About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Puer Natus Est Nobis


Let us rejoice, for the Christ Child is born to us today!

We celebrate today the birth of Jesus Christ, the Immanuel, the Son of God; on this day some 2,000 years ago a virgin named Mary gave birth to Him, and wrapped in swaddling clothes he was lain in a manger. At the opening of the Midnight Mass in the Cathedral of St. Paul here in Münster, the cantor sang the announcement of the First Mass of Christmas taken from the Martyrologium Romanum, the medieval catalogue of the calendar of the Church’s feast days:

In the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when in the beginning God created heaven and earth; from the flood, the 2957th year; from the birth of Abraham, the 2015th year; from Moses and the going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the 1510th year; from the anointing of David as king, the 1032nd year; in the 65th week according tothe prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; from the founding of the city of Rome, the 752nd year; in the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception was born in Bethlehem of Juda of the Virgin Mary, having become man. The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

As tedious as it might seem to define the day of Christ’s birth according to many historical references, the Martyrologium has a very good reason for its lengthy detail: the birth of Jesus Christ, the official revelation to the world of the Incarnation, the Word, the only-begotten Son of God before all ages of the world, now born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem—this birth was and is an historical event. Christ was born a man on an actual day in the actual history of the world. The Nativity of Christ is not just a story in a religious text, like so many stories in so many traditions around the world; no, He was a completely real person, like you or I, acting in the reality of history.

The incredible beauty and yet radical statement that is the mystery of the Incarnation is at the heart not only of the Christian religion but also the very existence of the world. Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”: He is the very foundation of existence. Yet He also “for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven: and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and became man”: He was (and is) an individual human being, walking upon the earth in an actual body composed of muscles and sinews and blood. If He missed a nail and hit His finger with a hammer in His carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth, he felt the same pain that you or I feel when we do the same. Indeed, He faced even greater pains than you or I are likely ever to face when He was “crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried.”

And as radical as this idea may seem, that the immortal, invisible, omniscient and omnipresent God, Creator of all that is and was and ever shall be, was also a simple woodworker from a backwater town on the Sea of Galilee; as radical as this idea may seem, more radical yet is “what both educated and simple people [find] in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human.” (Spe Salvi 6). Not only did Christ the God become Christ the Man, the King who was made Sacrifice, but in doing so, He both renewed and further exalted the very humanity that we hold in common with Him, as we are reminded during the Preparation of the Gifts in the Mass:

Deus, qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti: da nobis per huius aquae et vini mysterium, eius divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps, Iesus Christus.

O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully renew the dignity of the nature of man: grant unto us, that through the mystery of this water and wine, we may be sharers in His divinity who vouchsafed to be made partaker of our humanity, Jesus Christ.

In the New Adam, the strength of humanity was made anew, perfected from the Fall of Adam but also excelling Adam even in his perfection; for though Adam was made in the image and likeness of God, yet God did not share with Adam yet his human nature. But now, in an act made out of His boundless love, His Son has taken up that nature, and in this mystery are opened unto us the true gates of righteousness. In Christ we may now share in the one divinity; Adam and Eve lusted after this, but it was not given them, for they knew not the mystery of the Son. But now, every one of us, every child who is born into the world just as was Christ 2,000 years ago, has received in His birth the opportunity to be co-heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

While this Mystery seems incomprehensible, it is yet the most accessible feature of the Christian religion, for in Christ we have been presented with a man, a simple man, a true person with whom we each can have a true, intimate, personal relationship. Christian spirituality is not an amorphous cloud; it is not some “feeling” that we have of joy or loftiness or nobility. It must not be confused with many modern ideas of spirituality that emphasize the temporal sensation or sentiment of some ill-defined “spiritual connection” to some higher being. No, Christian spirituality is concrete and is founded in the very personal, very real Person of Jesus. Without Jesus, without the Christ who was a real, historical, and finite man, and is also a real, eternal, infinite God, Christian spirituality is empty.

Furthermore, without this real encounter with the personhood of Christ, this whole life and world is left empty and dark, a mere wandering from a naked birth to a naked death. If one believes in no God, or even if one believes in a God who is but as the furthest twinkle of a star, beautiful perhaps but utterly distant and foreign, then there is left nothing in this world but the brief span of the insignificant life of a human, one of billions living but a snapshot of a world infinitely larger than any can comprehend. In the cold, materialistic worldview that knocks ever at the gates of one who despairs of the divine, life is nothing but “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes noted centuries ago.

But to this dark and dreary emptiness we are not bound, for the world is neither accident nor meaninglessness, but the very essence of the love of a personal God. As Pope Benedict says in his recent encyclical, Spe Salvi:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs…the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (Spe Salvi 5)

Finally, as we look today upon the Incarnate Christ as an example of “who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human,” we must realize that we are gazing this happy day upon a child lying in a manger, the food trough of farm animals, sheltered from the elements by a barn, “because there was no room for them at the inn.” (Luke 2:7); and though the Magi brought to Him the gold of Kingship and the frankincense of Divinity, these gifts acknowledged not His human destiny but His spiritual reality. Indeed, it was Balthazar’s gift of myrrh that spoke most clearly of the role that this man of the royal house of David was to play in human history: His sacrificial death. The truth of humanity’s lot in this world is not the gold of the king but the pain and sorrow of suffering. Yet the suffering that we see all around us every day is not the meaningless horror that it would seem, for all suffering finds it true meaning in the suffering of Him who should not have had to suffer at all, but yet suffered more than all.

The key to our humanity as revealed to us by the lowly babe in a manger is His humility. He is the Son of God, and yet he slept not on silk but straw; He is the Word by which all is made, and yet spoke not of his right to rule the world but of his choice to serve it; He is of the great “I AM” who commanded Moses to remove his sandals upon holy ground, and who yet Himself removed the sandals of others to wash their feet. A man must serve and not be served in order to be fully human. A man must lay himself down in order to be stood aright not by his own will by the will of God. Above all, a man must so love God and his neighbor that even death for them is but a pittance compared to this love.

If this sounds difficult or even impossible for the lost, wandering, selfish, poor being that is man, remember but this: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmastime in Münster

A little over a week ago, freezing temperatures finally came to this city. Yet, it does not snow in Münster, though I’m not particularly sure why; instead, we have awoken each morning to a very heavy frost. Though the day may not end under a heavy fog, each morning almost invariably dawns beneath it, and as the air becomes colder, this mist clings to all in a crystalline coat. The sun might (or might not, as today) burn through it ere the noon bells ring, and sometimes (as I painfully discovered this morning), the blanket lies invisibly (and slickly) upon the sidewalks and pavement (a phenomenon called Glatteis, safety from which the celebrant wished us at the opening of this morning’s Mass). Drivers must scrape off their cars in the morning, while the grass (which has remained yet green, though rather the dark and toughened hue of the end of the season than the bright and vibrant color of its youth) is cloaked, and as one walks about, it shimmers dully between frosty white and dark green. The frost’s most magnificent vesture is, however, worn by the bare branches of the trees, covered in an icy film that grows ever thicker as the nights grow colder. When the skies of day are still overhung with the chilled and dreamy mists, the thin limbs of the trees slice through it with their cold filigree of silver; but when the darts of brilliant sunlight strike forth, oblique and always low on the horizon in these days, the branches glow with pale, white gold; but alas, it lasts only a short time, for soon they are reduced to the muddied browns and greys of wetted wood, the frost melted by the very rays that had illumined it.

Despite the deepening cold, however, the city’s most vibrant Christmas tradition has thronged apace: the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. This tradition, found in towns great and small throughout Germany (the most famous is to be found in the great square of Nürnberg), came brilliantly to life in Münster at the beginning of Advent, and as the Day of Jubilee has drawn nearer, the booths have thronged ever more with jollity and merriment (and on the weekends, the whole of the markets are packed to overflowing with the Dutch, who come by the busload—it would seem that Amsterdam can’t match Münster for the holiday cheer). Because Münster’s greatest open space in the old city, the Domplatz (Cathedral Square) is reserved for the use of the great traveling market that comes every Wednesday and Friday year-round, the Weihnachtsmarkt has been shoehorned into little squares and courtyards throughout, so that one can walk from the Aegidiiplatz in the south to the Lambertikirche in the north, wending one’s way from one grouping of booths to the next.

