Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UPDATED: Humble Thanks on Buy a Nun a Book Day

It's not even September 17 and three lovely people have already showered me with blessings (of the literary kind) for Buy a Nun a Book Day. Thanks, V.P., M.S. and C.S. (from Malta!); I am humbled by your kindness. I've already polished off one book (The Lost Painting, about that Caravaggio that showed up--after a 500 year vanishing act--in a Jesuit residence in Dublin; fascinating!) and I look forward to pondering the riches of the other titles (especially the Kindle edition of the Bible!).

Just wanted to say thanks so very much.

September 17 update:
I just learned that our sisters in San Antonio, a community that was just started up this summer, are seeking books (and key subscriptions) to build a community library from scratch. If you'd like to contribute, here's their "wish list."  (You might have to sign out of Amazon to see it; my friend kept getting her own list!)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Let it go": the Jesus version

Today's Gospel is where Jesus really proves he is out to change the world. Nothing he tells us today comes "naturally." Nothing he calls for is intuitive. It's all evidence that he is introducing a new and unfamiliar world, a greater one, based on foundations that most of us have trouble imagining, never mind ordering our life by.

What struck me today in a new way was the command that we not try to get back stolen goods. In the translation used here in the UK it reads "do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you." (So polite!) My community runs bookstores, and we have had more than a few experiences with theft. We tell grand stories about the few sisters who have gone after a thief and actually gotten the stolen item(s) back: the Infant of Prague statue hidden in a coat, the stack of CDs, things like that. (We never did recover the Stations of the Cross that vanished, one by one, from our downtown Boston bookstore back in the day.) Once I watched a customer chase a thief down Michigan Avenue after she witnessed him shoplifting in our Chicago center. (Her family had worked in retail, so she knew what it was like to suffer from walking inventory.) Then there is the man who comes in, on a regular basis, to slip individual volumes of the Liturgy of the Hours into his open backpack... But, in the words of the song, Jesus says, "Let it go." Why?

I got a hint of where he is coming from (and where he means to take us) from the last sentence in today's passage of Luke: "full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over..." Jesus is testifying to a world of abundance. Who is it who would shrug off a theft? The rich person who knows "there's more where that came from." Yesterday we heard Jesus tell of woes for the rich, but today he is turning that around. He is telling us to have the kind of poverty of spirit that St Paul witnessed to: "We seem to have nothing, but everything is ours!"

It is not enough for us to be created in the image of God like a static portrait; we are meant to make the living God, "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (moi?) manifest amid all the "gods and lords" of this earth.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

On Reporting Savagery

I gave a digital communications workshop over the weekend, and in updating my resource links for the participants (my online chart of links was swallowed up by the cloud sometime over the spring, I just realized), I came across some timely advice from a really important (in my opinion, unsurpassed) Church document on communications, Communio et Progressio.

Since the barbarians in Iraq and Syria are using social media so effectively, it would be very helpful for our media, and for all of us readers and writers and re-tweeters of social media to keep this in mind:

43. The reporting of violence and brutality demands a special care and tact. There is no denying that human life is debased by violence and savagery and that such things happen in our own time and perhaps more now than ever before. It is possible to delineate all this violence and savagery so that men will recoil from it. But if these bloody events are too realistically described or too frequently dwelt upon, there is a danger of perverting the image of human life. It is also possible that such descriptions generate an attitude of mind and, according to many experts, a psychosis which escapes the control of the very forces that unleashed it. All this may leave violence and savagery as the accepted way of resolving conflict.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Meanwhile, back on the home front...

Thank goodness for social media! This was a big week for my community back in the States, and through the marvels of Twitter and Facebook (and, yes, even e-mail), I could participate with more attentiveness.

In the lead-in to the main event, the sisters in the concert choir got together to rehearse for this year's Christmas program. (Ouch.) While they were all in the sound studio, a camera crew from "Fusion.net" came for some interviews...

The really big event of the week was the first profession (vows) of two of the novices. They received their habit in a simple ceremony the day before, but couldn't actually wear it until the morning of their profession Mass. (See all the pictures here!)

First vows is also the time when a sister gets a new name. We don't actually change our name, but have the option to add a name to our Baptismal name. (After all, Baptism is the primary vocation, the sacrament in which we were already definitively "claimed for Christ.") Well, one of the novices had always gone by her first name, while her Christian name was not really used. So she decided to reclaim her very Christian name--Khristina. The other sister added a new name: Aletheia (Greek for "truth"). Her explanation was beautiful, but personal enough that I will see if she comments on it in her blog and will link you to that if the opportunity arises. Suffice it to say that since Jesus IS Truth ("I am the Way, the Truth and the Life"), both sisters appear to have taken the same name--and in a very Pauline way, since it was Paul himself who said, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

And then last night, the Fusion.net spot aired in Miami--but you can watch it here! How many nun stereotypes will the sisters blast away as they talk about what it means to be a vowed person who is active on social media?

Friday, August 29, 2014

It's me again!

I'm standing at my makeshift computer desk here in Langley, the window open just enough for some fresh (autumn!) air, birdsong and the sounds of planes heading for or from Heathrow Airport.

After almost three weeks in Italy, I am still on Italian auto-pilot, about to respond to things in that language, stumbling though my efforts will be. (I am really good at translating from Italian into English, but the other way around leaves the Italians misty-eyed with compassion. Or maybe it's just confusion.)  On arriving back in the London area, I really had to hit the ground running: we Daughters of St Paul are having a weekend gathering of all the sisters in the UK, and I am providing the first morning's session, getting everyone on the same pages in terms of awareness of social media trends and how the Daughters of St Paul fit into this new media culture.
Sorry, but I can see your kind in
abundance in the British Museum!

Still, after all that time in Italy, there's a lot I want to share, but I think I'll start, for now, toward the end...on our second-to-last outing, which definitely had a more cultural flavor: a morning at the Vatican Museums. Because audio guides are available in the different languages I was officially off duty as a translator; in fact, the directors of the Pauline spirituality program left me free to visit the Museums at my own pace, while the group attempted more or less to stick together. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend extra time in the areas that most interested me, many of them having been restored since the last time I was able to visit (whether that was 30 or 15 years ago!). An added perk is that photography is allowed (no flash, but you knew that), so I can share some highlights with you for years to come.
Ceiling scene of heaven!

Pinturicchio Annunication from the Borgia Apartments.
Don't let the infamy of Pope Alexander VI blind you to
his artistic sensibilities. 
But first, a bit of advice: when you go to the Vatican Museums, start at the Pinacoteca (the art gallery). Many of the other museums in the complex have exhibits of the sort you can find in any well-maintained museums or art or history: Egyptian sarcophagi (and one unwrapped mummy whom I couldn't help but pity), Etruscan vases, cuneiform tablets--that sort of thing. The Pinacoteca has one of a kind stunners like Raphael's immense Transfiguration and Caravaggio's "Deposition of Christ." I regret that I left the Pinacoteca for last, when I was falling prey to sensory overload (not to mention hunger); I didn't have the energy to really enjoy those paintings and altarpieces that deserve to be seen in person and not just in reproduction.

Another hint: bring a mirror. There's an incredible amount of loveliness on the ceiling, and you don't want to get a crick in your neck from trying to take it all in.

Detail: Attila the Hun being run off (by the Apostles Peter and
Paul in the skies over Rome) at his meeting with Pope Leo. 

I made a remark about being "force fed"
through the Contemporary Art section, and
then came across this.

There was always someone pausing before
the Caravaggio Deposition.

You've seen the Raphael Madonna before,
but the attention always seems to go to
the little putti (boy angels) at her feet.
Here's a different detail, featuring one
of my favorite saints (on the feast day
of his martyrdom).

Raphael's depiction of Peter's release from Herod's prison is
right over a window. I kept a hand under the lens to keep some
of the glare out. 

Peter looks pretty tired from his perch between
a doorway and the ceiling. To see him, you
have to turn completely around when you
enter the hall.
Shepherd at the Crib; detail from a

The sarcophagus of St Helena, of all people. With the military
scenes carved in bas relief all over it, it was probably designed
for the Emperor.

Pinturicchio Visitation--from the Borgia Apartments. Again, you
do not want to miss them, even though you have to weave
your way through lots of contemporary art to get there. (Why,
no, I am not a big fan of contemporary art; how did you guess?)

This is one of those places where you really
need a mirror. I think they said the hall was
40 (or 400?) meters long.
Coming next (or eventually, anyway): Assisi! Nettuno (home of St Maria Goretti)! Orvieto! And the great Pauline centenary celebrations in our congregation's hometown, the home of Nutella and white truffles, Alba!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hard at work...in Rome!

Arrived in Rome on Saturday evening and got to work Sunday afternoon, translating conference talks
for a group of sisters taking a course in our congregation's spirituality. The program is being held in a conference building on the grounds of our world headquarters (Generalate). I have been here several times before, but this is the first time I have even seen the downstairs conference hall with its four booths for simultaneous translation. There are sisters here from India, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Venezuela, but only the English-speaking sisters need a translator, so I am alone in the back section, working hard at keeping up with the presenter. For the most part this is fairly easy for me and entertaining as well; I am really getting a lot out of the conference material, which I am following attentively even as I translate it. Once in a while, the speaker gets really impassioned about the topic, and that point I do all I can to capture her attention and ask her to slow down. Yesterday, that involved me standing up and waving my arms wildly until the speaker noticed.

Since I had had a few free hours on Sunday, I was able to go to Saint Peter Square for the Angelus
with Pope Francis. I brought my voice recorder with me, and got some of the ambient sound, the youth groups singing and chanting and roaring their exclamations of encouragement; I interviewed people from England, New Jersey, Verona... I recorded the Holy Father's entire talk as well, where he spoke of the horrors unfolding in Iraq and the necessity of a political solution that would restore the rule of law. It is just as the reports said: you could hear a pin drop in that crowd of thousands.

For a while afterwards, I stood in the security line to go into St. Peter's Basilica, but realized that I would not have time to enter the Basilica and still get back for my translating assignment, so I walked through some of the familiar streets of Rome (and got a gelato while I was at it) before getting on the bus. While I was finishing my gelato a gypsy woman pleaded with me for a donation. I really did not have anything on me (and I was supremely irritated my her refusal to accept that fact); in the end, and only to get rid of her, I gave her the sandwich I had bought for my lunch. Later, I reflected: part of what irritated me was that she approached me as a stereotype: the tender – hearted sister who would surely have a heart for a poor, penniless woman pleading for a bit of bread (sorry to say, that is not me at all!) And I reacted to her as to a stereotype: the whining, importunate Gypsy (I am aware that gypsy is considered a derogatory term now – it is a stereotype, and this is the net in which I found myself trapped). Pope Francis challenges us to treat people in these circumstances like unique persons, not as examples of negative stereotype; to address them as individuals, and present myself as an individual as well. I actually hope I will not have another opportunity for this, but if it comes about, I pray that I will respond better.

On Monday, the group (and I with them!) visited the Coloseum, the Lateran Basilica, the "Holy Stairs" (transported from the Roman praetorium in Jerusalem by St Helena), the catacombs, the Church "of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem" (so called for its relics of the True Cross--including a chunk of worm-eaten wood with an inscription in Hebrew, Greek and Latin "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" that, incredibly enough, bears an interesting hallmark of authenticity) and St. Mary Major. I am ashamed to admit that I took selfies in several of these locales--mostly for my family (but also to share with you).

While the sisters got out of the bus on our final stop, I ran over to my favorite spot in Rome, just yards from St Mary Major: I knew I only had fifiteen minutes before Basilica of St Praxedes would close for a four-hour siesta. One of my last Euros went into the slot to light up the St Zeno chapel, a jewel of Byzantine mosaic. It was as much a service to the other visitors as it was an act of self-indulgence: unless the lights were on, they would have no idea how much beauty they were walking by.

In the afternoon, it was back into the booth with me, and that is where I spent most of the week. But tomorrow, we're in for a big treat: the group is headed to Assisi for a day trip! And on Assumption Day, Italy's official summer holiday (good luck finding a single business open), our group and the sisters of the Generalate plan to go to Mass at St Peter's, climb the cupola (for the able-bodied!) and visit the Vatican Museum. Once we get home from that outing, it's time to pack: the Pauline Family centenary is August 20, and we will be on location in the far north of Italy for the festivities. I was even asked to cantor the Responsorial Psalm for the Mass (in Spanish!) in the great Church of St Paul in Alba, a church constructed with bricks formed and baked by our own Pauline brothers and sisters.

Sorry for the haphazard graphic design in this post; I am doing this on an uncooperative iPad app... (It was really hard for me to leave the computer in England, but I decided to follow the Lord's advice about packing  light!)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

New book for apologetics without apologies

Patrick Madrid is well known as a Catholic apologist--that is, one who presents the reasonableness of the faith, especially in response to challenges. Every adult Catholic, I am sure, has heard the usual challenges: our faith is not biblical; we worship Mary or statues; we "multiply prayers" in outright contradiction to the command of the Gospel "do not multiply your words when praying. Now, of course, we are hearing new challenges, some of them quite absurd: Catholicism is "anti-intellectual"; Catholic moral teachings do not take practical realities into account; Catholicism is incompatible with the findings of science... 

Assumptions like these can be common currency in our day (especially the newer ones can be almost taken for granted, even by Catholics!). This makes a book like "Why Be Catholic?" helpful not only for the sincere seeker, but for the earnest, but uncertain Catholic who doesn't really "have an answer to those who ask the reason for your hope" (cf 1 Pet 3:15)--and hopes that an answer is out there. 

"Why Be Catholic?" is eminently readable. Madrid is not just an apologist, he is a storyteller (the best kind of apologist!). In responding to the typical Protestant objections or challenges to Catholicism, he hearkens back to his teen years when the object of his affections was from so fundamentalist a background, her Dad had those ridiculous "Chick" pamphlets ready at hand. (Madrid got an early start responding to misconstrues of the faith!) 

Madrid looks at ten basic areas, starting with the most difficult of them all: the sin that is so manifestly present and active among us, most horribly in the clergy sex abuse scandals. Looking through the Old and New Testaments, and especially the Gospel parable of the weeds among the wheat, Madrid points out that "Scandals are part of the life of the Church not because of its teachings and customs, but because individual Catholics choose to reject and ignore those teachings."  He doesn't leave it there, though, on the purely intellectual level of cause and effect. Madrid challenges the reader to face his or her own temptations to lukewarmness and compromise. He affirms the role of conscience, and the deep connection between freedom and truth. He will continue to do this through the next nine chapters: offering a solid, intellectually and historically grounded presentation of some little-understood dimension of Catholic teaching or practice, and then inviting the reader to conform his or her life to the values that teaching reveals.

"Why Be Catholic?" looks at sin and at history, at the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession, which each get a chapter), at the Papacy, Mary and the Saints, about "good works" (especially care for the poor and the fostering of education), and the connection of faith, reason and happiness. 

It was the final chapter that I found the weakest. I believe that Madrid here attempted to do too much, or just didn't have the heart to edit out some favorite phrases or appeals. A distinct and focused chapter on faith, reason and virtue would have been fine, with an epilogue delivering the final exhortation. Instead, it was all kind of loosely lumped together. When I turned the page and realized that there was no "summation" or final punch, I felt let down.

On the whole, however, "Why Be Catholic?" is a helpful book--and not only for the non-Catholic who is "tempted" to test the waters of Catholicism. The wavering Catholic who is willing to reflect with Madrid will also find a great deal of support, perhaps filling in the blanks of an inadequate religious education (or one that stopped at Confirmation!).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Woman Jesus Loved

Every year on July 29, the same thought crosses my mind: Where are all the headlines? You know, the "Jesus' wife" hoaxes, the cheesy romance stories about Jesus and a female disciple, the cloak-and-dagger novels about Jesus' secret family with (who else?) Mary Magdalen.

Why, you ask, on July 29? It's not, after all, the feast of St. Mary Magdalen--that was last week.

Ah, but today, July 29, is the feast of the only woman the Bible categorically states that Jesus loved. Look it up! It's John 11:5:
"Jesus loved Martha (and her sister and Lazarus)." 

Where are the headlines? Where are the exposés?

Is it somehow disappointing to learn of Jesus' love for Martha in the same sentence that testifies to his love for her sister and brother? To me that's just the point that so many "Jesus' wife" stories miss. Jesus' love for each one of us has that unique, unrepeatable character that our limited experience of humanity finds best exemplified in spousal love. The fact that nowhere in the remotely reliable tradition indicates that Jesus was married is a clue that we can each have an extravagantly personal relationship with Jesus. The kind Martha had. The kind that led to her epic act of faith: "I believe that you are the Christ, the One who is coming into the world."

The anointing at Bethany; that's Martha sitting next to Peter (between Jesus and the apostles).
Manuscript detail from the Walters Museum of Art.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pilgrim to Walsingham

Inside the Slipper Chapel.
There was a time, roughly a thousand years ago when Walsingham was the destination of many a medieval pilgrim. The shrine was built to be a replica of Mary's house at Nazareth, constructed on the request of Our Lady herself. A baker's wife could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or even Campostela, but she could go to the "Holy House" of Our Lady in Norfolk. Indeed, baker's wives, fishermen and even kings had been making their way to this shrine in honor of the Annunciation since 1061.

Well, pilgrims needed shelter, and meals and other sorts of services, didn't
they? When the Augustinians arrived, they had more than enough to keep all the Fathers (Canons, to be more exact) busy. A village sprouted along the roadside. Business was good. And gifts flowed to the Augustinian priory, too. Right next to the Holy House, its triple towers soared to the heavens. In the refectory (dining room), high arched windows let in plenty of light for the lector in his pulpit to read pious or instructive texts to the community during meals. Down the road, at the Slipper Chapel, a constant stream of pilgrims confessed their sins and then removed their shoes to make the final mile to Walsingham unshod.

The remaining tower of the Augustinian Prior.
Now in private hands, it can be visited for a fee.
It all came to a sudden end over "the King's great matter" during the reign of Henry VIII. The revered statue of Our Lady seated on a throne with her Son in her lap was pulled from the Holy House and carried to London, where it was thrown into a fire. The Holy House itself was leveled. Even the enormous Priory was sacked and razed--at least as much of it as could be torn down. Pilgrimages ended overnight, though for centuries there were tiny hints of devotion by stealth. The Slipper Chapel became a workhouse.

Eventually a law court was established in the village, and a vast prison.

And then, after centuries in the shadows, Catholicism became legal again. The Slipper Chapel, tumbledown but still surviving, was purchased and restored. Unable to visit even the grassy spot where the Holy House once stood (the entire property of the shrine and Priory had long since gone into private hands), pilgrims visited the Slipper Chapel instead. Eventually, it was named the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. A new statue was commissioned, based on the design of a pilgrim's medallion from the glory days. Anglican devotees built a shrine, too, near the original site.
Slipper Chapel,
seen from behind.

When my Norwich hosts (see "Rhymes with Porridge") suggested we go to Sunday Mass at Walsingham, I knew it was the answer to a prayer: this was the one place I most wanted to visit while in England! We got a little lost (Walsingham is still in the sticks), but were set on the right road by a passer-by near the Anglican shrine. We were only a mile away from the Slipper Chapel, the "RC Shrine" of Our Lady. As we jostled down the narrow country lane in a rental car, we passed groups on foot, mostly Indian groups walking the other way. (They had to go single-file to accommodate our car.) 3,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics were expected for Mass in the afternoon, and many of them came early. They would process from the Anglican shrine to the Slipper Chapel and outdoor Mass space. When we arrived, we found the parking lot completely full; our car was directed to a nearby field. We had time to visit a bit before Mass in the modern chapel. (The Slipper Chapel only holds about a dozen worshipers!)

After Mass, we knew we could not make it down the road (not with 3,000 worshipers processing in), so we took our time visiting the shrine. I had made a list of prayer intentions before Mass, wanting to write the names of as many sisters and family members as possible, starting with those whose needs were most timely or urgent, such as my dear Alabama uncle and cousins who had just said their last good-byes to my aunt. (She and Mom topped the list.) I just didn't want to assure people of generic prayers, although I told Our Lady that I was praying for "everyone whose name I wish I could recall specifically right now..." That slip of paper got added to the prayer intention box, while I lit two candles in the "Holy Ghost Chapel"--one for my religious family, one for my natural family.

Meanwhile, in the background, I could hear the sound of drums...as pilgrims continued, in the light rain, to come in prayer to Mary's house in Walsingham!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Pray for your persecutors..." and a prayer for one by name

As much as my thoughts have been focused on the unspeakable sorrows of the Christians of Iraq as their ancient civilization is dismantled while the world busies itself with other matters, it occurred to me that I ought to be praying much, much more for their vicious persecutors, those men whose consciences are so blinded by ideology that they pulled a three-year-old from his grandfather's protecting arms and shot the child in the head out of spite. The loss of cathedrals and monasteries and manuscripts pales before the execution of a toddler. And only today is the news beginning to get picked up by the world press. Indeed, it was the Vatican newspaper that this morning broke the story that the BBC and CNN began posting this afternoon: female genital mutilation is the new order of the day under Iraq's self-proclaimed Caliphate.

I've been retweeting items on this over the past several days, hardly believing the news (and yet finding it confirmed via Vatican radio, the Fides news service and Al Arabiya news service; Al Jazeera? Not so much!) Today I got responses from two Muslims, one in London who expressed some doubts, at least about the FGM part: "Sunni Muslims are against FGM and ISIS is Sunni" ; another response was supportive of ISIS, claiming "Due to reduction in prices & Crime become 0% Public R happy with ISIS Controlled Area, Tax on Christian 2% & Muslim 2.50%." (Right. The criminals are in charge.)

Obviously, none of the powers that be in this world are anxious to rescue hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees in one of the world's troubled spots. Does that mean we (and they) are utterly helpless?

I got to thinking about another time when a brilliant and fanatically violent man was devastating the Church. What if we began an intense campaign of prayer to St Paul for the conversion of "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi" (given name, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai).

In the interest of promoting just such a campaign, I offer a prayer:

O Glorious Apostle Paul,
persecutor of the Church who became its most ardent preacher,
we commend to you Abu Bakr al-Baghadi.
He was created for eternal life with God, 
but he has now given himself over to unspeakable evil.
Intercede, St Paul, for this new persecutor of Christ's Body.
Turn his life around as completely as yours was, that day on the Damascus Road.
Obtain for him the unmerited and unexpected grace 
of coming to know Christ Jesus as Lord and Christians as his very Body,
that his life may bear fruits of grace and not works of death,
for the Glory of God and peace to humanity.