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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Some Scholarly Pet Peeves

In some of the reading that I have been doing over the last few weeks, time and again I have run into some of those small practices that have been introduced in the name of “political correctness” that nevertheless are in fact more misleading in the context of medieval scholarship than are the more traditional (and less politically correct) practices.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Internal Assessment

As much as I would like this experience to continue—though perhaps Münster’s weather this week is an indication that it should come to an end: rainy and cold (60’s Fahrenheit)—my days left in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar are fast dwindling. On Tuesday past, my neighbors at the dorm had a farewell barbecue for me (fortunately, the rain held off until later in the night); last night, Jennifer Burkart and her husband, Jörg, hosted me, along with the Hoyes and my friend Timon, at their house for another farewell dinner; this morning I delivered the last part of my presentation on my work to the Hildegard seminar I have particpated in this semester, which itself met today for the last time. All good things must come to an end, or so I’ve been told. Before my time here fully runs out on Tuesday morning when I board a flight back to the States, however, I would like to evaluate and assess my work this year from a more concrete perspective than my musings offered earlier this week.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The “Human Rights” of Chimpanzees

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a committee of the Spanish parliament last month voted to extend “limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans,” in accordance with the precepts of the Great Ape Project. The proposal would make it illegal in Spain “to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including in medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films, would be forbidden.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bells

As I enter the final full week of my time here in Germany, it is only natural that I should be found in a pensive and reflective mood; as I’ve already noted some weeks ago, I will certainly miss this town.Later this week I will put together a post that reflects more concretely on my work this year; today, I would like to address a question that has often been put to me in recent weeks, namely, what will I miss most about being in Germany?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Finalé, Whoa Oh Oh Oh!

In their most stress-inducing performance yet, the German national team nevertheless managed to squeak through by the skin of their teeth last night to defeat Turkey 3-2 in the semifinal of the Euro2008 Championship.It would seem I’ve taken up some of my father’s habits for the viewing of sporting events, namely, to stay on my feet during the most critical points of the game, often shaking my head at the smallest mistakes, my hands clenching and unclenching, lambasting “my” team for their amateur, so-obviously avoidable mistakes.Two principal factors, however, distinguish my viewing of the game from my father’s, namely, I’m often more vocal than he is in expressing my displeasure, and I voice my concerns in a mixture of two languages (much to the amusement of both the Americans and the Germans surrounding me in the basement of that particular church last night).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Germany Won, Austria Zero

It took twice as long as normal for the bus to get from the train station to my dorm last night, principally due to the streets and traffic circles full of football fans (yes, I will use the British term, simply because that's what it's called here: "Fußball"), their car horns blaring and bicycle bells ringing. (It was quite a sight especially to see the packs of bicycles, decked out to the nines in their red, yellow, and black).

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Klingender Dom" Choir Concert

On Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a truly extraordinary choral concert at the St. Paulus Dom (Cathedral) here in Münster. The concert, called "Klingender Dom" (roughly "Cathedral Full of Sound") involved the Domchor (Cathedral Choir) of Münster, performing together with the Mädchen- and Knabenkanotreien am Dom (Girls' and Boys' Cathedral Choir) and the Kammerchor Rheine (the Chamber Choir from the town of Rheine), accompanied by the Musica fiata from Cologne.

What made this concert truly spectacular, however, was the logistical set-up of the choirs. The Münster Domchor sang from risers set up in front of the high altar, while the Kammerchor Rheine stood on the steps that lead to the Westchor of the Cathedral, that is, at the opposite end of the Cathedral from the Domchor. Finally, risers were set up in the central bay of the northern side aisle, where either the children's choirs or a smaller choir composed of assorted members of the various choirs sang; a platform for the conductor was placed in the very center of the nave so that all three choirs could see him at once.

Thus, Saturday evening was truly a three-dimensional musical experience, as the sounds of the choirs came literally from every direction (for maximum effect, they decided to forgo the use of the electronic sound system, allowing rather the natural acoustics of the building to take over--something I wish they would do more often). Furthermore, their selection of music from the late Renaissance and early Baroque was tailored to exemplify what is known as the "Venetian polychoral" style; from the inside cover of the program:

This term designates a musical practice that arose in the middle of the 15th century during the late Italian Renaissance. At that time, Venice was a leading center of innovation in the area of music. The polychoral style was chiefly developed for liturgical works that would envelop the space in which they were performed. This effect was achieved by splitting up the music between two or more part-ensembles (so-called "choirs") that stood at various around the performance space; sometimes, the choirs would take turns "answering" each other (a style called "antiphony"), and other times they would join together in the "Tutti" passages and so fill the entire space with music. Fra Ruffino d'Assisi, the Cathedral Kapellmeister in Padua, was one of the first to develop this practice, writing ca. 1510-20 settings of the Psalms for eight voices "a coro spezzato ", i.e. for a separated choir or two choirs of four voices each. While the practice of switching at each verse between one choir and another had roots in the Middle Ages,Fra Ruffino added the innovation of switching between individual words and phrases within each verse, thus inventing the Coro spezzato technique. The technique was further refined by Adam Willaert in his "Salmi spezzati" for eight voices in the 1550's.

Since Giovanni Gabrieli (Kapellmeister from 1586 to 1612 at the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice), this Venetian style expanded quickly throughout the rest of Europe. Heinrich Schütz was a student of Gabrieli from 1609 to 1612 and became one of the most important "Venetian" representatives in the German-speaking world. Other important composers of this style were GregorAichinger (Augsburg), Samuel Scheidt (Halle/Salle), and Jakobus Gallus , who was born in modern-day Slovenia and worked in Prague. In parallel to this, the polychoral style was developed in Spain by Tomas Luis de Victoria; in contrast to Gabrieli and Schütz (whose polychoral compositions were often homophonically arranged), de Victoria remained faithful to the old classical vocal polyphony of Palestrina.
This polychoral effect of filling the space with music on all sides, as well as bouncing the sound back and forth in antiphony between the choirs, was demonstrated immediately by the first string of works by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). As you can see from the following video of the performance of his "Nun Lob, mein Seel, den Herren", it keeps the ear moving just as much as my camera did:


Unfortunately, the omnidirectional microphone in my camera does a very poor job of recording the stereophonic quality of the competing choirs (while the central choir, composed of basses and tenors from the Domchor and altos and sopranos from the boys' and girls' choirs, sang their sections alone, the two other choirs would echo each other during their parts). After the tour-de-force performance of such works, they scaled it back a bit, bringing the focus entirely onto the Domchor as they performed Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's (1525-1594) "Lauda Sion Salvatorem":



Other works performed in the first half of the concert included Jakobus Gallus' (1550-1591) "Ascendo ad patrem meum", Giovanni Gabrielli's Canzon VIII a 8 (Sonate e Canzoni) (an instrumental work), the Kyrie and Gloria from Hans Leo Hassler's (1564-1612) "Missa secunda", and Gregor Aichinger's (1564-1628) "Laudate Dominum". This was the last piece in which the children's choirs had a part, and one could notice that they were ready to go home by the end of it.

The second part of the program opened with two pieces by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), "Hear my prayer, O Lord" and "Lord, how long wilt Thou be angry", performed by the Kammerchor Rheine; this was followed by a soothing instrumental interlude of three pieces by Samuel Scheidt. Next came another fantastic performance of the polychoral style in Scheidt's Magnificat, which was sung by the two large choirs at either end of the cathedral, interspersed with two soloist tenors, one in that central bay of the northern side aisle and the other across from him in the central bay of the southern aisle. The final two pieces of the night also involved choirs and instruments dispersed throughout the cathedral: Gallus' "Halleluja, cantate Domino" and Gabrieli's "Plaudite".