Some of the booths offer various Christmas trinkets (from little wooden ornaments to various Santa hats—particularly popular this year seems to be the one that comes with two white braids hanging from it, in the style of Pippi Longstocking), but many are run by craftsmen offering various handcrafts in wood, ceramic, glass, or other materials. As numerous as the crafts, however, is the ubiquitous drink of the Weihnachtsmarkt: Glühwein, or spiced and mulled wine, a steaming drink to return warmth to the belly among the frigid mists of winter; and, of course, the many vittles offered to the crowds: the traditional (at least these days in northern Germany) Currywurst (sliced Bratwurst smothered in warm curry ketchup), and Pommes (French fries), with your choice of curry ketchup or Mayo (pronounced “my-oh” here) slathered on top; and for the sweet tooth, the Christmas confections of Lebkuchen (soft, spiced gingerbread) and gebrannte Mandeln (almonds “roasted” or caramelized in sugar with vanilla and cinnamon). Finally, strung throughout one will find musicians of all types (from adolescents with their flutes and clarinets trying to make some extra spending money, to the old hats who do this for a living) adding that final touch of Christmas cheer.

The street performers were not the only musical cheer that I have experienced this season in Münster. In my time over the last few years in Boston, I started to make it a tradition as a birthday present to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah on or about my birthday (December 2), as the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston performs it several times annually on the first few weekends of December. Sometime in November, my grandmother asked me if I was going to continue the tradition, and I had to reply that alas, I would not, as I was unaware of any performances of the Messiah in Münster. But about a week before Thanksgiving, as I was glancing through a pamphlet at the Cathedral listing the various musical offerings around town for the Christmas season, lo and behold, I discovered that there would, in fact, be a performance of the aforesaid masterwork at the Apostelkirche (the main Protestant church in the city’s center, housed in a beautiful gothic structure that was once a Dominican parish before being confiscated during the secularization at the beginning of the 19th century; when it was finally to be returned to religious hands, the Dominicans no longer had a stake for it and it, therefore, given as the first house of worship for Lutherans in this (still) predominantly Catholic town); furthermore, only two performances were to be offered, on the evenings of Saturday and Sunday, December 1 & 2 (and as I later discovered, it is by no means an annual performance; the last time it was performed was 1995!). Much to my delight, I rounded up my American friends here (Timon, who lives in my dorm complex, and David, both Americans studying at the university, and Jennifer and Jörg Burkart and Bill Hoye) and held a “birthday outing” on the evening of the second. Not only was I able to continue the nascent tradition, but I have now christened it a firm part of my birthday celebrations, for it has been followed not only in America but in Germany, too! The evening was, however, to have its own German twists: the oratorio was sung in German (not my accustomed English), and we headed to the Weihnachtsmarkt afterward for a nice round of Glühwein. The performance was overall good, though the trumpeter had a few missteps early on, but recovered well for his standout role in the latter third of the piece; and, unfortunately, they cut a few sections out for length, including “O death, where is they sting?”, a beautiful duet toward the end. But in the company of friends on the occasion of a birthday celebration, such deficiencies are easily overlooked.

Last week, on the third Sunday of Advent, I enjoyed another musical celebration of the season heralding Our Lord’s Birth, this time in the company of the Deutsch-Amerikanische Gesellshaft (the German-American Society of Münster). The afternoon began with an Advent Tea hosted by Heidi Wegmann at her beautiful home in Wolbeck, a southeastern suburb of the city. From there, as night descended (this far north, that begins at about 4:00 in the afternoon), we journeyed to the workshop of Friedrich Fleiter, Orgelbaumeister, whose family has specialized in the construction, maintenance, and repair of organs since 1872, to attend a concert benefiting a local charity, given annually on the Wurlitzer organ installed in the workshop. The organ, a “Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra, Made by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., Cincinnati”, was originally installed in a Hollywood movie theater in 1924. When the theater was renovated to be able to show movies with sound in the 1940’s, the organ was moved to a stage theater, also in Hollywood, where it remained until that theater closed in 1994, at which time Herr Fleiter’s company saved it from the trash heap and brought it to Münster. Designed to reproduce a full orchestra pit to accompany silent films, the organ has such ranks as a xylophone, snare drums, bells, and a cymbal. Befitting the Wurlitzer’s American origins, the concert began with a series of American pop songs from the 1950s – ‘70s, including “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To” and “Downtown” (I’ll admit, it was a bit odd to hear them on an organ, but fun nonetheless). This was followed by a screening from DVD of a silent Laurel & Hardy short, which the organist accompanied most excellently. The film, called “Big Business”, tells the story of Laurel and Hardy the Hollywood Christmas tree salesmen and their over-the-top exploits selling pine trees door-to-door on the balmy back lot. After an intermission (accompanied by a nice mug of Glühwein), the concert concluded with a great series of American Christmas songs (both traditional and popular).

Of course, all of these wonderful festivities have been but in preparation for the truly miraculous feast that commences tomorrow night: the Birth of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. As we gather at midnight in the Cathedral to celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, to dance upon the dancing day for our True Love, we shall experience the fulfillment of all our expectant watching. The lamps of the Advent wreath have been lit, and await the Bridegroom’s march, as proclaimed to us by the watchmen on the heights. Then, no matter whether the mists continue to shroud the night or the stars twinkle and the moon sets to sparkling the frost-encrusted tangles of the hedges, the True Light, God’s Son, shall shine forth the brighter in our hearts.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Do you believe every word of this book?"

In reference to the Bible, this was one of the questions during yesterday's CNN/YouTube Republican Presidential Debate, and of the three candidates to answer the question (Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. Mitt Romney, and Gov. Mike Huckabee), two of them had excellent answers, while one (Romney) fumbled the ball. You can see the video of their answers here.

The first to answer was Giuliani:
The reality is, I believe it, but I don't believe it's necessarily literally true in every single respect. I think there are parts of the Bible that are interpretive. I think there are parts of the Bible that are allegorical. I think there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be interpreted in a modern context.

So, yes, I believe it. I think it's the great book ever written. I read it frequently. I read it very frequently when I've gone through the bigger crises in my life, and I find great wisdom in it, and it does define to a very large extent my faith. But I don't believe every single thing in the literal sense of Jonah being in the belly of the whale, or, you know, there are some things in it that I think were put there as allegorical.
The mayor gave an answer that would be similar to my own answer to the question, which would have run something like this: "Yes, I believe that every word in the Bible is true. I do not, however, believe that a literal interpretation of every word is always the best interpretation. Rather, much of the Bible is to be understood either allegorically, that is, it speaks to us in metaphor and allegory; or anagogically, that is, it speaks to us about the being of God in analogy and metaphor; or tropologically, that is, it speaks to us in metaphor concerning our own morals and way of life. Do I believe that God created the world in seven, twenty-four hour days as we understand them? No. Do I believe that there is a wealth of meaning that could fill volumes and tell us many things about God, about ourselves, and about the world around us, all to be found in the metaphor that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh? Yes." Or something to that effect.

The best answer of this question, however, was given by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who was most eloquent while at his most sincere:

Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself.

And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical.

But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself." And, "As much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me." Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated.

And as the only person here probably on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small.

'Nuff said.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Thanksgivings in Germany

I hope that all my friends and family back home had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend; I had the great fortune to be able to attend not one but two Thanksgiving dinners this past weekend. The first, organized by the German-American Society of Münster, was held on Thursday evening at Henry's Poltertenne, a wonderful, rustic event center on the outskirts of the city. I went with Jennifer Burkart, the former Boston College Fulbrighter, and her husband, Jörg (and had I known that the other American students walked (!) to the dinner, I would have asked Jennifer and Jörg to give them a ride!). The dinner was well-attended both by members of the society, Americans living, working, or studying in Münster, as well as many other friends of the States--including the Mayor of Münster himself, Hans Varnhagen!

All of the food except the turkey was provided potluck-style, and while--alas!--there were no mashed potatoes or gravy, there was an abundance of many different kinds of salads and casseroles and other side dishes that were just as delicious, if not quite as "traditional" to the Thanksgiving feast. Desserts also abounded, with various brownies and cookies and cakes and puddings and custards, all laid out in fine fashion. The crowning achievement was, however, the turkeys--I saw at least two, but there may have been more kept in the hotbox by the master carver beneath the table. Since I couldn't figure out how to say "dark meat" in German, I used the "grunt and point" method to indicate my choice, and when it became clear to me that I might just be able to have it, I asked "Darf ich das ganze haben?", and with a flourish, one of the great turkey legs graced my plate!

