Friday, August 26, 2016

Notes from the Studio

This is where I am spending my days...
We're in the middle of a recording project right now (last week it was Christmas concert prep!), so--in spite of my expressed intention to post occasionally over these weeks, I haven't had much time for much of anything online. I keep the phone out of the studio, not entirely trusting that "do not disturb" setting. (All we need is a rogue "bzzz" as we aim for that one delicate note...)

Me, aiming a note at Sr Julia.
In preparing for our concerts, Sister Margaret Timothy also created an Amazon "wish list" of concert supplies. We go through a lot of batteries and gaffer tape in a concert season and "Concert Angels" have already begun helping us stock up! (For some bizarre reason, you have to be logged in to Amazon to see the list, though.)

I saw that the US bishops are calling for a special collection on Sunday to help with the Louisiana recovery.  While I was on retreat, the flood waters found their way into my youngest sister's house. The flooding in her neighborhood was not catastrophic (only three feet of water overall, and about 6 inches in my sister's house), but (as with Hurricane Katrina) that still requires pulling up floors, tossing upholstery and other furnishings that bathed in that muddy stew and cutting out drywall up to three feet past the flood line. For the first few nights, my sister and her husband waded through a hip-deep lake of flood water to a hotel about a mile from their house (where luckier locals delivered gumbo and barbecue for the flood victims) and are now in a rental. (To give you a hint of what things are like, just yesterday we siblings learned that one of my sister's cats is suffering from stress-related cystitis.) People in the flood zones have not only lost their homes (or the use of them): compounding the loss is the fact that local businesses were damaged or destroyed too, putting many flood victims out of work. Sis is a social worker. She has plenty of work these days, processing food stamp requests for thousands more households than the state could have anticipated.

And in our studio, we keep singing Christmas songs. We added a prayer for peace to our Christmas lineup this year, strongly suspecting that by the first week of December people will be feeling that need for "peace that surpasses understanding." (Yesterday's news about the murder of two religious sisters in Mississippi only confirms the need for an unceasing prayer for peace.) Please join us in that prayer.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Terrorism and Communications: An Invitation to Pauline Reparation

This Saturday we celebrate the 102nd anniversary of the Founding of the Pauline Family. It's always a significant day for us, and this year our Superior General has invited us to make it even more deeply significant. 
As Paulines, we not only "use" communications technologies, we are called to consecrate the world of communications, and to offer reparation for the sins that are committed because of the misuse of communications. It is easy to think of the more explicit ways in which human dignity is threatened or undermined through exploitative media. But in her letter, Sister Anna Maria reminded us that " Experts have said that 'a specific feature of terrorism is that it is a communications phenomenon'."
Somehow that reality never hit me in my Pauline gut before. The ideological corruption of  minds and the physical destruction of lives, property and social structures that we have witnessed in an increasing number of events this year call for a supernatural intervention. We are called to make specific reparation for communications that (in the words of a Pauline prayer) "warp the minds, the hearts and the activities of men and women," as well as for all the death, destruction and displacement that has been "spread throughout the world by the misuse of the media."

I am sharing a part of our Superior General's anniversary letter in order to invite you to share this August 20 day of prayer with us: seems that in these days more and more space is being given to every kind of violence, to frequent and sudden terrorist attacks, to the mass migration of peoples: phenomena to which we cannot and must not remain indifferent…. It is truly a challenging time–one that can be compared to the period of “serious upheaval” (Alberione's memoirs) during which, with extraordinary faith, our Founder laid the foundations for what would become the Pauline Family. The date was August 1914, the eve of a horrendous world war.
But for the Pauline Congregations, tragic moments such as this have also been occasions for growth in faith, in reciprocal communion, in a spirit of atonement, in a more conscious apostolic participation “in the many sufferings of the world” (Mother Thecla).
Today too, the response to the darkness that surrounds us is faith and a reinvigorated witness to communion. Let us ask ourselves: “How can we, all together, try to conquer evil with good? How can we make our voice heard in this time in which millions of our brothers and sisters are suffering?” The Pope reminded us that “our response to a world at war has a name: its name is fraternity, its name is brotherhood, its name is communion, its name is family.”
 We have a tremendous responsibility to pray that communications will offer people increased opportunities to meet one another and manifest solidarity in our divided and war-torn world. And since our
230 communities extend from the Far East to the Far West, from Australia and Papua New Guinea to Hawaii, we are assured of 24 hours of uninterrupted prayer before Jesus in the Eucharist. Let us spend the day in active and heartfelt mercy toward one another, putting into practice the invitation of the Apostle Paul:
Let no offensive talk pass your lips, only what is good and helpful to the occasion, so that it brings a blessing to those who hear it. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, for that Spirit is the seal with which you were marked for the day of final liberation. Have done with all spite and bad temper, with rage, insults and slander, with evil of any kind. Be generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:29ff.).

