Saturday, December 26, 2009

What Christmas Evokes

It's appropriate today to share words I've read about Christmas that evoke a deeper appreciation of Christ and the Incarnation. On another level, the etching above by my cousin in Holland, Ad Arma, similarly stirs my sensibilities. It says "Incarnation" to me. Click on it to get the full effect.


On the day when we remember the Nativity of Christ, the Incarnation of the Son of God, we can see that the beginning of a new time has come, that this world that had gone old because God was, as it were, far away from it - great, awe-inspiring but distant, had come to an end. GOD IS IN OUR MIDST: this is the meaning of the word ‘Emmanuel’; God with us - and the world is no longer the same. We live in a world into which God has come, in which He is the living power, the inspiration, Life itself, Eternity itself …

Yes, we are waiting for the day when God will come in glory, when all history will be up, when all things will be summed up, when God shall be all in all; but already now God is in our midst; already now we have a vision of what each of us is by vocation and can be by participation. But this is an offer; God gives His love, God gives Himself - not only in the Holy Gifts of Communion, but in all possible ways He is ready to enter into our lives, to fill our hearts, to be enthroned in our minds, to be the will of our will, but to do that, to allow Him to do that we must give ourselves to Him, we must respond to love by love, to faith - the faith which God has in us - by faith that is trust and faithfulness to Him. And then - then, we, each of us singly and all of us in our togetherness, will become God's Kingdom come with power, the beginning of the fullness of time, the beginning of the glorious victory!

Isn't that something which is worth struggling for? Isn't it worth turning away from everything that separates us from our own integrity, from one another, from God, and allow ourselves to become new creatures?

Let us now, now that the beginning has come, and in a way the end is already in our midst, let us do it: overcome all that is unworthy of ourselves and allow God victoriously to transfigure our lives!

Glory be to God for His love! Glory be to God for the faith He has in us,
and for the hope He has put into us! Amen!

(Anthony Bloom)

Finally, for those who would like to see a copy of my Christmas newsletter, just click here. (Link will be "live" for about a month.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Advent - Christmas Thoughts

Yes, it's a busy time, and we should know better.

Below is a little something that I wrote years ago. It still seems relevant.

Let Advent seek, let mists descend,
Let all creation stare;
Let humble eyes a sight behold
That stirs a soul laid bare.

While shoppers run and sales abound,
While children's eyes are wide;
While money flows and gifts are wrapped,
Let stand the greedy tide.

Take care to keep from letting go,
From turning with the rest.
Take time to wait and time to know
The better from the best.

Look back and see through fog and veil
The site of love's release;
A land, a star, a shepherd's cave,
A blessed place of peace.

Here dust and dirt lay all about;
The hay is old and spent.
Yet rests the babe, with mother near,
In every way content.

The beasts are still, the light is faint,
The rags are small and worn.
And all can sense with quiet ease
The Savior who is born.

Now does he raise his tiny hand
And smile with simple joy;
Love's gaze in faces all around
Supply his only toy.

No trains, no cars, no fancy games
Are given here this night.
But human comfort, care, and love
Provide God’s true delight.

For shepherd, sheep, and kings alike
'Tis plenty to behold;
This vision of our God enfleshed
In greater good than gold.

Creation's best, and some besides,
Dwells there for all to see.
The simple truths are quite at hand,
Just waiting to go free.

A gift of self, a gift of time,
A love spread out as leaven,
Share in this truth, this mystery lived,
Of earth enjoined with heaven.

If Christ was borne that night to us,
And we as much do say,
Then should we not with eager heart
Bear him in mind today?

For this I know, a simple fact,
Yet charged with certainty:
That what we do with Christ this day
Does change eternity.

The gifts we have, the gifts we share,
Have never been our own.
They have been borne by God for us;
They are the royal throne.

