Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Evening After Retreat

From the Friday afternoon drive to late lunch on Sunday, the retreat weekend lived up to all I could have asked it to be. It was also New England in the midst of its best season. Again and again the colors of sky and water and rocky coast, viewed from the windows of my third-floor room or glimpsed between the golden leaves of trees along the walkways, stopped me. Reverie reigned.

Home later that evening, I paid homage to the mood in which the retreat had left me by watching 400 Blows for the second time in a week. My Netflix rental of the François Truffaut classic had moved me a few days earlier. This time I settled on the sofa and watched while listening to the commentary by Brian Stonehill included with the Criterion DVD. Out of the sunlit colors of the retreat and into the black and white magic of a 1959 Paris, I felt fresh wonder at the minute-and-a-half scene of the faces of children attending the Grand Guignol. Enjoy.

By the way, watch till the end. The little boy resting his head on the shoulder of a friend takes my breath away.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chapel Flowers

It is a wonderful autumn weekend to be heading out to retreat.

I ask my readers' prayers that everything the Spirit wants to communicate and re-order comes swooping down upon those of us in our house by the sea the next few days.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Flannel Shirts and Stilton Cheese

I was the organizer of a session during a three-day work conference last week; the presentation -- mercifully -- went well despite its placement immediately after lunch on Friday. A dutiful visit to the nearby Whole Foods the next day slowed to a contemplative crawl by the cheese cases, and I decided to treat myself to the thinnest wedge of Stilton that was available. It will be my offering to my dinner hostess this evening.

A blue cheese from a guest in a blue flannel shirt.

Photo of Stilton Cheese courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why I Go to Mass on Sunday

When I go to Mass on Sunday, I am in the midst of my own life, and what I need on a particular morning may not sound like anything described in a document of Vatican II. No, I am not always attentive to each reading. No, I am not always conscious of the actions of the celebrant. No, I am not always aware of the offering that is being made on the altar or the meaning of the communion to which I am invited to take part. I am in the midst of my life, and what I choose to do on most Sundays is simply bring that life into a setting and a context that I know has been helpful in the past and may prove helpful again.

At this point in my life, my attendance at Sunday liturgy is fairly regular. There have been times when I have found it hard to be in a Catholic church or in any church. I have come to accept, however, that there is more for me to gain by staying with a behavior that I began long ago for good reasons than to abandon it with no replacement in sight.

And then there is the growing sense over the years that God is ready to meet me in this setting if I want to meet him here.

Why I come to church may vary from Sunday to Sunday. Why any one of us comes may be different from why the person down the pew from us is there on a particular Sunday. Or it may be the same reason.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be distracted.
The idea may strike you as odd. Wouldn’t you more readily understand if I started talking about how easy it is to find myself distracted during Mass, unable to pay attention to what’s happening on the altar? But I’m talking about the reality of the choice I get to make as an adult on how I will spend my Sunday morning, a choice that may take me away from home and newspapers and a long breakfast and sometimes a spouse or family or a group of friends. I’m talking about those times when I consider whether this might be the Sunday that I do not change out of my sweats and do not get in my car and do not leave early enough to be sure to find a parking space.

So what might get me out of the house and into a church pew? I might be worried about the results of a medical test and I am looking for a way to make the time pass more quickly. I might be hurt by something that a spouse or friend has said or done, and I take advantage of Mass to get away from having to interact for part of the long Sunday in front of me. I might be angry about a situation at work that will make me look like an incompetent Monday morning, and two hours at Mass might seem capable of giving me perspective or lowering my blood pressure. At one point in my life, I might have been guilty about how little energy I felt able to muster for an upcoming visit to an elderly parent, and I was looking for a diversion to help me stop beating myself up about that. I might be upset that my plans for a weekend activity got trumped by someone else’s preferences – again, and I need a place and time to sulk without seeming to. My experience is that sometimes I bring my life to Sunday morning in church because I want to escape what that life is feeling like – or I need to figure out what it’s feeling like.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be challenged. I know that the world is bigger than my own needs, bigger than the foreign policy goals of my nation, bigger than the view of life according to which some people that I have succeeded in not knowing feel constrained to run their lives. Going to Mass, I can expect from time to time to be reminded of all the ways the world has not been a garden that people cultivate with ease and a confident awareness of opportunity. I can expect from time to time to hear young people and adults report about the weeks they have spent in an unfamiliar setting with the goal of making someone else’s life better. I can expect from time to time to watch someone during Mass negotiate a wheelchair, an unusually unruly child, an angry awareness of the structural patriarchy of our church to which so many continue blind or needlessly resigned.