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Greetings before I go into the Silence

I've been at our retreat house (between historic Lexington and Concord) for almost a week now, not for retreat but for our annual updating session. Retreat begins tonight and with it eight days of silence (including Internet silence--which may be why our Wi-Fi is not working?). Feel free to send me your prayer intentions before 7:30 Eastern time. (Use the comment feature, but indicate whether you want them posted everyone else to see and pray for, or if you mean them for my eyes only.)

Today was more than a clean-the-retreat-house day for us, though it was that, too: at Mass this morning on the Feast of the Transfuguration six of our junior sisters renewed their vows (the seventh had renewed her vows in January). I was really glad to be able to witness that sign of blessing, and to hear six times "I vow to live chaste, poor and obedient...I trust in the prayers of the sisters of the congregation." (There would be photos except for that Wi-Fi situation. Check my Twitter posts from this morning for a few scene!)

I hope you will pray for these young women, too, as they (and our novices, as well) make their annual retreat. (If you would, spare a prayer for the Nunblogger!)

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Summer Reading: Avenue of Spies

In keeping with my summer reading theme (World War II non-fiction), I accepted a review copy of Alex Kershaw's book, subtitled "A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family's Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris."

The subtitle alone reminded me that almost none of the World War II history I have read has been centered on France. I have read about the Russian Jewish resistance, the efforts of Germans to overthrow the Third Reich from the inside, the Norwegian resistance and the squads of double agents who sent Nazi secrets to England on a regular basis, in addition to books about ordinary people caught in or delivered from the Nazi scourge (The Zookeeper's Wife and The Nazi Officer's Wife are among the more recent titles in this vein that I have read). Of course, that's without mentioning (again!) all the books that look at specifically Catholic efforts at rescue and subterfuge. In all those books, the only glimpses of wartime France came through the English double agents. I have read nothing about the French themselves.

Even this book is not so much about the French, as it is about one family: an American surgeon, his Swiss-born wife and their only child. Approached by members of the French resistance, the couple agreed to turn their house on Paris' elegant Avenue Foch (the "Avenue" of the title whose mansions had almost all been requisitioned for the Germans' operations ) into a communications hub.

Actually, the family's quiet rebellion against the newly-arrived occupiers had already begun in the American Hospital in Paris. Before the US entered the war, the American Hospital was neutral territory, and friends in diplomatic circles kept the Germans from taking it over. Dr. Sumner Jackson worked long hours in surgery, trying to save the life and limbs of Allied POWs from a nearby camp. To the extent possible, he not only healed their wounds, but got them out of France entirely. (In some cases, the soldier's "death certificate" was delivered to the camp in lieu of his strangely vibrant corpse, which was already far from Paris...)

War was not new to Dr Jackson. He had been a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I (defying US neutrality even then), a strange destiny for a man who had been raised in poverty in the back woods of Maine, and who had worked his way through medical school on his own. His wife "Toquette" could not bear living in the States, and so they had moved to France where her family had property and connections and Dr. Jackson's private practice catered to the "stars" of high society (many of whom gracefully transitioned into Nazi collaborators when the City of Lights fell so quietly that summer of 1940).

Perhaps one reason I have read so little about the French resistance is because it was so effectively dismantled by the Gestapo. Whereas all the double agents in the employ of England and Germany seem to have been working for the Allies, among the French it was not so. The Gestapo was able to monitor a great deal of resistance communications, even using French radio codes to summon unsuspecting agents from England to France, where they were arrested, tortured for yet more information and executed. (One of the most remarkable of the French agents who was betrayed into German hands was an unbreakable woman whose last, defiant word was "Liberté.")