Stand still, dear friend,
and look about,
While stars and night do sing
With brilliant light and mystic sound:
"All glory to the King!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thoughts On Being Sick

With an immune system that's survived countless years of exposure to classroom germs, I thought that by now it would easily fend off the common cold. Not so. Evidence four days of hacking, wheezing, coughing, sleeping, dozing, wandering around the house in search of a banana, drinking any juice within reach, and shuffling along in a bathrobe. Thankfully, I'm on the recovery side of it all, sitting up and taking nourishment as they say. But it does make one pause and appreciate the precarious balances of life.

Years ago, there was a National Geographic video that I'd show my frosh science classes. It was called "The Incredible Machine" and dealt with the human body, presented in only the way that National Geographic could present it. In one scene, they show a man's feet pounding down the beach in slow motion, and the narrator says something like this: "With each step we take, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe." That stayed with me, and it's probably true in more areas of our lives than just the physical one.

But it's a physical part of our lives that asks (requires?) the most of our attention and that largely defines many aspects of our identity at any one time. When everything is fine, things are great and we hardly think about the details of how and why we are healthy and feeling well. When things are not fine, the details all of a sudden become very, very important. Everything comes under scrutiny, if not be choice, then by the SOS of pain. For us, the physical seems to become more and more important as we become older. Oddly enough, for most of the saints, the opposite is true. What's that all about?

One of the Brothers described a time when his back was so painful that he couldn't bend over to pick something up from the ground. When he was in a room with other Brothers, he dropped something and immediately another Brother bent down, picked it up, and gave it to him. He blurted out: "How in the heck [this is a clean blog] did you do that?" He wasn't really looking for an answer, but the situation compelled him to ask that question because it was so important in his life at the time. Of course, the other guy just stared at him, smiled, and moved on.

The story of the Brother give substance to the conviction that real life consists of the "stuff" that we encounter on a daily basis, which is also where God's providence dwells. It has to do with our health, our relationships, our problems and challenges, our joys and pleasures, and all the rest of who we are. If Christianity means anything, it means that a profoundly new reality is enmeshed within the thinginess of who and what we are; what theologians would call an incarnational spirituality, and perhaps it's that part which in the saints takes root more and more. The stuff of ourselves and our world is different because of Jesus Christ and the Paschal Mystery, although that's not an obvious thing, either to ourselves or to others. But for those who have been brought by faith and experience into that new reality - or at least to a greater sensitivity to it - it seems to be more obvious all the time. And so we sometimes ask the kinds of questions that make others stare at us, smile, and move on. But perhaps the questions will prod an awareness of those things that deserve attention, just as the Brother who picked up the item and heard the question was led to reflect on the grace of being able to bend over when others couldn't.

It all reminds me of a fine quotation from C.S. Lewis: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains." That last piece about "our pains" to my mind deals more with the fact that important things become so much more clearly defined in difficult times (unfortunately). Witness a movie I watched while I was laid up: Steal a Pencil for Me. It was a real-life story of a love that formed inside of a concentration camp and the horrors of World War II. Or the story in a wonderful but obscure little book called Father Arseny, about a priest who lived in Stalin's Siberian Gulag for many years and survived, even flourished, because of his faith, humility, and charity.

I still must be sick, because I'm rambling. (No comments, please.)

For now, it's enough to know that health is a precarious thing deserving attention. And maybe the great company of saints can still teach us something about how even health can become relative when one taps into the deeper dynamics of God's grace within the human soul.

For now, I'm just happy to be getting better.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

We have been told that innovation is something for the young, and that the old want to keep the status quo. I think that’s hogwash; or rather, it’s something said by those who only see the surface of things. Anyone can see what they want if they only look at the surface of things. Seeing a vast forest from a hill, one person will see a bucolic, peaceful vista of pastoral beauty, while another will see a competitive jungle of natural selection where death is the rule rather than the exception. An argumentative encounter between two people is seen by one as a vicious fight and by another as a robust dialogue…. between Italians. You get the idea. The observation that the old want to keep the status quo while the young are eager for innovation only appears to be a true thing to say. You must look a little deeper.