Going to Mass, I can expect the invitation to respond to Gospel stories about the difficulties of widows and deaf-mutes and prostitutes and lepers and beggars and cripples and tax-collectors and those in the grip of despair and those in the prison cell of mental illness. Going to Mass in a downtown parish, I can expect that I will move and pray amid the diversity of an urban population who do not need to ever stop surprising me by the clear evidence of their exposure to neglect or their stubborn refusal to dress like me or talk like me. Sometimes going to Mass seems the one sure place to which I can expect to return week after week and be made aware of the needs I am tempted to dismiss or forget or ignore the rest of my week.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be greeted and welcomed. It is not everyone in my life who knows and understands the need I feel to go to church – and a Catholic church at that – and sometimes I go to Mass for the company of other people who have known that need.I can go to grocery stores and bus stations and movie theatres and no one there has to greet me or recognize me. In fact, I usually prefer that they don’t. I am content to be John Q. Public on certain ventures outside my home – including online ventures. Privacy counts. If I yield that privacy, I want to know that I am yielding it and to whom and, if possible, for how long. I always ask why a salesclerk needs my phone number before I buy something at certain stores. I know that I have become sensitized to the ways people can learn things about me that they can use for their own ends and at my expense if necessary.

How different to go into a church and find that I am recognized and greeted – even by people who do not know my name or where I live or how I make my livelihood! There are few places in my life where I have regularly brought more of myself than a church. I go to a church because it is safe to be sad there, safe to be serious, safe to be confused, safe to be angry and frightened. The company of people while I am that sad or serious or frightened brings an unusual kind of comfort, and there is no describing how a simple nod, a handshake by someone who may or may not know my name, a squeeze of the hand at the Kiss of Peace consoles and strengthens.

Sometimes I go to Mass to be moved by beauty. Remember my talking about the moment on a Sunday morning when I can debate within myself whether to forego newspapers and a longer breakfast and an hour or two more in sweats? I have to admit that I am no longer at the stage in my life when church architecture or concert-quality choirs automatically trump the casual pleasures of the breakfast table.

I’m going to make a distinction here, though, and tell you that the beauties to which I am most partial in a church on Sunday morning are the beauties of memory. I am going to invoke the notion of involuntary memory made famous by Marcel Proust. I am going to tell you that I do not know in advance that anything particularly memorable in the aesthetic sense is going to happen at a Mass on a particular Sunday morning, but I am no longer surprised when it does. Most often it comes in singing a hymn or psalm, and without any planning or conscious preparation I meet a younger version of myself singing these words when other challenges faced me – the fresh grieving of a lost parent or the moment when I knew I had to find another way of leading my life. Sometimes the sudden pleasure comes from looking at one of the statues or stained-glass windows and being reminded of other churches and the way light filtered through another window or the sense of devotion that a vase of flowers before an earlier image of a saint communicated to me.

I am going to be cautious, however, and leave you with your own experiences of beauty, the beauty of music, the beauty of icon and incense, the beauty of ceremony and ritual movement, the beauty of vestments and lofty church ceilings. How your heart and mind responds to that part of a religious heritage will communicate something important about what you ask church to be for you on a Sunday morning.