The conversation at our table was mainly focused on the goings on both past and present of the English classes taught at the Katholishe Fachhochschule (the equivalent of a community college), where Jennifer teaches, as we were joined by one of her current colleagues, as well as a former teacher there who splits his time now between Münster and his farm in upstate New York. A long focus of the discussion was his lament concerning the skills of German students in writing coherent, well-organized expository essays. It is not, he claimed, a fault of the German students that, when they arrive in his English classes, they cannot seem to write what in America would be the standard "5-paragraph essay" on which we are schooled from 6th grade on, nor that, given an essay, they seem unable to answer the question, "What is this essay about it? What is its topic sentence?" Indeed, he has found that 95% of his students, who were hopeless at the beginning, can after a few months of his instruction, construct a perfectly well-organized expository essay. The problem, he claims, is that the German teachers don't seem to think that such a skill should be (or can be) taught; indeed, his lament extended to the whole German philosophy of education, which he believes eschews the traditional rhetorical tradition, and therefore finds itself incapable of construction well-organized arguments. Though I thought that he went perhaps too far in his criticism, I have found in my experience in classes that German teachers do have tendency to wander from topic to topic in their lectures.

Though the evening came to an end far too soon (I would have liked to kibitz much longer, as is my wont), I had the opportunity for more lively discussion yesterday when I attended my second Thanksgiving dinner, this time hosted by the Fulbright Alumni Association of Nordrhein-Westfalen, in the house of Sigrid and Rainer Martin in Bochum, a city about 75 kilometers southwest of Münster. Most of the attendees were Fulbright alumni, i.e. Germans who had studied as Fulbrighters in the United States, but there was another current American Fulbrighter in attendance, Emily, a teaching assistant from Dallas, teaching English at a school about 30 kilometers south of Münster. Together, we engaged the Germans in a long evening of wonderful conversation. The evening began with snacks in the kitchen and a long and involved discussion with Roy Schuster, a delightful middle-aged German, covering the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy, science, and theology in the modern world. I tried as best I could in German (with a surprisingly large amount of success) to explain my own belief, founded in my Catholicism, in the inherent and necessary compatibility of faith and reason, and the ultimate mystery that even reason must admit exists at the end of the philosopher's search for truth. It was at this point that Emily joined the conversation, and for the rest of the evening we were engaged together in a spirited attempt to understand each other (Emily considers herself quite the skeptic when it comes to religion and quite the liberal when it comes to politics).

The discussion continued in this vein during the soup course (a wonderful pumpkin soup with the best attempt I've so far met in Germany at cornbread), now branching out into a discussion of the nature of art, music, genius, and the scientific explanations of the human genome (for the gist of my thoughts, see my post from last October). The conversation, which by now had been joined by several other Germans, passed into politics after we reseated ourselves in front of plates laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and, for the German touch, red cabbage, and on then to the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror as we enjoyed pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Alas, by the end of the evening however, my wits dulled by a belly full of good food and good wine, the discussion began to slacken, and when with a shock Emily and I realized it was already 9:00 (both of us with about an hour's train ride home before us and both having classes this morning), we were regrettably obliged to take our leave. It was, nevertheless, a most wonderful evening, full of excellent food, good company, and most interesting interaction, and I shall look long upon the evening in Bochum with good and pleasant memories.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stunning new stem cell research vindicates pro-life positions

According to two new reports, scientists in both Japan and the United States have successfully morphed skin cells (from an adult women in Japan and from a newborn's circumcised foreskin in the States) into viable stem cells exhibiting the properties of embryonic stem cells. This new advance, though still in the early stages of development and with many problems still to be worked out, gives proof to the concept that skin stem cells can be just as useful as embryonic stem cells, but without the destruction of human life that is involved in harvesting the latter type of cells.

Of course, the pro-life community has for quite a while placed their hopes in skin stem cells as an alternative to the destructive embryonic process, and these hopes have finally been fulfilled. The naysayers, of course, protested that skin cells would never be as effective as embryonic cells, but, as we had hoped, they have been proven wrong. It is a great day for humanity, for the scientific community has opened up the opportunity to pursue the life-saving cures promised by stem cell research without concomitant destruction of life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What to do with $350 million?

According to a recent report from the AP, Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has placed an order with Airbus for his very own A380 - the new super jumbo that dwarfs the old standby, Boeing's 747. Of course, the prince won't be happy with the standard configuration of ca. 500 seats, which comes in at about $330 million. No, he'll want to customize it and turn it into a flying palace with spacious bedrooms, a jacuzzi or two, lounges and bars, an exercise room, and probably a movie theater - at an additional cost of between $50 million and $150 million. Let's say he decides not to be too extravagant and charts the middle course between them: he's still looking at paying $400 million for an airplane, for himself.

I've heard of the wealthy extravagantly flaunting their riches, but really! This super rich, super pampered Saudi prince will sink $400 million into a plaything for himself, while his country's infrastructure languishes (say what you will about the film Syriana, it did make this point very well: Saudi princes have a tendency to invest in their own luxury rather than the future of their country). While nearly a billion people on this planet languish in the deepest poverty and privation, a man in Saudi Arabia, grown rich off his oil, will luxuriate in his own, private flying palace.

Does he think that the world will respect him more for his monumental waste of money? Does he really think that he can buy himself happiness upon that flying monstrosity? Is he really so blind to the abject needs of so many, both in his own country and around the world? Can any man really be so blind? While I dare not to judge the thoughts of his heart, which are known to him and God alone, I will most certainly pronounce judgment on this particular action of the Saudi prince: he mocks all of humanity with so selfish an act, and proclaims to the world that his own private luxury, which exceeds all heretofore known bounds of extravagance, is of greater priority than the charity which could well be done with his $400 million.

Thank God that there are still some in this world who do care: I refer you to the "Anonymous Friend" who has gifted Erie, Pennsylvania charities with $100 million--a fraction, to be sure, of the prince's palatial payout, but done anonymously, not to boast of the having of money, but to be kind in the giving of it.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Missa de Angelis

Notes on Today’s Pontifical Mass at the St. Paulus Dom, Münster
The Solemn High Mass at Münster’s Cathedral was a little special today, because it was celebrated by Bishop-Prelate Clemens A. Kathke, the General Secretary of the Bonifatius Werk, on the occasion of the opening of their fundraising campaign for next year. The Bonifatius Werk (named for St. Boniface) administers to “diaspora” German Catholics, that is, German Catholics living in other countries of Europe. As such, today was quite the to-do.
My first observation should be that, when the Germans mean to, they can put on a Solemn High Mass that would make the most high-church Anglican proud. First, as they process in, one realizes that they have a clean dozen torchbearers alone, in addition to a couple other dozen Ministranten (acolytes) whose function never became clear to me other than to stand in the (appropriately large, for a medieval cathedral) sanctuary. Second, unlike their American counterparts, these Roman Catholics still understand about “smells and bells”: there was a liberal dosage of incense at all the proper moments (procession and recession, Introit, Gospel (they still cense the Gospel book!), Offertory, and Consecration—where the innumerable torchbearers rather formed a ring around the high altar, being, as it is, in the center of the sanctuary), and they still ring the bells at the Consecration. Finally, the clergy of the cathedral chapter were appropriately decked out in their scarlet scapulars and—get this—berettas!
The most wonderful part for me of today’s liturgy was, however, the music, for they decided to sing the Missa de Angelis. Most American Roman Catholics are probably scratching their heads over this one, but as one raised in a high-church Anglican Catholic parish, I am very familiar with this Mass setting, for it was the standard at our church during Trinitytide (for the Roman Catholics, that’s “Ordinary Time”). I relished the ability to sing the Kyrie, for once, without having to look at the hymnal; and though, since the other parts were sung in Latin, I did have to sing from the hymnal (for, though I know them in Latin, I am not familiar with them as they mesh with the music), the graceful familiarity of the notes of this Mass were of great comfort to me. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Making Saints

As I was in the university library’s stacks on Wednesday retrieving a book on palaeography (a thoroughly Byzantine system, this German library: the stacks, of course, are not organized according to subject but according to accession date of the volume, with the result that, if you pick any four consecutive books off the shelf, you are likely to come across something like an English-language volume with a title I can’t pronounce about biology, a German-language work on literary criticism, a French work on 19th-century colonialism, and a volume of 14th-century Italian poetry—the only common thread between them being that they were all acquired by the library in August of 1986; hence, the only way to find your way around them is through the catalogue), I happened to glance at some of the other random titles on the shelves nearby. One bookcase to the right and three shelves down, my gaze alighted upon a volume bearing the title, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, by Kenneth L. Woodward (ISBN 0671642464, Library of Congress number BX2330 .W66 1990, or at amazon here). Though it did not dawn on me that I had checked the book out the day before All Saints Day until I was 60 pages in, it seemed rather providential that I plucked this particular book out of the catacomb-like dungeons of the university library.

