26 January 2010

The Flatlander Has a Mandate

Check it out! 

h't First Thoughts

In Pilgrimage news, we just got back from a phenomenal three-day excursion to Jordan.  We toured some of the most phenomenal archaeological ruins I've ever set foot on.  More soon!

22 January 2010

Day Forty-Five

Being here in Jerusalem has forced me to recognize how deeply religion is intertwined with politics and economics. To the Western mind so accustomed to the neat compartmentalization of these realms, the Holy Land seems like an embarrassing mess in which everything is compromised by its mingling with everything else. If only they could just keep these things separate, we think to ourselves, life would run so much more smoothly. And to some degree, these thoughts are correct—but we presume that "smooth" is equivalent to "better." To the culture of the Middle East, this is not necessarily the case.

The occasion for this reverie came about during my first walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, deep in the Old City. Our accommodations at the Notre Dame Center are situated just outside the massive walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent back in the sixteenth century. Passing through the “New” Gate (so named for its creation 150 years ago) reveals an entirely different community than the broad streets and well-planned efficiency of the modern city. Stone pavement covers streets barely wide enough to admit a small vehicle. Shops and restaurants crowd against one another in fierce competition for small advantages in visibility from the walk. Signage is compiled from a smattering of English, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets, and vendors call out to passers-by with rudimentary greetings that sound more like commands. Religious goods of every sort are piled onto shelves sagging with age, surrounded by clothing and Arabian carpets hanging in the open air. Shops tunnel away from the thoroughfare like caves in a hillside. Sitting far in the back, barely visible behind the rows of shining menorahs, silver-clad icons, dull brass samovars, and elaborate tapestries, the shopkeeper takes his ease among the valuables ensconced beyond the reach of the swift fingers of thieves. Nowadays, fluorescent bulbs cast a harsh blue light over the merchandise and its khaki-clad vendors, but it takes little imagination to see their turbaned predecessors trimming the oil lamps and candles whose yellowy moisture would’ve softened these strange and wonderful sights.

To reach the holy places, one must push through these layers of commerce like so many veils draped over the city, concealing its true shape and form beneath their thick folds. It troubled me at first, to see all these people profiting off religion (in their own indirect way), but then again, it’s always been this way: our neat compartmentalization of sacred and secular is the anomaly. Religion is the lifeblood of this city, in more ways than one—and if we may speak of advantages and disadvantages in this regard, it does seem to amplify the intensity with which religion is lived. That is the case whether it serves as a positive or negative influence, for here I am beginning to see just how religion (much like war and eros), brings out the best and the worst in people. There are the scam artists swarming like vultures, ready to pick off unsuspecting tourists; then there are the clerical squabbles over territory within a church, periodically escalating into brawls; and then of course the zealots, the terrorists, the fanatics who kill for God. On the other hand, there are the hidden lives of oblation and fidelity and peace, the “love at the heart of the Church” St. Thérèse longed to be—conditioned by human limitation and weakness, yes, but nonetheless descending into the mystery as best as can be done this side of the Styx.

Framed on either side by these rivals, the great mass of humanity makes its way the best it can, neither despicable in violence nor outstanding in virtue. Yet each of us carries in our heart the loyalties and loves that drive our choices, and are pleasing in the sight of God to the extent of their interiority and their simplicity. These merchants who ride the city like barnacles and who once troubled me do not exploit religion for base gain—there are mouths to feed and bills to be paid. They sell because there are people who buy.

That I am one of them should be no cause for consternation. And if I learn a little for my loss of coin, what grounds do I have for complaint?

17 January 2010

Happy Birthday to Me

"Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for ever species of sh*t that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great sh*thouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday." 
Walker Percy
The Moviegoer

Ever since I read this several years ago, it seemed like it was destined to commemorate in some form my own thirtieth birthday.  It doesn't necessarily represent my own subjective state of mind, but I present it nonetheless.  Thanks for the birthday wishes from those who sent them along.

totus  +  amdg  +  tuus


15 January 2010

Day Forty

Our travels have brought us to the most extreme northern portion of our pilgrimage. The day began with a visit to the headwaters of the Jordan river known as “Banyas,” an Arabic form of the original Greek name of Paneas. True to its name, this site was dedicated to the Greek nature god Pan, and a temple was erected in front of the cave from which the waters of the Jordan once sprang. In the decades prior to Jesus’ life, Herod’s son Philip rededicated the area to Caesar (and tacked on an honorific to himself in the process—hence, Caesarea Philippi was its Roman name). Scripture enthusiasts will recognize this name as the place where Jesus posed a remarkable question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Today, it is recognized as the place in which Peter made the first confession of Christ’s divinity, and in acknowledgment of which Jesus promised to build his Church upon the rock of Peter’s faith.

This event is all the more fascinating given the context of the conversation. Given that the city had long been a center of pagan worship of Pan (regarded as the son of Zeus), Jesus’ question is all the more meaningful. Against the backdrop of a deity resembling a bizarre mixture of man and goat, the God-man is revealed not as a monstrosity but as the ultimate harmonization of the Creator and the creature. In fact, it is in Christ that human beings most truly become what they are.