It was the German's penetration of resistance communication (and the inexplicable failure of the Jackson's group to assign them an alias) that led to the entire Jackson family's capture. Toquette ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, from which she was eventually transported to freedom in Sweden; her husband and son were interned together in Neuengamme. After Hitler's death, the men of Neuengamme were loaded onto prison ships, bait for incoming British bombers. Philip Jackson, age 17, was one of the few to survive and became the source of much of the information in the book (with 41 pages of end notes that are not to be missed and an index 14 pages long).

I would not say that Avenue of Spies was a page-turner in the same way as, say Church of Spies (do I sense a trend in those titles?), but it definitely kept my interest and gave me a beginner's sense of what happened in and with France as the Nazis swept through.

The author goes nowhere near this final matter, but I cannot help but suspect that part of France's embarrassingly tepid response to Nazi activity is in part the result of the French Revolution and the remaking of France ("the eldest daughter of the Church") into a rigorously secular nation and society.
The Reign of Terror had efficiently dismantled the religious houses and institutions that in other nations served as safe houses for the rescue of Jews and conduits of clandestine communication.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free review copy of the book mentioned above with the expectation that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. In addition, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Ite, Missa est" and the Last Mass of Father Jacques

For decades now, following the Prayer after Communion and a blessing, we have heard words like "the Mass is ended, go in peace" or "Go forth, the Mass is ended." The bizarre thing is that this final instruction from the celebrant translates a Latin command that says something else entirely: "Go: the Mass is."

Years ago I learned that this dismissal was moved to its current location from an earlier post after the homily, where it was directed to the catechumens who were not yet able to join in the priestly intercessions. "Go," they were told; "the central priestly offerings are beginning and you are not yet configured to Christ the Priest so as to make that offering. The Mass is."

With yesterday's murder at the foot of the altarof the elderly Father Jacques Hamel, we got a reminder that the Mass always "is." It is the sacrifice of the Lamb, "slain but standing" and making his offering before the Father. It is the complete gift of the one who "lays down his life freely; it is not taken from him." At any time, the gifts we offer at Mass (which always represent our own lives, our work, our world, the whole created order) can be visibly accepted by the Father who is "well pleased" with them.

Paul was not exaggerating when he said "I live now, no longer I: Christ lives in me." This is what Baptism equips us for: to be so configured to Christ that he becomes present in us, in all his mysteries, in every age of history. Our part is to correspond daily to the grace of this sacrament so that we daily grow in Christ-likeness and manifest Him like so many monstrances holding the Blessed Sacrament visibly high. Then, Blessed James Alberione wrote, "He lives in me; He thinks in me; He works in me; in me He loves the Father and souls."

Then, even when we die, no matter how we die, it is really Christ in us, completing his offering: "Bearing in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body" (2 Cor 4:10).

Because the Mass always is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: In Memory of Bread, a Memoir

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

In the Our Father, “bread” becomes the representative not only of all nourishment on earth, but our surpassing nourishment in the Eucharist. Unless we eat this bread, we will not only go hungry, we will “not have life” (see John 6:53). For a while, 16th and 17th century missionaries in Asia translated this petition of the Lord's prayer as “give us this day our daily rice.” That didn't go over well with the authorities back in Rome. It may have communicated the aspect of earthly nourishment accurately enough, but it lost the Eucharistic connection with the Bread of Eternal Life. And so the Church still prays three times every day (Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer) for “daily bread.”

Yet by now all of us know someone for whom bread, whether the limp white sandwich bread of our childhood PBJs or the crusty artisanal loaves in a high-end bakery, is not nourishing at all. Bread, the simplest of culinary delights, is for persons with celiac disease, not food but life-sapping poison. Those who are “merely” gluten intolerant may not suffer the same degree of physical damage from eating grain-based foods, but they know there is a price to pay if they indulge in a bagel or a cupcake.

Paul Graham knows what that is like, and in In Memory of Bread: A Memoir he shares the experience of being cut off not only from bread as food, but from the culture of bread (and of beer!). There is a special poignancy to Graham's narrative of coming back, literally, from death's door only to discover that he had to give up two of his favorite hobbies, two crafts that had brought him immense pleasure not only in the eating (or imbibing, as the case may be) but in the fellowship built around the products of grain: home bread making and beer brewing.

With Graham's book those of us whose daily bread can be, in fact, bread learn what it is like to
suddenly be deprived of such a common and seemingly harmless food. Graham's struggle to find food that was (a) like bread and (b) still worth eating highlights an important dimension of culture: the common table. To lose bread is to be cut off from your fellows, as well as from a vital connection with 10,000 years of tradition.

