Friday, January 22, 2010

finally, some words!

My Experience at The New York Encounter:

Times Square in New York must be one of the strangest places on earth. The buildings on every side of the square loom so high that they are all one can see, and on every surface, electronic billboards display video advertisements that flash and jitter to capture the ephemeral attention of the crowds that jostle everywhere. During our two-block walk from the subway station to the Marriot hotel where the first New York Encounter (a two-day cultural festival organized by members of the lay ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation) was held, I am approached four times by people offering to sell me tee shirts, tours of the area, noisy toys, or tickets to a Broadway play. Passing into the Marriot hotel lobby, and up the escalators to the sixth floor, one enters an entirely new world. At the New York Encounter, no one seizes me by the coat to sell me anything. The only noise is of animated conversations – the sounds of friendship. Welcomed at the desk, the volunteer there, a woman I’ve never met before, pours me a cup of water from her personal bottle when she overhears me say that I am thirsty.

The exhibits consist of foam board posters propped on easels. Each one is the result of a long work of collaboration among friends. For the Los Angeles Habilitation House (LAHH), a non-profit organization whose aim is to train and find employment for adults with disabilities, the posters display photos of its founders and the people who receive their services. The faces in these photos have a strange quality: not merely happiness but the knowledge of belonging and of being happy together. Much information about the history of the organization and its daily operations is available, also, but the overall impact of the exhibit is that it documents a friendship.

Other booths, representing groups that have sprung from the life of Communion and Liberation, line the walls in two separate rooms: the annual Med Conference and Ed Conference, AVSI USA, the Meeting at Rimini, CLU, Traces Magazine, and GS among them. Each of these is striking, not for its design or organization (some even use hand-lettered signs), but for the people sitting at each table. Though the faces are different, the expressions resemble those in the photos at the LAHH exhibit. Though it is immediately evident that everyone loves the particular works that they represent, there is something more interesting to them. They want to know who I am, what brings me there, what I think, what I want. When I show interest in a book at the AVSI booth, the man there gives me copies of all three of the books there, without asking for a nickel in return. At the GS booth, I spoke with Monica Ciantia, who told me that a teenage boy had just been there. After asking his name and where he was from, she realized that he wasn’t involved in GS, so she asked him how he came to be there. He told her that he’d been bored, saw the sign for “New York Encounter” and came to see what it was about. Monica said to me, “Can you imagine? In the middle of Times Square, he was bored?! Isn’t it amazing?” What is more amazing is that this boy, who he is and that he was bored, are what captivate Monica.

On the first night of the festival, the keynote speaker is John Sexton, the President of New York University. He spoke about great teachers he’d had throughout his education. These great teachers all shared a particular quality; they were able to bring disparate elements together in order to account for the whole of reality. He concluded with the observation that “In this moment when the inscrutable other is in our lives, how are we going to react? [With a ] clash of civilizations or an embrace? Can we create a community of communities?”

Such a community already exists, and it is called the Church. This fact became more and more evident as each of the next four speakers spoke about their experience at the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples in Rimini, Italy. First, Emilia Guarnieri, one of the original founders and organizers of the Rimini Meeting, spoke about the history of the Meeting and the ongoing work of mounting such a large cultural festival each year. Animated by a desire to know and learn more about the constructive work being done in all areas of culture, the friends who organize the Meeting have been accompanied, from the beginning, first by Monsignor Luigi Giussani and now by Father Julián Carrón. She said, “We would have never had the presumption to love the others [whom we invite to present or participate in the Meeting], except that we were loved ourselves, first.” The other speakers, Brad Gregory (history professor from Notre Dame University), Daniel Sulmasy (Franciscan friar and medical ethics professor at the University of Chicago), and Joseph Weiler (law professor at New York University) each spoke of their impressions of the Meeting in Rimini. From these accounts, two factors stood out for all who spoke: 1) the depth and diversity of the exhibits and speakers, which include science, art, music, history, literature, sports, and religion (representing many faiths, not simply Catholicism), and 2) the volunteerism evident at the Meeting in the 30,000 volunteers, annually, who pay their own way in order to provide basic services at the Meeting.