After finishing the book this afternoon after lunch, I most whole-heartedly recommend it to everybody. It is a well-written and very engaging book that makes a very detailed and in-depth examination of the inner-workings of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. The author spent several years at the end of the 1980’s becoming as much of an insider as any outsider can be, haunting the halls of the Congregation and befriending its chief “saint-makers”. Woodward uses the examples of many contemporary “saints,” both already beatified or canonized and potential candidates to illustrate the various issues involved in the modern process of declaring people holy. It is especially interesting to see how he treats the causes of many modern “potentials”, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and St. Pio (aka Padre Pio). The political problems associated with Romero’s cause continue to plague it, while Dorothy Day’s was finally begun in 2000, ten years after the release of this book. Padre Pio, on the other hand, whose cause Woodward thought would languish, was quickly beatified in 1999 and canonized in 2002.

Of particular interest to me, in light of my recent discussion of the call to holiness and the example of the saints in establishing a Christian society of virtue, was a passage in a section in which Woodward was dealing with the cause of Katharine Drexel, a daughter of one of the richest 19th-century Philadelphia socialite families who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, and dedicated her great wealth and her life to educating and evangelizing to the Native Americans and blacks. The question in Woodward’s mind was whether or not she should have focused more of her energy on advocating for social and political change (she seems never to have spoken out against segregation laws). He concludes, however, as follows:

The answer seems to be this: in the church's classical hierarchy of Christian virtues, personal charity toward others ranks higher than doing justice by them. More precisely, love of neighbor rooted in love of God and manifested by personal attention to individuals more closely approximates the example of Jesus than does achieving justice for a whole class of people, particularly when justice is instanced, as in this case, by concern for the social and civil rather than the religious well-being of the subject people. As we [have already] observed....“political holiness” would require the saint-makers to think in a new key. Thus, to give the virtue of justice more importance than Mother Drexel attached to it would do violence not only to her own understanding of the virtues but to that of the church as well. In any event, as one historian of Christian sainthood has recently observed, “The saints have not typically sought or advocated political solutions to the problems of the needy—and certainly they have not been inclined toward revolution.” (p. 243)
The implication is, of course, clear: the highest call of the Christian is to love God and neighbor, and the love of neighbor is expressed most ardently in wanting to share with them this love—as Woodward later puts it, we are to work “for the true liberation (i.e., liberation from sin through conversion)” of the oppressed (p. 244). Thus, it is not to political revolution that we are called, but to the personal and spiritual revolution of striving for salvation.

Furthermore, I want to highlight part of Woodward’s discussion on the usefulness and, indeed, necessity of saints to a modern world that seems continually less interested in them. One point that he is keen to make is on the value of the “heroic virtue” exercised by saints:

[T]he grounding of holiness in virtue is particularly important in an age like ours for which, in the spiritually promiscuous climate of the United States, at least, “spirituality” has become a catchall term for elevated states of feeling combined with psychological control over the nervous system and vague communigs with an indeterminate and innocuous higher power—all detached from the moral choices and conduct that produce character. (p. 396)

Finally, he identifies three key qualities that are “missing in societies in which the saint no longer matters” (pp. 404-6):

1. Connection: The cult of the saints presupposes that everyone who has existed, and everyone who will exist, is interconnected—that is, that there really is a basis in the structure of human existence for “the communion of saints.”…But to assert that all human beings are radically connected over space, through time, and even beyond death is to counter the experience and assumptions of Western, free-enterprising societies which prize personal autonomy and the individuated self….How can we imagine and celebrate saints when, as sociologist Robert Bellah has observed of contemporary Americans, we lack “communities of memory that tie us to the past [and] also turn us toward the future as communities of hope”?

2. Dependency: The search for connections is a very modern, very Western experience. The thrust of contemporary Western culture is to encourage autonomous human beings who cooperate as citizens but remain essentially independent. Our prevailing ethos is individualistic, utilitarian, and self-expressive. To be free is to be in control….To cite [John] Coleman…, “Saints…invite us to conceptualize our lives in terms of other than mastery, usefulness, autonomy, and control. As free instruments of higher grace and vehicles of transcendent power, they provide a vision of life that stresses receptivity and interaction.”…What makes us fully human, if saints are to be believed, are gifts: what the gift of life brings, the gift of grace completes.

3. Particularity: Christian holiness is incarnational. Each saint occupies his own ecological niche of time, place, and circumstance, The importance that Christians have traditionally attached to tombs, shrines, and pilgrimages attests to the belief that God’s providence is manifest in the local, the circumscribed—in the particular. Because grace is everywhere, the particular has eternal significance….It is precisely the sort of holiness one might expect in a religion of what God is like but also as the revelation of what every person, in his own concrete humanity, is called to be.

As always in the Christian story, the causes of the saints center ultimately on the greatest virtue, which shares in the divinity itself: love. So Woodward ends his tale:

My own hunch is that the story of a saint is always a love story. It is a story of a God who loves, and of the beloved who learn how to reciprocate and share that “harsh and dreadful love.” It is a story that includes misunderstanding, deception, betrayal, concealment, reversal, and revelation of character. It is, if the saints are to be trusted, our story. But to be a saint is not be to be a solitary lover. It is to enter into deeper communion with everyone and everything that exists.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Difficult Mix of Religion and Politics, Part II


In Festa Die Omnium Sanctorum


This post is to respond to a comment left on my previous post on this subject by Abu Daoud:

I will say though that IMHO the command for social justice need not and should not be accomplished through governments (the earthly city) but through the City of God and her instrument here--the Church.
When we ask the government to accomplish the duties of the church we harm both.
Mr. Daoud has hit on an excellent point, and given me the opportunity to say what I would have liked to say in my previous post, but which I couldn't fit in anywhere because of the train of thought within it.

My own (idealistic) self-styled political views would come under the heading of "Christian Libertarianism." That is to say, I would propose that we reform our system of government and society along two lines. First, the civil, secular government should be constructed along a strictly libertarian point of view, i.e. it should be extremely limited in its powers and functions to those which are strictly necessary to the civil, secular government, namely, providing for the national defense (a power which is reserved under natural law to the civil, secular government; it is unjust for either the Church or any private citizen to declare a war, the authority for which, under the just war doctrine, is strictly reserved to the lawful body of the government) and for a system of domestic criminal and civil law, with attendant courts; and, I would argue (though there is no ground in natural law for the necessity of such a governmental function per se), the provision of a national, civil infrastructure, e.g. providing for an interstate highway, and the regulation of such industries as air-traffic control and for the public utilities.

The civil, secular government should not engage in the provision of social welfare programs, which would include taking care of the sick, aged, and poor, as well as providing for education and emergency relief (things to which a great portion of our modern governmental bureaucracy tends). Such services should, in my idealistic opinion, be left to social organs other than the state, namely, to the Church.

The reason for this (drastic, some would say) redefinition of the responsibilities of government and society is based on the fundamental fact that any action of a civil government is, by its very nature, coercive. The civil government is supported in its duties and actions by means of taxes, and taxes are obligatory, not voluntary. This is, of course, as it should be; according to the natural law, the civil government has the right to collect taxes in order to carry out its responsibilities. Furthermore, the responsibilities of national defense, domestic security and law, and (I would argue) domestic infrastructure are placed upon the civil government by natural law—and we as citizens are, therefore, obliged by the natural law to support that government, even if we do not want to.

The functions of social welfare are not, however, incumbent upon the civil government because they are actions which spring not from the necessary obligation of natural law but from the gracious act of charity. (N.B. I say that they spring not from the necessary obligations of natural law, but not that they do not follow logically from it; indeed, as must be recognized from history, acts of charity are not limited to Judeo-Christian societies, and must, therefore, arise within societies acting only according to the bounds of natural law; furthermore, any shrewd observer of the natural law will note that acts of charity so become the well-being of a society that they must be at least somehow founded within the natural law—but such an observation does not prove, nor can it, I believe, that they are necessary obligations, but only prudent deductions, of the natural law.) By its very nature, the gracious act of charity cannot be coerced, else it ceases to be an act of charity—this is, of course, at the very heart of the Christian notion of charity (I use here the term "charity" in its root sense coming from the Latin caritas , the equivalent to the Greek αγάπη, which are the words used by Christianity to describe the love of God—see my post from Maundy Thursday of this year, Deus Caritas Est). It is this nature of a gracious act of charity that requires that it originate not in the edict of a civil government but from the hearts of the individuals who make up society. Furthermore, it is not for the civil government to direct these acts; rather, this authority falls to the Church. Acts of charity are most abundantly given and most thoroughly realized as acts of the spirit moved by love, and they fall, therefore, within the providence of the Church. This fact should be no clearer to us than today, the Feast of All Saints, in which the Saints of the Church stand before as most perfect examples of charitable actors.

The Gospel today is of the Beatitudes, and the homily preached by the Bishop of Münster, Dr. Reinhard Lettmann, focused on the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, namely, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and bury the dead (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). The point behind the Gospel reading and the Bishop's homily is that, as we celebrate today the saints of the Church, we are called most strenuously to imitate them, to carry out the implied command of the Beatitudes, and to live according the life of charity that characterizes a Servant of God. The Gospel calls on us all to be saints, and it is in the act of charity, that is, the life of love for God and neighbor, that we become the blessed Servants of God.

Furthermore, it is clear from the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy and from the Beatitudes that the social ministry of the Church is the social welfare we enumerated before. The task of caring for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned, the poor and the oppressed: this is the ministry of the Church. There is no organization on Earth better suited to carry out this charism than the Church, and it is because the Church operates not according to the rights and responsibilities of the natural law (though she does no contradict them, either), but according to the graces of the divine law. This is why I have referred to acts for the social welfare as gracious acts of charity, for ultimately, they are enacted not by human ingenuity but by the grace of God working in us.

It should come as no surprise that the socio-political philosophy that I have here laid out reflects my study of the Middle Ages. As a medievalist, I can recognize the benefits of a medieval system in which the responsibilities of social welfare were left in the hands of the Church. No doubt, some of my readers are already reaching for the mouse to post a comment along the lines of, "You would have us return to the Middle Ages?" The answer to this question is both yes and no. I would not have us return to the Middle Ages if by that one means a return to a society in which the vast majority lived lives of painful poverty, whereas a tiny minority, enjoying the labor of those poor, lived a life of enriched pleasure. I would contend, however, that such a characterization of the Middle Ages, while perhaps a fair picture of the social conditions of the time, fails to recognize many features of the Middle Ages; the reality is far more complex. I would argue that a return to the Middle Ages is exactly the kind of thing our world needs, if by it one means a world in which the intellectual tradition recognized not the opposition but both the compatibility and necessary interdependency of faith and reason; a world in which belief in the supernatural power of God was held in esteem rather than derision; above all, a world in which charity was the greatest virtue (cf. I Cor. 13:13), as opposed to the accumulation of capital or the fight for the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

Do I recognize that the relationship between civil government and the Church was not often ideal in the Middle Ages? Do I recognize that for most of the Middle Ages, as indeed for most of human history, the powerful have exploited the weak and trampled over them? Of course I do; any student of history and of the human condition sees that, from the dawn of man even unto today, nothing has been more constant than the injustices that have left the vast majority of humans oppressed by the powers of wealth and opportunity that have exploited them for the benefit not of the poor but of the rich.

It is part of the Christian project to recognize this and to fight against the injustice wherever it is to be found. But, unlike modern political theories like Marxism, and unlike such "politco-theological" systems as liberation theology (which, when it allows politics to trump the Gospel, is an abhorrence to the Church), the Christian is called by the Gospel to fight this injustice not by the means of power recognized by this world, not by violence and strength of arms, nor by playing the political game. No, the Christian is called to shun the powers of this world as the very weaknesses of the flesh, and to put on the true armor of light and love, the true strength of God found in humility and charity. St. Paul calls it the folly of the Cross: this world laughs at the Church, scorns her and holds her in derision, for she preaches the Cross, the ultimate sign in secular eyes of weakness. What strength is there, the world says, in a man, broken and beaten, who dies a most ignominious death? What kind of God is this who suffers a most humiliating and non-heroic death, for Christ died not in glorious battle but as a common criminal?

The answer calls from across two millenia, and the reality of victory is revealed to us in the lives of the saints: the martyrs who suffered as did their Lord; the confessors who were ready to do so; the hermits who rejected the pleasures of this world in order to find true happiness in purest poverty; the religious whose vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are assailed by the world as the ridiculous abjurations of crazy people. And it is in the saints that we discover, finally, the key to putting together our new socio-political system of Christian Libertarianism.

We realize when we gaze upon their example that the way forward is in establishing a society in which every single member understands that he or she is called from womb to grave to be a saint. The way forward is for us to engender a revolution, not in the organs of state but in the very hearts of every individual member of society. It will not be a political revolution, nor even primarily a social one, but rather a spiritual revolution to transform the Zeitgeist from one that worships the almighty dollar and administers to the wealthy and successful to one that worships the Almighty God and administers to the poor and oppressed.

Finally, we must recognize that in this revolution we do not speak in terms of classes of society, nor of this section or that interest group. Rather, in this revolution, we speak of individuals, for we must recognize that far outstripping the importance of society as a blanket organ is the importance of the individual dignity of each human soul. The time has come to stop looking at society from the top down and seeing it is a collection of the masses—no more talk of "the American people", of "the working class", of "the bourgeoisie". No, we talk now of "the individual human being that is Nathaniel Campbell" and "the individual human being that is Abu Daoud", for it is the work of the individual soul that glorifies God. There is but one blanket grouping of humanity that remains important, and that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints into which we each enter when we partake of the Eucharist, for the great common factor to every human being is the love God showed in creating him, which love we are therefore commanded to give to each other: "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." (John 13:24).

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Difficult Mix of Religion and Politics

In yesterday’s New York Times’ Sunday Magazine there appeared a lengthy article by David Kirkpatrick that examined the current crisis among the nation’s evangelicals and “religious right.” Kirkpatrick describes how the original vanguard of the religious right movement (Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc.) is fading, and that the evangelical Protestantism stands at a bit of a crossroads today; will they follow the conservative (both theologically and politically) route of the last generation, or is the future face of the religious right in fact the religious middle or slightly left?

Kirkpatrick documents the fact that among many evangelicals, the key issues of abortion and gay marriage are no longer just the key issues; he quotes Bill Hybels, one of the leading evangelical pastors of today, as saying, “We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world.” Or as Rev. Gene Carlson put it, “There is this sense that the personal Gospel is what evangelicals believe and the social Gospel is what liberal Christians believe, and, you know, there is only one Gospel that has both social and personal dimensions to it.”

The split between liberal mainline protestants and conservative evangelicals goes back a century, when it was crystallized by the fight over evolution. As Kirkpatrick seems to demonstrate, a new split may be forming among the evangelical community, a split between those who seem to dictate that “Evangelical Christian” = “conservative Republican”, and those who see beyond the political label to realize that neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party has a monopoly on representing the Gospel.

The growing inner conflict amongst the evangelical community has also opened the eyes of the Democrats. As Kirkpatrick points out, all three of the leading Democratic candidates for president (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards) have talked about their personal Christian faith more on this campaign trail than has a Democrat since Jimmy Carter, the evangelical who, or so it is perceived, turned his back on the evangelical community when he got to Washington (because of his support for abortion rights, among other issues). (And I should note as an aside that, despite Barack Obama’s being a baptized Christian, Kirkpatrick quotes Kayla Nickel, a member of the evangelical parish Westlink in Witchita as saying, “Obama sounds too much like Osama. When he says his name, I am like, ‘I am not voting for a Muslim!’ ” Her statement thus confirms what I’ve been saying for more than a year now, that whatever his politics (he could out-do Jerry Falwell and it would still be true), some people will still vote against him for the very fact that his name rhymes with “Iraq Osama”; a sad fact indeed, but a pertinent one).

The problem facing the evangelical community is, oddly enough, one with which the Catholic community has long had to deal. Catholics in our country (and, despite my denomination as an Anglican Catholic, what I write here, though based mainly on the experiences of Roman Catholics, is nevertheless applicable to all Catholics, since the few matters on which we disagree are not pertinent to the topic at hand) have historically voted Democrat, first because the Democrats were the party of the immigrants and minorities at a time when Roman Catholics (mainly Irish and Italian immigrants) were heavily discriminated against; and later because the Democratic platform stood for social justice with a social conscience, echoing the emphasis that Holy Mother Church has placed in the last century on the social message of the Gospel (though they might not want to admit it, the Democratic platform has often, if only unconsciously, echoed Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, to which we will return below).

What has long irked Catholic politicians, however, is that the Democratic Party has often stood for things less than Catholic, and in those situations, the Republicans have often come through—I am thinking, of course, most especially about the issue of abortion. Before we continue, I should make it clear that Holy Mother Church always has and always will be opposed to abortion; it is not a matter of doctrine that is flexible (as has been, for example, the Church’s doctrines on usury), but rather a dogmatic statement of the value of human life that is absolutely central to the Christian message. The Church cannot now nor can it ever declare abortion to be anything but the sin of murder, and herein lies one of the key points of the entire argument: the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church, granted her by divine revelation and the institution of her authority, invested in the Apostles by Christ in the Gospel. In other words, it is the authority by which the Church can teach the Truth.

The Truth is not something the Church, or anyone, can change. It is a permanent standard of what is reality, infinitely perdurable and infinitely unchanging. Unfortunately for those of us who live in the real world, however, very rarely do the decisions of our daily lives line up clearly with this Truth. This is never more so the case than in politics. Ask any politician, and he will probably agree that his party also seeks the truth—but in the political sphere, we speak of truth with a lowercase “t”.

Sometimes, we discover that the Truth aligns with the platform of the Republican Party—take abortion again as a capital example. Other times, it would seem to align with the Democratic Party—as when Christ proclaims the mission of social justice, to care for the sick and poor (as the Church has formally phrased it—and in a nice line of alliterative pentameter—“the preferential option for the poor”). Instead of identifying the Christian Truth with political truths, it might be better for us to do the reverse: a pro-life politician holds a view which coincides with the Truth, as does a pro-social justice politician.

A case in point is Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which became the quintessential statement of the modern Church on the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” (its subtitle), and the Gospel’s intention therefore. While Leo categorically condemned the unbridled competition of pure capitalism as socially unjust and therefore uncharitable (for the political pundits that are keeping score, that’s +1 to the Democrats), he also decried the violence inherent in the system of class struggle that Marxists seemed so intent on perpetuating:

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. (Paragraph 20)
The political pundits should now remove that point from the Democratic column (and yes, I recognize that Marxist theory and the Democratic platform are not to be confused, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard a Teamsters negotiator praise the natural harmony between capital and labor?).

This dichotomy that has vexed Catholics for so many years seems finally to have caught up with the evangelicals. Abortion and gay marriage are important issues, yes, but the Gospel is about so much more than that, and Christ’s call to holiness is bound up with the entire message of the Gospel, not just bits and pieces (for the danger of a piecemeal reading of Scripture, just ask the Pharisees).

The problem, of course, is that both sides seem to engage in just such a piecemeal reading of Scripture. The Republican Party (and this is what is leading many evangelicals to reconsider their unwavering allegiance to it) has often of late skimmed over the social duties expressed in the Gospel. The issue of the justice of the war in Iraq is complex and certainly won’t be solved here, but the fact remains that warfare, the intentional destruction of human life (even if that life be guilty), is in some fundamental aspect morally wrong; even the most just of wars using the strictest of interpretations of just war theory still inflict a violence that is unsettlingly contrary to the principal message of the Gospel. Likewise, the Republican Party’s standard support of capital punishment, though technically justifiable under Christian notions of justice, seems to lend an unsettling appearance of hypocrisy to its pro-life message. The Catholics have this one figured out—even though it’s a nice political catch phrase, Sen. Sam Brownback’s “pro-life / whole-life” position is remarkably and refreshingly cogent: a Catholic Christian expression of respect for life at it’s every stage, from the moment of conception to a person’s last (natural) breath. Furthermore, most Catholics, and an increasing number of evangelicals, take the Party to task for its seemingly obstinate refusal to consider social programs that help the poor, the hungry, the AIDS-afflicted, the oppressed, etc.

Lest we should think that the Republican Party has left the Gospel behind, however, we must turn our attention to the often even more egregious piecemeal approach of the Democrats. Christ’s Gospel is all well and good for them when they want to oppose war and the death penalty and want to establish programs of social justice to help the helpless among us. But then they conveniently leave Scripture at the door when it comes to abortion (after all, they will help the helpless only if the helpless have already been born) and the promotion of lascivious lifestyles, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or anywhere in between.

Then there are issues in which neither side seems to support true Christian belief. The most significant of these are views on homosexuality. Democratic acceptance not only of homosexuals but of the homosexual lifestyle runs counter to a true understanding of sexuality. When the Catholic Faith expresses an opposition to the actively homosexual lifestyle (just as it expresses an opposition to the actively heterosexual lifestyle out of wedlock), it does so out of the ideals of compassion and charity. The Catholic understanding of the actively homosexual lifestyle is that it, as a state of sin, is harmful to its practitioner, for, in perverting the sexual act, it demeans and damages the order created by God and it harms the practitioner’s own sexual understanding. Therefore, the Catholic faith opposes that lifestyle out of a desire to help those who feel inclined to commit such a sin to refrain from it.

The Republicans, however, fare little better, for while preaching against homosexual acts, they go too far and preach against homosexuals themselves; Republican opinion is, quite frankly, founded more on homophobia than anything else. We must remember that it is not the state of being homosexual, whether secretly or openly, that is condemned as a sin; rather, it is the active, voluntary commission of the homosexual act that is a sin. Furthermore, the Catholic Faith calls upon its believers to practice their opposition to this sin in a compassionate, charitable manner. Any person whose opposition to homosexual acts is expressed without the love of God in his heart is not then a believer of the Catholic Faith.

Of course, from a truly Christian perspective, far more grievous than any support our modern society gives to homosexual acts is the support it gives to the perversion of heterosexual acts; the real epidemic is the general promiscuity that has followed in the wake of the sexual revolution, homosexual and heterosexual alike. As the Church teaches, a full understanding of one’s sexuality can only come through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom and in whom all things were made and are, therefore, understood (this is the notion that sexuality, like all things, is “sacramental” in nature). In this context, one comes to understand that one’s sexuality is not some independent department of the self; rather, sexuality is inextricably bound up in the whole being of body and soul. Modern notions of sexuality on both sides of the fence present a sexuality that is missing its greatest context: Christ.

Voters, as good Christians, are obligated by their faith to vote for men and women who will uphold the message of the Gospel. This is why we had such a mess in the 2004 election over Catholic bishops telling their flocks it would be wrong to support a Catholic politician who supported abortion (i.e. John Kerry). The problem, of course, is reconciling the Truth with political parties that stand for only parts of it.

This reconciliation, between a Truth that must guide completely our lives and a political system in which nobody seems to stand for that Truth, will not be an easy one to effect. We are faced with a slate of candidates for the presidency who seem to wander every day farther from it. Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights and is a lapsed Catholic multiple times divorced, and yet appears to be the best bet the Republicans have against the Democrats. All three leading Democratic candidates support abortion, and Hillary Clinton, at least, has shown repeatedly that she is not in the least bit dismayed by the moral licentiousness that permeates our culture (just check out her husband, whom President Gerald Ford, according to a recent book, called a “sex-addict”).

I thought I had found somebody that would work—the aforementioned Sen. Sam Brownback, who seemed to be step-for-step with the Church in his understanding of how to live a good Christian life in a flawed and sinful world, but his campaign never found traction (as the Sunday Magazine article points out, the man who should have been the darling of the religious right got left out on the front stoop by them; though Kirkpatrick attributes this to their desire to back a candidate with a greater chance for success, I think the reason for the religious right’s aversion to Sen. Brownback is at least partially attributable to that old anti-Catholic prejudice), and he has officially bowed out of the race.

The problem for me, of course, is that it would be near anathema to support a candidate who supports abortion; I am too strongly tied to my respect and love for the dignity of all human life to vote for men and women who disregard it so blatantly. Yet, that leaves me in the arms of a handful of Republican candidates whose anti-homosexual rhetoric is more homophobic than it is charitable and who seem to pay little attention to the Gospel’s imperative to care for the poor with a charitable heart (though they have their good intentions, it is hard to perceive just how their views on foreign aid and immigration mesh with the “preferential option for the poor”, a theological principle of action founded in Christian love and charity).

What is necessary, above all, is to breed in ourselves a renewed respect for the dignity of all people. When our society can find in Christian love the hallmark of humanity, then we shall be able to overcome this quagmire in which we languish. When we as individuals find our every action motivated by love of God and neighbor, then we shall find that the choice between one evil and another has been resolved, for there will be only one choice then. When we ultimately can submit ourselves wholly to the Will of God, then we shall discover that we need not think long and hard about our compromises, for only then will the Will of God—of Love—remain. The choice today between Republican and Democrat may not be clear, but the choice today between God and the world is. I do not yet know how I will vote a year from now, but what I do know is that I shall pray every day hence for the God’s guidance for me and for all of the men and women who govern our country.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Settling into a routine...

I apologize for the paucity of my posts over the last few weeks; a combination of factors has led to it. First, I've been busy getting into the swing of the semester (I have just finished the second week of classes) and getting established in my research; and second, I have found myself faced with my own personal expectation that when I write a post, it should be lengthy and detailed, and that it should live up to the eloquence of some of my previous missives. I have decided, however, to free myself from such obligations, and to simply write whenever and whatever should be of immediate pertinence.

Unlike my previous posts, which have been written from either an Internet Cafe or from the university's computer lab, I am writing to you now while sitting at my desk in the offices of the Seminar for Latin Philology of the Middle Ages and Modern Era. This is, perhaps, one of the more important developments of the last few weeks; I did not expect that when I sat down to first meet with my adviser two and half weeks ago that she would, at the end of the meeting, hand me a set of keys and lead me to my office. Earlier this week, the Seminar's resident technology guru, Prof. Lesser, finally got the internet connection working, and so here I sit.

The use of this office has, and will be, however, a God-send to the work I am going to be doing this year, because it gives me (1) a place to seclude myself and get work done; (2) a place to keep all of my books, notebooks, and other research materials; and (3) access to the Seminar's fabulous library, where many of the books reside that I will need and that one is not allowed to take out of the normal university library. As some of you will probably note, it seems that my life is starting to be defined as a series of workplaces that I colonize (see my post from Thursday, October 2, 2006).

So far, my "research" has been limited to lots of reading--though I surmise that that will be the name of the tune for much of the year to come. It finally dawned on me about a week and half ago that one of the great opportunities this year affords me is simply to spend lots of time reading. Accordingly, I've spent several hours combing through the university library's catalogue finding books (preferably in English) that both intrigue me and will serve me well on my journey as a medieval scholar. Though I'm currently finishing up a book on the Crusades that I brought with me (I bought it at the beginning of the summer with a Barnes and Noble gift card given to me for graduation, but never got around to it), next on my list are several books from the library on medieval apocalypticism, two of them by the renowned scholar Bernie McGinn.

I'm also taking a couple of classes: one, which meets on Monday mornings, is a reading class of St. Bernard of Clairvaux's "How to Be Pope Manual" to Pope Eugenius III, De Consideratione ad Eugenium Papam (Pope Eugenius was one of Bernard's students before he was elected to the papacy); and two classes on Thursday, a lecture class on what the Germans call "Bibeldichtung", a genre of literature that is based on the Bible, the most famous example in the English language being John Milton's Paradise Lost; and a class on palaeography. I was going to take class on Friday afternoons that I thought focused on Saints and Relics in the Middle Ages, but after talking with the professor, it turns out it is an introductory class in studying medieval history, and I have decided not to take it, since it would be elementary (and a waste of time, as it meets for 3 and half hours on Friday afternoon!).

So I'm going to settle in for another relaxing weekend with some more good books, and I promise to try to post more frequently.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

We're going to the WORLD SERIES!!!!!

I must take this time out of my routine here in Germany to do a happy dance, smile like I'm drunk, and proclaim, "THE COLORADO ROCKIES ARE GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES!!!!"

Since I tend not to be at my most eloquent or intelligent when speaking about sports, I will let espn.com's Jayson Stark say it for me:

"Clearly, they had to believe, or they couldn't have done this, right? Couldn't have become the fifth team in the last 70 years to go 21-1 in any stretch of any season. Couldn't have become the first team to do that in the middle of one of these mad charges to, and through, October. Couldn't have become the second team in history (along with just the 1976 Big Red Machine) to sweep its first two postseason series in any given October. Couldn't have become the fifth team of all time to make it from last place one year to the World Series the next. Couldn't have become the sixth team in history to fall nine games under .500 and still climb out of that canyon to make it to the World Series. And, finally, couldn't have become the first team ever to find itself two games out of a playoff spot with two games to play and somehow survive to scramble into the World Series. That didn't really happen. Did it? That wasn't really possible. Was it?"

So to all of my friends in Boston (more likely) or Cleveland (less likely), I will not apologize for hoping that we demolish you next week. We haven't played Cleveland this year, but we did take 2 of 3 from the Red Sox in June, so....after the last month, anything's possible, right?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In the House of the Pope

To my avid readers (a presumptuous adjective, but for which I ought not be faulted, I think), I apologize for the lengthy pause between my last post and this, for I had hoped to make once-a-week a standard. Unfortunately, it has taken me until today, because of many hoops of a bureaucratic nature too mundane and too numerous to recall here, to be able to access the internet wirelessly from my own laptop through the university's network. For the last two weeks, therefore, I have contented myself with snippets of the Internet bought a few cents at a time in an Internet Cafe across from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and that was no place for me to write to this blog (else it would have been a rather more expensive affair than it already was).

The major story I wish to relate today happened a week ago, but I think will be well worth the delay. Our story begins, however, not in Münster but in Boston, where the dear Prof. Michael Resler, head of Boston College's German Department, and the dearer still secretary of that department, Agnes Farkas, have long kept detailed records of anyone living in Germany at any time with any connection to Boston College (I think Agnes is far more to be thanked for this, but it is Prof. Resler who actually sent the email). Accordingly, Prof. Resler was able to put in touch three Boston College alumni spanning several generations who all, it just so happens, now live in Münster: myself; Jennifer Burkart, a former Boston College Fulbrighter to Germany from the 1990's , now living in the Münster area with her German husband, Jörg; and Dr. Bill Hoye, BC Class of 1965, a recently retired member of the Theology faculty at the Universität-Münster, living with his German wife, Holle Frank. (From left to right: me, Jennifer, and Dr. Hoye).

As she had maintained contact with Prof. Resler (who even a decade ago was rather enthusiastic about sending Eagles to Germany on the State Department's dime), he sent Dr. Hoyes's and my contact information to Jennifer, and after her introductions, Dr. Hoye and his wife graciously invited the lot of us to their house for dinner last Thursday evening.

So, round about 7:15 (after a bit of panic earlier that Jennifer's email might have said that they would pick me up at 17:15 (5:15pm) as opposed to 7:15pm in the American style), Jennifer and Jörg pulled up in the rain to the bus stop outside our dorms where I was waiting, and we were off to Bill and Holle's house near the university's botanic gardens.

After introductions were made, we were ushered into their living room, where discussion in a mixture of English and German, accompanied with some nice port and excellent olives, was joined. Dr. Hoye, it turned out, had traveled to Europe after finishing at B.C. to pursue various graduate studies in theology, his focus being on medieval scholastic thought. After meeting and marrying Holle, they settled down in Münster, where he taught for many years. Though recently retired, he is nevertheless teaching a course this semester (for the fun of it) on St. Thomas Aquinas. Jennifer, on the other hand, met Jörg during her Fulbright year in Trier, and they later settled down in Münster, where she has just started a new job teaching Business English in the Economics Department of the Katholische Hochschule (Catholic College) here in Münster.

We were now invited to the dining room, where the delightful conversation continued over an excellent salad of shrimp, tomatoes, and bell peppers (you will discover that my praise for Holle's cooking will abound), and then a main course of roast beef, roasted potatoes, and a tasty recipe of creamed spinach (sorry Mom, I didn't happen to ask her secret). Jörg, it seems, works as a computer programmer, while Dr. Hoye's wife, Holle, has had a long and successful career as an artist. She is an amazing photographer, and has recently taken up video art, which she has successfully combined with her recent discovery of the phenomenon of YouTube.

The discussion turned to family, and both Jennifer and Dr. Hoye offered interesting anecdotes of life an ocean apart from the rest of their family. Bill and Holle are looking to travel to the United States for several months after the New Year so that he can work on his next book (in English) on eschatology. They would like to be in Massachusetts, as it would be near to much of his family, but have been having bad luck so far finding a place--they had hoped to rent a house on the cape.

The fortuitous intersection of our three lives took another interesting tangent when I asked Jennifer about her Fulbright work. It turns out that she, too, had written a Scholar of the College project her senior year at B.C., in the field of art history. Her focus was on the miniatures in a manuscript of the Carolingian renaissance, the time around the 9th-century reign of Charlemagne. It was the topic of the art of the Carolingian renaissance that had led her, then, to do a Fulbright year in Trier. Unfortunately, she did not enjoy her topic nearly as much as I do mine, and has left the world of medieval art history far behind her.

The others were prompted to inquire as to my own project, and I gave my spiel, now well-honed from having to repeat it so many times. One aspect that I had neglected, though, was that I had mentioned in my project proposal an interest in the traditionally strained relationship between the Germans and the Papacy as a wider historical trend, with the interesting note that a German pope as we have now puts the tensions of the past into a new light. As I hadn't yet had the opportunity to ask many Germans about their feelings about Pope Benedict, f.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger, I put the question to Holle, whose reaction to the announcement of Ratzinger's election stands in stark contrast to many of the Jesuits at Boston College: she felt several minutes of pure, ecstatic joy, which was only later mitigated by here concerns (shared by many Germans) about his less-than-liberal tendencies. She pointed out, however, that he seems to have brought the German mindset of environmentalism with him, as the Vatican has recently started to support several "green" projects in various parts of Eastern Europe (where the environmental damage wrought by the Soviet Union was formidable).

Our conversation about the Pope also led to what was perhaps my favorite tale of the evening. Holle recalled attending several lectures given by then Prof. Ratzinger during his time as a member of the theological faculty here in Münster (1962-5, I believe it was). She could not let us leave, however, without noting another feature of the Pope's stay in this city. At some point during his tenure here, his apartment underwent several months of renovations, and the landlord graciously offered a spare room in his own house to the future Pontiff for the duration of the work. That house was later bought by none other than Bille Hoye and Holle Frank, who took it upon herself to do the research, comb the records, and establish that indeed, Joseph Ratzinger lived in the room just above our heads as we sat at the dinner table, for a period of several months in the 1960's.

The conversation could have gone on and on as first we indulged in some ice cream cake and then in some fine Lindt chocolates, but alas, the evening had to come to an end, as the Burkarts both had to go to work the next day. After the now-customary exchange of email addresses, and the taking of the photo you see above, we bid our farewells, and laid plans also for another get-together round Thanksgiving time.

My recollections today could go one, but I must bring this post to an end as I've still some preparing to do. You see, I am traveling to Munich tomorrow to join a gathering of some of the Boston College German Fulbrighters at the last weekend of the Oktoberfest. I promise pictures and stories (though I shall have to be judicious in which ones I share here :-) on my return.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Dalai Lama Came Today

Here I am, in Germany. Finally. I have decided to revive my use of this blog (to which I have seldom posted of late) as a general means of communicating my experiences to you, my faithful reader, as I make my way through the next 10 months as a Fulbright student at the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität in Münster. Here will be collected anecdotes of various kinds, updates on this or that, and my thoughts (as you should have been able to expect) on the goings on--here, in the world at large, and at home (for I continue to receive The Heights via email every Monday and Thursday: so you should also expect a diatribe from time to time on the decline and fall (since I am no longer there) of Boston College, or conversely its rise to ever greater things from the generation to come).

I arrived on Monday morning, jetlagged (a condition that seems to persist even to today), and found my way with 2 massive bags (though not that massive, since they were, in fact, lighter than the bags that I packed when I left for Boston a year ago to start my senior year) from the airport in Frankfurt to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), thence to Göttingen, a city in central Germany where the Fulbright Commission put us up in a Best Western (yes, the same) for two days of invaluable orientation. On the train, I specifically noted that I should relate two observations, both of which are connected to the fact that the train car I was in (standing the whole way, as there were no unreserved seats left) was more than half filled with a school group of what I believe in America are termed "tweens", girls so chatty and wrapped up in their own nascent adolescent concerns that if a world were to exist oustide of their sphere of being, it certainly would be of little importance:
1. The group was accompanied by 2 teachers, one man and one woman. The man, though the physical resemblance would end at "glasses and a beard", nevertheless bore a striking mental resemblance to my father, for when he once was walking up and down the aisle checking on his students, a smile graced his face as I have seen any number of times on the visage of my own father as he gazes upon his students--enveloped perhaps in their own little world, but little spheres of budding curiosity and learning and life all the same.
2. The particular group of 4 girls who sat directly in front of where I stood those two hours did, at one point in the journey, have an argument concerning the proper pronunciation of the word "Lufthansa". Three of them seem rather bemused that one insisted on pronouncing it "Luf-thansa", for the proper German pronunciation syllabifies the word according to its component words, "Luft" and "Hansa" (so "Luft-hansa"). This poor girl, however, had fallen prey of the same tendency that governs the American pronunciation of the term, namely, to maximize the onset of the middle syllable, thus moving the "t" sound from the first syllable into the second. All of which did pass through my mind, at which point I realized that the lingustics class that I took last year from Prof. Michael Connolly had completely ruined me for life, as I know he well intended.

We return, then, to the Orientation. I'm sure that all would agree that by the far the best part of the entire orientation experience (apart from the lengthy, oft stupefying yet invaluable information sessions that answered such important questions as "How do we get paid?") was getting to meet the other Fulbrighters and query them on their respective projects - indeed, for that endeavour I wish we'd had another day, for I didn't get to talk to everybody. Of particular interest to me was that the Fulbright Commission seems to have been on a medieval women kick this year, for in addition to my project on the 13th century reception of the apocalyptic works of the 12th century abbess and visionary, St. Hildegard von Bingen (of whom you will hear quite enough in the course of this year), two women have also been given grants to study female medieval authors. The one, who is working on her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern (and who is very well acquainted with several of the profs with whom I hope to start working next year at the University of Notre Dame), will be in Munich investigating apocalyptic writing of the 14th and 15th centuries - a few centuries after my time, but a project to which Hildegard is fundamental. The other, finishing her masters work at Tufts, is working (also in Munich) on several chronicles written by German nuns of the 13th and 14th century - again, past my time but yet very much bound up with the after-history of Hildegard. I had been looking for an excuse to return to Munich anyway (I loved the city when I lived there for 2 months almost 2 years ago), so now I have it - I imagine we all shall visit several times before the year is up to collate and talk shop.

Alas, Wednesday morning the fun had to come to an end, and I had to make an uncomfortably early exist from Göttingen (the train left at 7:45) in order to get to Münster in time to get the paperwork for my dorm room in order (the offices of the Studentenwerk--their equivalent to an Office of Residential Life--are only open Tuesday through Thursday, 9am-12pm; such is the way of most every German office that one should need to visit). A few taxi rides later (I accidentally went to the wrong building on my first try), I had succeeded in securing a room for the next year. It's a single room with a bed, desk, shelves, closet, refrigerator, and sink, and their are common bathrooms and a common kitchen on each floor. Perhaps not the greatest of accomodations, but at only €190 a month, I'll take it.

After settling into my room, I've spent the last few days wandering around the city, my philosophy being that the best way to learn your way around is to get a map, get yourself intentionally lost, and then find your way home. A misunderstanding concerning the bus routes meant that I had to walk most of the way home on Wesdnesday night, but all in all, I'm really starting to get a good feel for the place--and my dorm is only about 3.5 kilometers outside the city center.

I would call it a city on the small side of medium--larger certainly than was Eichstätt, but not nearly so large as was Munich. It has a beautiful inner city jampacked with an assortment of now-to-be-expected medieval, baroque, and 19th century buildings, their ground floors now filled, as with any modern city, mostly with high-end fashion and other boutiques far out of the reach of my pocketbook; it's own share of impressively outfitted churches (enough to fulfill my pentient for "church-hopping") with the standard array of architectural styles and enough Masses per day to accomodate most any schedule; and a delightful greenbelt that runs the permeter (the remains of the mote and ramparts that surrounded it in less collegial times), through which I have not yet had the pleasure to stroll but to which I eagerly look forward.

Finally, I made my way today into the heart of the university (as with most German universities, its campus is indistinguishable in most places from the city), which is to be found on the grounds of the great baroque Schloß, or palace, that was built there when a nobleman still ruled these parts--a wonderful walk now through many acres of manicured gardens. Now that impressive building houses various offices of the university, including, in a side building off to the north, the International Office, where I stopped this morning to clear up a few things, most especially the fact that, according to the Letter of Admission from the university, I was registered as a woman. Not a problem, said the very kind Frau Bobke, who then called up Herr Friedmann (off their version of an Office of Student Services) and, after a telephone conversation that happened too fast for me to follow, she whisked me to his office (in the great palace itself--the interior unfortunately no longer matching the baroque majesty of the exterior), where he not only was able to change my gender in their computer system but also was able to complete all the other paperwork to get me officially matriculated, a process that, had I not inquired, would have taken until the 10th of October to complete. Along with the matriculation number that I now possess come several delightful benefits: a semester pass for the bus system; a catalogue of courses (so that I can finally figure out what I'm going to take); and a username and password (which should come in the mail next week) for the university's computer centers--a relief from having to pay for access at an internet cafe.

And that brings me to the title of this post: it would seem (or so the signs said, and the heavy press and police presence would confirm) that the Dalai Lama is visiting this very university today. As a commentary on the experience thus far or to come, perhaps it should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) fascinating and unexpected things await me, and (2) as exciting as this week has been for me, there are far more important things going on in the world. A dichotomy to make a medievalist proud, both uplifting and humbling, both energizing and subduing.

So there it all stands: less than week down, and many chores already complete. Time now, I think, to go the bookstore, find something suitable to wile away the weekend, and settle down on a nice bench in a park somewhere.