Lastly, I go to Mass to be fed. I may start sometimes by wanting distraction, I may stay in response to challenge, I may warm to welcome and greeting, I may thrill to the beauty of a centuries-old liturgy coming to life. There is usually a point in any Sunday Mass, though, when I admit that I have come to church to experience in my core the scriptural truth captured by Dan Schutte in the refrain of “Table of Plenty”: “God will provide for all that you need, here at the table of plenty.” The memory is fresh for me of the recent Sunday when I sang these words at the 11 o’clock Mass. It had been a painful morning for me, an awkward time for my heart. What do I do, God? What should I think of this time in my life? The refrain of the hymn sung during the Presentation of Gifts that Sunday moved suddenly out of generic Isaiah into life line. Yes – I seemed to understand immediately and unmistakably – neither alone nor forgotten, I am where I can be, I am where I need to be. It was the experience of being fed what I needed. It was the experience of being fed from a table of plenty. It was the promise kept once again – that I can live my life and trust that I will get what I need.

Autumn Rose

I have long been partial to the New England season of fall and the ways it makes room for the color rose. Sometimes the leaves that fall take on that hue. Sometimes the petals of a snowball tree in a favorite cemetery.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mary Oliver, Edith Stein and Me

Ten years ago I was in Rome for a controversial ceremony. Edith Stein, a convert from the Judaism of her early years and a victim of the concentration camps, was being proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Brilliant agnostic university woman turned cloistered nun, she had posed as many problems for her Jewish family in her lifetime as she subsequently did for Jewish men and women facing the Church’s claim that Edith Stein had died a martyr for her Christian faith. Hadn’t Edith Stein – like six million others – died in the concentration camps because she was Jewish, born to her Jewish family on Yom Kippur in 1891?

During studies at a local divinity school some years back, I wrote a paper on Edith Stein, applying to the story of her long adult attraction to Christianity and her eventual decision to ask for baptism the notion of conversion as developed by philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Far from the forced conversions that darkened the history of the Church’s interactions with the Jewish people, Lonergan’s notion of conversion emphasizes an individual’s free embrace of a truth recognized for the claim it makes on the intellect and heart. Nothing I had read in Edith Stein’s writings ever suggested that conversion for her had been anything merely convenient or strategic or forced.

I sat in a chair in my library at home late one night this summer, thinking about a journey that Edith Stein had made in October 1933. An academic in her early forties, she was traveling from her family’s home in Breslau (Wroclaw in present-day Poland) to the city of Cologne to be received into a cloistered Carmelite convent. Her narrative of that long train ride and of the events leading up to it reveals a woman at a critical moment in her life. A choice she had made about the way she would henceforth live her life was about to alter forever the physical and emotional landscape in which she interacted with family, friends and acquaintances.

Why would she do it? What guarantee did she have that the decision she had made would be worth the heartache it was bound to cause her Jewish family and even herself? What right did she have to ask these good people to go through so pronounced a rupture in what till now had been their normal lives with her? Why couldn’t she be content with a regimen of regular churchgoing, daily prayer and the occasional retreat? Who was she to say that the good resulting from her choice of this radical vision of her life was not available in some healthier form in her bonds with her family and the traditions in which they had their roots? How did she know that she hadn’t been fundamentally mistaken in her understanding of Christianity, perhaps emotionally blindsided by the National Socialist atmosphere growing in the Germany around her?

That night I sat in the library by myself and re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.” I found in it a compelling psychological portrait of a person ready to make the kind of change Edith Stein had made in stepping onto the train in the station in Breslau that day in October seventy-five years ago. That a church later recognized in her life a pattern that might prove helpful and transformative to generations yet to come should not lead us to expect to find in her story a simple vocation narrative. Hers was not a blissful contemplative path, a journey without struggle or waiting or insecurity. Physical and professional and emotional survival was not to be taken for granted for an exceptionally bright woman named Edith Stein living in the Germany of her day.

