24 March 2010

Not To Get Political, But ...

... I'm going to get political.
Cardinal George pointed to President Obama’s executive order that said “it is necessary to establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that Federal funds are not used for abortion services."
The need for such an order underscores deficiencies in the bill, Cardinal George said.
“We do not understand how an Executive order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions,” he said also.
Not having followed this particular battle very closely, I can only go with what Cardinal George said during his last visit to the seminary:  this legislation represents a real step back in the pro-life cause, and no one really knows what is going to happen as a result.

Let's keep hopes high and expectations low.  There is much work to be done on behalf of the weak and vulnerable of our society.  Posterity will be our judge.

 Read the rest of the USCCB's statement on the passage of this historic legislation.

19 March 2010

News To Me

The most interesting part of the New York Times’ review of “Greenberg” (opening in theaters this weekend) is the last line of the review:
“Greenberg” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Swearing, nudity, drug use, emotional violence.
The Motion Picture Society of America: Classifying Objectional Content With Specificity Since 1922.

16 March 2010

Stop That Cameraman … He’s Swiped My Soul

A recent article in The Medium column over at the New York Times caught my attention.  Entitled "Framing Childhood", it is a self-critique of the modern parent's increasingly onerous hobby of capturing, organizing, processing, and publishing the digital images of one's progeny, beginning from the moment of parturition and never slackening.  The author finds his own captivation with the endeavor slightly disturbing:
My own son’s first word for laptop, when he saw a woman plugging away at one at Starbucks, was the word he used for himself: “baby.” What else could the woman be doing so intently at a screen but what he saw me dopaging through picture after picture of him?
Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Now, I myself have been the recipient of numerous "fresh baby" emails, all of which I am always delighted to receive (if a bit skeptical of the insistent exclamations at the child’s parental likeness).  I would guess that most (if not all) my friends who are new parents have not fallen victim to the obsession detailed in the article above.  However, I believe there is a certain value to examining the "limit cases" of an activity carried to an extreme so as to understand it for what it is; such reflection often helps us to strike a balance in the lived reality that would otherwise be unrecognizable by an unreflective participant.  In other words, the fanatic devotee of image collection might offer some genuine insight into the casual use of photographic technology that most of us enjoy from time to time.

This catches my attention due in part to my recent travels.  As someone who volunteered to take responsibility to photograph our pilgrimage on behalf of the whole group, I've had a chance to think about what photography does to how we perceive our surroundings and ourselves.  It's become very clear to me just how powerful the photographic medium conditions our perceptions, both in positive and in negative ways.  While such observations often take the form of a diatribe against innovation or technology, a more judicious approach is simply to raise questions that others do not.  As the Dominican Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe has put it, everyone is aware of what technology gives us; few ever pause long enough to ask what it takes away.

A casual remark made by a fellow seminarian who had gone on the pilgrimage the year before occasioned a real revolution in how I approached photography.  He mentioned that although he'd never been trained to draw, the sheer intensity of his reaction to the places he was visiting impelled him to make an attempt to render them by hand.  Such a thought has never, ever crossed my mind, even though I spent a good portion of my childhood trying to draw.  I gave it up for a number of different reasons, but since that time, the thought of putting a pencil to paper in the attempt to capture a scene simply was not in the realm of possibility.  While still in Bethlehem, I resolved to set aside the camera for a while and try my hand at drawing after a fifteen- or twenty-year hiatus.  

What I discovered on account of my friend's comment was really remarkable.  I'd found the camera lens an excellent window through which to contemplate the beauty of places and people, but my attempts at drawing revealed pencil and paper to be another such window.  There was nothing remarkable in the first sketch I attempted, other than that it was a sketch that I drew.  What was remarkable was the way it forced me to perceive differently.  I wasn't deliberately producing a interpretation of the landscape I'd chosen to draw; yet as I tried (and failed) to capture it, it became clear that every stroke, every line, every shadow was an interpretation, a choice.  To present what I saw, I had to select the details that would communicate to the viewer's eye the crucial form of the thing I was drawing.  This became clear when I'd finally finished (or gotten too tired to go on): my drawing was a cluttered mess.  My photographer's eye was fascinated with detail, but too much in a drawing overwhelms the subject and fails to evoke the form. 

