Thursday, July 29, 2010

a little poetry

Just reading an anthology of essays on the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, and stumbled across a tiny essay on theological aesthetics - the relationship of beauty, art, to the doing of theology.  Rahner's vision of grace in the world is highly sacramental, that is, he sees the quotidian world as the place of encounter with God, but the little I had read of Rahner in the past was dense and prose-ish enough that I did not expect the morsels of poetry that Rahner wrote and which this author used to flavor her essay.  Rahner writes: "Whatever is expressed in art is a product of that transcendentality by which, as spiritual and free beings, we strive for the totality of reality...[I]t is only because we are transcendental beings that art and theology can really exist."  The author of the essay, Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, comments, "Poetry, especially great poetry, is important, because it takes shape where the human being radically faces who he or she is...In Christian existence, as in composing and listening to music or through writing and reading great poetry, the individual is led into the heights and depths, into hope, doubts and moments of despair."  In other words, theology is not simply about hammering out metaphysical truths in scientifically unassailable language, but at attempt to speak that which we know but can't ever get quite right.  This makes theologians of any of us who are struggling to face the messiness of human existence in light of the transcendence that grasps us far more surely than we can grasp it.  It is quite possible that explicitly religious art may fail to reach the level of transcendentality of explicitly non-religious art (what Rahner calls "anonymous piety") if it fails to engage the depths of the human condition - if it is merely religious "Kitsch."  Knowing that a reasonable percentage of my students in any given theology class are likely to not be particularly religious, I have always had an affinity for poetry, literature, art which ask all the deep questions without using theological-isms that can carry too much baggage for them to get on board with.  My wonderful friend Christa Shusko recently shared the following poem with me (in response to a previous post, in fact), and it has resonated with me repeatedly for its ability to EVOKE the theological without needing to INVOKE the theological.

Louise Gluck

There is a moment when you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you've been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.
You've stopped being here in the world.
You're in a different place,
a place where life has no meaning.

You're not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you're in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.

Sometimes those rare moments of being pulled clean out of our everyday life can make the rest of our existence seem somehow flattened, but I hope that the opposite can happen - that those moments of more explicit transcendence can refocus our way of seeing everything, can enable us to see that even the most ordinary folding-the-laundry moments are mystical moments, that there are no "ordinary" moments in our usual sense of the word.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Assisi travelogue - part 2

Before I continue with my Assisi travelogue, a small adventure from today. We have a few trips coming up in the next week that involve water – swimming pool, beach, so on – so I left the house this afternoon in search of a pair of running shorts, swim trunks, something other than the cargo pants kinds of things I have been wearing everywhere. I found a little sporting goods place not far from the house, and the woman behind the counter happened to have gone to high school in New Jersey, so she spoke great English (it's too late at night here for New Jersey jokes). When I mentioned I was looking for something for swimming, she pulled out a speedo about the size of a Post-It - apparently quite the rage among Italian men, which is certainly making me rethink my upcoming beach expedition. “You like?” “No, I’m not European enough for that…” After I found an actual pair of shorts, she talked with me for another 10 minutes or so, about everything – how bad the economy is, how many chemicals there are in the tomatoes in the States, how many people she knows who are getting cancer from the aforementioned tomatoes, and so on.  I halfway expected her to invite me over for dinner to prove that the tomatoes in Italy really are better, as if I didn’t already know that…

OK, back to Assisi...

21 July 2010

I finally felt like I made the retreat into a true pilgrimage today. We started off as a group going to San Damiano, which was nice – smaller, simpler than so much of the overdone stuff. After lunch, though, I took off right away for the Carceri, the caves in the mountains near Assisi where Francis and his friends would go to get away and recharge the batteries. It’s a good 4-5 kilometers away, on fairly steep roads just about the whole way, so I walked for a solid hour in the afternoon heat before I got there. Just when I thought I was in shape…Needless to say, I was more or less wiped out by the time I got there, but it was a totally different feel from so much of the rest of the Francis-and-Clare stuff in town. The Carceri has been built up too, no doubt about it, certainly far beyond the simple caves that would have been there at first – I saw a stone wall way up the mountain, so I climbed up and found on the other side – a two-lane road! So much for getting away from it all…Still, there is an aura of simplicity there in the open spaces that haven’t been domesticated, and even in the relatively rustic buildings that are there: no running water, doorways so small even a person as vertically challenged as I had to squeeze through, and lots and lots of little nooks and crannies to hide in. Add to that the fact that it’s enough of a challenge to get there (at least on foot) that it isn’t nearly as crowded as a lot of the places in town. I found a little hideout up in the hills, no noise but the cicadas, a few razor-thin slivers of sunlight slicing through the foliage. I just disappeared for a long while, and it made me realize how…useful…I have tried to make my religious life (yes, I do mean that in a negative sense). Perhaps that’s an occupational hazard of being an apostolic religious, but I think I raise it to an art form. There’s an old Zen mondo about the young monk who is so zealous about attaining enlightenment that he meditates day and night, night and day. The old monk comes and sits next to him and begins polishing a piece of tile. When the young monk asks what he is doing, the old monk tells him he is polishing the tile to make a mirror. The young monk protests that no amount of polishing can turn a tile into a mirror, at which point the old monk walks away to leave the young hotshot to his new insight. If I keep coming back to the same thing, believe me that it is for my sake, not for yours, dear (few) readers. At any rate, the burning bush at the top of this particular mountain is going to continue to speak to me for some time. Let’s just hope the old knucklehead can get it through the skull to take off my shoes and shut up for a while.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Retreat reflections - part one