Indeed, it was an evening of music that truly praised God (as, I believe, it was intended to), and demonstrated the profound musical genius of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Finally, I should note that (for me at least) it came as a welcome respite from the modern, atonal drivel that the organist at the cathedral seems to favor for the Sunday masses. Hopefully, he noted how much more pleasing Saturday's program was to the ear, indeed, how much more spiritually moving, than are his adventures into modern oddity.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Encounters with the Romantic abound

It would seem that my time here in Germany has been especially abundant in encounters with that peculiar sensibility which is associated with the poetry and art of the Romantic era (roughly the latter part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century). For those not familiar with this aesthetic, it is perhaps best understood with reference to the music of Beethoven and Schubert; the poetry of Hölderlin, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (in Germany), and Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron (in Britain); and in the realm of visual arts, the paintings especially of Caspar Friedrich David.

To illustrate my encounters with this sensibility in my time here in Germany, I will name just two examples. First, there was the boat cruise on the Rhine that I took last month while visiting the Abbey of St. Hildegard (for which see my blog post on the subject). Then, there was an experience today before lunch that has served as the actual impetus of this writing.

The weather has spent this morning turning stormy, with banks of dark grey clouds rolling in, threatening to burst their rain upon us at any moment, blowing with a chill wind--a setting to make any romantically-minded poet wax rhapsodic about the awesome and sublime power of nature, overwhelming man on the one hand and yet ennobling him in his experience of the its sublimity on the other (the concept of sublimity was very important to the Romantic aesthetic). And as I was walking along past the cathedral on my way from the library to my office, I was stopped in my tracks to behold a young man on the sidewalk playing the most pristine music on a beautiful, full-sized harp. The sublimity of the indifferent, even cruel, power of nature, and that of the delicate, inspired music: the juxtaposition was breathtaking.

As I've only got six weeks left here, the encounter has left me to realize how much I really am going to miss this place.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Abbey of St. Hildegard

Since North Rhine/Westphalia is a Catholic part of Germany, the week before last, being Whitsunweek (the week of Pentecost), was an official university holiday—their version of a mid-semester break, I suppose. Although my class schedule is hardly strenuous, and my free-time that week hardly greater therefore than normal, I nevertheless decided to take the opportunity to visit for a few days the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, a small town near Rüdesheim, on the northern bank of the Rhine river west of Mainz.

Two years ago, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday of 2006, I had the opportunity the first time to visit the Abbey, though, because of the impromptu nature of that first visit, I was forced to stay in a hostel in Mainz and commute each day. This time, I thought to plan far enough in advance to secure several days in the guest quarters of the Abbey.

Thus, I boarded a train that Tuesday morning, and though it would have been faster to take an express train to Frankfurt and then connect down the river, I chose a more scenic route that took me first to Koblenz, and after changing trains, directly along the river upstream to Rüdesheim. By mid-afternoon, I stood on the train platform of Rüdesheim, and began the half-hour walk up to the Abbey, situated on the hill above the town. After wending through the narrow, tourist-crowded streets of Rüdesheim, one eventually comes out above the town but below the Abbey, for between then stand some of the Abbey’s many acres of grapevines; this Abbey is one of the last of the monastic wineries in this, the heart of the Rhineland’s vineyards. The last time I visited, it was the cold of winter, the vines lying bare under a soft dusting of snow; now, their green foliage was bright and young, the first buds of the grape flowers just starting to open. Though the weather that afternoon was perfect, the burden of my pack as I trod the paths through the vines left me sufficiently drenched in sweat upon arrival at the Abbey’s gates to require a bit of a break before actually ringing the bell at the gatehouse.

Though standing in the tradition of the abbey founded by St. Hildegard herself in the 1140’s, the modern estate is not, in fact, the same foundation. The community of women at whose head Hildegard found herself in the 1140’s had grown up around St. Jutta of Sponheim, an anchoress at the Disibodenberg (Mount St. Disibod), a men’s foundation a little to the south of Bingen, up the river Nahe. Finally, having outgrown their quarters and on the instructions of the voice of the “Living Light” that guided Hildegard throughout her life, she moved to separate her community from the monks and found a new house in the town of Bingen, on the southern bank of the Rhine, about fifteen miles downstream from the Disibodenberg. Though at first opposed by several fronts, Hildegard eventually prevailed, and by ca. 1150, she and her nuns were established at the Rupertsberg (Mount St. Rupert). Yet, the community continued to grow, and eventually, she was forced to establish a daughter house across the river in Eibingen. The main house of the Rupertsberg was, alas, destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War, and the Eibingen house heavily damaged, and what that war did not destroy, the Napoleonic secularization confiscated. Yet, the spirit of Hildegard’s work was not to be deterred: at the turn of the 20th century, a group of nuns founded a new house in Eibingen, a few hundred meters up the slope from the foundations of the old daughter house; and thus, an Abbey of St. Hildegard has grown up to carry on the traditions of the “Sibyl of the Rhine”, more than eight hundred years after her death.

After checking in at the Gatehouse, I was given a set of keys and lead around to the guest dormitories; unlike some abbeys and cloisters that are completely open to visitors, much of the Abbey of St. Hildegard, being the private areas of the cloistered nuns, are closed off to the public, seen by none not in habit. After bidding the sister who showed me to my room farewell, I contentedly removed and unpacked my bag, and took stock of my quarters. While the decoration might be considered spartan or even severe by those used to finer accommodations, I found the simplicity of the room appealing. The bed, being not too comfortable, was nevertheless sufficient; the bathroom, while small, yet needn’t have been any larger; the desk, on the other hand, was large and the lighting good; and best of all, the rocker was most perfectly suited to the reading that I had planned.

Yet, though I had brought a certain stack of books (mostly on Hildegard) to wile away the time, I had not come to the Abbey with any intention of imprinting my own schedule upon the time. Rather, I was seeking to envelop myself in a rhythm not of my own fashioning but rather that of the life of the nuns—the rhythm of ora et labora, “pray and work”, as embodied in that rule laid down some fifteen centuries ago by the hand of St. Benedict. I was leaving the world, as it were, even if only for a few days, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life (perhaps best exemplified by that nexus that seems to rule so many of our lives today: the personal computer), and embracing that lifestyle of simple service to God.

Yet, despite the fact that it is a lifestyle of καιρός and not χρόνος, it is a life that is nevertheless regimented—but the beats of that regimen are the very essence of that special rhythm, for the Benedictine life is structured around the services of psalm-singing, readings, and prayers that make up the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. During the regular days of the week (for on Sundays and high feasts they follow a more elaborate liturgical schedule), the nuns arise at half past five each morning to sing Matins; although it was an option, and each of the mornings the bells calling them to the church at the appointed hour did rouse me, I nevertheless, weak as I am, chose to go back to sleep for another hour. Thus, the beginning of my days at the Abbey was marked by the call to Lauds at 7:30, followed directly by the Holy Mass. Only after breaking our fast properly by supping of the Body of Christ did the guests gather in the guest refectory for breakfast. The next point around which the day was structured was the mid-day prayer at noon, for which the nuns that week had chosen to sing the office of Nones; lunch followed. The bells would toll again to call us to Vespers at 5:30 in the afternoon, directly after which we would take our dinner. Finally, at 7:20, we would gather once again in the church for the singing of Compline, followed directly by the singing of Vigils.

Furthermore, I should note that the nuns of this particular Abbey sing each of the hours, with their appointed psalms, in the same way that Hildegard’s companions did eight centuries before them—in the same language (Latin), and to the same chant. This was the rhythm of my days at the Abbey, and it was one that I was sorry to leave that Friday.

