Friday, December 19, 2014

Herod returns

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents
from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle

It's not Christmas yet. Not yet time to tell the story of the power-hungry King Herod who would not even stop at targeting infants in order to maintain his throne. But we have to tell the story, because Herod has returned--and for the second time in a decade (remember Beslan?)

It's an uncomfortable story. Even the masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel was altered from a scene of
carnage against babies to one of general pillage. See the woman in the middle, weeping disconsolately over...a sack? Almost all the dead children in the painting were substituted with market bundles, birds and dogs--and the coats of arms identifying the soldiers were likewise repainted. The very fact of Bruegel's work being profoundly altered proves the necessity of this gruesome Gospel story. Someone in power (enough power to convince an artist to rework an acknowledged masterpiece) did not want Herod's handiwork too clearly depicted. It might tie his own hands someday.

There is little danger (sad to say) of the Taliban hearing the story of King Herod and the babes of Bethlehem; little danger of any of us being able to convince a fanatic that some things really are unjustifiable. Perhaps the most we can do is see where in our own lives, a shadow of King Herod sits on his throne, giving us permission for a little pre-emptive meanness. If the grace of Christmas can exorcise the Herod in us, perhaps the renewal it brings could exorcise Herod from the world stage, too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

To what are you up?

The title of the post is a nod to our Sister Mary Paula, a former English teacher from the days we had a high school aspirancy program. Sister Mary Paula is in our "Queen of Apostles" community here; more about that below.

I arrived back in the States at an interesting time: as soon as I landed, practically speaking, it was Thanksgiving. Last week around the country our sisters hosted "Baby Jesus Birthday Parties" with anywhere from two dozen to three hundred guests; the past two weeks have seen our choir members (alas, without me!) on concert tour--and this weekend, the concert comes home with three performances in our motherhouse chapel. This calls for a lot of community participation.
Makeshift Chapel: Before

Makeshift Chapel: After
Yesterday while two sisters prepped the Assembly Hall to serve as chapel for the week, I was in the kitchen as part of the cookie team. The dough had already been prepared (oatmeal chocolate chip raisin cookies); all I had to do, alongside Sister Guadalupe, was measure it out and plop the dough onto prepared baking sheets. Sister Joan, the local superior, handled the industrial oven side of things. I forget how many hundreds of dozens of cookies we actually need, but the process continues today. I also had my first turn filling in at the switchboard yesterday. There were (mercifully) few calls!

Being back at the motherhouse is an interesting experience in itself. There are actually three distinct communities sharing the facility: Our provincial government (responsible for our life and mission in the US and English-speaking Canada) is one community; I am part of the biggest community, which consists mostly of sisters engaged in the publishing house and its radius of activity; we also have a community (the "Queen of Apostles" community mentioned above) made up especially of our senior sisters, including those who need various levels of nursing assistance. I am learning to get used to the sound of walkers squeaking down the hallways, and loud "whispers" in chapel, as well as the need to simply s-l-o-w down when walking through community areas. The eldest member of the family is Sister Augusta, who is looking forward to her 99th birthday. No walker for her! She speeds along the halls and up and down the stairs with a cane draped over her arm. (I just learned the most interesting anecdote about this Italian missionary: when she was 12, during the Nazi occupation, she and her sister were on a black market errand, and got picked up for questioning. Thankfully, that was all it was, and the girls were sent back home--but 98 year old Sister Augusta still remembers the Nazi officer's beautiful blue eyes!!!)

The three communities share Morning Prayers, Mass, breakfast and lunch (this includes leading the prayers for the first two, and washing the dishes for the second set of activities), but times of formal sharing the Word, community activities and (for the most part) apostolate are specific to each group. One team of senior sisters meets daily in a workshop where they pray the rosary while making the rosaries for our book centers and web store. They are indefatigable.

Meanwhile, a lot of the talk at the dinner table has been about the new "reality" show on the Lifetime network. The Sisterhood purports to follow a group of young women as they "discern" a vocation to religious life. Our postulants watch the show with their phones set to Twitter: using the hashtag #RealPostulants, they give real-time feedback on the show. I confess, I have yet to watch a single episode (they are all on the Lifetime website, so you and I can catch up), but I have been following the Twitter posts, and three of the sisters have done some very reflective blog posts about the show, what it is and what it isn't (Sister Rose, Sister Marie Paul, Sister Hosea all have something to say). One interesting phenomenon that I have observed on Twitter is the number of (real!) communities of sisters who are gathering to watch (and live-tweet) the show together. Have you seen any of the episodes? What stood out for you as particularly authentic (or inauthentic!)?