Continuing north into the occupied territory of the Golan Heights (taken from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967), we lunched in a village peopled by a little-known population called the Druze. Their religion is quite peculiar to our Western minds—they subscribe to tenets of many different religions, but originally sprung from a Muslim context in the 10th-11th centuries. Most unusual is their belief in reincarnation—the current adherents of this faith are the same souls of the “enlightened” who first embraced it nearly a thousand years ago; consequently, one cannot join the Druze, but must be born into it. We enjoyed their traditional cuisine, partaking of sandwiches made from large, tortilla-like bread filled with yogurt, sesame, hyssop, and oil.

Situated on the border with Lebanon and Syria, the Golan Heights are a large sloping plain of volcanic rock overshadowed by the snow-capped Lebanese mountains. The most famous of these, of course, is Mount Hermon, or “the old white-haired man,” and we enjoyed a scenic view of these high-ridged mountains of Bashan so celebrated in Semitic song and lore.

Our accommodations at the Pilgerhaus have been outstanding, and in the evenings we’ve made the most of our opportunities here. Between swimming, beachcombing, hiking the nearby hills, and praying at the sites commemorating the primacy of Peter and the multiplication of loaves, our days are leisurely but rich. A number of us have made it a habit to watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee each morning, and we’ve been amply rewarded! Delicate clouds aglow with the most widely varied shades of ochre and gold float high above the lavender haze concealing the hills beyond the eastern shore.

While the waves lap with the rhythm of placid breathing, St. John’s narration of the resurrection appearance on the lakeshore presents itself to the recollected heart. It requires no stretch of the imagination to sit here among the apostles—John, Nathaniel, Thomas, James, and Peter, still dripping from his frantic swim to the beach once he realized that the man addressing them from the shore was Jesus, risen from the dead. The awe is palpable, and no one dares broach the question on everyone’s mind, for indeed “they knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12). Yet Jesus conducts himself as if there was nothing strange in his presence among them, tending to the fish cooking on the charcoal fire and the bread warming beside it. The calm that hangs over them as they sit on the dark basalt boulders eating the piping hot fish is first broken by Jesus: three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In response to his threefold claim of devotion, Jesus almost nonchalantly reveals the way in which Peter was to die, for His sake, three decades later in Rome. Then, the foundations will at last have been laid, against which the gates of hell would not prevail.

Yet the reverie doesn’t last long. Obedient to the Lord’s invitation—“come, have breakfast”—we make our way back to the dining room, where hot coffee, European cheeses, and cold meats await us. We tuck in to our meal with the serene conscience of those who do whatever He tells them.

10 January 2010

A Little Catch-Up

The following are a few reflections offered in lieu of the normal journal entries I've been writing, since our last couple of weeks have been mostly classes in Bethlehem.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 27 December 2009
(Feast of the Holy Family)

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously."
And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
Luke 2:41-51

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled. . . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth, in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
Luke 12: 49-53

Meditating on the feast of the Holy Family, the above sayings from Luke’s Gospel may help to provide some depth to the somewhat two-dimensional portrait of the holy household that is often served up this time of year. The traditional images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph wrapped in a mutually benevolent gaze surely reveal something true about this unique home in Nazareth, but as we absorb the Gospels in the liturgy, we discover that such portraits leave out almost as much as they include. Within weeks of the child’s birth, the family is forced to flee to Egypt to avoid his murder at the hands of Herod’s soldiers. Though they eventually are able to return home and live normally, Jesus’ enigmatic sayings about his family even from a young age indicate that all is not as we might expect. What do we make of the confusion his relatives experience during his public ministry? St. Mark goes so far as to note their judgment that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). St. John records a gruff exchange between Jesus and his mother at Cana, when he addresses her as “woman”—the very name he will use for her again as she stands at the foot of his Cross. Jesus declares “blessed” not the womb that bore him but those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And all along, Mary pondered Simeon’s mysterious words that this child that had brought her such joy would also lead to the piercing of her own heart (Luke 2:35).

Much ink has been spilled over how these sayings and stories aren’t as harsh as they sound, and I won’t attempt to rehearse them here. Yet there is some value in reflecting upon them as they stand, in all the bald force with which they first strike us. There is a sense in which these happenings are part of a long arc in which Christ seems to distance himself from his biological roots in favor of total faithfulness to the Father and his saving plan. That this is a painful process should not surprise us, but that it needs to happen at all is startling; is not the Holy Family the origin and sustenance of God’s new presence in the world? What need might there be to draw back from the homely supports to which he was entrusted as an infant?