I finally had the chance to meet some of the other guests at dinner that night; over the simple fair of bread and butter, with some meats and cheeses and a pasta salad, we made each other’s acquaintance, chatting away in German about what it was that brought us to the Abbey. There was the woman seven months’ pregnant, taking a few days at the Abbey to recollect herself; the Protestant school teacher in her early thirties who had nevertheless maintained the practice since her university days of visiting the Abbey on vacations a few times each year; the petite Italian-German Catholic in her fifties who was an amateur expert in Hildegard’s herbal and natural medicines; the recently retired professor of music from Munich who had for years now served as a tutor for the nuns in their Gregorian chant; and then there was the slim, silent woman with red hair and glasses sitting at the end of the table. As we all settled back down with bowls of pudding at dessert, she finally piped up.

“I’m very sorry,” came her lilting Scottish voice, “and I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t speak any German.”

“Not a problem; we’ll speak English for a bit, then,” I replied. A look of great relief spread across Joan’s face to discover a fellow English speak in the lot. Yet, not to be left out, several of the others joined in according to their various abilities.

After clearing our dishes to the wash cart and making our way out of the refectory back into the courtyard of the Abbey church, Joan and I were joined by Tina, the German school teacher, whose English was, in fact, as good or better than my German (she had lived in an international dorm during her days at the University of Heidelberg, where English was often the language held most in common by the many nationalities). Our trio quickly became routine, forming a company in which to share the experiences of the next few days.

Thus ran our days, structured around the anchor-points of the bells that summoned us to each of the hours, our threads woven sometimes singly, sometimes together, into the tapestry of both individual and common experience. In the mornings after breakfast would be a nice, long walk, on Wednesday alone and on Thursday with Joan and Tina, up and around the top of the valley ridge, through the vineyards and the pastures, the fields of rape and the sheep paddocks. Here, Joan and I pose beneath a wonderfully-shaped tree that reminded us strongly of an ent. Afterwards, I’d find a spot on a bench in the courtyard of the church, passing the time with the pages of one of my books.

After lunch, I’d escape from the bright mid-day sun for a few hours in the rocker in my room, my books again before my eyes (though sometimes, a bit of a nap would accompany them). Later in the afternoon, our trio would come together again for a bit of an excursion from our hill-top refuge; on Wednesday, it was a visit to the parish church of Eibingen. Built over the foundations of the old daughter-house of the Rupertsberg, the church contains the remains of St. Hildegard, encased in a bejeweled casket of silver and gold, glittering in its display case behind the main altar. The church, which was destroyed by fire in the 1930’s, has been rebuilt in a thoroughly modern fashion; propriety will keep me from saying anything more on its art and architecture.

Our Thursday afternoon excursion was a bit more expansive: passing through the town, we came to the banks of the Rhine itself and clambered aboard one of the boats that cruise up and down this famous stretch of the river between Mainz and Koblenz so charmingly known as the “Romantic Rhine”. Indeed, the romantic notions that in the 19th century drove the revival of the castles that dot the landscape seemed to be with us a bit that day, too, for the weather turned briskly stormy, the dark clouds rolling in with peals of thunder and splashes of rain spitting down upon us, the wind whipping along fiercely—yet, as any good Romantic would, we braved the weather (which forsooth was not so fierce nor so wet as to actually hinder us), reverently experiencing the sublimity of nature’s power.

Our boat’s particular charge was to travel about two hours round trip downstream and back up, highlighting some of the inspiring, oft-romantic castles that are scattered high above the banks on this most scenic section of the majestic flood. Some of them, like the Castle Ehrenfels, were true medieval fortifications that lie today in ruins, victims of later, more brutal methods of war (built in the 12th century, the Ehrenfels was destroyed in the seventeenth). Others, though their first foundations might be medieval (like the 9th century nucleus of the Castle Reichenstein), were continually rebuilt and expanded, often taking their final forms in the 19th century as nobles, no longer in need of fortifications, nevertheless romantically took up the mantles of their medieval forebears. You may notice, for example, the neo-gothic chapel attached to the side of the Castle Reichenstein; the building continues to be used to this day—as a bed and breakfast.

The mixture of our company—Tina, Joan, and me—and our respective faith backgrounds added an additional layer to the complexity of our interactions. Tina, a Protestant, has nevertheless been coming to the Abbey for periods of vacation for years now and has developed close relationships with several of the nuns (as well as with the Italian cook who, alas, recently retired). And yet, although she attends each of the liturgies around which the Benedictine experience is structured, she noted her dissatisfaction with the Catholic form of the Mass; the focus in Protestant worship is on the reading and interpreting of Scripture, an activity she found lacking in the Catholic service, for ferial (week-day) Masses in Germany rarely contain a homily (though the priest will often offer a few introductory remarks at the opening of the service either illuminating the day’s readings or explaining the significance of the saint whose day it is). Joan, who was raised Protestant on the religious frontiers of Scotland—where the lines between Protestants and Catholics first begin to be drawn up, though with a cordialness foreign to the rougher relations found in Northern Ireland—no longer identifies with a particular Christian denomination and says that, if pressed to give it a name, her spirituality would align most closely with what one might call Taoism. Thus, the call to hospitality that is a hallmark of the Benedictine way of life allows for the extraordinary crossing of paths of many faiths; and while both the nuns and I certainly pray that God might work His grace for the conversion of the hearts of those who meet Him in the Abbey’s quiet confines, the focus for all of us is not the strict work of active evangelization but rather the via passiva of an encounter with other humans who, despite their various backgrounds, nevertheless sense the restlessness common to all humanity: et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1).

Unfortunately, this quiet interlude—a restive pause for weary pilgrims—came all too soon to an end, and Friday came, a day of departures. Joan left shortly after breakfast to catch a train to Passau to visit her son, who lives and works there as a translator; her farewell promise was to call again at the Abbey, and by that return to have learned some German. Though I was not to depart until the afternoon, I had to pack up and remove my luggage to the office in the Gatehouse in the morning to allow for the cleaning and preparation of my room for its next guest. I spent most of the morning, therefore, in the Klosterladen (“Cloister Shop”), browsing its many wares. I bought some herbal tea (by which Joan swears) for my mother and grandmother; a bottle of wine for a friend in Münster; and various postcards and notecards bearing images of the Abbey and its surroundings, or of some of the more famous illuminations from the manuscripts of Hildegard’s works.

Finally, my attention turned to the bookshelves. I had been hoping that they might carry, in addition to the various translations into German, English, and Italian, the actual critical editions of the Latin texts of Hildegard’s works, published over the course of the last two decades in various volumes of the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, a many-volumed series, published by Turnhout in Brepols, that is making its way through all of the important works of the Latin Middle Ages—a feat last attempted by the indefatigable Abbé Migne in the 19th century, whose Patrologia Latina, though comprised of often lackluster and even erroneous editions, is still all too often our best (or even only) collection of so many medieval texts. I was hoping to add the CCCM editions, so well-known in their orange cloth bindings, to my collection of books, though knowing full well that they come not cheap—indeed, no normal bookshop, nor any of the various Amazon websites, carry them; the only recourse is often to antiquarian websites where prices quickly exit any reasonable range for my pocketbook. Alas, however, the bookstore did not keep them in stock (however expensive they might have been, I was hoping to find them at least conveniently collected in one place). I therefore contented myself to spend a still-significant amount of money filling my bag with various other books of Hildegardiana in both English and German, acquisitions that I know will very quickly justify their expense in the course of my studies.