Friday, December 05, 2014

Advent, in the Words of TS Eliot

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away
— Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Making progress!

Monday, in my new office. Not easy
to walk around in here!
I wasn't quite finished with my retreat when the pallets arrived from Chicago. Two of them, loaded with books and personal effects. (For the record, I saw the bill of lading and I do not have a ton of stuff!) Little by little, I unloaded the boxes and trunks, moving them to either my room or my new office (in silence, of course!). Only one problem: not enough bookshelf space. So the detachments that began in Chicago when I was packing have been renewed here in Boston now that I am unpacking.

There are already two boxes of books sitting here on the office floor to offer the community library (frequented especially by our student sisters). I'm also missing a box of books--about half my collection of the Founder's works--so a real loss (I pray the box will turn up in the Chicago basement, and soon). When those books do come to me, I may be due for another round of detachments (but not from the Founder's works). 
Tuesday, opposite the bookcases

In the meantime, with the help of Sr Julia and Sr Donna, the office furniture (a haphazard collection of whatever appropriate pieces were available in the basement) has been rearranged, and some of my framed items hung on the wall. (I'm waiting for the handyman's help on Monday to hang the remaining items, which are a bit on the awkward side and size.)
Friday (you can see one of the boxes
of library-destined books)
Friday, opposite the bookcases; note that the
desk has shifted (to face the Caravaggio
print); Sr Julia's advice.

Soon my little "shrine" will be set up with the relics and statues of saints that have somehow come into my care through the years--and to complete that area, I plan to cross-stitch a kind of "altar carpet" for the "steps" of the spice shelf riser that serves as the shrine platform. (That may be a while, since I also plan to design said carpet...) You can see the "shrine" location on top of the cabinet by the  window in the Friday bookcase picture.

Because you really want to know what is hanging on my wall.
In between all this, there were deadlines to meet: the sister who coordinates our digital ministry has been with her family, leaving me to get our newsletters updated and sent (with only the most cursory explanation, since I was going on retreat and she was going out the door: it  has been a baptism by fire!). Oh, and... Thanksgiving and the need for kitchen help... In the end, it's a mighty good thing I am not involved in this year's Christmas concerts (though they should be loads of fun--it's our 20th anniversary!).

There are miles to go--I have to learn our switchboard so I can take a turn on weekends and snow days when the operator doesn't come in; get acquainted with industrial cooking equipment (and industrial-sized meals for the large community) so I can help in kitchen; get the community schedule down pat. But I am glad to be here, and almost settled in. Thanks so much for your prayers and good wishes in that direction; I know it has made a real difference!

This evening, Pope Francis opens the Year of Consecrated Life, a year in which the Daughters of St Paul celebrate their own congregational centenary. Plus, with Evening Prayer on Saturday, we enter the season of Advent (can you believe it?). Honestly, I haven't given any thought to how to spend Advent this year. Maybe the very fact of being in such a big transition is Advent enough! May your Advent begin in peace as twilight falls.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Christmas Solitude: a Letter from Syria

The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus writes a sobering report as Advent begins this weekend: "our neighbors do not want us ... "


This fourth year of war in Syria offers the world a chaotic scene. 85 nationalities are already present in the fighting, add to this a coalition of 30 countries expanding violence and death for the “purpose” of fighting terrorism.

Does this heavy war machine choose the Middle East as the land of a third world war?  “A war never stops a war,” said Pope Francis on September 7, 2013. Suffering populations are subjected to violence in the name of God


On  June 10, 2014 (Battle in Mosul in Iraq ) a new international conflict was born.  Islamic religious sentiment broke through the borders of war, countries and people, blurring the battles and conflicts. The Islamic State military may lose the war, but what about the Islamic school of thought that triggers Muslims reaction around the world? How do we account for this reality, analyze the issues and seek to understand and interact with them?

This new source of concern for Near Eastern minorities is a major challenge to inter-religious dialogue, and of tolerance among peoples and religions. The policy of  “burying our heads in the sand” solves nothing in regard to Islamophobia.


