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!

Monday, January 11, 2010

every day

George De La Tour, St. Joseph the Carpenter

My local fraternity group says the following prayer everyday as part of our rule:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

preserve in me the heart of a child,

pure and clean like spring water;

a simple heart

that does not remain absorbed

in its own sadness;

a loving heart

that freely gives with compassion;

a faithful and generous heart

that neither forgets good

nor feels bitterness for any evil.

Give me a sweet and humble heart

that loves without asking

to be loved in return,

happy to lose itself

in the heart of others,

sacrificing itself in front

of your Divine Son;

a great and unconquerable heart

which no ingratitude can close

and no indifference can tire;

a heart tormented by the glory of Christ,

pierced by His love

with a wound that will not heal

until heaven.

- Fr. Leonce de Grandmaison

The prayer also appears in the sidebar of this blog. The San Carlo priests pray this every day.

George De La Tour, The Education of the Virgin

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Charism and belonging

... and dwells among us
...the free conscience of the individual who believes in required not to envelop itself in automatic gestures, in repetitive suffocating cycles but to discover a reality. Moreover, we would add, this conscience's calling is to enter, with all the resources of its humanity, into profound contact with this reality (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church? page 193).
I've been wondering a lot about this "profound contact" with a discovered reality. For a while now, I have chosen to include a quote as part of my email signature. The purpose of the quote is to serve as a reminder to me; whenever I go to write an email, I reread it, and it informs how I approach my correspondence, not just in the particular email but with reality as a whole. I would regularly change this quote, depending on my own need for deeper conversion, but recently I've found one that has remained longer than the rest:
May it become [...] habitual to perceive in all things -- in everything, from the boughs of the tree to the hairs of the person you like -- the presence of the Mystery that became a man in flesh and blood... Getting used to seeing this in everything is a history that God allowed you to begin.
It's from Fr. Giussani, but now I've forgotten where I found it. It was the part about perceiving the presence of the Mystery of Christ incarnate that fueled the choice. I wanted it to become a habit for me to see Him in flesh and blood and to see him everywhere, in each smallest detail. For me, the problem of faith has become one of perception. He is present. I've had no doubt about it.

But even in this knowledge and certainty, I have spent days and months of my life facing reality as if he were not the constitutive factor of everything, as if the reality that presents itself to me were a lie or a mistake: if only I were somewhere else; if only I were with other people; if only I were different; if only I had the right music to listen to; if only person X would see the truth; if only, if only... Or I would understand facts according to the way a common mentality understood them: certain acts or people are good; certain outcomes are necessary; certain events mean I should work harder, turn my back, keep a distance, make an effort, have an answer, or make a contribution; etc. And all this despite the fact that I seem to have been given knowledge of the truth along with the gift of wonder and awe!

For me it has not been enough to know, with utter certainty, that he is present in boughs and hairs, and it has not been enough to have the capacity to wonder at this fact.

So, I've been begging and pleading with Christ to show me his face in everything, while holding in my thoughts those aspects of my life in which I have particular difficulty seeing him. I'd like to say that I've made progress, but if I have, then this progress has only served to make me acutely aware of countless more instances in which he is present and I fall short of habitually recognizing him, with the end result that I feel even more inadequate and wanting than before.

But there is something new, something very difficult to describe.

The best I can do is to call it a pause. Sometimes it is no longer than an intake of breath, during which I simply apprehend what is in front of me. It is a moment in time that is rich and overflowing and intensely alive, and it acts as a lens of sorts. Within this pause is the fullness of peace. It embraces what it beholds, without interpreting or categorizing, though it constitutes a kind of judgment: that what is in front of me has infinite value, a value that I don't give to it. It is not so much an experience of wonder as it is a moment of compassion. This pause is the charism of Communion and Liberation, manifested in my life. It has no other source.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Where is gold found?