When something as basic as bread (and in Graham's case, even the generally-tolerated oats) is off the table, relationships—and not just menus—have to be renegotiated, rediscovered, relearned. But the first of the relationships affected by Graham's sudden illness (and its almost equally drastic “cure”) was his relationship with his wife, Bec. From the very first, Bec decided that she and Paul would bear this burden together. Paul's inability to tolerate ordinary grains (and products made with grain) would not create a division at their common table with the “haves” (Bec) and the “have nots” (Paul). She would scrutinize labels and clear the house of anything unsafe for Paul to eat. She would experience the same loss, and the same, almost desperate search for bread that was at the same time gluten-free and real, as in real, identifiable bread. She would adopt a gluten-free diet with him.

Graham found that relearning his life after celiac disease included finding a tolerable gluten-free beer that he could drink with his softball buddies after a game. It meant neighbors and friends going out of their way to provide gluten-free canapes at cocktail parties, and the disappointment of many imitations of bread (the saddest of all: imitation pizza). The Grahams had long adopted a “locavore” ethos, supporting local farms and limiting their food choices to produce, meats and cheeses that had been raised in the vicinity. Until Paul's diagnosis, this included local wheat with which to bake the fragrant loaves that were now out of the picture. It became necessary to purchase items that could not be produced locally: psyllium, xantham gum, tapioca starch.

With so few restaurants in their rural New York town offering gluten-free options at the time, he had to rely more and more on the exotic. As wonderful as those Asian (hold the soy sauce, please) or African or Latino meals were, they were not the food he grew up with: they did not satisfy his human hunger. They were not bread.

Accompanying Graham and his wife on their search for satisfying bread, we learn about grain production and the culture that took root when grains were first domesticated. With him, we learn the forms of bread in various parts of the world. I had no idea that buckwheat blini  are a traditional (and gluten-free) French crepe (buckwheat is not really “wheat”), or that chickpea flatbread is a (gluten-free) tradition in Nice as well as in India.

Did the Grahams finally find a bread that was both safe to eat and a real connection to the memories and cultures that were woven into their lives? Would they ever be able to bake real bread at home again? Did Paul find a decent beer for his ballgames? No spoilers here.

In Memory of Bread was an engaging read from first to last, with some laugh-out-loud lines in just about every chapter. It disabuses the reader of any notion of a fashionable gluten-free “lifestyle” while giving us a little clue about just what we are asking for, simply on the level of this good earth, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free review copy of the book mentioned above with the expectation that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. In addition, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

Liberty (check), Equality (check-mostly), Fraternity (uh-oh)

So yesterday was Bastille Day, a French holiday which I have never been inclined to celebrate (I think my fellow New Orleanians are nuts for holding Bastille Day festivities). So many terrorist acts (of the 18th century sort) were justified in the name of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" that the whole era of the French Revolution (which came out into the open with the storming of the Bastille) was called "the Reign of Terror" or simply "the Terror." July 17 is the anniversary (and feast day) of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiegne, who had offered their lives "to quell the Terror." (Within two weeks after the sisters were guillotined the Reign of Terror was over.) Terrorism is not a brand-new phenomenon.
The martyred nuns of Orange also met death at the guillotine.

I found myself wondering, as the news from Nice began flashing across social media, whether in some way the ideals of "liberty, equality and fraternity" can flourish when they are stripped of their origins in the Gospel. After all, until Christianity began to influence cultures, nobody pretended (or even dreamed) that people were all equal, all brothers and sisters, all capable of participating fully in society as co-creators of public order.

Even in Christian cultural settings, transforming social structures to conform to the whole truth about the human person was (and remains) an excruciatingly slow process, but the Terror tried to do it by force while wiping away the entire Christian substructure that made those values conceivable. And now that just sort of seems normal.
Whether the pressure is subtle (vote this way or you will be ostracized as a "hater") or overt (bloody violence and terrorism), "fraternity" is the first value to crumble to dust.