The Eastern Christians, a minority living at the crossroads of danger, are struggling to take the road of testimony.
The rise of fanaticism, insecurity, shortages of all kinds and blockades, threaten their presence and reduce their hope.

Despite this tense atmosphere, the small flock of faithful expresses unwavering, courageous and firm faith.
A new relationship to God is affirmed in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.  They have the rosary in hand and will not easily leave the church as they are in solidarity with the poor and a long litany of martyrs, the seed of Christians. These Heroes of the Faith are the strength of the Church and the horizon of hope.

The roads that lead to Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are closed because of the fighting. The only escape that was open, until last October, was the road to Lebanon. Lebanon, a small country saturated  a million and a half Syrian refugees, began to close its borders of with Syria allowing only emergency cases.

Thus our loyal Damascus feels isolated, condemned to live in danger, and die in their “hole” cut off from their relatives and friends already living in Lebanon. This loneliness adds to the anguish, the bitter cold winter experience, the sad tenor and feeling of neglect.

A lonely Christmas through Syria.
Our neighbors do not want us as we welcome all refugees in the Near East.  Our faithful spend their Christmas celebration in the freezing cold of their “household nativity” relying on the warmth of their faith under the tender gaze of the Holy Family.

 Christmas 2014 + Samir Nassar
 Maronite Archbishop of Damascus

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ: King and Shepherd

Today's readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe underline our faith in those words of the Creed "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." The great 15th century artist Jan van Eyck illustrates this for us using precisely the Gospel text we hear at Mass today: 
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,and all the angels with him,he will sit upon his glorious throne,and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another,as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right,'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me drink,a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me,ill and you cared for me,in prison and you visited me.’...
There are three "realms" in the painting. The top, of course, is Heaven. Jesus appears as King, enthroned on the Cross. He is in a seated posture, his wounded feet radiant beneath the folds of his cloak. Mary and John the Baptist appear to his right and left, just as we find them in a typical Byzantine icon. As the greatest of the saints, they are not only in a more prominent position, they are shown in bigger dimensions than anyone else except Christ, but they are still firmly rooted in the community of the saints below. The Apostles are in positions of honor as the "Canons" of this heavenly Cathedral, while a choir of virgins (who, according to Rev. 14:4  "follow the Lamb wherever he goes") processes in. The words "Come, blessed of my Father" (today's Gospel) appear in gold, standing out from the red of Our Lord's cloak. (The opposite message, "Depart, accursed, into the everlasting fire" --also in today's Gospel--descends from St Michael's wings into the pit of hell at the bottom of the painting.)  

The mid-section of the painting expresses a different, but related article of the Creed: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead." We see the bodies of the dead restored to life, and even "the sea gave up its dead" (Rev. 20:13). Some float heavenward, while others are fed, headfirst, into the pit below.

Finally, the lower realm appears, with Michael astride a colossal, seemingly winged, skeleton which serves as the gate of hell. Under the Archangel's feet, a dark tangle of forms, men and women, tonsured clerics and mitered bishops, thrash about in unending torment with myriad horrific beasts. The unremitting shadows are almost a mercy to us, since the darkness is no match for the vivid colors and detail that draw our eyes heavenward. We are not meant to dwell upon the threat of loss, but the promise of salvation. 

Despite the reality of the shadows below, van Eyck depicts Christ above all as the shepherd prophesied by Ezekiel who will tend his sheep and rescue them from every place where it is cloudy and dark, "and of his Kingdom there will be no end."

Jan van Eyck, detail from the Crucifixion/Last Judgment. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Happy Landings

Greetings from Boston, where the autumn leaves are still mighty lovely in this second week of November. I arrived at my new assignment Monday afternoon after a truly miserable flight (migraine all the way). The good part of arriving in the condition of a wrung-out dishrag is that it seems to really help you overcome jet lag. Although my brain seems to still be over the Atlantic somewhere, I have been able to sleep fairly well--and wake up at 5:30 without an alarm of any kind.  (I hope that keeps up once my brain gets back!) The sisters have been all smiles welcoming me to the community, and I was all smiles on Tuesday, welcoming Sister Julia as she (and a volunteer, Pauline Cooperator-candidate Pat) arrived in a rental truck from New Orleans. Sister Julia will also be stationed here, but rather than work in the publishing house, she is assigned to our bookstore in Dedham.

I've moved into a room that was readied for me, and an office that had been newly soundproofed and paimted. This week Sister Kathryn (who handles our Pauline website, online bookstore, social media and app development) gave me a rapid overview of the projects underway,

One complication that manifested itself while I was still in London was having to negotiate without a cell phone. My smartphone suffered some kind of fatal error early on the morning of Nov 2--my last day to see London! (I had to find my way to Marylebone and then to the Wallace Collection using a paper map--and had no way to take pictures of the marvels I saw in the museum.) That situation got resolved on Friday (just in time for me to go on retreat).

Yes, retreat. Sunday I begin my week of spiritual exercises, which I will be making on my own here in the motherhouse (with the help of some audio conferences by Italian theologian Father Carlo Molari). I'll just arrange my schedule to anticipate meals and stay in the quieter regions of the complex. Someone asked me what the theme of the retreat will be; I have no idea what the theme of the conferences is, but for me the theme is "new beginnings," as I am starting the retreat just one week after arriving for a new assignment. Please pray that I will be extra attentive to the Lord.

I won't be on social media (except with pre-scheduled posts), but will remember you and your intentions every day at Mass and during adoration. Please pray for me, too!

Friday, November 07, 2014

Where Time Begins

In the whirlwind surrounding my immanent transfer, I didn't get around to writing about the Saturday I spent with Sr Mary Lou, an American Daughter of St Paul stationed in the UK for 30 years. One of the items on my "little" English bucket list was to see the motherhouse of Greenwich Mean Time. I had no idea where exactly Greenwich is, but it couldn't be that far from London, right? Turns out, it practically IS in London, easily and quickly accessed through the public transit system. My "Oyster" card (prepaid transit fare) was all I needed.

Greenwich is, for all practical purposes, the historic Annapolis of England: an old-school Navy Town. Even Greenwich Mean Time has its origin in the need for ships at sea (at least those within sight of the coast) to set their clocks as an essential aid to navigation. A bright red ball is positioned on a pole on the top of the observatory building at the highest point in the area (we climbed it). At noon on the dot, the ball would descend, communicating to all with eyes to see that it was now 12:00 Greenwich Time. Since we visited while it was still Daylight Savings Time (British Summer Time, they call it here), that took place at 1:00, just minutes after we reached the gate at the top of the hill!

 Only after the hour was marked did we pay our fare (a visit to the Naval museum was included in the price) did we actually go through the gate to take a look at the Prime Meridian: longitude 0ยบ. Behind it, the massive telescopes that had played a part in winning for Greenwich the distinction of being the place where time begins.

In the plaza, a man in 17th century costume explained the various puzzles that the Royal Observatory and its Royal Astronomers dealt with in the nearby Flamsteed House--designed by Christopher Wren as part residence, part observatory with its large Octagon Room to accommodate telescopes and a variety of clocks (including a "sidereal clock" which keeps time based on the stars, rather than the sun).

The hill also offers some incredible views of greater London. That, combined with the comfortable coastal location, led to Greenwich being a favorite royal getaway. We didn't have that much time, so rather than traipse around to all the royal haunts and chapels, we limited ourselves to seeing the Queen's House, the Queen in question being Henrietta Maria (I had never heard of her), wife of Charles I. The most noteworthy aspect of this rather plain building is the spiral staircase. Sister Mary Lou is a photographer; the staircase got a lot of attention from her. Me? I just snapped a few pictures with my phone. (As for the phone...another story, but it is no longer at my service.)

The Royal Maritime Museum had an interesting exhibit on the quest for Longitude 0, as well as the historical clocks that were part of the whole pursuit of trustworthy marine navigation. The clocks were not just intricate (and massive), they were spectacularly beautiful. Beyond the special exhibit hall (and the gift shop) were the permanent exhibits, which I did not have the energy to pursue. It was time for Sr Mary Lou to head back to the Langley community to accompany some of the senior sisters to the Vigil Mass, so we walked back toward the station. I was ready to leave, too--until I spotted the bustling market. Saying "good bye" to my faithful companion, I turned to at least walk through, see the food stalls and the crafts, and what exactly was on the other side of the market area--before pulling out my own Oyster card for the trip back to Kensington for the rest of the weekend. Time in England was running short, but at least my bucket list was, too!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The King's Good Servant

This statue stands facing the Thames,
and is positioned alongside a church
(now Chelsea Old Church) built on
the site of the former parish church
the saint's family attended. I learned
too late that there is a marble inscrip-
tion still in the church which had
been commissioned by the saint
for the place he intended for his and
his wife's burial. The original church
was bombed in WWII.
Spending as much time as I did in the "Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea," you can be sure
that I was one day going to track down the Chelsea property of St Thomas More's estate. Thomas More was an important man in my house. Dad was a lawyer, after all. In the family room, we had a small plaque of the saint; a really fine framed print of the Holbein portrait was in Dad's office (it can now be found in my brothers' law offices, though I'm not sure which brother: Thomas More--my brother, not the saint--already had a Holbein print of his patron). At any rate, I was determined somehow to find out where the More estate had once been.

Then one weekend when it was time for our monthly day of recollection, a priest came from the seminary, Allen Hall. (Allen Hall is the name of the seminary, not of the priest!) This is the successor institute to the famous Duoai seminary in France which
trained so many English men for the priesthood when it was illegal to pursue priestly studies, much less carry out a priestly ministry in England: a list of the martyred alumni can be found in the dining room. Father John Hemer, the retreat preacher that day, offered to show me the seminary, which was built on a small parcel of the land formerly occupied by, you guessed it, Thomas More's estate.

Unless you do penance...
This is the box containing the
 saint's penitential hairshirt.
When I arrived, Father was still teaching, so the receptionist led me to a parlor which was filled with Thomas More artifacts and images. A large map showed where the seminary building stood in relation to the More home (which was demolished in the 1800's to make way for the bridge to Battersea). A small wax bust, about 6 inches tall,
turned out to have been crafted soon after More's martyrdom and kept in the Roper family for generations. (More's "favorite," Margaret, was married to Will Roper.) A sealed box was labeled with this information: This is the hair shirt worn by Thomas More until the day before his execution, when he gave it to Margaret. She, in turn, gave the relic to an adopted sister, and it was passed down through the generations until one of the daughters entered the Ursuline Order, and brought the relic with her into the convent.  There were various documents signed by the saint and other memorabilia. Little did I know that there was still a living connection to St Thomas More on the grounds!

After a tour of the seminary classrooms (and lunch), Father Hemer took me to see the several gardens on the small property. We went though a small gate (a sign read: Please keep closed, due to foxes) and into another area with a gnarly old mulberry tree (the first mulberry tree I had ever seen). Evidently, these trees are survivors, and this was indeed an old mulberry tree. Possibly even 500 years old. Quite possibly the mulberry tree under which the More family would gather on pleasant evenings for conversation and learning.

As hard as I tried to send the pictures of my Chelsea afternoon to my brother Thomas, the transmissions never went through. So, even though this is a blog post, it is really in response to my brother's request that I send him some pictures from his patron saint's address. I didn't think you'd mind!

Chart of the More estate. The green rectangle is where the seminary now stands.
the avenue leading up to the Manor House is now an on-ramp for the bridge. The
whole area is primarily apartment buildings, with small businesses along the
main road at the top of the image.

Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Halloween: Be unafraid. Be very unafraid.

Resting in Pisa. (Sorry! Couldn't resist.)
Well, it was a relief to see Father Steve Grunow's post at Word on Fire about why Catholics should be unafraid of Halloween. And not even just a "let's all dress up like saints and pretend it's not Halloween-Halloween," but the blessed Catholic "both/and"--without the macabre exaggerations. He does a lot of demythologizing of the (recent) demythologizing of Halloween as only, always and ever a thoroughly pagan observance. I certainly learned a lot.

Here in England (as in Italy), you don't have to look too hard to find the way death and the supernatural realm were looked at (and at times tweaked) in centuries past. Perhaps if we had more depictions like these in our churches, the twisted depictions would just fall flat.
From the Campo Santo (cemetery) beside the cathedral in Pisa.

St Alban, martyr.

The early and medieval Christians seemed to really get it that God is in charge, and not the forces of chaos or violence or whatever else seems at the moment to spell doom and disaster, failure and loss. It is already all worked out for the good, "for the spread of the Gospel," Paul wrote when he was in a particularly uncomfortable spot.

Whatever it is, it is all already ordered to the complete establishment of God's reign. There is nothing to be afraid about. Not even on Halloween.