We often hear it said: "If only all Christians were like him," or: "If only all priests were like that." Such comments ... are symptomatic of an attitude which impoverishes the person who adopts it. For it is an illusion to think that we would automatically react differently to a truth if we had met it through another type of person. This conclusion is illusory because it means endowing a simple and often understandable reaction of like or dislike in regard to a given person with the dignity of a judgment. A gold prospector would never have been daunted by the mud of the river bed where he hoped to find nuggets. Rather, he would have been motivated by the probability of finding gold, not by the conditions he might have to face in order to come across it. It is terrible then to think how easily, in contrast, man can be detached from the problem of his destiny, to the extent of renouncing the gold because of the mud that comes with it. But as we were saying, the problem is one of judgment: a man, daunted by the mud of their rivers, has not taken into account the fact that it is the gold of life which is at stake (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church, page 131).
What is this "truth" that we meet through other persons? Someone once said, "I am the Way the Truth and the Life." To meet truth is to meet Him.
This, therefore, is the dramatic implication of the method God has always used: everything depends on freedom. In no other sphere, either of thought or of achievement in history, does freedom play such an important tole as in the vision Christianity proposes of man, of society, and of history. However, if, as we have seen, the divine message the Church proposes to us must pass through human reality -- through a limitation, something finite -- it is for this very reason that we know for certain that human freedom will never be able to realize this ideal to its fullest extent: the human vehicle in the Church will always seem inadequate in comparison with all that it presumes to bring to the world. But the point we are making is precisely this: God has bound himself to this, the individual's highly personal application of freedom, to the specific way in which every single man responds to the capacity for the infinite which is in him, to the requests of God. This is why any of us may well encounter generous Christians and not so generous ones ... The divine passes definitively through the channel of person freedom in its communication of self. It is interesting to observe the Christian way of life from the point of view of freedom. If, in fact, a man says something that is right and does not put it into practice himself, we who notice it have our backs to the wall in the face of our ultimate responsibility (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church, page 134).
Human freedom is imperfect and always will be, but God chooses it as his vehicle to communicate himself to us.
When Jesus said: "Blessed is he who will not be shocked by me" (Luke 7:2) he meant, do not be shocked by what I might say and do, however paradoxical that might appear. In the same way, we can say: blessed is the man who does not reject a value because of an imperfection in its bearer ... Even today, if we are intent on finding fault with those who proclaim Christianity, or if we are waiting to be shocked, this is only an excuse for never adhering, for never having the need to change. For, in any case, there will always be faults, and to opt to fix one's gaze on them only means to make the fatal choice not to scan our horizons searching for what is worthwhile. Jesus again stigmatizes this excuse, when he replied to a new objection raised by the Pharisees that his disciples did not observe the tradition of washing their hands before meals: "How ingeniously you get round the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition" (Mark 7:9) -- and this is the unhappy attitude of which we can still become prisoners today.
However, the Church was saved throughout the centuries by all those who, in their pursuit of the truth and reality, in their love of value and the ideal, were not shocked by the limitations, by the grip of circumstance, by the apparent incomprehensibility of human affairs, and who set out resolutely in the search for the object of their love, to find the treasure hidden in the mud. In this way, they showed the world and history that their eyes and their hearts were trained on the treasure and not the mud (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church, page 137-138).
This is the challenge of the Church today (perhaps it has always been our challenge, from the moment Thomas was shocked by his companions and would not believe they had seen the risen Christ?). If I have a New Year's resolution (and I don't believe in them, actually), it is to notice each time I am shocked or scandalized and then thrust my whole self into the mud so that I can bring up gold.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

fragile and ambiguous


The total fulfillment of our desire for the Infinite -- the One who gives us each breath and even our desire to breathe, the Lord who is the consistency of everything, the secret principle of the world, the meaning of every detail -- became flesh and dwells among us.

This man, who began his life as a man in the same way we all do -- as a baby -- was born in history. As we all do, he has a name: Jesus of Nazareth. During the brief span of thirty-three years he accompanied a small number of ordinary and fallible persons. He ate with them, walked with them, questioned them, shook them up, shared their work, faced their fears, addressed himself to their need.

Then, through a mysterious series of events (as one of the girls in the atrium described it, the "Crucerection," followed by the Ascension) that we continue to dwell upon, he returned to the right hand of the Father. Is he gone, now? Have we now returned to the time before he came, when communion with the invisible God happens in privacy and interiority, marked by ambiguity?

Christianity says no; the time of Christ, in the flesh, on this earth, continues now and into the future.

This continuing presence of Christ in this world does not rest on our ability to perceive it, our emotional states, our moral consistency, our intelligence, creativity, talents, aspirations, projects, thoughts or deeds. But it does rest on something exceedingly fragile and ambiguous: our humanity.

What is our humanity, if it isn't our ability to perceive, our emotional states, moral consistency, intelligence, creativity, talents, aspirations, projects, thoughts or deeds?

Our humanity is the truth of who we are: our need. Our humanity is a fact -- the fact that we do not give ourselves life or happiness, the fact that we don't make ourselves grow or change or move. Those other things I listed are a result of our humanity, of how we use our humanity. Because along with this desire, as an integral part of our need, is another element: freedom. Freedom, as Fr. Giussani shows us, is the capacity for the Infinite. Our humanity, then, is vital need married to great capacity.

Our need and our freedom are made of the same substance and they cannot be separated without a mortal wound to our humanity. Just as the mind cannot live without the heart, and the heart would be a useless lump of flesh without the brain's signals and actions, freedom without awareness of need becomes a slave master who cannot rest without subjugating, dominating, and destroying; and need, without freedom, becomes a slave and addict, intent on swallowing or being swallowed.

Christ chose this humanity of ours to be the method through which he continues in the flesh.

How does this happen? It happens in each person according to particular circumstances, when in a courageous acknowledgment of facts, need and freedom are recognized and left open. One cannot live this way for long without discovering an answer which is found only when we meet someone who eats with us, walks with us, questions us, shakes us up, shares our work, faces our fears alongside of us, addresses himself to our need. This someone can engage reality, embrace everything, be glad in everything -- particularly in things that seem empty and meaningless. And this someone invites us to share the path.

This is what each of us awaits. In our fragile and ambiguous humanity, we carry this truth of things, this secret of the world. He is here, in the flesh. Would you like to walk with him? Allons!

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."