As much as I was clinging to my time at the Abbey, however, those last remaining hours soon slipped away, and I found myself bidding farewell to the remaining guests at lunch and, after a few more fleeting moments caught on a bench under the eves of the gatehouse, I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders, with a large bag of my recent acquisitions in my hand, and made my way slowly down the mountain. I stopped in for one last look at the parish church of Eibingen, to make my farewells to Hildegard’s bones (as I had done before my departure two years previously), and to light a few candles for my special intentions. Though many of my prayers from two years ago had been answered and the requested guidance given, I had both some left to reiterate (the same petitions that, I imagine, I shall offer, in one form or other, until the day I die), and others to set anew before God, through the special intercession of His saints.

As I sat gazing out of the train window as the Rhine river zipped by on the way back to Koblenz, I fell again into a contemplative mood, searching with those inner eyes and ears that Hildegard so often mentions for one of those keys to unlock the experiences of the past few days; or rather, as is so often the task of the scholar, to find that one thread that runs through the whole tapestry, tying the disparate parts of random experience into a whole, meaningful picture. What, in hindsight, could I discern of the underlying meaning and structure of my visit? Just as the chanting of the canonical hours was the framework upon which was built the course of each day in that religious life, so also I was looking for the essence of that skeleton that made sense out of the ephemeral flashes of momentary experience.

I will not pretend that I had any great insights on that train, or at least, none greater than the standard connections we make as we survey each day of our lives, that is, in our quotidian mental activity of making what sense we can of it all. My conclusions were, therefore, often no more than simply the rehashing either of threads that I have already enumerated in this post, or of the threads that, more constantly and consistently, accompany me on my daily journey, the why’s and whither’s and what for’s that make up the bulk of human discernment.

There was one rather more special insight, however, that I would like to share. In encountering the other guests at the Abbey, each of whom had their own special reason and relationship with Hildegard, I was reminded once more not only of the manifold aspects of her life and work, but also of the great impact that each of those roles has on those of us today who encounter the “Sibyl of the Rhine”. Over the course of the months, I had begun, I realized, to succumb to that danger that lurks in the path of any academic: the danger of becoming too ensconced in our Ivory Towers, reducing, as it were, the true complexity of the figures we study to the merely academic and scholarly. My approach to Hildegard is (1) scholarly and (2) specifically theological, eschatological, and apocalyptic; and even when I step back from my specialty to survey the other fields of Hildegardiana—the music, the natural medicine, the theology not specifically eschatological—I nevertheless remain in that first mode of viewing, namely, the scholarly.

Yet, as I was reminded in those few days at the Abbey, Hildegard is to many much more than merely a topic of academic interest. I can look specifically to the Italian-German Catholic woman, whom we “scholars” would term an “amateur”, that is, whose interest in Hildegard is entirely practical. She studies Hildegard, spends time at Hildegard’s abbey, and reads Hildegard’s works, not because that’s her job, but because she finds meaning for her own life in Hildegard’s. Hildegard’s writings on natural medicine are not merely important as documents in the history of science; for her, they become actual tools in regulating the ailments of her own body. Likewise, Hildegard’s theology is not merely a collection of theoretical notions; rather, this woman has actually allowed her own spiritual life to be taught by Hildegard’s teachings. My time at the Abbey served as a great reminder to me that the vitality of Hildegard’s personality in our age is the product not of our scholarly researches but of actual people and their real encounters with an extraordinary woman of an age gone by. It is thus for us, the academics, not merely to write our books and give our lectures for the sake of other academics, but to realize that our profession, like all human activities, is meant to be for the advancement of humanity—and that such advancement is not merely an abstract goal of progress, but the concrete reality of people who live their lives in the here and now, perhaps weighed down by the weariness of day-to-day drudgery, yet also lifted up by the simple joys of day-to-day life, well-lived. Though we may use the language of us-versus-them, it is for us to recognize that, if we build the Ivory Tower and shut the world out, we but stifle and extinguish the vitality of our work. Let us, therefore, take as our example the Benedictine model: though we have our cloistered profession in which we trade in a commodity seemingly far removed from the lives of those outside the academic community, we must yet be open and, indeed, actively inviting to them; our principle should not be to close ourselves up, but to lay open the doors and take in our guests, providing them, in our own peculiar way, with refreshment in their lives—for it is the outsiders to our community who, in fact, provide our community with its own greatest rejuvenation.

Friday, May 23, 2008

In Festo Corporis Christi

Some of you may recall the superlative-laced description I sent out as an email two years ago of the Corpus Christi procession held in the little town of Eichstätt in Bavaria, where I was studying at the time. Though I was led to believe then that the glittering performance, attended by the whole town, was an especially heightened peculiarity of the deep Catholic traditions in that town (called, by many, the “most Catholic town in Germany”), I discovered yesterday that it is rather a custom among all of the (what Anglicans would call “high church”) Roman Catholics in Germany.

Münster being a far larger city than Eichstätt, there were multiple celebrations of the Feast of Corpus Christi yesterday morning; I chose, as has been my wont throughout my time here, to join the high festivities of the Pontifical Mass at the Cathedral, which began at 8:30. As was the case in Bavaria, here also the Mass was specially attended by the honor guards of the various Societies, Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods, Guilds and Clubs of every shape and kind, all dressed to their German nines and with banners and flags and penants unfurled; the men of these guards (each society represented by their banner bearer and two attendants, girded with sabers and all) stood at attention throughout the Mass at either side of the Sanctuary, their banners dipping only to reverence the Eucharist at the Consecration and Communion.

So, at the end of the Mass, the procession began to form, as great (indeed greater in some respects) as that long parade in Eichstätt. It was led, as is customary, by the Crucifer, bearing a spectacularly gilded late-medieval processional Cross, and his attendants; these were followed by the Honor Guards and then the Cathedral Choir; next came the acolytes and then the nuns of the Klarissenkonvent (a convent specially attached to the Cathedral); these were followed by the extra clergy in attendence and then the Canons of the Cathedral Chapter, distinguished by their purple scapulars. Finally came the Thurifer leading the Sacred Ministers, in the midst of whom, decked out in cope and humeral veil, came the Bishop carrying the monstrance, his attendants and chaplain in tow. These then were followed, first by the resident Knights of Malta, and finally by the congregation itself. The following is a video of the great train as it passed me in the pew [NB: I apologize for my singing in the first part of the video; I’ve been struck with quite the head cold for the past few days; needless to say, once I realized my horrible inability to sing on key with such an impediment, I ceased my mangling of the tune]:

Soon after the Knights of Malta passed, we joined the great throng and passed slowly out the north portal of the Cathedral, singing hymns as we went (the entire order of the procession, including all of the hymns, is printed in a special 35-page booklet). While two years ago I had thought that the red-and-gold hangings that adorned the procession route were an homage to the heraldic colors of the town of Eichstätt, I realize now that they are, in fact, an intergral part of the liturgy of the procession, for our route yesterday was also lined with red and gold banners.

We made our way around the north side of the Cathedral, and finally came to a stop at the first of the processional altars, erected outside north side of the Cathedral’s apse. The Bishop settled the Holy Body in its monstrance upon the altar, and we commenced the ritual that was to be repeated at each of the three succeeding altars. First, the Deacon would read a passage from the Gospel detailing in some way the theology of the Eucharist and of the Incarnation (the Gospel at the fourth and final altar being the first fourteen verses of the Gospel of St. John, for example). Then, the Cathedral Choir would sing one of the traditional Latin Hymns appointed for the Corpus Christi procession; next, a cantor would sing the intercessions, to which the assembly would respond, first with “Erbarme dich unser” (“Have mercy on us”) after each call to Christ, and then with “Wir bitten dich, erhöre uns” (“We beseech thee to hear us”) after each petition. Finally, the Celebrant would cense the monstrance, and then, taking it up in his hands from the Deacon, offer the benediction. Finally, the procession would reform, and, singing still more hymns, move to the next altar.