It's not that I have a developed response to these events, but I can't help believing that what we really need to do to respond to "the Terror" of our times is return, personally, each one of us, to a profound encounter with Jesus in the Gospel. If our parishes were visibly havens of the liberty, equality and fraternity that St Paul wrote about in the first century, maybe we could begin again to transform the world around us.
- - - - -

In the meantime, here is a very interesting reflection on the phenomenon of terrorism and how it allows relatively powerless agents to provoke disproportionate anxiety and trigger imprudent government response that plays into the terrorists' hands (and increases the overall perception of violence and a society spiraling out of control): The Theatre of Terror

Here are a few tidbits:

"Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power when they have almost no military abilities. To achieve their aim, they present the state with an impossible challenge of its own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace."

"The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. Killing 17 people in Paris draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence make them particularly vulnerable to terrorism....
"In order to assuage these fears, the state is driven to respond with its own theatre of security. The most efficient answer to terrorism might be good intelligence and clandestine action against the networks of money that feed terrorism. But this is not something citizens can see on television. Once its citizens have seen the terrorist drama of the World Trade Center collapsing, the state feels compelled to stage an equally spectacular counterdrama, with even more fire and smoke. So instead of acting quietly and efficiently, it unleashes a mighty storm, which fulfils the terrorists’ most cherished dreams."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Taken into Jesus' own prayer

For some reason, it still surprises me when the Gospel at Mass seems to say something I had never heard before. You'd think that after 43 years or so of daily Mass I would have heard everything by now. Perhaps it's just an indication of the depths of my distraction—or a hint of the impenetrable depths hidden in the Bible (maybe both!)—that there is still so much I haven't heard. It will be like that in Heaven, too: we will receive God's complete self-gift (in fact, we already do), but will always find more to discover and delight in.

Today's Gospel leads right in to tomorrow's, which awakened the mind and heart of a young James Alberione on a midnight long ago. He "heard" those words we will hear at Mass tomorrow ("Come to me, all of you!") and, like the prophet that he was, responded with his "Hear I am! Send me!" (Which we heard, as you recall, in the weekday Mass last Saturday.) The Gospels read today and tomorrow are part of one narrative and are ideally taken together, but I am going to share with you my meditation of the first part of that narrative:
At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
"I give praise to you, Father, Lord..."
Matthew's Greek for "I give praise" (Ἐξομολογοῦμαί) can also be translated "I confess" or "I proclaim publicly" or (as it is in other common English versions) "I bless." It is the same verb Paul uses in Romans 10:9: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." When we say the Creed on Sundays, we are making our "confession" that Father, Son and Spirit is the One Lord of heaven and earth who has acted in history, in real time. By reporting Jesus' public praise of the Father's saving works, Matthew extends the invitation to us to enter into Jesus' own prayer. This is exactly what is happening in the Mass, as well. We are entering into Jesus' eternal exclamation of praise and delight over the Father's plan.

"you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned"
Paul makes his own comment on God's way of turning the values of the world upside down. "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor 20-21). The attitude Paul decries is demonstrated in today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah. God is complaining that he himself "handed over" to Assyria a certain degree of power over the nations, to deliver God's instructive chastisement for their wickedness, but Assyria attributed the results to his own national prowess and skill, and sings his own praise. "Claiming to be wise, they became fools instead," Paul might have observed of the Assyrians as he did of the pagan Romans of his own time (see Rom 1:22). "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor 1:21).

"you have revealed them to the childlike"
Jesus, the Eternal Word of the Father, is the first of the "childlike" ones to whom the Father reveals himself, and he said that only those "who become like little children can enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 18:3). In the light of today's Gospel, I find myself asking, "What if the Kingdom of Heaven is this childlike state?" What if the Kingdom of God is this receiving the revelation of the Father like a little child, or like the Eternal Son, or like the Virgin Mary?

"Yes, Father" 
There is something about this affirmation (ναί, ὁ πατήρ) that has the ring of an "ipsissima verba" (a direct quote) of Jesus. St Paul also associates the word "yes" (nai) with Jesus: "Jesus Christ...was not 'yes' and 'no,' but 'yes' has been in him" (2 Cor 1:19). This "yes" (nai) is like a further delectation on the part of Jesus of the Father's action: "Taste and see how good the Lord is!" (Ps 34).

"All things have been handed over to me by my Father."
Jesus is no longer addressing the Father. He may be, as it were, reflecting aloud as if to let us in a little on what he is praising the Father for. And here we stand awe-struck before the innermost heart of the Trinitarian life. "All things...handed over." This is what "fatherhood" consists of in God: the complete gift of self, handed over to One who, in receiving them is "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being" (Heb 1:3).