Our group is just back from a weeklong retreat in Assisi, so this time I actually have an excuse for not writing for the past few days. My reflections from that week will trickle out onto this blog over the next few days and weeks. The first day´s reflection follows.
The theme of the retreat was “A Pilgrimage of Hope,” in line with the theme of our general chapter a few years back. In line with that theme, Br. André LaFlamme, the retreat director, started us with the text from John´s gospel in which the disciples of John the Baptist follow after Jesus, who asks them, “What are you looking for?” Like much of John´s gospel, their response to Jesus can seem cryptic, a non-answer to a (so it seems) straightforward question: “Where do you live?” Thinking about it though, I wonder if they ask because they genuinely don’t know what they are looking for. André gave us this question to prompt us to zero in on what we hope to gain from the retreat, and after several months of feeling like a spiritual black hole, I hardly even know where to begin with trying to identify a central goal of my pilgrimage. André told us at Mass that he would call us up one by one to receive the folders that contain our readings and reflections for the week, and that he would ask us the question from the gospel: “What are you looking for?” We were to respond with the subsequent line, “Where do you live?” but before he got to that second part, I was petrified that I was actually going to have to articulate what I was looking for during this retreat: petrified because I was not ready to admit how crushing this past year was for me, and because I hardly knew where to begin to dig out. Later, thinking about it, the first thing that came to mind was from the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, which we watched a couple of days before the retreat began: after having given away the expensive cloths owned by his cloth merchant father, Francis is asked by Bishop Guido what he wants, and he responds, “I – I want to be happy!” With all the wonderful corniness that only Zeffirelli movies can provide, that simple line cut through a year of restlessness and frustration. The feeling of having made so many wrong choices with my life, having closed so many doors, and now living so compromised a vision of the Gospel despite what feels like a genuine desire to follow Christ without compromise, has welled up into deep loneliness and disappointment again and again this past year. One of the readings that André gave us was about allowing ourselves to feel loved, using the image of critically ill persons spontaneously assuming the fetal position, as if knowing the desire to return now and again to a place of security. In any other situation I probably would have dismissed it as self-indulgent or narcissistic, but recognizing my own profound brittleness, it gave me permission to quit trying desperately to hold it all together by myself. In one way or another I have so locked myself out of allowing myself to feel loved, whether by God or other people, that it feels as if the weight of the world is upon me, and knowing I cannot shoulder it alone, I despair. To twist Spider-Man, “With no power comes great responsibility.” Most times I find it difficult to experience God as personally involved in or concerned about my life, so that if my life is to have any meaning as a tiny speck against the backdrop of endless space and time, I have to focus in on myself and wrest meaning from history, which of course ends up being even more narcissistic and futile than whatever else I might be overcompensating to avoid.

From the notes that André gave us: “The Prodigal Son cries out: ‘I´m restless and I need to journey to far-off lands.’ Time and time again we have re-echoed the that cry of the Prodigal Son, in the silence of our hearts, but also amid the buffeting winds of life, or more often at those times when we felt that we’re not being heard or listened to by our Brothers. Behind our experiences of life, the good ones as well as the not so good, there is that yearning to travel, to walk, to go on a pilgrimage, to see countries in order to discover the Essential, and in so doing, return to the womb of God Father or Mother.”