The second altar was only a short way from the first, and it was there that I captured the following video of the Choir singing the Hymn:

The words of the hymn, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, can be found, together with translation, here (the Choir only sang verses 1-2 and 6.)

After the rituals of Gospel, Hymn, Intercessions, and Blessing were repeated, we proceeded to the third altar, and then again to the fourth. At last, we returned, accompanied by the peals of the Cathedral’s bells in fanfare, to the Cathedral, where the festivities were to conclude. First, we sang antiphonally with the Choir the Te Deum, the congregation singing their parts according to the traditional chant, and the Choir their parts in beautiful polyphony. Finally, we sang the traditional Tantum ergo, and, after a final benediction, a rousing final hymn, “Ein Haus voll Glorie schauet” (“Behold, a house of glory full”) by Joseph Mohr (of “Silent Night” fame”), a tune that I’m almost certain I’ve sung in English before, though at the moment, I can’t seem to place the words.

Finally, I should note that, though the largest celebration seemed to belong to the Cathedral, other parishes had their own festivities scheduled. The Pfarrgemeinde of the Innenstadt, that is, the Parish of the inner-city, comprising the congregations of the Churches of St. Ludgerus, St. Lambertus, St. Aegidius, and St. Martin, held their High Mass at the Martinikirche at 9 o’clock, and then went in procession to altars at each of the other churches of the parish, as well as to an altar set up along the Prinzipalmarkt (Münster’s “Main Street” that leads to the Lambertikirche); one could hear the singing of their procession along the Prinzipalmarkt at the same time as the Cathedral’s procession was turning from its final altar back to the Cathedral. In fact, I caught up with their procession after I left the Cathedral, and discovered that their canopium was even more lavish than the Cathedral’s!

Finally, I would like to offer a note to my faithful readers, to whom I have promised a report (with photos!) of my time last week spent at the Abbey of St. Hildegard. I have not forgotten my promise, but have found myself otherwise occupied; I shall nevertheless attempt to get such a report composed and posted in the coming days—despite the chronological disorder so ensured by its posting after this current report.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The German Pope and His Visit to America

As Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States last week, I followed the news of his trip eagerly through the American online press. I was surprised, however, to see the interest taken in his trip by the Germans I encounter in my daily life. During each of the six days of the Pope’s trip, one of the prayer intentions at Mass here was for his safety and for the efficacy of his pastoral visit to the United States. This was the first time (that I could remember) that a specific Mass intention was added during one of the Pontiff’s international trips.

Although that part of his visit that was the most astounding for me as an American (and this resonated surely in the American press) was his candid and repeated focus on the shameful tragedy of the sexual abuse scandal that erupted at the beginning of this decade, the German attention was more circumspect. It quickly became clear to me that the people here recognized that the pastoral importance and, indeed, necessity of the Pope’s mission—the prayers offered at Mass sought especially for the pastoral healing of the American flock; but the trigger of the American church’s crisis of faith, namely, the sexual abuse scandal, was not acknowledged as such. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to determine whether this results from a lack of awareness of the specific causes of the current American malady, or rather from a reticence to speak of the admittedly shameful specifics.

A further issue I have yet to fully understand is the impetus driving the Germans to take such an interest in this visit. Is it merely a by-product of the heightened interest they take in the papacy of the German Shepherd? Yet, I have seen a much keener attention to the Pope’s visit to the United States than to his other actions over the last half-year. Is it, rather, that Germans, and especially German Catholics (?), take a more pointed interest in the United States because of the intimate relationship between our two countries since the end of the Second World War?

Whatever the cause, it warmed my heart dearly this morning to find the following picture on the front page of the latest issue of Kirche+Leben (“Church+Life”), the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Münster:

Here is a translation of the article that accompanied the photo:

“Like the President: Cheers for the Pope”

It is no secret that Benedict XVI loves Italian, French, German, and of course Latin, but has no particularly intensive regard for the English language. These students from the Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville tried to accommodate the Pope in that regard when he visited Washington and New York last week: they waited for him with victory signs, thumbs-up, joyful faces, and signs in heartfelt, if not also completely correct, German. About 75 percent of Catholics and the majority of non-Catholics have a positive opinion of Benedict XVI, although 80 percent say that they “don’t know much” about him. Kirche+Leben will give a complete report of the Pope’s trip to the U.S. in the next issue.

[N.B. After following the Pope’s trip last week, I have to disagree with this newspaper’s account of his English; perhaps it was at one time true (I remember when I was in Rome two and half years ago, his English was almost incomprehensibly accented), but the Pope has clearly demonstrated that he has worked hard to improve his English, especially in preparation for his recent trip. Though I am still amused by his pronunciation of “country” as “cown-tree”.

Also, as to the “not completely correct” German: the signs should read “Wilkommen Heiliger Vater”.]

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pro-Life Prayer in Münster

Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a Gebetszug or prayer procession here in Münster called “1000 Crosses for Life”. Organized by Euro Pro Life (European Voice of the Unborn Children: “Protect our Life”), it was one in a series of prayer marches that have been held by the organization throughout Europe. Founded a year and half ago, the organizers travel from country to country, a large white van in tow that contains one thousand white crosses, each about a meter tall and made of 1x4’s, weighing about ten pounds each. Although I would estimate only about three hundred people showed up for yesterday’s march, each of us bore a cross in hand to form what the organizers called “a moving cemetery” of the innocents. Although the organization is international, it was founded in Germany, and the inspiration for the 1,000 crosses comes from the fact that, on average, 1,000 unborn children die in abortion clinics in Germany each day.

The mustering of the march began in front of the Aegidiikirche at around half past three, and by shortly before four o’clock, we were formed in three single-file columns, each with a cross on our shoulders and led by an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe (afterwards, the head of the march explained that, although the event was ecumenical, this icon was chosen because it represents the pregnant Mary praying to her Son—thus making her the ideal protectress of the unborn). We were instructed not to engage in conversation with passersby (though there were certain young people whose task it was to hand out explanatory leaflets), for this was primarily a time for prayer.

We set out singing the hymn “O komm herab, du Heiliger Geist” (“O come upon us, Thou Holy Ghost”), aided by the excellent male and female voices that were broadcast over a series of loudspeakers distributed throughout the train. After this hymn, we recited the “Way of the Blood of Christ”; this devotion involves seven stations (1: The Lord shed His Blood at His Circumcision; 2: The Lord shed His Blood in Prayer on the Mount of Olives; 3: The Lord shed His Blood at the Scourging at the Pillar; 4: The Lord shed His Blood at the Crowning of Thorns; 5: The Lord shed His Blood on the Way of the Cross; 6: The Lord shed His Blood at His Crucifixion; 7: The Lord shed His Blood and Water when His Side was Pierced), each of which begins with a passage from scripture and a meditation. The first six stations are followed by the recitation five times of the Lord’s Prayer, while the last station has four “Our Fathers”: the 34 total “Our Fathers” represent the thirty-three years of Christ’s life and the one year of His unborn life in Mary’s womb. Finally, each station was closed by the “Glory be”, sung in German to the tune of “Amazing Grace”. As we finished this devotion, we arrived in front of the Lambertikirche, where we halted (above photo). A meditation on the work of Blessed Clemens August Kardinal von Galen was read over the loudspeakers; Bl. Clemens August was the Bishop of Münster from 1933 until his death in 1946, and was beatified under Pope John Paul II. His motto, Nec laudibus nec timore (“Neither because of praises nor because of fear”), exemplified his stand against the oppression of the Nazis in his own time, and has become a watchword for the stand against the injustice of abortion today.