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar offered an answer to this question, one that “suspends its judgment” on the Holy Family until the celebration of a subsequent feast, the Solemnity of the Mother of God on the first of the year. I’ll get into his answer more directly on the entry for that day (one week from now), but it’s worth spending a little time in contemplation of Son, Mother, and foster father. Von Balthasar sums up the more troubling side of the Holy Family as an alliance with Jesus’ mission:

The Virgin, harboring a mystery under her heart, remains in profound solitude, in a silence that almost causes the perplexed Joseph to despair. Incarnation of God means condescension, abesement, and, because we are sinners, humiliation. And he already draws his Mother into these humiliations. Where did she get this child? People must have talked at the time, and they probably never stopped. It must have been a sorry state of affairs if Joseph could find no better way out that to divorce his bride quietly. God’s humanism at once begins drastically. Those whose lives God enters, those who enter into his, are not protected. They have to go along into a suspicion and ambiguity they cannot talk their way out of. And the ambiguity will only get worse, until, at the Cross, the Mother will get to see what her ‘Yes’ has caused, and will have to hear the vitriolic ridicule to which the Son is forced to listen.

In other words, Jesus is drawing his family (and Mary above all) into the very same darkness and abandonment that he voiced on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I was struck by this during a recent talk on Christian-Muslim relations. The cultural situation here is far different from that of the United States; whereas we are accustomed to the thought of someone converting from one religion to another, here such things are simply not done. One’s faith community is everything—religious, yes, but also familial, social, and protective. To declare belief in a religion other than the one into which one is born is not simply to reject the religion, but to reject one’s community, one’s family, and all the support and guidance it provides. Hence, conversion means death—in the sense that a Christian who becomes a Muslim or vice versa ceases to exist in the hearts of their loved ones and the community. They are no longer welcome in the home. Their name is not even to be spoken.

Not surprisingly, this means very few people choose to change their beliefs from those of their upbringing. To us in the West, this seems highly coercive—even cruel. Nevertheless, the same pressures exist in our own land, though they are more subtle. The dramatic intensification of these pressures in the Middle Eastern culture highlight the real heroism it requires to “leave everything” and “follow the Lamb wherever he goes”, even in our own cultural milieu. The confusion and difficulty Mary and Joseph experienced inspire and encourage us to surrender to Christ the tensions in our own families, tensions that arise on account of our own faith and that of our loved ones. The Holy Family gives us reason to believe that the difficulties we experience are, in some mysterious way, meant to contribute to the mission of us all to pursue God’s purposes in the world. And so we must hear Jesus words anew:

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).

Friday, 1 Jan 2010
(Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God)

Looking back to the feast of the Holy Family, and the periodically troubling relationship between Jesus and his parents, we can continue following the thread we picked up there to its final destination. Hans Urs von Balthasar focused intently upon this theme of the Gospels, and because all of Jesus’ family but Mary have disappeared at the end of his life, it is natural that Balthasar’s attention alights almost exclusively on this woman who figured so significantly at the Gospel’s beginning. Clearly, her significance does not fade. We pondered with her the mysterious prophecy of Simeon; we puzzled over Jesus’ almost casual dismissal of his parents’ concern over his disappearance for three days in Jerusalem. We accompanied her on the walk home after Jesus’ bewildering refusal to receive her and his other relatives during his public ministry. What are we to make of these?

“The sword gnaws at her soul; she feels as if bereft of her inmost self, as if the point of her life has been driven away. Her faith, which at the beginning received so many sensible confirmations, is plunged into a dark night. It is as if the Son, who sends her no news about what he is doing, has run away from her, yet she cannot simply let him go away: she has to accompany him, full of dread, in her night of faith. . .”

We have made a strange discovery: the source of Mary’s torment, first enunciated by Simeon, has paradoxically been revealed as the very son she had carried so joyfully to the Temple! Jesus himself is the first to turn a sword against her heart.

Christ gave himself up for the Church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5.26-7). The Church in its purest kernel and most exalted radiance was present at the Annunciation, but it is a beginning as much as it is a culmination—the beginning of the lifelong process by which the singular graces of her mission might be brought to bear fruit a hundred-fold. And so, as Balthasar concludes, our bewilderment at her apparent mistreatment by her Son subsides into a calm and trusting confidence that the Lord knows what he is about:

“How else would she have become ready to stand by the Cross, where not only her Son’s earthly failure, but also his abandonment by the God who sends him, is revealed? She must finally say Yes to this, too, because she consented a priori to her child’s whole destiny. . . Only thus does she become inwardly ready to take on ecclesial motherhood toward all of Jesus’ new brothers and sisters."

01 January 2010

A Brief Announcement From Our Sponsors

You know, much as it pains me to say it, my life over the last few weeks could be a laptop ad.  String together a few sequences of my computer use, slap some kind of "Empowering You To Be You" slogan on there, and call it good.  This battered old IBM Thinkpad given to me by one of my father's co-workers has been a thoroughly useful companion--it's come in handy for entertainment on a transatlantic flight, for taking class notes, touching up the day's photos, snagging Spanish news podcasts off the internet, playing movies while I was laid up with a cold, compiling video clips, making international phone calls for pennies a minute, researching hostels in Rome, maintaining a budget in three currencies, purchasing European rail passes, and keeping my music collection on hand when I need some peace and quiet.

Part of me says I'd be fine without it--and I certainly would--but another is very, very glad that I Can Be Me... though I had to peel off my "Friends Don't Let Friends Decapitate Infidels" sticker off the back of the LCD before making my way into a local internet cafe.  All for the best, I suppose.