I felt several times like André was writing directly to me, and this was one of them. What am I looking for? As much as anything it is the autonomy to be able to explore, without feeling bound to someone else’s path, and to not feel like I am being disobedient or wilful for having that desire. More deeply than the desire to do my own thing, however, is the desire for love. I readily admit that I am not at the point at which I could say with Francis that I am seeking not to be loved but to love. My sense of self is so caught in the web of the unsatisfactoriness of so much of life that it weighs me down against the pursuit of that which can satisfy. For this week I am in search of the experience of feeling loved, and to let that experience ease the frantic sense that my life is slipping away from me, that I am not and can never be what I should be, a sort of Sisyphean sensation that the endless “shoulds” of life are weighing down upon me despite knowing better. Having grown up in a happy but more or less un-cosmopolitan corner of the world (small-town Mississippi) and now in my late twenties and early thirties just starting to see into the vast world of literature, scholarship, art, poetry, travel, food, music, languages and so on, the sensation is very nearly a panic attack, like there is so much out there and I have to take it all in and I need it now and I have to take the ocean in at a gulp and when I try it’s like drowning and the community is holding me back and GASP (if you didn’t get the tone of that last sentence, try reading it out loud without pausing for a breath). Okay, relax. After all the stuff I have written about not getting lost in the things we can pin on our chests, guess where I got lost – of course, I suppose that is EXACTLY why I have written so much about it. The night before the retreat began, I had a stack of books lined up to bring along – books I “should” have read ten years ago – until at our evening conference André encouraged us not to bring any books. Again, talking right to me. In my head, I know that no amount of frantic flitting around could even scratch the surface of all the worthwhile realities of this wonderful world, let alone get beyond the most superficial of exposures. But it’s hard to not only know in my head but taste it on my tongue, to know that no quantity of experiences or books read can combine to solve the question that I am.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Romeing around

Sunday was a free day from our daily conferences, so I went on a little adventure with Pierre Maguelibu (a Brother from Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific) to spend the day taking in as much of the city as we could.  I was a little proud of myself that I went just about the whole day in French - ugly though it may have been.  We started with Mass at the Gesu, the Jesuits' big daddy church where St. Ignatius is buried:

Then we were off to Piazza Navona, which had not only this sweet fountain (and several others) but as many artists (caricature, portrait, etc.) as I have ever seen in one place, French Quarter included:

Next, the Pantheon, which was so big I couldn't get a very good shot of the whole thing, so here are a couple of more selective pics.  The aperture in the ceiling looked pretty sweet with this sunbeam coming through, and the second photo, shot from the main entrance, does the place no justice, but it gives a hint of the scale:

I think anyone who knows me would not be surprised that my favorite of the day was Trevi Fountain - so much stuff to climb on! (*Not to mention that it was so blasted hot all day that seeing this much cold water in one place was a little slice of heaven.*)

We saw a bunch of other stuff that I could add, like the Victor Emmanuel monument (apparently the largest equestrian statue in the world - the guy's mustache is 5 feet across!), the Roman Forum, the Church of St. Ignatius, and the outside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (not open to the public for some reason).  For my money, though, the real hidden treasure of the day was the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian.  It was tucked away in a corner near the Colosseum, and the outside blended in with the ruins enough that it was almost easy to miss, but the inside was a real gem:
Passed by the Colosseum, but time was short and we were truly whipped, so all we got was an exterior shot - for now:

We still had a pretty good hike back to the metro station to get home, so we figured that was enough for one day.  Today we were off again, to the Capuchin chapel (the skeletons of over 4,000 friars are on display there - a macabre curiosity!) and the scavi - the excavations under St. Peter's.  But that will wait for another posting.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Longo della Tevere (or something like that)

The fun and games continue unabated in the Eternal City.  Our daytime sessions are about the Brothers' Rule of Life, and despite being about more or less serious stuff, we are getting into some good stuff about what the Rule actually looks like in the day-to-day of our communities, especially given the multitude of cultures that are figuring out how to apply it in their situations.  My small group is three Americans and one Zambian, and it goes without saying that the issues they are dealing with are literally and figuratively worlds away from ours.  The days are nicely paced to intersperse prayer and formal sessions, free time and impromptu trips around town.  Have managed to zip through three or four books in the past week, and am currently working on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a surprisingly easy and quick read given that it's a pretty hefty tome and translated from the Russian in a fairly ponderous idiom.  Had been worried about getting enough physical activity with no gym facilities close at hand, but the four flights of stairs, plus all the walking, are keeping me busy, and doing pull-ups on the assembly they use for clotheslines hasn't broken anything yet.