As we continued from the Lambertikirche, we sang two antiphons, Laudate omnes gentes, laudate Dominum (Psalm 117: “O praise the Lord, all ye nations”) and Misericordias Domini in aeterno cantabo (Psalm 89(88): “My song shall be always of the mercy of the Lord”); and we concluded with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and a reprise of “O komm herab, du Heiliger Geist”. The entire procession took about two hours, winding its way throughout Münster and stopping up traffic at very points along the way. Most bystanders watched in respectful silence; some even joined us in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A few teenagers and twenty-somethings either laughed at us or yelled at us about individual rights (the latter charge came from a group of punked-out homeless kids who routinely solicit money along the city’s streets).

Perhaps the most moving part of the experience, for me at least, was the little old lady who walked beside me the whole way. Though she must be in her seventies, she carted that cross the entire two hours, shuffling along with the rest of us, and never yielding to the oft-repeated offers to lighten her load. If the stiffness and aches in my limbs that greeted me when I awoke this morning are any indication, she truly bore her cross for Christ and for the unborn children yesterday.

At the end of the procession, which returned to the Aegidiikirche, the head organizer gave a short speech describing the efforts the group have undertaken in the past year, and inviting us to join them in their upcoming prayer marches throughout Europe. In addition to the events in Germany and Poland—yesterday’s march was cosponsored by “Adler”, a German-Polish youth group; I would estimate that up to a third of the marchers were of mixed stock, enough, at least, that one of the decades of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy was said in Polish—they have held marches in the Czech Republic and in Britain.

The lead organizer was especially keen to describe the march in London this past December 30, held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Great Britain. He traveled to London a few days before Christmas to make the final preparations, in which he was being aided by an English group called the Helpers of the Unborn Infants. They wanted to end the procession in front of Westminster Abbey; since they needed the cooperation of the Anglican Church for this, he needed to meet with the Dean of the Abbey. To the astonishment of all, within five minutes of arriving at the Abbey, he was in the Dean’s office being offered the complete cooperation of the Church of England. The Dean suggested that they finish the procession at the Memorial of the Innocents within the Abbey itself; when the chief organizer demurred, since this would require the hundreds of people to squeeze through the small side doors of the Abbey, the Dean had a ready solution. Thus, when the prayer march arrived at the Abbey on December 30, the uniformed guards of the Abbey solemnly opened its great front portal doors, the same doors through which Queen Elizabeth passed on the way to her coronation.

The power of this pro-life movement, however, far surpasses the abortion debate. After the march in London, an elderly English chap approached the German organizer (“he look a bit like Winston Churchill”) to express his thanks. “I’ve held a deep hatred against the Germans for a very long time,” the Englishman said. “They did some horrible things to me and to my family in the war. But today, during this march, that all changed. The hate melted away.” The Englishman then embraced the German, who was speechless and blurry-eyed.

If this movement, founded upon the Christ’s love for all humanity, including the unborn, can bring relief to the deep-seated prejudices of old, what power has it not? Dare we to hope that in this movement, the Orangemen and the Catholics in Northern Ireland might finally be able to come together in common to support the innocent lives of unborn children? Perhaps thus we can bring also the Serbs and Croats together?

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Religion of Peace?

Yesterday in Jerusalem, an Islamic suicide terrorist walked into the library of the Mercaz Harav seminary, which was full of young Jewish men holding a celebratory feast in anticipation of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim, and proceeded to spray the room with bullets. As students ran to take cover behind tables and bookshelves, the gunman hunted them down, killing each student with a shot to the head at close range. Before the terrorist was brought down by a reserve paratrooper living next to the seminary, eight Israelis lay dead and another eight were seriously wounded. For those of you familiar with the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, nine years ago, the similarities are eerie: this, indeed, was Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Jerusalem.

I applaud Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for quickly condemning the massacre, and I know that many, many Muslims, including some whom I count my friends, are grieved at the continued, senseless loss of life. Yet, I am both astonished and horrified to note that President Abbas’ reaction was not shared by the inhabitants of Gaza, where news of the seminary killing was greeted with celebratory gunfire, cars honking their horns, and people passing out candy in the streets.

Islam, I am told, is supposed to be a religion of peace; indeed, the very root meaning of the word “Islam” is “peace”. I have met many devout Muslims in the United States and here in Europe who have expressed to me their abject horror and frustration that their faith has been hijacked by extremists to promulgate such vile, bloody, and inhuman acts as yesterday’s massacre.

Yet, these truly peace-loving Muslims whom I have met must, I fear, be counted themselves a minority among their religious brethren, for this is neither the first time, nor shall it be, I fear, the last when the tragic, truly evil murder of innocent human beings has been met in Muslim communities around the world with joy and celebration. No man’s death is occasion to celebrate, for every death is an evil, to be mourned either for the senseless loss of an innocent life or for that the death of a guilty man was made necessary in the first place.

I am forced, therefore, to ask this: can Islam today truly claim to be a religion of peace when so many of its followers rejoice at such evil? I wish it were not so; I wish with all my heart that every Muslim on this earth embraced the peaceful tenets of his or her religion and shunned any pretense to unholy violence in the name of God. Let us all, therefore, pray to God that He might effect a change in the hearts of men; that He might blot out with His Holy Light that restless shadow that overcasts their hearts and encourages them to revel in the evils of destruction; that he might bring peace to our time so that we might all greet one another in peace in His Holy Name, recognizing His image in each other, and embracing humanity according to the precepts of His Love.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

On the Habit of Profligate Swearing

Practically all of us either know or have met someone who engages in the practice of profligate swearing. In their everyday speech, such people can hardly finish half a phrase, let alone a complete sentence, without throwing in the “f-bomb” or one of its many derivatives. It is a “colloquial” style that, though abhorred by many, is often excused as relatively harmless, or worse, as the birthright of a certain class of citizens (in similar fashion is claimed exclusively to black Americans the birthright of using the “n-word” in everyday speech, a use whose proliferation now often rivals that of the “f-word”). It has become such a nuisance that the town of South Pasadena, California, has declared this week to be “No Cussing Week”.

These habits are often claimed to be either a demonstration of modernity freeing itself from the shackles of old-fashioned prudery (by those who excuse it); or again, an example of just how far not only our morals but also our respect for the English language (“the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible,” as Henry Higgins puts it) have fallen—this latter the claim of those who would see such profligacy of basest language banished. Yet, while reading yesterday John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (his spiritual autobiography, published in 1666), I was struck by how modern one of his experiences seemed (paragraphs 26-28):

Now therefore I went on in sin with great greediness of mind, still grudging that I could not be so satisfied with it as I would: this did continue with me about a moneth, or more. But one day, as I was standing at a Neighbours Shop-window, and there cursing and swearing, and playing the Mad-man, after my wonted manner, there sate within the woman of the house, and heard me; who, though she was a very loose and ungodly Wretch, yet protested that I swore and cursed at the most fearful rate, that she was made to tremble to hear me; And told me further, That I was the ungodliest Fellow for swearing that ever she heard in all her life; and that I, by thus doing, was able to spoile all the Youth in a whole Town, if they came but in my company.

At this reproof I was silenced, and put to secret shame; and that too, as I thought, before the God of Heaven: wherefore, while I stood there, and hanging down my head, I wished with all my heart that I might be a little childe again, that my Father might learn me to speak without this wicked way of swearing: for, thought I, I am so accustomed to it, that it is but in vain for me to think of a reformation, for I thought it could never be.