On day two of the New York Encounter, we returned to the Marriot Hotel in Times Square to attend a presentation on the book, Is It Possible to Live This Way: An Unusual Approach to Christianity, Volume 3: Charity, by Monsignor Luigi Giussani. The presenters were Stanley Hauerwas and Father Julián Carrón, with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete moderating.

Professor Hauerwas began by providing a general overview of the text, with particular attention to its content and style. What impressed him was the way in which each thought is expressed in such a way that it invites further thought in the reader, and he remarked, “grammar makes all the difference,” using Giussani’s phrase, “the truth of life lies in affirming Being,” as an example. The genius of this insight, Hauerwas explained, lies in “how we are taught to see that things didn’t have to exist. They are gift.” It is in “concentrated attention to the particular,” an attitude that Giussani’s book invites, that one can achieve a non-violent apprehension of the other. One conclusion that Hauerwas drew from the book is that, “the great enemy of charity is the abstract [... which is a] willful attempt to live lives of distraction;” the alternative to abstraction is tenderness. Hauerwas asserted that Giussani’s approach “threatens our desire to control.” Another key point that Hauerwas underscored was that the “great enemy of love in our culture is sentimentality.” He affirmed that Giussani’s great contribution is his recognition that “Love is Jesus, [and] the first object of man’s charity is Jesus Christ.” Far from being a “generalized humanism,” Love is a person of flesh and blood, who died for us. The sacrifice that Christ made demonstrates that “to do what is true, a sacrifice is needed.” Giussani does not spare us this truth but rather insists on it: “[Giussani] tells us the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it.” Hauerwas concluded his presentation by reading a moving sermon he had written; his purpose was to illustrate the way in which Giussani’s book at influenced his thought and work.

Then Julián Carrón spoke, introducing the book with these words: “Fr. Giussani introduces [us into] a dialogue on the nature of religious experience within the dynamic of daily life – not superimposed on life but [as a phenomenon] to do with the structure of the ‘I’. These words carry within them the claim that they answer to life.” Carrón explained that the words we use often come freighted with meanings borrowed from the surrounding culture or the prevailing mentality. The word ‘Love,’ in particular, is often reduced to a sentimental or moralistic definition, which leads to the question of whether loving, can be a real interest in an other or is it simply egotism? The antidote to this misuse of words is to have a true experience. Carrón insisted that “God’s love is fundamental,” and that in front of His gratuitous love, all our interpretations crumble. While demonstrating that man’s nature is needy and wanting, Carron explained “we try to fill this emptiness by trying to possess people or things, [which is] violent and pretentious.” As a result, we “sink into skepticism.” The only way out is to meet something unforeseen. Carron connected the experience of the early Church with that of Christians today: “We find it difficult to identify with the novelty that Christianity introduced to the ancient world,” a place of many cultures and religions, “amazing in its profusion,” much like ours today. Carrón asked, “What did Christianity have that was so new and attractive?” Ancient peoples imagined that their gods were, like them, beset by desires, which implies that something was missing in them. When the gods loved, it was as an expression of this lack, and it was characterized by ‘Eros.’ When “Christianity burst forth,” an entirely new love was introduced into this world. Love was now “a gift of Being,” and an answer to the heart of man. This new Love was characterized by ‘agape.’ “In Christ, God makes a gift of Himself [...] The New Testament affirms the absolute precedence of the Love of God. [...] We love, then, because He loved us first.” Carrón explained that this is why Christianity was so attractive in the ancient world: it “corresponds to man’s wanting nature. [...] Christianity is the surprise and fascination provoked by this attractiveness. [...] It is this affection for Christ, and surprise, that generates a subject capable of being interested in the destiny of every man, not in an ideological way, but as a moved gift of himself which is a testimony to the original precedence [of Christ’s love].” Carrón concluded his talk by affirming, “God’s love comes before and is not connected to our goodness. It is totally gratuitous. He takes us just the way we are. God’s preference is the starting point for every one of our initiatives. [This fact] also identifies our method: gratuity. [...] Remaining amazed at Christ’s pity on our nothingness [...] is what overcomes every sense of powerlessness [...] so we can accept every sacrifice [...] even giving one’s life so another can live. This is exactly what Jesus did for each one of us and what a Christian mother would do for her child.”

