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. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. 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.

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.