"No one knows the Son except the Father"
 No one can know the Son except the Father who is equal to him and the source of all that the Son has and is, who has "handed all things over" to him. And clearly this means that "no one knows the Father except the Son" and, miracle of miracles, "anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him."

- - - - - - 

As I read and reflected on this Gospel, it occurred to me that the entire text makes an excellent "tag" to pray after each mystery of the Rosary. In each of those biblical events, we can praise the Father with Jesus for the way he "revealed to little ones" the secrets of his heart and invites us to participate in them from the inside, making his prayer our own.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Keeping the wrong kind of silence

Last week on Twitter, Dr Peter Kreeft remarked, "If I had to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I'd start with silence." I quickly retweeted that, as did 218 others. We are, after all, on Twitter, where some 6,000 messages are posted every second of the day. It would seem that a little interior silence would do us all some good.

But in today's Gospel the silence is ominous. The pitiful demoniac lived by the maxim, "If you can't say anything good, don't say anything," and so he kept quiet, having only resentful, cynical, hateful or self-pitying things to say.  In fact, Matthew tells us that his silence had a demonic origin, and that people had brought the mute person to Jesus to be healed. That got me thinking, because over the weekend I had an encounter with someone whose silence was anything but golden. It was a grim, resentful silence; the kind that almost imposes silence on those around in that "how dare you intrude upon my mood" kind of way.  It was, to be honest, a scary silence.

Today's responsorial psalm (Ps 115) also refers to an unwholesome silence, that of the idols of silver and gold who "have mouths but speak not." Quite the opposite of what happens when the Lord God is around: "On the lips of children and of infants [literally "those who have no speech"] you have found praise to foil your enemy" (Ps. 8).

If we are "too" silent, it could be because something has been keeping us from seeing, sensing, feeling, recognizing what God is doing in our life (or the very fact that we have a life that is God's doing) and giving ourselves over to praise. We are like the idols that "have mouths but speak not; have eyes but see not; have ears but hear not; have noses but smell not; have hands but feel not; have feet but walk not." Without praise, we are not really alive with the life that God intends for us. Praise is the secret of life!

I have to ask myself today, in the light of the Gospel and responsorial psalm, what keeps me from acknowledging the good, from giving thanks and praise? Am I afraid that to recognize the good is to "settle" for less than I desire? (As if God were to say, "Oh, she's satisfied with this much; I don't have to send her the rest of the blessings she wanted.") Is it because my own expectations are too limited, not open to the surprising abundance that God may have hidden in the unpredictable things that come my way? Am I suspicious of the good that I do experience, as if there had to be a down side to it?

Today I want to learn from Mary to "magnify the Lord" who does "great things" even for me, and I want to grant myself permission to break the silence for the sake of praise.

Book Review: Joy: Poet, Seeker and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis

When I returned from Rome in May I received a surprise package of books (a great way to start the summer!). Among the titles was an ample biography of Joy Davidman, better known as Joy Gresham or (as the subtitle notes) “the Woman Who Capitivated C. S. Lewis.” My previous awareness of her was through the movie Shadowlands and through Lewis' heart-rending A Grief Observed written after her untimely death. My impression of her from these sources couldn't have been farther from the truth—but, as I learned from the biography, that impression had in some ways been carefully crafted by Joy herself.

The woman who would marry the presumedly confirmed bachelor would not have been on anyone's short list of prospects for Lewis. He was born into a Christian culture; her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, children who grew up in New York slums. He was a professor in the most established of establishments: the tradition-bound Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; she, though quite well-educated (able read Greek and deeply familiar with the ancient classics) was a radical sometime Communist Party member. He was a (presumably) contented bachelor; she was the mother of two, who, frustrated in her marriage, would set off for England with the express aim of making Lewis her husband. (It would take long enough that the pair enjoyed only a scant three—or four, if you count their civil ceremony—years of married life before Joy died of cancer.)

And yet Joy Davidman was truly a match for C. S. Lewis. Their correspondence began, in fact, after Joy and her first husband, Bill Gresham, became convinced of the truth of Christianity in part because of Lewis' books. (Joy and her sons were baptized sometime around 1948; she was 33.) The pair's first letter (in 1949) made an impression on Lewis and by January mention of Joy's letters show up in the diary of Lewis' brother and housemate Warnie: “she stood out … by her amusing and well-written letters.”