So suppose you were that exceptionally bright woman in your thirties and over the years you had gotten everyone in your life to believe you saw your life and its possibilities a certain way. Suppose you yourself had gotten to believe that that was the complete story of who you were. In other words, suppose through long practice you had forgotten the effort it took each day to act that way, to act as though you knew what the world was like and you knew the roles you could play in it. You had heard a lot and particularly you had read a lot about truth to self, but you had concluded long ago that everyone had a public self that was different from the interior self out of which you looked at what passed in the world for your happiness or success.

And then one day you got to read what someone so like you that it was scary, what someone on the other side of interior collapse four hundred years earlier had discovered about the uselessness of all such effort to seem all right. After reading the life of Teresa of Avila straight through one summer night in 1921, you began to imagine what it would be like to be face to face with a God who had never asked for that kind of futile, exhausting effort from you or anyone else. Suppose you got to hear that God saying, “There is a happiness waiting for you if you want it. There is a true voice waiting for you to use if you want it.”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.

Let’s consider the possibility that life in her house growing up may not have been everything Edith Stein needed or wanted. We can first understand “house” literally as the physical environment in which Auguste Stein raised her eleven children after their father’s untimely death in 1893, when Edith was two. The impossibility of experiencing a father’s love and the economic demands on the newly widowed mother may have favored an intellectual development in Edith Stein that was precocious but extremely private.

She confessed later to an early reputation for being biting in her judgments of others; her mind may have searched for security in ferreting out the faults of others as a salve for the faults in herself that she could have suspected were the cause for the withdrawal of a more attentive love. For survival, Edith Stein created a role for herself, an intellectually prestigious role as the ruthless observer of the human mind, a role people let her play. She built in this way her own kind of inner house, one that gave her space to think her own thoughts. It may have been a role that kept people in her family and in her university circles feeling they knew her while it kept her fundamentally isolated.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

What could have been more transformative than to come to the awareness that a God might be saying to her something like what Teresa of Avila had heard, “I have a happiness waiting for you if you want it”? No longer required to be someone exclusively focused on taking care of others or taking care of their opinions of her, Edith was ready, maybe even desperate for her life to change. What could have felt more essential to Edith Stein than finally to know what she sounded like?

It would be important for Edith Stein at that point in her life to be with people who understood the kind of path she was embarking on. It would be important for her not just to know of such people but to live more and more among them and alongside them. The company Edith Stein needed might be on spiritual paths very similar to hers. Or they might simply be people who knew Edith Stein so well that they had to try to understand what a path like this would mean to her, what it promised her, what it freed her from, how it might feel to her on different days, what part of the path might surprise her given her history, what part of the path might reduce her to tears for the sheer joy of walking it. They would be people who could be company because being with her on that path fed something in them, brought them to life, became a reality they could not avoid reflecting on and asking about. They would be people who could recognize the voice that finally emerged at that critical point in Edith Stein’s life, recognize it as hers – finally and unmistakably hers.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…

Edith Stein was not someone unable to understand the challenge her new vision of her life posed for many of the people that she loved. Writing later about the train ride from Breslau that October morning in 1933, she confessed that what she had just lived through those final twenty-four hours with her mother and her family had been terrible. No easy joy had marked that journey of hers. The most positive thing she could say was that she had traveled feeling sure of moving in accord with God’s hopes for her life.

In the weeks and months and years ahead, she would be supported by women and men of her acquaintance who were not surprised that lives sometimes turned out like hers. In fact, they would communicate to her the conviction of having watched someone bravely claim her life and answer the invitation of the God at its heart. She emerged from the turmoil with what she may have felt she had almost lost – the sense of being the Edith Stein she was always meant to be.

…determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Who loves the changes in us? There may ultimately be no more practical question for any of us to ask in our life.

Yom Kippur 2008

Photo of Edith Stein from Blog Cristiano

Photo of Mary Oliver from Dartmouth News

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dancing in the Mist with Fellini

Before dinner last night I settled down with an ice-chip-cold martini and watched my favorite Fellini film. These days I can easily feel like one of the school boys from Amarcord, dancing in the mist. Enjoy.

YouTube scene from "Amarcord" uploaded by aniaunknown