudolph addresses his readers and exhorts them:
If you want to draw fruit from these sayings and deeds of Christ, you should put aside all other preoccupations; and then, with the affection of your heart, slowly, diligently, and with relish, make yourself present to what the Lord Jesus has said and done, and to what is being narrated, just as if you were actually there, and heard him with your own ears, and saw him with your own eyes.
For all these matters are exceedingly sweet to one who ponders them with desire, and far more so to one who savors them. Although many of these facts are recounted as having taken place in the past, you nevertheless should meditate upon them as if they were taking place now, in the present.
The "Introduction" states that Ludolph concludes each chapter of his book with a prayer which serves as climax of the meditation, "much as Ignatius will later ask his exercitants to conclude their meditations by a 'colloquy' expressed in their own words." As with Rudolph, so with Ignatius (and with us), the prayers are offered "to the praise and glory of God"—ad majorem Dei gloriam.
Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments can be read in a single evening; Rebecca Mead says so in her cover blurb, and I can attest to it. Not that that should be among the criteria for a recommendation, but it does say something about the style of prose and pace of the plotting—“breezy and breakneck,” maybe, if more cover-ready copy is ever needed. But is it also a religious book? The blurbs offer no clues to that.
Little surprise, given the likely intended audience, whose ranks would probably include the kind of people who inhabit its pages: thirtyish New Yorkers in and at the fringes of the creative class. Like the novel’s art gallery employee with a secret fondness for the religious works of the Renaissance says: “I can’t even tell people I believe in God. They find it ridiculous.” Arts & Entertainments may not be about belief: Beha’s main subjects are celebrity obsession and the insidiousness of reality television, the narrative kicked into action by the sale of a sex tape. But belief is in its pages, even if sometimes tough to square with the occasionally unlikely turns of the plot.Read more
In the Spirit of the day [Pentacost], here is a fascinating and unusual account of religious conversion and insight.
From the Jewish Daily Forward
Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.
Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?
Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.
CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?
Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.
When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.
Last night Cathleen Kaveny interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper at Fordham University in front of a packed house. The cardinal has been making the rounds in New York and Boston, promoting his new book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. It was a fascinating conversation, veering from the abstract (How is mercy the key to understanding God's nature?) to the practical (How merciful must I be when grading students' papers?) and back again. Kaveny asked excellent questions, as did the audience, and Kasper offered fascinating responses, some of which I live-tweeted. After the event, one of my Twitter followers suggested I collect some of my my tweets via Storify. So that's what I'm going to do--or at least try to do. Caveat lector: unless you see quotation marks or I say otherwise, I'm not directly quoting anyone, and it's possible that I misheard some of the Qs & As (and sorry for any typos--autocorrect is against me). I've never Storified before, so bear with me--and let me know whether this is remotely useful--after the jump.Read more
The first thing that struck me in reading André Chouraqui’s essay on the psalms (see Praying with the Psalms Part I) was his passionate and lyrical affirmation of a kind of mystical reality that speaks both to Israel and to the whole of humanity through the psalms. Here is how he describes it:
In this book the world has come to know and recognize itself. Just as it narrates the history of us all, it becomes the book of all, the untiring and penetrating ambassador of the word of God to all peoples here on earth. …
The twelfth century Cistercian reform movement was characterized by both mystical sensibility and practical wisdom. Among its lesser known figures (but one deserving to be better known) is the abbot, Isaac of Stella.
Today's "Office of Readings" offers an example of the concrete teaching he gave to his community:
This is what the law of Christ is like, the Christ who bore our griefs in his passion and carried our sorrows in his compassion for us, loving those whom he carried and carrying those whom he loved. On the other hand, whoever turns on his brother in the brother’s time of need, who exploits his weakness, whatever that weakness may be – without doubt he has subjected himself to the law of Satan and is carrying it out. Let us have compassion for each other and love the brotherhood we share, bear each other’s weaknesses and fight against each other’s vices.
Whatever religious practice or observance it leads to, any teaching or discipline that fosters a stronger love of God and, through God, of our neighbours, is most acceptable to God for that reason. This love is the reason why things should be or not be, why they should remain the same or be changed. This love should be the reason why things are and the end to which all things are directed. For nothing can be considered wrong that is truly directed towards and according to that love.
On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque.
But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam.Read more
I love the list of names in the Gospel today, Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus.
The list was the subject of a wonderful homily once given by the great Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe which concludes with a memorable Advent meditation: “Well, that is the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ. The moral is too obvious to labour: Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela McNamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the Observer or the Irish Times. He belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars—He belonged to us and came to help us. No wonder He came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”
The homily, along with many other splendid things, can be found in Father McCabe’s book, God Matters. Blessed Advent.
We’ve just posted the latest issue to the homepage, and here are some of the highlights:
- J. Peter Nixon writes there’s still reason to be optimistic about Obamacare – but that “to understand why, it helps to know a few details about the law.”
- David Cloutier writes on how luxury compromises Christian witness: “If many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable.”
- John Garvey on the importance of vows – and “the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken” [subscription].
See the full table of contents for the December 20 issue right here.
Also featured today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the return of the working-class hero: “For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news.” Read the whole column here.
You’ve read installments in our series on raising Catholic kids. Now you can read responses from kids. Well, young people who were kids not so long ago and who grew up in homes where faith was a part of their lives. We’ve collected their stories on our special topic page, “Kids, Raised Catholic,” which you can find here.
We’ve just posted the latest piece in our symposium “Raising Kids Catholic.” Today’s installment is from Liam Callanan. An excerpt:
There are … obtuse dads like me, and families like mine, who face a blizzard of conflicting societal and doctrinal pressures. More plainly: There’s the Disney Channel, cell phones, e-books, and a thousand other modern diversions from a straightforward path to faith.
And then there’s the church, or rather its leaders, who I find sometimes get in the way of me bringing my family to God. This feels like a new phenomenon, but I know it’s not. I think, once again, about Matthew 19: the reason Jesus says “Let the little children come to me” is because moments before, some children had been brought forward “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them,” and “the disciples rebuked them.” Two thousand years later, some disciples are still at it.
You can read Liam’s whole story here. You can also go directly to our special topic page, where we’re featuring all of the contributions to the Raising Kids Catholic symposium in one place as they’re posted. Commenting is enabled on that page, so feel free to keep the conversation going as new installments go live.
Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for "mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice"—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.
While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.Read more
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