Lewis was delighted to meet an intellectual sparring partner equal to the role. After she had been in England for some time, he invited her (more likely she offered) to assist him in the editorial work of book-writing, and suddenly a stubborn case of writer's block was overcome . A new series of books came pouring out: Surprised by Joy (this "Joy" is not his newfound helpmate; the title is from Wordsworth); The Four Loves; Till We Have Faces. Lewis began bringing Joy to the gatherings of The Inklings, little noticing that the writers in his circle did not appreciate the brash American female as much as he himself did. I found myself wondering: was it Lewis' dawning infatuation with her that blinded him, or was he introducing Joy as a worthy “Inkling” in her own right? (Probably both!)

There is no need for me to tell you the whole story. Until she finally “Captivated the Heart of C. S. Lewis,” Joy seems to have lived an erratic search, compromised by a lack of self-restraint and of appreciation for virtue. She was calculating and could be abrasive, and put herself and her immediate needs or desires in first place. Yet she was also honest, unashamed to admit her mistakes — for example, about her blind enthusiasm for the Soviet Union or her adoption of Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics." She  followed the truth when she managed to recognize it. Suffice it to say that Joy Davidman was, as the subtitle of the book says, a “Seeker.”

Despite the uncomfortable incidents of "TMI" in some of the selections from Joy's letters concerning her personal life, I recommend this book to any who are interested in the life and writings of C. S. Lewis or American literary life in the first part of the 20th century.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Holy "Innocents"

38 years ago today.
Today is the 38th anniversary of my first vows. It is also the day we are celebrating with our sister Jubilarians: ten sisters celebrating 25, 50 and even 60 years since their first profession of chastity, poverty and obedience. Last week, Sister Kelly Andrew Marie made her final vows in her home parish in Houston, and the week before that, Sister Neville Christine professed final vows in her home diocese in Cameroon. So it is a real time of looking back and looking forward.
Sr Kelly Andrew professing final vows on
Sunday in her home parish (in Houston).

None of us can guess what life will ask of us in terms of the concrete living-out of what we promise. This is as true for nuns as it is for married couples. It was horrifically true for at least one community of sisters in WWII-era Poland. After the German occupation came the Soviet army and soldiers who looked on the women as spoils of war. They broke into the convent, raping the sisters (and killing twenty of them), leaving five survivors pregnant. A French doctor who assisted the community as a Red Cross volunteer recorded in her diary the story that is behind the film The Innocents which opened in theaters yesterday.

In the film only the basic outlines of the historical narrative are preserved. The doctor is renamed; no sisters have been murdered; while most of the sisters in the film story were violated, there are seven who became pregnant, more than half of them novices. (Trigger warning: there is one attempted rape scene in the movie, as well as another invasion of the cloister by Russian troops.)

A doctor (or is she a nurse? medical assistant?) is summoned by a novice who had slipped away while the others were in chapel. The sisters struggle with letting Mathilde know what happened nine months earlier. For the Superior, utmost secrecy is a matter of survival: if word gets out about the sisters' predicament, the convent would, she believes, surely be shut down and all their life would be destroyed in "scandal and disorder." This was hard for me to grasp, but even today in war zones where rape is used as a weapon, its victims are shunned and disinherited, unable to bring their children up in security. People conceived in rape are still an endangered species even outside of war zones.

Sister Maria (in foreground)
In the film's violated cloister, with all the members still reeling from the assault, Mother's concern for secrecy and her inability to share the burden of office with Sister Maria (who seems to be the Novice Director, but who may be the vice-superior) will have devastating consequences.

It was that same Sister Maria who seemed to be the central character of the movie. She is bi-lingual and so serves as translator between the Polish sisters and Mathilde. Sr Maria is also, in a sense, bi-cultural: Having entered the convent as a somewhat worldly (and "experienced") young woman, she is able to communicate openly with Mathidle  and compassionately with her fellow sisters. It is also Sister Maria who gives the most beautiful vocational testimony: Even after all she and the sisters have suffered and continue to suffer (not just from the physical consequences of the attack, but also through flashbacks--not to mention the sheer test of faith), she is happy with her life.

The film (in French and Polish with English subtitles) had opened by letting us know that it is Advent. The nuns are chanting the hymn Conditor Alme Siderum. (All of the chants were sung by the Polish actresses portraying the nuns.) Later I recognized another Advent text being sung: Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant Iustum ("Drop down dew from above, O Heavens, and let the clouds rain the Just One" from Isaiah 45:8). These two texts became for me a kind of interpretive key for the whole film.