The end result was disappointing—but I had a drawing, not a photograph, and I'd spent hours studying the scene I was working on.  Even now, months later, I can call it to mind effortlessly.  On reflection, I noticed an experiential difference between observation for the sake of photographic composition and observation for the sake of drawing.  Having invested myself in the art of amateur photographic composition, I was aware that there is more to a good photograph than just pointing and shooting.  A photograph is the result of an intentional process that encompasses many different artistic abilities, from simple technical know-how to the mysterious art of storytelling. (This was, in part, what motivated the choice to keep a photojournal that only displayed a single photo to accompany the day’s account.)  The abilities and limitations of the camera and its apparatus become something like the strings of a violin or the metrical structure of a poem—their characteristics are enlisted in the photographer’s attempt to communicate himself and what he sees.  They become a vehicle for the delivery of artistic expression, and therefore of meaning.  However, something was engaged in me by the attempt to draw that photography left dormant—so much so that the looking I was doing as an artist made the looking I did as a photographer seem like pure passivity.  It felt like what I'd been doing all along was more like “looking” than actually seeing, as if I’d passed over the very thing I was looking for in my haste to search over as much territory as possible in pursuit of my goal.

Having gained this insight, it became a matter of training the eye and hand to observe and then mimic what was most fundamental to the form of the subject—easier said than done.  I’m still working on it, obviously, but it’s as if I’ve experienced a small revelation of sorts.  Even as I enjoy the fresh perspective, it’s also invigorating to look ahead in hope of future insight.

Anyhow, to return to the point, this experience of being forced to look at a subject differently is what Father Philippe may have meant by the sort of thing that is lost even as technological progress offers a great gain.  Once we understand the tradeoff to which our artifacts force us to submit, we regard them less and less as the conditions of a fully satisfactory way of life; interestingly enough, this shift in attitude allows us to regard technology for what it is: a tool.  The temptation nowadays is to see technological prowess as an end in itself, rather than a means to fully human existence.  Once the human measure is jettisoned, technology becomes self-measured and therefore self-justified.  That is to say, technology becomes our master.

An interesting exercise to get a sense of where we stand on this question is to take something we can’t imagine functioning without—something about which we’d ask “how would anybody manage to get along without this?”—and then try to imagine oneself doing just that:  getting along without it.  Better yet, set it aside and actually live without it; chances are, it’s not that hard to do, and when (if) you take it up again, it will be with a different attitude. 

I’ve been asking this question about my cell phone lately.  It’s clear that the possibility of having a phone on my person at all times is quite valuable, and will be especially so as a priest.  But what is lost by this technological ability?  Has anyone ever asked this question?  Try raising the question with someone you know.  Float it by them:  “you know, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my cell phone”.  I did this just last night with a group of seminarians.  You’d think they believed that prior to the cell phone, priests were permanently incommunicado and most people died alone and unabsolved for lack of a direct line to his pocket telephone.  Of course, I know they don’t believe this, but the tone of their slightly disapproving responses was, “why wouldn’t you have one if you could?”  Not to have one would imply some kind of lack of generosity on my part—which is entirely possible, but not automatically so merely in virtue of the choice to abstain from instantaneous and ubiquitous communication.  Their response ultimately boils down to the very sentiment I pointed out earlier: “how could you function well as a priest without one?” 

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question because I’ve not gone without a cell phone as a priest, but the guilelessness of my friends’ replies suggests that they haven’t considered the alternative, either.  That makes me wonder just what might be recovered by dropping Sprint and signing back up for Southwestern Bell.

To return to the question of photography, then.  Our time on pilgrimage was filled with some truly amazing sights.  As a member of the photography team, I’d committed to keep a camera handy in order to record our pilgrimage in photos, so that we didn’t have 25 people all snapping away every time we moved to the next spot on the itinerary.  Of course, this didn’t stop our inveterate “posers” from insisting on having a photo taken of each of them in front of each and every landmark, statue, vista, and pile of ancient rocks.  What is it about people that want to be photographed in front of things?  Most would say that it’s to record the memory—to “document,” as my aunt would say.  But what if the preoccupation with getting the snapshot prevents you from ever really being present to the people or things you’re there to see? 

With reference to what I mentioned above, it’s worth imagining what it would be like to travel without a camera.  People did it for thousands of years and managed to “record their memories” just fine.  Diaries and sketchbooks take more work, it is true, but travelers usually had more time back then.  There was no rapid travel like we have now; if a fellow had both the time and the money to spare (a rare coincidence), seeing faraway people and places meant a commitment of months, if not years.   It meant you had a chance to sit down and contemplate, to get to know people, to soak up another culture and another context—in other words, to be changed.  There were none of the managed insertions to which we subject ourselves today; it was both more dangerous and more rewarding to see the world in days gone by.  Now our travel is sealed up in resorts, tour buses, and the air circulation systems of airplanes.  We are caught in the tension between enjoying unparalleled conveniences in travel and tourism, and scoffing at those very same conveniences for having obliterated any sense of remoteness or wildness from the places we’d never be able to visit otherwise.  “Tourism” (an extremely recent phenomenon) has both enriched and cheapened the experience of seeing the world.  It’s enough to make you want to spend three months barfing in the forecastle of a merchant brig during a nineteenth-century sea-crossing.

In our own days, the digital camera has occasioned the limitless multiplication of permanent records of people standing in front of landmarks to a hitherto unimaginable level.  Gone are the days when anyone might think the camera robs our soul; quite the opposite.  It’s as if we believed every time the ritual (sacrament?) of pose, focus, snap is enacted, the portfolio of the soul is enriched in its path to exhibition-worthy status.  A recent editorial in the New York Times mused at this proliferation, remarking that

it feels, some days, as though the whole purpose of our species is to create a perfect simulacrum of the life we lead even as we’re leading it.
Susan Sontag—a writer with whom I was unfamiliar until composing this little essay you’re reading now—referred to the camera as “the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood,” a definition I am inclined to agree with at least in part.  We feel enriched by the camera’s acquisitions, do we not?  The photographer usually considers himself generous—a person who steps out of the action for the sake of posterity, for the sake of those present who will one day thank them for their archivism.  A recent First Things commentator captured this attitude admirably while musing over his daughter’s wedding, during which his family’s requests for no photography were disregarded.
They sacrifice their ordinary presence at the mere wedding to become a selfless, invisible recording eye, as though they occupied some interstitial space between the sacred, but still physical one of the church and—what, exactly? The not-yet-embodied future? It strikes me that they think they are made angels by the camera, observers unobserved.  But there they were, still in their bodies, perfectly visible to everyone.
His experience at least indirectly gets at what I began to sense during my time on pilgrimage.  It wasn’t that the photographers were clumsy or obtrusive and needed to find more discreet ways to shoot.  It’s more that the perpetual use of the camera had the subtle, even subliminal effect of inclining one to believe that an experience isn’t valid or valuable unless someone is there to photograph it.  The father of the bride noted that his resentment went beyond the simple fact that their request for no photographs went unheeded:
Something had been changed, and a little more than images had been taken away. Instead of being in the form, we were being forced by their very presence to see it as an artifact, and the unity of our wills with the couple’s intentions was interrupted.
You might think that such an opinion is typical of a couple of stuffy, high-church aesthetes with nothing more to worry about than whether to trim the boxwood hedge along the drive to the carriage house in the shape of a train of elephants or just tear the whole thing out and put in dwarf Japanese maples.  Yes, you might think that.  But there might be another way of looking at it.

An interesting and unexpected correspondence between my private reflections and our class reading fell into my lap just a day or two ago.  A reading assignment on St. Augustines De Trinitate explored some of the African Doctor’s imagery to explain the relationship between humanity and the Trinity.  The chosen metaphor was the idea of spiritual vision.  I began to sniff at something interesting when the author asserted, echoing Augustine, that
the vision of God will never be a passive or a voyeuristic vision.
Augustine goes into a detailed analysis of how spiritual vision is analogous to our earthly vision.  Though he is operating on a much different understanding of what goes on in bodily seeing, the basic idea is that just as the eye and the object are united in the vision of the beholder in sensation, so is the soul of the blessed united with the God whom it contemplates.  This “spiritual eye” must be cleansed and strengthened by a process of self-collection, a withdrawal from the longing for the variety of images which occupy the soul and draw it away from the proper object of its desire.  This distraction is described with some rather vivid imagery in his autobiography, which he describes as a kind of spiritual hemorrhage:
I have been spilled and scattered. . . my thoughts, the innermost bowels of my soul, are torn apart with the crowding tumults of variety.
The spiritual vision is not strengthened by ascetic withdrawal from the world; rather, it is invigorated by the prolongation of its vision through the things of the world into an almost desperate longing for the things of God while surrounded with His creatures.  This longing stretches the soul and increases its capacity for love, in which the final state of the saved consists and in which the fullness of earthly life participates here and now.  Augustine likens the disparity between earth and heaven to the difference between a fleeting glance and an enraptured gaze—an analogy that draws its strength from the everyday reality we experience as sight.

Augustine then makes an interesting move.  Is this analogy between physical and spiritual vision just an analogy, or does the very act of seeing well also prepare our spiritual vision in a mysterious way?  Augustine’s answer is in the affirmative.  Our capacity to properly apprehend creation is by no means irrelevant to our relationship with God. The article’s author summarizes Augustine’s attitude in a finely balanced counterpoint.

To look with the trained eye more deeply into visible things, and not to be preoccupied with possessing them, however, is a difficult and slippery task. . . one can easily slide either into devaluation of these objects, which effectively if implicitly ‘scorns the Creator,’ or into fascination with their surface beauty, and ‘to love this is to be estranged.’
Most interesting, given Sontag’s definition of the camera as the “ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Regarding photography, it’s clear that there is much more to the “preoccupation with possession” than a mere desire to own the content of the image!  No; the human capacity for misdirected or overreaching desire extends far beyond the mere accumulation of property.

Yet in an even more remarkable turn, Augustine takes a more speculative turn and asserts that the eyes of the body in the resurrection will be the means of spiritual vision. 

It is possible, indeed most probable, that we shall then see the physical bodies of the new heaven and the new earth in such fashion as to observe God in utter clarity and distinctness, seeing him present everywhere and governing the whole material scheme of things by means of the bodies we shall then inhabit and the bodies we shall see wherever we turn our eyes.
Preposterous?  Maybe.  Augustine himself acknowledged that his theory had no foundation in the Biblical testimony.  But it does help to situate our earlier reflections on photography in a broader and more meaningful context.  These aren’t the questions of highly-strung aristocrats or hair-splitting bookworms; when put in the right spirit, they can influence how we relate to one another and to God, fueling our desire for wisdom and a growth in love.  A phrase from a wonderful little book written by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts it far better than I ever could, so it is with his words that I’ll leave you:
We hardly know in what proportions and under what guise our natural faculties will pass over into the final act of the vision of God. But it can hardly be doubted that, with God’s help, it is here below that we give ourselves the eyes and the heart which a final transfiguration will make the organs of a power of adoration, and of a capacity for beatification, particular to each individual man and woman among us.
a m d g

03 March 2010

Like I Never Left

After innumerable train and plane rides, walking through strange cities in the rain with luggage in tow, and meeting up with a seemingly interminable catalog of remarkable and inspiring people, I am back.  It's hardly believable that this trip of a lifetime, which has been a part of my imagination and hopes for years, has finally ended.  Laying awake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, jetlagged and racing through all the things that need to be done to re-settle myself here at the seminary, an intense feeling of gratitude washed over me--with the sort of intensity that only comes when you're alone with your thoughts in the dark.  Some days it's the sense that I need to engage in spiritual warfare and pray the Exorcism prayer of St. Leo; others, I'm just happy.  Go figure.

Laying there on my back, suddenly acutely aware of how awash with blessing and grace I've been these last weeks and months, it was hard not to believe that I'm in exactly the right place with exactly what I need to live God's will.  Part of that is probably the endorphin-like high I get when my sleep cycles are messed up, but another part is pretty sure that this little intuition is spot on.  I'm thirty years old, and set to embark on the great adventure of my vocation, and such confirmations are incredible treasures.  And it's not simply a pleasure at having seen wonderful things and been to wonderful places.  Pilgrimage was difficult, though not on the day-to-day basis; our guides and faculty took care of most everything we needed (doing laundry was the only real problem we had to deal with ourselves).  The real difficulty lay in the confrontation of realities of which I was aware but had never presented themselves as forcefully as they arise in that holy city.

Perhaps the greater challenge was, in a sense, taking a "break" from the identity of a seminarian.  It was never intentional, but it required an interior effort to continue seeing myself--ourselves--as men in preparation for priesthood.  All supports of this identity, both interior and exterior, were pulled away, and the edifice was left to stand on its own foundation.  And I don't just mean things like wearing the Roman collar or being known by others as "a seminarian"—it was more that were were not able to exercise that identity in the normal ways, through outreach and apostolates which are such an integral part of our formation at Mundelein.  As a result, questions about identity and motivation began to float to the surface.  Why am I doing this?  Am I freely choosing it or just going with the flow?  What am I giving up?  What am I gaining?  Is this really what I want?  Is it really what God wants?