But how it came to pass I know not, I did from this time forward so leave my swearing, that it was a great wonder to my self to observe it; and whereas before I knew not how to speak unless I put an Oath before, and another behind, to make my words have authority, now, I could, without it, speak better, and with more pleasantness then ever I could before: all this while I knew not Jesus Christ, neither did I leave my sports and play.

I am hardly the first person ever to note that one of the qualities of great literature is its ability to endure and remain pertinent to the lives of its readers, even so many centuries after its composition. John Bunyan’s Puritan mindsight might seem, at first glance, so wholly foreign to modernity as to render his writings practically useless to the modern reader; and yet, one stumbles upon a passage like this and is forced but to recall the words of that Preacher some few dozens of centuries ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Question on the Source of a Cultural Reference

In commenting on the impact of yesterday's primary election results in the United States, GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos noted the following:

Tomorrow, [John McCain] can get started. He'll have the [Republican National Committee] behind him. He'll have a broad base of financial support. It's a big step. Meanwhile, it looks like the Democrats are engaged in the land war across Russia, so he's got a big advantage now.

My question is this: in using the metaphor of a "land war across Russia", what is the direct background of Castellanos' cultural reference? I would argue that the final background is, indeed, the historical notion that a land war in Russia is about the hardest and most grueling thing a European army can attempt. However, is this also the direct background behind Castellanos' remark? Or is the direct cultural reference, which itself then refers to the historical background, Vizzini's remark in The Princess Bride that the most famous of the classic blunders "is never get involved in a land war in Asia"?

Snow at last!

Throughout the past few months of winter, I have said repeatedly on this blog and in emails and other communications with many people, that it does not snow in Münster; it rains (often), sometimes this rain turns to sleet, and when temperatures drop below freezing, we often get frosts.

Last night, for the first time all winter, it did, however, snow. As I was walking to the train station to catch the train home, what began as rain turned into sleet; and then, as I glanced down at my coat while waiting for a traffic signal to change, I noticed that what had been dark, wet blotches had turned, incredibly and wonderfully, into flakes of white. A closer examination confirmed it: this was snow.

Thus, although it neither stuck nor accumulated, for approximately one hour last evening, it snowed in Münster. I had high hopes that we might awake this morning to at least some snow upon the ground; but alas, we experienced only another heavy frost. I must note with sorrow that this frost weighed heavy on the many wildflowers and bulb flowers that had, due to the recent weeks of warmer weather, begun to bloom. I set my hopes now that these flowers might, with the beautiful sunlight that has flooded us today, yet come back and continue to bloom.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Harry Potter and the Girl Who Takes Latin

According to a recent story on MTV's website, a study submitted to the Journal of General Psychology by psychology professor Dr. Jeffrey Rudski and two of his undergrad students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, shows that some 10% of Harry Potter fans exhibit symptoms of addiction to, and subsequent withdrawal from, Harry Potter. While this may come as no surprise to many of us who have followed the adventures of the Boy Who Lived for many years, what interests me is Dr. Rudski’s rationale for studying psychological pathologies of the followers of the Harry Potter a cultural phenomenon:

It was a toss-up for him between studying people's reaction to the end of "The Sopranos" and the end of Harry Potter, but ultimately, Rudski chose the boy wizard because his 15-year-old daughter is a fan — well, he calls her an addict but says her addiction has positive outlets. "She's picked up guitar because she wants to be in a wizard-rock band," he said. "She's studying Latin because she wants to better understand J.K. Rowling's choices of names for her characters. She started reading Stephen King and John Irving because they spoke with Rowling at Radio City two summers ago." If that's being an addict, he's down with it.

As some of you may know, more than five years ago, I wrote my high school senior thesis on “Classical References, Linguistic and Literary, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter”; the central thesis of the paper involved exploring and evaluating Rowling’s reasons for using classical languages, mythology, and history. I argued that her use of Latin could, in fact, spur a renewed interest in the Classics. It would seem that Dr. Rudski’s daughter has vindicated my thesis.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The General Plan

It recently occurred to me that readers of this blog, whatever they may think of it, might be rather in the dark as to what exactly I’m doing this year in Germany. In my infinite wisdom, I have failed to write a post on the subject, despite the fact that I am already half-way through the ten-month Fulbright period. So to paraphrase the inimitable Sam Seaborne, let’s forget about the fact that I’m coming a little late to the party and embrace the idea that I showed up at all. Some of you will already be familiar with my work, and I would advise you not to waste your time reading further; this post is intended for the general reader who has not experienced first hand the trials and tribulations of the process that is applying for a Fulbright Grant. Thus, here follows the text of my Fulbright Project Statement as written more than a year ago:

“The 20th century has seen a revival of interest in many little-known medieval authors, especially in previously overlooked female writers. The journey of these authors from their time through to ours can be fascinating, and a study of the reception of their works through time can reveal much about each successive age.

One of the first major female authors to enjoy a resurgence of interest and scholarship was Hildegard von Bingen, an abbess and writer of the 12th century. Herbalists have embraced her for her works on natural medicine and cures, while New Age spirituality has found expression in the soaring melodies of her chant. Feminist movements have come to regard her as a monument to the power of the feminine in an age of misogyny. I myself discovered Hildegard one afternoon the summer after my sophomore year in college, while, working under an Advanced Study Grant from Boston College, I set about an introductory study of Medieval Latin literature and paleography.

In her own time, Hildegard was also well known as a visionary and prophet. She became a figure of wide renown after her powers were certified by Pope Eugenius III and she published in 1151 the first volume, Scivias, of her massive visionary trilogy. She corresponded with popes, kings, and even with Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. At the age of 60, remarkably for a woman of that time, she embarked on the first of four preaching journeys.

For the great stretch of history between her death in 1179 and her modern rediscovery, Hildegard continued to enjoy a wide reputation as a visionary whose apocalyptic writings have been held to prophesy a number of subsequent events: the rise of the mendicant orders and their battles with the papacy over apostolic poverty; the Protestant Reformation; the rise (and fall) of those firebrands of Europe, the Jesuits; and in every age generally, the coming of the Antichrist.

This reputation as primarily a visionary prophet owes much to the fact that for most of that time, Hildegard’s works were not known in the fullness of the originals, but through a redaction of her prophetic and apocalyptic writings executed in the 1220’s by the Cistercian prior Gebeno von Eberbach. In his Speculum futurorum temporum or Pentachronon Gebeno collected various prophetic excerpts from two of Hildegard’s three large visionary volumes, Scivias and Liber divinorum operum, and from her correspondence. In addition to collecting various prophecies, Gebeno provided a commentary on them and, more important, on Hildegard as a prophet of her age and of the times to come.

Gebeno’s own times were ones of religious and social upheaval in Europe. The previous decade had seen the rise of two great new religious orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans; the Fourth Lateran Council, which was a watershed mark in the definition of the medieval church; and the papacy of Innocent III, whose attempts to expand the worldly authority of the Church brought him into deep conflict with the secular leanings of the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich II (whom many would identify with the Antichrist). The following decade would see the beginning of the reign of St. Louis IX in France and the continued fracture between the Church and the Empire. It was also a time of unrest among the peasants, who, after the experience in the previous century of the heretical Cathars and their violent repression by the Church, were soon to be faced by even more heretical movements and their even more violent repression by the nascent Inquisition; reports of the coming of the Antichrist and of the End Times were constant.