Took a long walk yesterday afternoon looking for stamps (figuring out how to ask for that was an adventure in itself), and while looking up at the balconies and terrazzos, saw a kid, probably 5 years old, standing in his underwear on a tiny skateboard on a terrace two or three stories up.  He waved.  So, wave back and try not to laugh too hard until I'm out of sight.  Found a gelato place - no, there are tons of them, so there is no finding to be done - chose one of the many gelato places on the way home and asked for Nutella gelato as one of the three flavors I could get.  If you aren't familiar with Nutella, it's a spreadable chocolate-hazelnut dance party for your mouth, and I was expecting chocolate gelato with a little hazelnut flavoring - you know, Nutella FLAVORED gelato.  Not quite - they must have just given me a glob of Nutella right out of the jar, like asking for peanut-butter ice cream and getting a glob of peanut butter on your cone, or asking for rum raisin and getting a shot and a handful of grapes.  Believe me, I wasn't complaining, but now I owe the body about 400 pushups to make up for that little splurge.

Last night tagged along with a group of about 10 French-speakers to the Tiber River.  The ride there and back on the unbelievably crowded bus was a lesson in letting go, especially of things like personal space and expectation of hygiene, but hey, when in Rome, right?  Anyway, once we got there, it was just amazing - there are all kinds of kiosks, outdoor restaurants, even dance clubs right there in the open air along the river, right in the shadow of stone walls and bridges that are hundreds and thousands of years old.  Right next to one of the several outdoor hookah bars we saw was a sushi place with a little conveyor belt - the sushi comes along on a little plate on the belt, you take what you want, they charge you for the number of plates you take.  For a small-town boy like myself, a novelty.  Then we found an Italian band doing a concert at a restaurant (all open-air, mind you); the singer had a pretty solid Elvis impersonation going on, and he did 3 or 4 classic Elvis tunes mixed in with a range of Italian something or another.  More soon - too much hilarious and interesting stuff going on here not to write about.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

summer and the Eternal City

For one reason or another, I haven’t felt much like writing this summer, so I suppose a little catching up is in order. The first half of the summer was mostly uneventful – a weekend trip to St. Louis for their graduation and a wedding, another weekend at home for a wedding, then a visit to NYC to see friends, while taking a class at SU: Spiritual and Existential Approaches to Psychotherapy. Interesting material, especially as a once and future campus ministry person for whom talking with people’s experience of meaning was the order of the day. Super-nice people in the class – were totally fine with me not being a psychology person, and I got a little glimpse into their field. Also got to put in a bunch of time helping my friend Hanah get her new house fixed up – pulled up an old floor, rewired a light fixture, put in a shower curtain, helped paint – simple stuff that I nonetheless don’t get to do that often.

The second half of my summer just began – a four-week renewal session at our general house in Rome. I am at this moment typing very slowly because the keyboard is set up for Europeans qnd if I donùt look qt the keyboqrd qll the ti,e this is zhqt ,y typing zill look like::: I had not been in Europe in almost ten years, and Rome in almost twelve. There are about 25 guys here from all over the Institute, including some guys I have met in my travels (from Zimbabwe, Haiti, etc). Getting to work on the French and Spanish at the same time, and making slow progress, but these first few days have mostly been about getting tuned in to accents and pronunciations and unpacking the mental notebooks. Pretty sweaty here in the summer, but it is just an awe-inspiring place: the history, the architecture, *the food*. There is graffiti everywhere, which I guess makes sense – they invented the word, right? Today we had tickets for a papal audience, so we got there a couple of hours early and moseyed around, but when we got in the queue to get inside, the guards decided to close the line right as I was trying to pass security, so I ended up getting separated from the group. Ten minutes later they opened it back up, inexplicably, but by that point the Bro’s were long gone. I got inside the auditorium to see the papal audience, which in effect meant I was somewhere in the same time zone as the Pope. It could have been Carol Channing in white and I wouldn’t have known any different (except for the voice). After all was said and done, twelve languages later, I somehow caught up with a few of the Bro’s who wanted to get pizza and beer – always a plus in my book. BUT, they just wanted the closest place they could find (note – “menu turistica” is Italian for “rip-off”), so we paid too much for too little. OK guys, thanks, but I’ve got it from here. Did a solo act for the rest of the afternoon, saw the papal tombs and the basilica, walked halfway across Rome, sweating my can off the whole way, but made it back with no real problem (although I did get on the metro going in the wrong direction for about 2 stops before I figured out my mistake).

Lastly, a friend pointed this page out to me last week - I had forgotten the editors had compiled it out of the hours of interviews we did in the fall.  More as it unfolds, but I want to publish before something goes wrong and I have to figure this keyboard out all over again...