As the infants are born, they are "wrapped in swaddling clothes" and in one case tucked into the crook of the young mother's arm in a scene that looks for all the world like a Christmas card. Maybe that is why we never see the feast of Christmas. Even the film's name, The Innocents, evokes the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, their lives and their mothers' upended by brutal soldiers. Mothers and children are "the innocents" of the title. Despite the physical violation they suffered, the young women are virgin mothers: consecrated virginity is not something that can be "lost" through force.

Several of the characters in the movie are well developed, especially Sister Maria and one of the novices who freely admits that she was forced into the convent by her family.  We see the tragic ways different sisters dealt (or tried to) with the trauma and its repercussions (real or feared). However, I found it hard to keep track of the particular novices and their unique stories. After all, they are all Polish women, about the same age, and dressed identically! There is also the reality of following the story through subtitles, so that vocal timbre was lost as another clue to each woman's identity. I think the director recognized this problem and tried to solve it by keeping most shots very close to the women's faces, but it was not enough for me.

The Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful, or mercy shall
be shown them" is painted above the door in the background.
While there is much talk of faith in the film (and just about every character —including the young medic —is in the midst of a severe crisis of faith), it is really, it seems to me, about hope.  At the close of the film we are catapulted three months forward. It is one year since the original act of violence. Not everyone has come through unscathed, but for the most part there is hope. And at the end of a film characterized by dimly lit interiors, we, like Mathilde, see the sisters in an arc of light.

The Innocents won a lot of praise at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was screened under the title Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). J. Ryan Parker wrote that it "should be a front runner for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Oscars. It’s a near perfect film." It is also a tough movie to watch. Not explicit, just intense. (I got a migraine by the halfway point. You have been warned.)

To find a showing near you, click "Theaters" on the official film website.

The Innocents honestly portrays a real risk in any kind of institution: that people may be sacrificed to structures. This is demonstrated not only in the convent situation, but also at the Red Cross clinic where Mathilde, the doctor, is a mere functionary. The movie also accurately conveys some of the best aspects of a healthy community. The "community recreation" was accurately portrayed, and the loving sisterly relationships in a time of trauma were just what I find in my own community when anyone is faced with unexpected and unexplainable suffering.

Although the film most explicitly explores the dimension of faith, a second (and not secondary) theme can be that of vocation. Three of the characters discover or express their personal vocation in the course of the film. One, sadly, appears to betray it.

Petty Gripes:
Just as lawyers will nitpick a legal drama and members of the military will point out the discrepancies in a war movie (and I have both types in my family!), I have a few bones to pick with the script team for The Innocents. Not that they didn't do an overall fantastic job of presenting life in a community, it's just that there are a few tedious elements that seem to always show up in movies or other artistic representations of convent life and that reflect some extreme misinterpretations. Here are the two that irked me the most:

The novice who ran without permission to bring a doctor to the community is severely reprimanded by the Superior and her punishment includes "a vow of silence for one week." What is it with the fixation about vows? Vows are made for a lifetime, not for a week. And they are made for the sake of something good in itself, not as a punishment. Besides, silence was a given at the time; monastic communities had specific times not for silence, but for speech. (Typically, the silence could be broken for necessary communications, although there are famous exceptions such as the Carthusians' elaborate system of sign language.) If Mother Superior wanted to give the novice a penance involving silence, she simply would have told her to maintain silence and not take advantage of the moments when it was relaxed for the community.

Then, when the (woman) doctor begins medical examinations, one of the novices refuses to submit. She is hysterical, screaming that she doesn't want to go to hell. (What?!) Sister Maria, cultural mediator between the convent and the doctor, explains, "We are not allowed to show our bodies, and even less to be touched. It's a sin." Please: don't go making up sins; there are enough of them already! (By the way, even 19th century convents had provisions for medical necessities.)

One more (small) thing. In one scene of a community meal, in accordance with monastic custom, a sister read a text aloud while the others ate in silence (of course). The text was from the Gospel of Matthew, but it was not translated (from the Polish?) for those of us dependent on subtitles. I would have appreciated knowing which Gospel text was chosen for this scene. It had to have been significant.

Read more:
Interview with the Director (Anne Fontaine):

Other reviews: