Friday 27 November 2009

Creativity and preaching

Another discussion at the meeting of Formators was about preaching.

The danger of cut and paste homilies - earlier from books and commentaries and manuals of homilies, now from the net - was universally decried.

Still, there were two 'schools': one advocating pure creativity, drawing from the resources of the individual, the other pointing out that creativity passes also through reading and learning from others, including books and commentaries.

I guess what is at play here are the tendency of the Enlightenment to stress pure individual creativity at the expense of tradition, and the pre-modern and postmodern rejection of isolated Cartesian subjectivity and acceptance of the self as always being-in-the-world, and therefore participant in a tradition.

And Fred Lawrence: the coming to light of the self is at once the coming to light of the tradition. One's drawing out of one's inner resources does not happen by closing one's eyes, but in interaction with a text - whatever that text might be. Of course, reflecting on one's experiences is itself reflection on a text; but text also includes books and commentaries and, why not, even manuals. Provided we don't just cut and paste. That would be sheer laziness, and rank inauthenticity.


We have just concluded a longish meeting of the Formation Staff of our province. The topic was prayer, and one of the points that came up was the question of relevance. The prayer of the church, for example: the psalms are often not relevant. Relevant to whom, Aidan Kavanaugh asks.

Good question, I think. Because playing in the background here is the isolated Cartesian subject we have inherited from the West. But am I merely I? Or am I not a participant in a history, in a tradition, in a community?

Theologically speaking too the question is powerful: who is this 'I'? It is the Body of Christ, the Church. And if the boundaries of the Church extend beyond what we might be able to see and define, then there is a way in which the 'I' expands to cover humanity and the cosmos.

But Kavanaugh, I think, has another, more specific answer: the I to whom the psalms are relevant is the I who has been united in baptism with the Paschal Mystery of Christ....

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Life is soft, flexible

“At birth all people are soft and yielding
At death they are hard and stiff.
All green plants are tender and yielding,
At death they are brittle and dry.
When hard and rigid
We consort with death.
When soft and flexible
We affirm greater life.”
Lao Chu

Holy obedience

A Jesuit scholastic, Frank Browne (1880-1960), of the Ireland Province, was on board the Titanic when it stopped in Ireland before its doomed Atlantic crossing in 1912. Browne was doing his theology studies, when his uncle, a Bishop, with the permission of Browne’s superior, gave him a first-class passage on the early stages of the Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton (England) to Cobb (Ireland). On board, Browe made friends with a rich American couple who offered to take him to New York. He wired his Provincial for permission, but received a cabled reply: “Get off the ship – Provincial.” So he did. Fr Browne, who was ordained in 1918, would later remark that it was “the only time holy obedience saved a man’s life.”

Contributed by Hedwig Lewis, SJ. Jivan (January 2007) 18.

Loving oneself - Bernanos

“Well, it’s all over now. The strange mistrust I had of myself, of my own being, has flown, I believe for ever. That conflict is done. I am reconciled to myself, to the poor, poor shell of me. How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity—as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.”

The dying priest in Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. Cited by Ama Samy, SJ, “Friends in the Lord—Really?” Jivan (March 2007) 25.

Poetry and pain

“We make out of the quarrel with other, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

W.B. Yeats, cited by Gregory Wolfe, “Nora’s Ashes,” review of Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans, by Thomas Lynch (Norton, $ 24.95), Commonweal 133/3 (10 February 2006) 24.

Caste, language and traditions

Habermas also points out to the way subconscious factors penetrate and distort language and traditions.

I have suddenly become aware of the way caste might be one of these subconscious factors.

Some Indian Catholics openly flaunt their caste. Flaunting caste is done, of course, only when one believes one is of a 'high caste': hanv bamon, ami bamnam. Or, more subtly, but what comes to the same thing: vhoddlim munxeam. Or, even more subtly: we are decent people. (Though I have heard the father of a Salesian saying to me: hanv dhakkto munis. I did not understand the caste undertone then. It is quite unmistakable now.)

Others will not openly flaunt their caste. But that may not be the end of the matter. Caste consciousness can go underground and live their an unhappy subterranean life, coming to light every now and then in terms of an arrogance that is quite irrational and uncalled for. Or it might surface in terms of resentment which, if expressed, might run like this: how is that I, from a high caste, am not getting my due, the positions that are my due, the deference and respect that is my due.

Habermas' Critical Theory / Lonergan's four biases: powerful tools of analysis. Or, in traditional language, of examination of conscience.

Much deconstruction to be done here. Much self-knowledge, self-critique, bringing of the self and the tradition to light, transparency, self-appropriation.

Habermas and caste

Some weeks ago a rather senior nun was speaking to me about her father. "My father never spoke of caste," she said. "He would only say 'big people.'"

She was probably not aware that 'big people' is a direct translation of the Konkani expression vhodlim munxeam, which itself translates perfectly the term mahajan. I think I have seen somewhere that caste was derived from the Portuguese casta, which means more or less the same thing: big. We still say in Konkani, vhoddlea castacho, which is not so much a caste thing, but a way of saying, something huge, something big.

All of which comes down to the illuminating point made by Habermas, that our traditions and our languages are carriers of interests - caste interests, class interests, and so on. They are far from being neutral. Which is the point made by Lonergan: group bias. Which means that traditions and languages cannot be assumed to be authentic; besides the minor authenticity which is the authenticity of the individual w.r.t. to her tradition, there is also the major authenticity which raises the question of the authenticity of the tradition itself.

True, Gadamer may not be denying all this. But certainly it has been Habermas who has brought the matter of interest to focal awareness.

The apophatism of Augustine

A wonderfully apophatic passage. But note that this apophatism comes at a certain point "when our Lord Jesus comes".
Then, when that day has come, there will be no need of lamps. Then we shall have no reading from the prophets. The epistles of Paul will stay unopened. We shall not require the witness of John. We shall not need even the gospel. So all the scriptures will be put aside, the scriptures which in the darkness of this age shine like lamps for us so that we are not left in the shadows. (Augustine, Homilies on St John's Gospel. The Divine Office, Week 34 of the Year, Tuesday, Second Reading. [London: Collins, 1974] III:809.)

Friday 20 November 2009

James Joyce and the pastoral ministry

This Peterson chap is truly amazing. Now, in the midst of his chapter on Nineveh, he pulls out James Joyce's Ulysses and sets forth a pastoral reflection. Ulysses, which I had picked up for a song on a side street in Koregaon Park from one of Osho's followers. Ulysses, which I had put into the library. Ulysses, which Joaquim was so upset to find there. Ulysses, which was then put on the Index. But also Ulysses which no one in Divyadaan has probably ever read. And here is that same Ulysses in a book on the priesthood.

What does Peterson find in Ulysses and in its 'hero' Leopold Bloom (who I just learned is a Dublin Jew)?

"James Joyce narrates a single day in the life of the Dublin Jew Leopold Bloom. Detail by detail Joyce takes us through a single day in the life of this person, a day in which nothing of note happens. But as the details accumulate, observed with such acute and imaginative (pastoral!) care, the realization begins to develop that, common as they are, these details are all uniquely human. Flickers of recognition signal memories of the old myth, Homer's grand telling of the adventure of the Greek Ulysses as he traveled all the country of experience and possibility and found himself finally home.

Joyce woke me up to the infinity of meaning within the limitations of the ordinary person in the ordinary day. Leopold Bloom buying and selling, talking and listening, eating and defecating, praying and blaspheming is mythic in the grand manner. The twenty-year-long voyage from Troy to Ithaca is repeated every twenty-four hours in anyone's life if we only have eyes and ears for it." (Peterson 124-5)

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Prayer has to be learned

Amazing to learn that, when Jonah prayed in the belly of the whale (2, 2-9), he prayed a 'set' prayer. His prayer is not "spontaneously original self-expression. It is totally derivative. Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught. His school was the Psalms." (Peterson 100)

So: not a word in his prayer is original. And: the form is also derivative. Only, where we would have expected him to pray a psalm of lament, he used the form of a psalm of praise.
"This is amazing. Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous - the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice - shows up in Jonah when he is in the rawest condition imaginable as learned." But language itself begins with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets. So who is more honest - a baby or Shakespeare? Both are honest, but Shakespeare's sonnets have far more experience in them. Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more. We are after as much of life as possible brought to expression in answering God. And that means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives. (101)
"This contrasts with the prevailing climate of prayer. Our culture presents us with forms of prayer that are mostly self-expression - pouring ourselves out before God or lifting our gratitude to God as we feel the need and have the occasion. Such prayer is dominated by a sense of self. But prayer, mature prayer, is dominated by a sense of God. Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God." (102-3)

This is amazing. And a few pages later (see 105) Peterson actually and explicitly appeals to the Roman Catholic practice of the Office, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. And, he says, if we don't have these, then divide the Psalms into 30 parts and pray them every day.
"For eighteen hundred years virtually every church used this text. Only in the last couple of hundred years has it been discarded in favor of trendy devotional aids, psychological moodbenders, and walks on a moonlit beach." (104)
There is no lack in us of the impulse to pray. There is no scarcity of requests to pray.
"So why are so many lives prayerless? Simply because 'the well is deep and you have nothing to draw with.' We need a bucket. We need a container that holds water. ... The Psalms are such a bucket. They are not the prayer itself but the most adequate container, askesis, for prayer that has ever been devised. Refusal to use this psalms-bucket, once we comprehend its function, is willfully wrong-headed." (105)

Constructing an askesis

"Convinced of the necessity for askesis and developing an imagination adequate to it, we need to construct it." (Peterson 97)
Peterson does not shy away here from stating the need to construct askesis. This is good and necessary. I myself have suffered endless confusion because of advice - no doubt with a core of truth - not to try too hard to pray, because God does not depend on our prayer. No doubt prayer is not a mechanism to make God answer. No doubt God is not controlled by our prayer. But, as I think it is Augustine who says it, prayer is perhaps the only expression of my freedom. Prayer is in-between operative grace and cooperative grace. Why does God give me good desires and not good performance, Augustine asks. And he answers: so that I might fall down on my knees and beg for good performance. And there lies my freedom: to fall down or not; to pray or not.

"This is the hard part, for in the ordinary course of things God does not appoint a fish to swallow us into the place and time for prayer. We have to find our own place, carve out our own time. It is hard because, however necessary we believe it to be, it does not feel necessary. On most days of our lives there will be neither the pressure of pain nor the lure of ecstasy. And there will be plenty of other pressures and lures to do something quite other and different." (97)
How true, how true. How much I have resisted, and still am. How many other, more interesting, things there are to do.
"The components for building an askesis are simple enough: a place and a time. A closet and a clock. Sanctuary and silence." (97)
And then again:
"Anybody can manage that. For a while. It is the dailiness that is difficult. The usual American counsel given at this point - namely, the diligent application of willpower - is singularly ineffective." (97)
The dailiness. The perseverance.

Protestants and monks

"Herbert Butterfield, the Oxford historian of modern history, is convinced that what Christians do in prayer is the most significant factor in the shaping of history - more significant than war and diplomacy, more significant than technology and art. He also is convinced that what pastors do vocationally is a major component in that praying. He asks pastors to recover our original ground: 'If I desired to say perhaps one thing that might be remembered for a while, I would say that sometimes I wonder at dead of night whether, during the next fifty years, Protestantism may not be at a disadvantage because a few centuries ago, it decided to get rid of monks. Since it followed that policy, a greater responsibility falls on us to give something of ourselves to contemplation and silence, and listening to the still small voice." (Butterfield, Writings on Christianity and History [New York: Oxford University Press, 1979] 268, cited by Peterson 98. Italics mine)

'Set aside Fr Nelson for Marathi literature and dialogue'

"Set aside Fr Nelson for Marathi literature and dialogue" - this was the challenge that the famous Marathi writer and poet, Fr Francis D'Britto, extended to the Salesian Society on Saturday, 14 November 2009, during the book release function of Nelson Falcao's edition and translation of the Khristapurana at Parshuram Natyagruha, Nashik.

Heaping fulsome praise on the massive and painstaking achievement of Fr Nelson, Fr D'Britto called for a translation not only into English, but also into French, German and all the major languages of the world.

Sr Zoe Williams, RMI, was also called to the stage, representing Fr Thomas Stephens' country of origin. Sr Zoe is of course well-known to anyone who has passed through Divyadaan; she was introduced, however, as having come specially from England to grace the occasion.

The spoken word passes, but the written word reaches out into the future - the pen reaches out beyond the grave. And so the words and work of Fr Stephens reached out that Saturday evening to the people of Nashik, and will continue reaching out in a variety of ways, thanks to the work of Fr Nelson.

Religious experience - and 'cultivation' of it

"All men and women hunger for God. The hunger is masked and misinterpreted in many ways, but it is always there. Everyone is on the verge of crying out 'My Lord and my God!' but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accomodations with mediocrity.

Then something happens - a word, an event, a dream - and there is a push toward awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Desire, a defiant Hope, a courageous Faithfulness.

But awareness, as such, is not enough. Untended, it trickels into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering. Or, worse, it hardens into patriotic hubris or pharisaic snobbery.

"The pastor is there to nudge the awareness past subjectivities and ideologies into the open and say 'God.'"(Peterson 87)
Vecchi had said more or less the same thing: young people - and people in general today - are not uninterested in religious experience. But they tend to be looking for personal satisfaction, trying out something new, something different. There is needed the discipline of moving from fleeting and unintegrated religious experiences to allowing God to take over our lives.

And Lonergan: religious experience need to be cultivated, and here comes the role of the spiritual guide, the spiritual tradition, and the religious community which helps one identify, name, celebrate, integrate and live the experience.

And Edward Rutherfurd, very perceptively in his novel Sarum, talks about the young Romano-Briton Petrus who undergoes a conversion experience. He hears Christ in a dream; in the morning he rushes to narrate the dream to the young monk Martinus. And the monk, young though he is, manifests a wisdom beyond his years: he sees that Petrus is impulsive, that he needs discipline, and he advises him to go to Gaul and spend some years in a monastery. But Petrus does not want discipline; he is a man of immediate enthusiasms; and as the story unfolds we see how his arrogance unfolds; but where before it was a pagan arrogance, now it is a Christian arrogance. (Sarum [London: Arrow Books, 1988] 403-6)

The job of the priest

To climb to the abandoned places, to touch bereft lives, to speak Christ's Word and witness Christ's Mercy:
"That is our work, and it is enough. And anything else, no matter how applauded or honored, is not enough. We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God. We are there to say 'God' personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in proclamations and in prayers. We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating. We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son, Holy Ghost." (Peterson 86-87)


"We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger. But it is so easy to get distracted. There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say. So much emotion. So many tasks. So much, we think, 'opportunity.' But our assignment is to the 'one thing needful,' the invisible, quiet center - God." (Peterson 87)

The temptation to hog the show

Few fields of work expose the ego so relentlessly to the ruses of vanity and pride as pastoral work.
"We who regularly speak in the name of God to the people around us easily slip into speaking in godlike tones and assuming a godlike posture. The moment we do that, even slightly, any deference to us or defiance of us can lead us into taking on a god-identity. We are, after all, speaking God's word. When people praise us, there is something God-honoring in what they say. When people reject us, there is something God-defying in the way they act. In either case our vocational identification with God's cause and God's word make us vulnerable to mistaken god-identities. No pastor, of course, is explicit in a claim to self-divinity, but year after year of adulation (or lack of it) make their mark. The condition works its way underground and requires strenous vigilance to detect." (Peterson 85)
Hogging the show: another name for the original temptation to be God.

Chaos and creativity

"Mess is the precondition of creativity. The tohu v'bohu of Genesis 1:2. Chaos." (Peterson 163)

The mess in Don Bosco's Valdocco.

The law of emergent probability: the perfectly adjusted bees and ants have not changed the last 6 million years. The promising branches of evolution are, instead, those which still contain sufficient chaos, enough mess, enough maladjustment.

Praying in the belly of the fish

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish. (Jonah 1, 17 - 2, 1)

Whenever I am in trouble, I pray. And since I'm always in trouble, I pray a lot. Even when you see me eat and drink, while I do this, I pray. (Isaac Bashevis Singer, quoted by William Barrett in The Illusion of Technique [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978] 282)
(Peterson 73)

"We become what we are called to be by praying. And we start out by praying from the belly of the fish." (Peterson 74)

"The belly of the fish is a dark, dank, and probably stinking cell. The belly of the fish is Jonah's introduction to askesis." (74)

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Storms and prayer

In one of his chapters, Peterson draws attention to something that had never struck me: the parallels between the Jonah storm story and the St Paul storm story and shipwreck in Acts 27. Both stories, he says, are vocational; the lives are given their definitive shape by God's call to word-of-God work as prophet and apostle. Jonah is the type and Paul the antitype - "the disobedient prophet turned back from his flight from the face of God; the obedient apostle interrupted but not deterred in his pursuit of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ." (68)
"Trouble, at least extreme trouble, storm-trouble, strips us to the essentials and reveals the basic reality of our lives. In Jonah it was prayerlessness, in Paul prayerfulness. The storm revealed Jonah to be a prophet who did not pray. The storm revealed Paul to be an apostle who prayed." (71)
And then, even more surprisingly, Peterson links two more storm stories: Mark 4, 35-41 where Jesus, like Jonah, is asleep when the storm comes and has to be awakened; and Mark 6, 45-52 when Jesus, coming from prayer, calms his frightened disciples with his 'Fear not' - the very same message that Paul, 30 years later, will deliver to his ship's crew (Acts 27, 25).
"Jesus, training his disciples to live vocationally, used these sea storms in which they were out of control to embrace a life of prayer in which they might participate in God's control.

Prayer is the connecting thread binding these sea storm stories; prayer is the articulation of human response to the word of God, the word that creates and saves.... These storms are not simply bad weather; they are the exposure of our lives to the brooding, hovering wind/spirit of God. In the storm we are reduced to what is elemental, and the ultimate elemental is God. And so prayer emerges as the single act that has to do with God. Our vocations are God-called, God-shaped lifework. The moment we drift away from dealing with God primarily (and not merely peripherally), we are no longer living vocationally, no longer living in conscious, willing, participatory relation with the vast reality that constitutes our lives and the entire world around us...." (71-72)

Of glands and weather - and askesis

"Askesis is to spirituality what a training regimen is to an athlete. It is not the thing itself, but the means to maturity and excellence. otherwise we are at the mercy of glands and weather. It is a spiritual equivalent to the old artistic idea that talent grows by its very confinement, that the genie's strength comes from his confinement in the bottle. The creative artist and the praying pastor work common ground here. Without confinement, without the intensification resulting from compression, there is no energy worth speaking of. This is not an option for either artist or pastor. This is not an item that may or may not be incorporated into the creative / spiritual life. This is required. The particular askesis that each person embraces varies, but without askesis, a time and place of confinement / concentration, there is no energy of spirit." (Peterson 74-75)

Sunday 15 November 2009

Eyes to see

Wonderful lessons on respecting people. In his typically suburban American parish, Peterson reports that he lost respect for his people: they had such puny ideas about themselves; in a fast-food culture they came to him for fast-religion help. And then, he says, his reading of Dostoevsky helped him. Dostoevsky had an almost identical society, but he refused to remain on the surface of people; he plunged beneath the surface to discover in the depths fire and passion and God.

What should I say? Our danger, all too often - as we look at our parishioners, at our provinces, at our formation houses.... and sometimes, even at ourselves....

"The stories [of people] go unnoticed not because they are kept secret but becaue the people around are blind to God. So many eyes, glazed by television [and ears and hearts glazed by gossip and idle talk], don't see the God stories being enacted right before them...."

To have eyes to see, and ears to hear. To put on the mind of Christ.

The 'sins of the spirit'

Peterson is right on the dot once again when he distinguishes the lower sins, the 'sins of the flesh,' from the higher sins, 'the sins of the spirit.' The former are obvious; the latter are not, and are very difficult to diagnose.
"Is this outburst of zeal energetic obedience or human presumption? Is this exuberant confidence holy boldness inspired by the Holy Spirit or a boastful arrogance fed by an anxious ego? Is this assertive leadership courageous faith or self-importance? Is this suddenly prominent preacher with a large and admiring following a spiritual descendant of Peter with five thousand repentant converts or of Aaron indulging his tens of thousands with religious song and dance around the golden calf?" (Peterson 14)

Ecclesiastical pornography

Peterson has an interesting expression: ecclesiastical pornography - by which he means 'parish glamorization' - "taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are without spot or wrinkle, the shapes that a few parishes have for a few short years. These provocatively posed pictures are devoid of personal relationships. The pictures excite a lust for domination, for gratification, for uninvolved and impersonal spirituality."

But there are, he says, no perfect parishes. All parishes are a "haphazard collection of people who somehow get assembled into pews on Sundays, half-heartedly sing a few songs most of them don't like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher's decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers."

But, Peterson goes on, "the people in these pews are also people who suffer deeply and find God in their suffering. These are men and women who make love commitments, are faithful to them through trial and temptation, and bear fruits of righteousness...." (Peterson 22-23)

And earlier: "Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to a barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful." (16)

"Anyone who glamorizes congregations [= parishes] does a grave disservice to pastors. We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don't turn out that way under our preaching. On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations. Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won't shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat - and worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren't bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors." (16-17)


Saturday 14 November 2009

This evening's book release function

The President of this evening's book release function of the Khristapurana is Vinayak Dada Patil. The main speakers are Dr. A.H. Salunkhe and Prof. Dr. Dilip Dhondge. Among the chief guests are expected Bishop Thomas Bhalerao and Fr Francis D'Britto. Dr Salunkhe is well-known in Marathi literary circles all over Maharashtra, while Dr Dhondge is, I believe, an expert in the 'Sant literature of Maharashtra.'

Nelson and Francis Waghmare have spent the last week going around personally to the houses of local people interested in literature, showing them the book and inviting them to the function.

Persuasion and foresight

Mr Francis Waghmare, who is organizing the book release function for the Khristapurana this evening, has been after me to say a few words of welcome at the start, and I have been saying no, because while I speak Marathi, I cannot say at all that I am fluent in it. But I must admire Waghmare's powers of persuasion and his foresight. He said all sorts of things about how my Marathi is more than adequate and how I must make my contribution to the Nashik scene. But more than all that, I admired the way he came prepared: he had come with a simple Marathi text already written out. Admirable foresight and anticipation of the chief difficulty.

After Appa Tilak's death, Waghmare is now perhaps the only Christian who is involved in the Nashik literary scene, if we don't take Fr Tony George SJ into account. I was thinking that someone like Nelson should go in this direction. This was, after all, one of the reasons for coming to Nashik: to become part of the literary and cultural scene.

Very rightly the invitation for this evening's function has been made in the name of Divyadaan, which of course Nelson has made an 'Institute of Theology and Philosophy.' Writing books and scholarly publishing is very much part of the work of any Institute such as Divyadaan, and Nelson's work is an outstanding contribution in this line. Waghmare has understood this very well. When I thanked him for the interest he has taken to give adequate publicity to the work, he simply said: "Father, this is not just Nelson's work, or your work, or the work of your society: it belongs to us all." Francis' greatness lies in the fact that he has understood this.

Friday 13 November 2009

Showing people how to live

Peterson narrates a story told by Chaim Potok, famous Jewish novelist, at a lecture at John Hopkins University's Shriver Hall.

Potok said that he had wanted to be a writer from an early age, but that when he went to college his mother took him aside and said, "Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but I have a better idea. Why don't you be a brain surgeon. You'll keep a lot of people from dying; you'll make a lot of money." Chaim replied, "No, mama. I want to be a writer."

He returned home for vacation, and his mother got him off alone. "Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama. Be a brain surgeon. You'll keep a lot of people from dying; you'll make a lot of money." Chaim replied, "No, mama. I want to be a writer."

This conversation was repeated every vacation break, every summer, every meeting: "Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama. Be a brain surgeon. You'll keep a lot of people from dying; you'll make a lot of money." Each time Chaim replied, "No, mama. I want to be a writer."

The exchanges accumulated. the pressure intensified. Finally there was an explosion. "Chaim, you're wasting your time. Be a brain surgeon. You'll keep a lot of people from dying; you'll make a lot of money." The explosion detonated a counter-explosion: "Mama, I don't want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!"

(Peterson 46-47)


I've just realized that Peterson is not a Catholic priest! And yet - the man has the ability to reach out and touch the heart. And he quotes St Benedict and Catholic monks as readily as he quotes the Bible and Jewish midrash and rabbis....

Don’t run to Tarshish

"What is useless and destructive is to imagine that enlightenment or virtue can be found by seeking for fresh stimulation. The pastoral life is a refusal of any view that will make human maturity before God dependent on external stimulus, 'good thoughts,' good impressions, edifying influences and ideas. Instead, the pastor must learn to live with his or her own darkness, with the interior horror or temptation and fantasy. Salvation affects the whole of the psyche; to try to escape boredom, sexual frustration, restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace. Without the humiliating and wholly 'unspiritual' experiences of parish-life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature. It is a discipline to destroy illusions. The pastor has come to the parish to escape the illusory Christian identity proposed by the world; he and she now have to see the roots of illusion within, in the longing to be dramatically and satisfyingly in control of life, the old imperialism of the self bolstered by the intellect." (Rowan Williams, Christian Spirituality [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980] 94-95, in Peterson 20-21. Peterson has substituted the original 'monk' and 'community' with 'pastor' and 'parish.')

From tending the Garden to running the Garden

"I take it as a given that all of us would prefer to be our own gods than to worship God. The Eden story is reenacted daily, not only generally in the homes and workplaces of our parishioners but quite particularly in the sanctuaries and offices, studies and meeting rooms in which we do our work. The only difference in the dynamics of the serpent's seduction in the explicitly religious workplace is that when pastors are seduced, our facility with the language provides us with a thesaurus of self-deceiving euphemisms. Our skill in handling religious concepts gives us above-average competence in phrasing things in such a way that our vocational shift from tending the Garden to running the Garden, our radical fall from vocational holiness to career idolatry, goes undetected by all but the serpent." (Peterson 7)
But parable and prayer slip past these facades and expose the truth. "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant," counseled Emily Dickinson. (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson [Boston: Little, Brown, 1960) 506, in Peterson 7) Parable and prayer are subversive. The Jonah story, for example, is subversive. "It insinuates itself indirectly by comedy and exaggeration into our culture-sanctioned career idolatries, and while we are amused and laughing, our defenses down, it captures our imagination and sets us on the way to the recovery of our vocational holiness." (Peterson 6-7)
I am thinking of Lonergan's remarks on satire and humour. Much the same function.

Vision and virtue

Stanley Hauerwas argues that, if we want to change our lives, acquiring the right image is far more important than diligently exercising will power:

We are as we come to see and as that seeing becomes enduring in our intentionality. We do not come to see, however, just by looking but by training our vision through the metaphors and symbols that constitute our central convictions. How we come to see therefore is a function of how we come to be since our seeing necessarily is determined by how our basic images are embodied by the self – i.e., in our character…. The moral life is not first a life of choice – decision is not king – but is rather woven from the notions that we use to see and form the situations we confront. (Vision and Virtue [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981] 2, cited in Peterson 6)

And Peterson goes on:

Willpower is a notoriously sputtery engine on which to rely for internal energy, but a right image silently and inexorably pulls us into its field of reality, which is also a field of energy. (Peterson 6)

Peterson’s book on the priesthood

Thanks to David Mariaselvam, I am discovering some lovely books on the priesthood. One such is Eugene H. Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. This is one of those books that call out to be read: the cover design, the quality of the printing, the titles and subtitles…. And, rightly enough, dipping into the book seems only to confirm this hunch. I think this is going to be one of those extraordinary books that really make a difference.

Peterson begins by drawing attention to the gap, the chasm, that opened up for him after some years of ministry, years when there seemed to be perfect harmony between being Christian and being a pastor…. (1)

He speaks of the 14 disciplines most in use in spirituality: spiritual reading, spiritual direction, meditation, confession, bodily exercise, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, dream-interpretation, retreats, pilgrimage, almsgiving (tithing), journaling, sabbaticals, and small groups. (108) I found the list amazing! And all things that are 'at hand'….

He notes that askesis has to be customized to the individual, and quotes von Hugel: "There are no dittos among souls." (F. von Hugel, Letters to a Niece [London: J.M. Dent, 1958) xxix) (108)

This is a good book. Will I make the time to read it? Read it?

Thursday 12 November 2009

Minor disaster in Divyadaan

Minor disaster in Divyadaan yesterday, thanks to hurricane Phyan... This venerable tree - an ambado - planted by Mr Andrew Bagul sometime in the early days of Divyadaan - finally went down. I was stunned to see the shallow roots...

Divyadaan will not be the same without it. Many of you old pupils will probably agree with me. (I've just added an old photo of the tree in bloom. The amado is one of the few Indian trees that sheds leaves - at least here in Nashik - and puts out flowers before the leaves, like the trees in the northern climes.) But the tree was already ailing for some years now. Not its old vigorous self. I think the decline began when there was a bit of excessive pruning some years ago.

I hope it finds a worthy successor, this tree.

The Christian teaching on love

Wonderful summary of Christian teaching on love, by De Smet:

The Bible first reveals God as the supreme object of love, and commands us to love him (Ex 20, 5-6; Deut 6, 4-5).

The discovery that divine love is a two way relationship was made especially by Isaiah II and Hosea, and, not long after, by the Gitakara in India.

Hosea's analogy of the marriage of God with Israel indicates that God is the first to love: the initiative comes from God. And love is the cord by which God draws Israel to himself (Hos 11, 4).

And the Bhagavad Gita: Isto 'si me; priyo 'si me.

Yet this love is not yet clearly universal. Does God love only a chosen people, or an elected friend, or only his devotees? This doubt is clearly answered in the revelation of Jesus Christ: God loves everyone.

But the real novelty in the teaching of Jesus is the universalization of the natural human duty of loving one's neighbour. Jesus takes up the old Biblical commandment of loving one's neighbour, only to redefine neighbour as anyone, even a member of a group inimical to my own: see the dramatic story of the Good Samaritan.

The love of God and love of neighbour are placed on an equal plane. Both together form the great commandment which sums up the law.

And note this: the Samaritan's attitude towards the wounded Jew reproduces God's attitude towards the thankless and the unjust.

This is the culmination of the revelation of God's love. It integrates the first step - God as our supreme Lovable - with the second - God as our supreme Lover, into a double movement of loving benefaction which goes initially from God to the least of human beings, and, in imitation of God, from human beings in love with God to the most detestable of their fellow human beings.

(See R. De Smet, "From Love to Service," The Messenger of the Sacred Heart [Dindigul] 65/2 [Feb. 1972] 30-32.)

Kindness again

Why is that that so many of us want to be hard with others, but none of us like it when others are hard on us?

The one who is the great champion of discipline and straight talk is often the one who is most upset when someone else tries to discipline him, find fault with him, or talk straight with him.

So kindness with others is considered softness; but I expect that everyone be kind, polite, gentle, respectful to me and appreciative of me.

An interesting dialogue

A problem is stated: they did so much work, they were there for five hours, and you did not even offer them a glass of water, leave alone food.

First one begins by excusing oneself: I was too busy; I had too much work; how can I think of everything. (I.e., you are right, I should have, but ...).

Then one pities oneself: I am working so hard, and nobody appreciates it. What is the use of working so hard. (I.e., why are you questioning me? By questioning me, you show that you do not appreciate me.)

Then one justifies oneself: but why should they expect water? They could have bought water. Why should they expect food? We cannot give food to everybody.

Then one finds a principle: Don Bosco said that to act in a play is itself a reward; no other reward should be expected.

Note the shifting of grounds. A sure sign of a counterposition.

The simply response would be to admit: yes, you are right, I am sorry, I should have thought of it....

On the other hand, yes: begin with appreciation, then point out the problems.
And: don’t get drawn into the argument.
Worse still: don’t get drawn into other matters and fresh arguments. Stick to the point.

The identity of the Catholic priest today

David Mariaselvam from KJC has asked me to write something about the Identity of the Priest in the secular world. I am reading a piece Lonergan wrote in the 1970s: "The Response of the Jesuit as Priest and Apostle in the Modern World."

Wonderful connection between the divine self-communication in Son and Spirit; the mission of the Spirit as transcending barriers of space and time, while the mission of the Son, circumscribed by space and time, requires mediation in space and time; the mediation being both institutionalized and non; the slow development of institutionalized mediation in the New Testament, seen in the Twelve and the Seventy-two, apostles like Paul who were not among the Twelve, companions, helpers and deputies such as Timothy and Titus, and finally untitled and titled elders, bishops and deacons.

The priest then is part of the institutionalized mediation of the mission of the Son.

Here Lonergan points out a semantic trap: the English word priest translates the Greek presbyteros, but it also translates equally the Greek hiereis = the Latin sacerdos. The presbyteros was leader and teacher, while in the New Testament hiereis is used either of the Jewish and pagan priests, or of Christ, or of the faithful.

This leads to a certain ambiguity which we need to be aware of. The priesthood of the faithful means, not that all the faithful are elders, but that they are all hiereis, concerned with the sacred. And the 'ministerial priesthood' means, I would imagine, leader, teacher, as well as sanctifier: king, prophet and priest (hiereis).

Taking off from here, Lonergan turns to the Jesuit priest in the modern world. He concentrates on the task of teaching and leading. All teaching and leading, he says, takes place and is conditioned by some particular cultural context. The Catholic cultural context is one of classicism giving way slowly to historical mindedness. The culture (of the 1970s) is marked by modernity, secularism, and self-destructiveness. The Jesuit has to lead and teach in this kind of world. He must overcome vestiges of classicism in his upbringing, accept the gains of modernity, and work out strategies for dealing with secularist views on religion and with concomitant distortions in our notion of human knowledge, our apprehension of human reality, and our organization of human affairs.

How such strategies are to be worked out, Lonergan himself admits, is an enormous question. But it is interesting to see how Lonergan has placed the contemporary Jesuit at the situation of the largest generality, nothing less perhaps than the redemption of the world. He goes on to indicate briefly what such strategy might be like.

1. It is a creative project emerging from thorough understanding of situations and grasp of just what can be done about them.
2. It is not a static project set out once and for all, but an ongoing project that is constantly revised in the light of feedback from its implementations.
3. It is not a single ongoing project but a whole set of ongoing projects, constantly reported to some central clearinghouse.
4. This interesting central clearinghouse (echoes of the cosmopolis of Insight? remember that cosmopolis is not a police force; and remember that Lonergan says that the task of the magisterium / Roman Curia is not policing) has the twofold function of (1) drawing attention to conflict between separate parts; and (2) keeping all parts informed about successes as well as failures in other parts.
5. Finally, all such projects must be in Christ Jesus, “the work of those who take up their cross daily [the law of the cross], who live by the Spirit in the Word, who consecrate themselves to loving, who banish all tendencies to hatred, reviling, destroying.”

In sum: Lonergan's recommendation to the modern Jesuit priest is that he deal with modernity, secularism and self-destructiveness by working out a set of creative, ongoing projects in Christ Jesus, constantly reported to some central clearinghouse with functions of communication and dialectic.

All this presupposes a clear conception of the mission of the priest, which is the mission of the Church, and of Jesus Christ, and ultimately the design of God for humankind and for the cosmos.

Perhaps one of the broadest ways is to think about this mission and plan in terms of the "reconciliation of all things in Christ", and a time when "God will be all in all"? Jesus as "gathering into one the scattered children of God", breaking down the dividing walls of hatred between Jew and Greek? And perhaps relevant here are the brilliant and trenchant formulations of Brendan Lovett, in For the Joy Set Before Him...?

Love and persevering authenticity

See the connection between perseverance in 'being good' and love. It never struck me with such clarity before:
"I have said that human authenticity is a matter of achieving self-transcendence. I have said that such achievement is always precarious, always a withdrawal from unauthenticity, always in danger of slipping back into unauthenticity. This is not a cheerful picture, and you may ask whether ordinary human beings ever seriously and perseveringly transcend themselves.

I think they do so when they fall in love."
Bernard Lonergan, "The Response of the Jesuit as Priest and Apostle in the Modern World," A Second Collection (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974) 170.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Fr P. Wenisch's Bible stories

I finally stumbled upon the name I have been searching for: Fr P. Wenisch, SJ, who probably functioned from Dindigul in South India. I came across the name in De Smet's articles from The Messenger of the Sacred Heart that I found yesterday in the Papal Seminary Library. And why is Wenisch so interesting? Because I think he is with all probability the priest who used to send out Bible stories in cartoon form every week. They were colourful little pamphlets which we had to buy for 6 paise and also go round selling... And 6 paise was quite affordable I think in those times. Wonderful way of spreading knowledge of Bible stories. Might still be an effective way. But we threw out all our copies - we used to gather them meticulously. I wonder whether the Jesuits in Dindigul might still have copies?


I have just returned from Lonavla, where I preached a retreat to a group of 38 FMAs. This is the first time I stayed at their Lonavla house, on Monsoon Lake. I found Lonavla truly delightful in this season. It is filthy in parts, overcrowded and overbuilt, but the Ryewoods and Monsoon Lake area is still beautiful. The trees, washed in a million hues of green after the rains; the old walls from British times, and the quaint bungalows with their little gardens; the often winding roads and paths....

The Christian cemetery contains graves from as far back as 1837; some may be of Anglo-Indians, but some are almost certainly British. There is even a grave of some (Goan?) honoured by the King of Portugal. And one Williams - some remote relative of Zoe Williams?

Gravestones tell a history of their own. Cleophas Braganza was telling us about the Jewish cemetery in Koregaon Park, with its headstones graven in Hebrew and Marathi....

Vidal's Lincoln

Just finished reading Gore Vidal's Lincoln: A Novel. A masterpiece. Sheer entertainment; for once the blurbs are absolutely to the point.

I was surprised to learn that Lincoln's driving passion as President was not so much the abolition of slavery, but the preservation of the Union. According to Vidal, he belonged to the moderate abolitionist group, and was bitterly opposed by the radical abolitionists in his own Republican Party, principally by Salmon Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury. In the course of the war, Lincoln did free the slaves, but only in the Southern states, and too, he was careful to explain, as a military necessity. Further, he firmly believed that the white and the black man could not coexist; he was for a 'colonization' solution - finding some homeland for the freed slaves outside the United States of America.

But Vidal's novel is a masterpiece. Departing from the 'hagiographies' and basing himself on reports, diaries, letters and other historical data, he reconstructs a Lincoln who is probably as surprising to the Americans as to someone like me. Lincoln is constantly observed by those around him: principally his faithful young secretary Hay; his one time opponent and later admirer, and Secretary of State, Seward; the scheming Chase; and the plotters, the young David Herold, the mysterious John Surratt, and the dashing young actor, Wilkes Booth, who ultimately is the one who shoots Lincoln. He emerges as a bumbling, weak, incompetent President; but one, who even Chase recognizes, ultimately controls everyone around him. If anything, Lincoln is a master politician. He is always polite, usually deferential, and sometimes maddeningly indecisive; but the Lincoln that emerges is one who is absolutely dedicated to the cause of the Union, and who ultimately is the one firmly in control. The way Vidal brings out his sheer political mastery is breathtaking.

This book is absolutely free of the usual blood and gore and sleaze; but I have found few novels so entertaining.

Lincoln, master

Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (1985) 409:

"Then, Mr. President, the real question is whether or not you intend to ask him to withdraw his resignation?"

"Yes," said the President; and his ordinarily restless body was now very still in its chair.

"… Now, on this issue, whether you should accept the resignation of Mr. Seward, would you like me to consult my fellow-senators?"

"No," said the President. "I would not." He unfolded himself from his chair until he towered over the slight New Englander. "I want to have good relations. That is why I have done something tonight that no president has ever done before, and I pray that none will ever be obliged to do again. I have let you into the heart of the executive, to see us as we are. But that is the most I can do to show good faith and openness."

"You are aware, sir, that a majority of our caucus want Mr. Chase at the helm of a cabinet composed of new members, who will prosecute the war with a single will."

Lincoln looked down at Fessenden. The left eye had begun to droop with weariness but the voice was very hard and very clear. "That is what you and your friends may want, Mr. Fessenden. But that is not what you will get. Because," Lincoln suddenly smiled without the slightest trace of amiability; a smile, thought Hay, reminiscent of the wolf as it bares its teeth, "I am the master here. Good-night, Mr. Fessenden." Lincoln took the senator's hand.

The shaken Fessenden, bowed; and said, "Good-night, Mr. President."

Lincoln: political craftsmanship

As Lincoln was staring into the wood fire, Seward watched him closely. Whatever the President's shortcomings as a war leader, he was a master politician. It takes one, thought Seward, sipping the port, to understand another. But Seward was not prepared for what came next. "Tell me about Horatio Seymour."

"Well, he defeated our man pretty soundly in New York. Thurlow Weed likes him, though he is a Democrat. Weed thinks he'll make a good governor. And, of course, he is a strong Union man. Why?"

Lincoln still stared into the fire. "I have it in mind to support Mr. Seymour for president in 'sixty-four."

Seward put down his port glass so hard that the crystal nearly broke. "A Democrat?"

"If our party fails to win the war, the Democratic Party will win the election. Since McClellan would be as disastrous a president as he was a general, we must see to it that the Democrats come forward with a strong Union man, whom we can support openly or secretly or whatever."

"You have given this a lot of thought?"

"Well, since November fourth, anyway."

"Have you talked to anyone else about it?"

Lincoln nodded. "I've talked, in strictest confidence, with Stanton. After all, he's a Democrat himself. He likes McClellan even less than I do. He could use the War Department to help Seymour, while I could bide my time to the last minute; and then support Seymour."

"You astonish me, sir."

"Well, Governor, these are highly astonishing times. Anyway, talk this over with Weed; and no one else." Lincoln got to his feet. "Now I must get ready to do some listening." He patted Seward's shoulder. "You have behaved nobly, Governor. The thing is not over yet."

"Precisely my advice to you, sir, when you start talking about supporting Seymour for president."

"Well, we have to look ahead, don't we? That's what the people hire us to do." Lincoln paused; then smiled. "Naturally, I shall expect Mr. Seymour to see to it that New York fulfills its draft quota."

"Quid pro quota?" Seward was amused by Lincoln's exquisite political craftsmanship.

"Governor…" murmured the President, with a hint of reproach; and he was gone.

Lincoln: sheer political craft

From Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (1985) 406-7:

At last, the Tycoon was ready for the coup de grâce. He lifted, as it were, his executioner's ax. "I think, to indulge the committee, the Cabinet should answer the principal charge that has been brought – that I do not consult them." Sweetly, thought Hay, the Tycoon turned to Chase, whose eyes were now open, the celestial music only a memory. "Mr. Chase, as the highest-ranking member of the Cabinet, I think it might be useful for you to tell the senators just how we run our shop."

There was no sound at all in the room. Everyone present knew that it was Chase who had most inflamed the radical Republicans with his revelations of Seward's sinister influence on a president too weak and too evasive to allow full discussion of the great issues. Now, thought Hay, Lincoln has arranged this elaborate trap for Chase; and no matter what Chase said or did, the trap had sprung on him. If he told the senators in front of the Cabinet what he had been telling the senators in private, the members of the Cabinet would not only call him a liar but a traitor to the President and the Administration. If he denied before the Cabinet what he had told the senators in private, he would lose the support and the respect of those radical Republicans who had wanted him for president. For sheer political craft, Hay had never seen anything so neatly done. One way or the other, with a single bold confrontation, the Tycoon had disarmed his rival.

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