After the book presentation, I visited the two larger exhibits, one on the novel, Life and Fate, by Vasilij Grossman (1905-1964), and the other mounted by Euresis, entitled, “The Earth, A Human Habitat: The Exceptional Features of Our Small Planet.”

In “Life and Fate,” the organizers write, “The main theme of this novel is the absolute, indomitable nature of man in the face of any form of power-- a nature witnessed to by the great questions about the meaning of existence, well describing the heart and reason of man, even in the most dramatic circumstances of human life.” In a series of panels, the exhibit provides historical background and documents the difficulties in bringing the book to print; the novel was banned in Russia and the manuscript, all notebooks, and even Grossman’s typewriter ribbons, were burned. Ten years after the author’s death, in 1974, his friends were able to smuggle microfilm photos of the manuscript pages to the west where the book was first published in 1980. It was not published in Russia until 1988, and some think it is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.

As I approached the exhibit, “The Earth, A Human Habitat,” there was a large group following one of the guides. I met two guides, Giorgio Ambrosio, a physicist who works on developing highly sensitive and powerful magnets with the Fermilab, a proton-antiproton collider in Batavia, Illinois and Massimo Robberto, who works on the Hubble space telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. These two specialists in their respective fields described panels in the exhibit with evident enthusiasm, despite the fact that the science content of most of the panels was drawn from various disciplines, including biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. The original exhibit was first presented at the Meeting in Rimini, but to create this English language traveling exhibit, the scientists collaborating on the translation had to edit it down to about half the size. The discussions became a moment of collaboration and collegiality that deepened friendships among the scientists. What made it worth the work to put together such a great exhibit? Ambrosio said, “The exhibit starts from wonder. We asked one question, “How does the earth support human life?” From this point, scientific inquiry can remain open, and after all the research, we discover many more questions! It is something that is even more wonderful!”

In the evening, the New York Encounter screened the classic silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti. I had already watched this film twice. On both occasions, the silence became a palpable aspect of the film. In the silence, there is nothing to mediate between the viewer and Joan’s suffering and death, and one experiences her acute solitude to the point of discomfort. Several composers have created scores for the film, including an oratorio, “Voices of Light,” written in 1988 by Jewish composer, Richard Einhorn. For the New York Encounter presentation of this film, the festival organizers invited the Metro Chamber Orchestra, directed by Phil Nuzzo and the Communion and Liberation Choir, directed by Christopher Vath. Together they gave a live performance of Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” during the film. This music dramatically changed the experience of viewing this film. Rather than dwelling most on Joan’s solitude in her suffering, the music suggested that Joan was indeed accompanied by Another, by the God in whom she never lost certainty. Her martyrdom was a victory and a deliverance, facts that are expressed in the film without accompaniment; however, the music gave this victory a dimension, so that it took flesh.

The final presentation of the New York Encounter, “Words and the ‘I’: How Literature Helps Us to Judge Our Experience” took place the following morning. The presenters were Paul Elie, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, John Waters, journalist and playwright, and Greg Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image Journal. During this panel discussion, the presenters discussed the question of literature’s role in lived experience.

Meanwhile, the electronic billboards continued to flash at passersby on the street below. Times Square continued, as though the Beauty taking place in the Marriott Hotel were a million miles away. And yet, we were there, in the heart of the confusion and promises of partial fulfillment. We were there, offering to Times Square, and to the world, this new gaze on reality, the source of the world’s hope!

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."