There were definitely some days where I didn't know how to answer those questions.  Toss in the fact that the Holy Land isn't exactly Catholic Disneyland, and you have a recipe for frustration and confusion of all sorts.  The Church suffers from a chronic lack of growth due to the cultural and legal constraints placed on it, and the attrition that inevitably follows keeps the population at around 1.2% of the general census. Over the last fifty years, this percentage fell from 10% of the general population—meaning a net loss of over two hundred thousand. Stir in virulent and long-standing divisions within the Christian community—many of which are far beyond the lived experience of the typical Protestant-Catholic divide here in the U.S.—and what many visitors experience is not quite the overwhelming spiritual refreshment you’d expect. It feels more like a stab in the heart.

There's nothing like a trip to Rome to cure what ails you.

I was certainly encouraged and inspired by the beauty and grandeur of the churches we visited, and the relics of so many outstanding saints (we prayed before the relics of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, and St. Peter himself, all in one day), some well known and revered, others of which I'd never before heard.  I was bowled over by the frescoed naves bathed in light, opening up to a heavenly vision of angels and clouds and exquisitely posed figures absorbed in love and desire for the things of God, for His beauty and the peace it brings.  I received sacramental absolution on the Feast of the Chair of Peter in a small wooden confessional in the transept of St. Peter's while a soaring hymn of praise swelled to fill the towering spaces that dwarfed us.  The voices seemed to twist and dart playfully about the capacious dome, sidling down the fluted pilasters that sat on pedestals with footings the size of my room at the seminary.  Each edifice was more spectacular, more opulent, more jubilant than the last.  Inspiring as it all was, it wasn't giving the answers I was looking for.

The shadow of a hint of a clue to the answer came, as it usually does, in a far less dramatic setting. 

We were invited out to dinner by a priest who happened to be studying for his doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Angelicum.  Over delicious rigatoni and gnocchi, he related to us some of his experiences as a priest here in Rome, fully immersed in study and somewhat far removed from the daily pastoral responsibilities of a diocesan priest (a nice parallel to my own sense of having been cut off from what I'd been accustomed to doing and being as a seminarian).  He spoke to us of a series of short conversations he'd had with a young man employed in construction there at the American priests' residence in Rome, and of the reflection over his responsibilities as a priest in those conversations. 

Now, there was nothing deliberate about these encounters; he was a busy priest trying to finish his doctorate before departing the country and the Romanian fellow needed to work hard to keep his job, so there were no long soul-searching discourses being carried out.  But the attention and effort this priest was putting into these brief conversations demonstrated a deep care for the good of this young man.  It would've been easy for him to justify passing over the openings for a deeper exchange--the admissions that he'd been living with his girlfriend, for instance--and just telling himself that this wasn't the reason he'd been sent at great expense to Rome, or that it would be better to just build a relationship with the guy without launching into moralistic diatribes, or any number of perfectly reasonable trains of thought. 

But he would ask himself, what if this is the only spiritual connection this young man will ever have?  What if he's surrounded with people who will never speak to him of the grace offered to him in Christ? What if his only chance for a real encounter with Christ was to be on a scaffolding outside my window, and I missed it, or talked myself out of it, or just tried to ignore it?  If not me, a Catholic priest, then who?

This priest carried something with him that didn't disappear when he was engaged in mundane tasks or urgent matters of importance—an awareness that each and every person that came into contact with him was, in some sense, his responsibility, and that responsibility trumped everything else that he was accountable for.  In the midst of crafting a dissertation of some size, and all the deadlines and pressure that accompany this enterprise (not to mention offering hospitality to the droves of pilgrims passing through Rome and eager for a local connection), this priest was recollected enough to be attentive to the movements of grace that were eager to flow through us all, but find a conduit far too infrequently. 

And there it was—the shadow of a hint of a clue to my answer.  In my loss of identity, I'd turned inward, and there wasn't much there to sustain me, or even interest me, and that was scary.  It catalyzed some unhealthy navel-gazing when the antidote was to be found in an attentive turn outward, to the other.  It was then that I realized that on this pilgrimage, and by extension, during my time in seminary, I'd managed to lose sight of the mission.  

Those years of missionary work with FOCUS all came back to me—the months of preparation, the fundraising, the Bible studies, the awkwardness and the discomfort with my situation, the fraternity, the breakthroughs, the disappointments were all sought or endured on account of the mission, the hope against hope that the casual encounter we all usually miss would be caught, and something good, something divine, would enter into the world.  For all the struggle of those years, I realized that I missed it, because it had given form and purpose to my commitments.  It was the principle and purpose of everything we were doing.  It was the reason I wanted (and still want) to be a priest.  For whatever reason, I'd lost touch with it.  The consequences, while not drastic, certainly were real. 

I'm glad we've got priests around like the one I caught up with that night.  Oremus pro invicem.