Under these circumstances Gebeno set about compiling Hildegard’s prophecies, and it is this compilation that I propose to study under a Fulbright Grant for the full academic year beginning October, 2007. While some scholars have investigated the impact of Gebeno’s work on the reception of Hildegard’s writing, few have approached him as an author in his own right. Why did Gebeno put together this “Mirror of Times to Come”? How did he gather the texts? How was he introduced to Hildegard’s writings, and where did he find his sources? How did Gebeno deal with her cumbersome style, which suffers from redundancies, awkward constructions, and strange neologisms (as he himself noted, “Most people disdain and abhor the books of St. Hildegard, because she spoke obscurely and in an unfamiliar style”)? How did the people and events of his time affect his writing? What do we learn in the Pentachronon about Gebeno as a thinker, a believer, and a writer of Latin? In short, how did the Pentachronon take shape and develop, both in itself and as a product of an abbot writing in the 1220’s?

One leading scholar who has taken a serious look at some of these issues is Prof. Christel Meier-Staubach, the director of the Seminar für Lateinische Philologie des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. Prof. Meier-Staubach has done extensive work on Hildegard, including an examination of Gebeno’s writings. If I were awarded a Fulbright Grant, I would study with her and her colleagues, not only researching the development of Gebeno’s book, but also enrolling in a variety of courses offered by the Seminar in a broader study of Medieval Latin literature and philology; Prof. Meier-Staubach has kindly offered to support me in my work. Because the Latin language was fundamental in defining mediæval European culture, I hope to come to a better understanding and appreciation of that culture through a study of its language and literature. By the end of the Fulbright year I intend to produce a paper on the development of Gebeno’s thought and writings which can serve as the foundation for a doctoral thesis as I pursue graduate studies on my return to the United States.

Some might be tempted to pose the question: why is the study of an obscure, 800 year-old collection of apocalyptic writings important to our modern world? Gebeno wrote in a time of great conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Church. The excommunications of Emperor Friedrich II in 1238 and of Friedrich Barbarossa the century before have long been wounds to the German cultural pride: Barbarossa is, after all, a great German hero. It was no accident that the Reformation occurred not in France or Italy but in Germany: the Germans have long had an uneasy relationship with the power and authority of the papacy, and this tension survives even today. An American might laugh at a headline that appeared after the election of Benedict XVI in 2005: “Wir sind Papst!”, but the irony was not lost on the Germans, for many of whom the papacy has long symbolized everything that can go wrong when fallible humans try to mediate the divine. It is telling that when Germans today look upon the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, they often see past the gilded plaster to Rome’s attempts to finance the structure with German indulgence monies. As a religious 800 years ago, Gebeno was faced with similar disharmonies. In studying his work, therefore, I hope to learn how Gebeno dealt with the tensions between the civic, secular life of his countrymen and the sacred authority of the Church, for though on the surface our times are very different, the substance of the tensions that German Catholics still face today is similar. Indeed, such are also the tensions that resonate even in our own land, where the interplay between religious and secular identity, between the authority of the church and of the state, is an omnipresent issue. For the first time in history, the majority of the peoples of Western Europe and the United States primarily identify themselves not with a religious label but with a secular one, such as “American,” “Deutsche,” or “citoyen”. In a very broad but very real sense, the roots of this so-called “secularization” of Western culture lie in Gebeno’s own turbulent age, and so the crises of faith of his times might prove the key to beginning to understand the crises of faith of our own age.”

Thus I initially proposed. As I recently reflected on the state of my project midway through its implementation—a reflection carried out at the behest of the U.S. Student Fulbright Program—I rehashed this lengthy and embellished proposal into the statement of three goals:

1. To read the entire text of Gebeno von Eberbach’s "Pentachronon sive Speculum Futurorum Temporum" and catalogue the origin(s) of each of the prophecies.

2. To investigate the historical, social, political, religious, and literary context of Gebeno’s work.

3. To investigate the wider implications of the oft contentious relationship betweeen the German people and the hierarchy of the Roman church.

Finally, I was asked to evaluate my progress in achieving these three goals:

The most significant marker of my project’s progress to date would be my early realization that, despite significant progress on the microcosmic level of working directly with the text itself, I had so far neglected to properly prepare myself for the macrocosmic placement of the work in the wider context of medieval apocalyptic thought. Hence, in addition to my continuing work with the text (I have read and catalogued approximately the first half of the full text), I have undertaken at first a broad introduction to apocalyptic thought, which has gradually focused into in-depth reading on apocalypticism specific to the 12th and 13th centuries; in short, I have spent a lot of time with my nose buried in books. The result of this reading has been a recasting of my understanding of Hildegard’s role in 13th-century apocalypticism; up until now, scholarship in this field has focused almost exclusively on the role of another 12th-century thinker, Joachim of Fiore. Thus, while I am still making some progress on Goal #2 (Gebeno’s historical context), its importance has been subordinated to a new goal, namely, establishing the role of Hildegard (via Gebeno) in 13th-century apocalypticism. Finally, my principal work on Goal #3 (the German relationship with the Papacy) has been my reading/study of other apocalyptic movements, especially the apocalyptic role of the papacy (e.g. the myths of the angelic pope and the papal antichrist) and its close relationship to the apocalyptic role of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Rather than spending any more time boring the lot of you with the tedious details of this academic’s arcane work, I think I’ll get back to doing what I do best: reading.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Respecting Life in All Its Forms

In today’s issue of The Heights, Boston College’s student newspaper, Mr. Jon Sege, a member of the Global Justice Project (GJP), wrote an opinion column exploring the relationship between the university’s Catholic tradition and the GJP’s decision recently to protest the presence on campus of recruiters from the Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC), a private company that contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. The crux of Mr. Sege’s argument has to do with what he claims is the incongruity of allowing such recruiters on campus but denying access to abortion advocates.

While Mr. Sege has offered an eloquent and thought-provoking analysis of the implications of the right to life, his logic is nevertheless flawed in indicting abortion clinics and the U.S. military in the same breath.

The fact is that every one of the more than 1,000,000 children who were killed by abortion last year in the United States was an entirely innocent life, and as such, every one of their deaths was homicide. Hence, the practitioners of those homicides are morally culpable.

The U.S. military, on the other hand, derives the legitimate and moral authority from the lawful and sovereign government of the United States to defend the same. When they kill enemy combatants, they do so rightfully. Every fetus is innocent; the average enemy combatant is not. When innocent lives are lost in warfare, it is nevertheless a tragic injustice, and I have never yet met a soldier who contended otherwise. This is why the willful killing of innocent bystanders is punishable as homicide under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

When that loss of innocent life is, however, an unfortunate accident in the course of legitimate warfare, such moral culpability is not incurred, just as when someone dies in an auto accident that was truly an accident. We must also recognize that the enemy combatants we face in Iraq and Afghanistan often hide themselves among innocent people and use innocent civilians as “human shields”; hence, if anyone is to be held culpable for the deaths of innocents in such situations, it should be the cowardly enemy combatants, not the U.S. military.

Finally, while I am gladdened to see that Mr. Sege has recognized that Boston College’s Catholic tradition places a premium on the respect for all human life, I must unfortunately note that many members of the Global Justice Project do not share his views. One can often find links to Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups in their annual Freshman Disorientation Packet (go to page 32 and look under “women's liberation and women's rights”), and I have personally met GJP members who participate both in protests against the likes of Raytheon and JWAC, and in events put on by the Women’s Health Initiative that promote access to contraception and abortion. There was a time several years ago when the GJP and Boston College’s pro-life organizations were united in a Partnership for Life; I call on both sides to attempt to renew this partnership, to stand together in a commitment to promote life, and to make an unequivocal statement that we will not stand blithely by while the sanctity of innocent human life is violated, whether in the abortion clinic or on the streets of Baghdad.