When you look behind the curtain, you find that the opposite could also be the case. The young tend to want to keep things as they are – in their rooms, in their relationships, in their daily rituals – while the old seek out change and welcome it – in their travels, in their reading, in their daily encounters. Yeah, yeah, I know; both movements happen with both groups. Nevertheless, it's likely that "innovation" is wasted on the young and the status quo is more likely to be a burden on the old. We’re creatures of change, both physically and emotionally and spiritually, and that change manifests itself in similarity within difference or change within continuity. The older we get, the more such sensibilities come to the fore.

Some examples are an appreciation for jazz (same theme, different notes), or classical music (ibid.), foods (How many ways can Starbucks do coffee, anyway?), sports (lots of ways to get that big or little ball where it’s supposed to go), and people (most gossip is finally pretty much the same story told over and over). The older one gets, the more important that mix of sameness and difference becomes, both by observation and engagement. It’s the balance between the two that changes with age. For the young most things are new and so another new thing isn’t a new thing, and for the old most things aren’t new and so another new thing isn’t a new thing either, only different.

So where’s all this going? Only here: All these things are true in a world where people can only see either the surface of things, or see the things that appear beneath the surface of things. Very few people, unfortunately, choose to look much deeper than that, or are forced by circumstances to do so. Those that do, characteristically become more gentle, more forgiving, more quietly insistent, more humble – and they smile more and appreciate things more as well. I think of people like Nelson Mandela (Cf. the new movie about his application of forgiveness ), Mother Teresa and her encounter with untold suffering, St. Therese and her “Little Way”, John Baptist de La Salle and the tenor of his letters and meditations, the early monks in the Egyptian dessert, and so on. These folks tapped into something that lies at the foundation of human life and sensibility; something that is consistent and ever-changing and adaptable; something at least as rich and alive and un-tame as the human person; something profoundly deep and true. They attest to the fact that the most significant, challenging, and rewarding encounter of both innovation and status quo, or both similarity and difference, or both change and continuity, is through the engagement of daily life from that deeper place. I don't pretend to be able to do that well, but all I've seen, read, and done points to the fact that engaging life from that deeper place is a fine adventure that’s ever new and ever old. Balance is simply not a factor.

Without any claim of full understanding, let alone marginal application, here’s one of my favorite quotes, from St. John of the Cross - somone who pitched his tent in that deeper place:

To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.

To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

(Ascent to Mount Carmel, 1:13:11)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Of Thanksgiving and the Examined Life

This week, I ran into one of those apparently "simple" quotes that comes across as deeply true: "All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire." Perhaps you can guess who it's from. (Answer at the end of the entry.)

The statement strikes me especially now at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend. It seems that this weekend all of those "causes" or attributes were brought into play under the banner of "BIG SALE from 5 AM until 11 AM only!" The only thing that might have taken its own holiday was reason, since there wasn't much evidence of its presence from everything that I observed.

First we grow mushy on Thanksgiving Day over all the things we have to be grateful for, vowing that they are all so much more important than money, power, fame, or a big-screen LCD TV that we could get for less than $250 if we just ran down to the store right now. We cook everything in sight, eat what we can and wrap up the rest for long-term storage, and then proceed to really do enjoy one another's company and count our blessings.

Then the next day we get up at 4 AM, trudge out to a mile-long line outside of Target, chat amiably with others in line while consulting our store map and plotting our strategy, and upon the opening of the doors proceed to run hell-bent down aisles as if it were a 100-yard dash just so that we can get that one item that we simply cannot live without - or at least not for the normally higher price. Then, triumphant in the glow of ownership, we walk out to our car, drive back home, and go to bed so as to recuperate from our capitalistic ordeal. Welcome to Black Friday.

So what's an alternative? Well, I'm afraid I'm not even on the same map here. When I read the life story of someone like Fr. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap. (1904-1957), a simple priest in Detroit who inspired thousands by his presence and words, it seems as if that's just a whole other world. Right now, I'm nearing the end of a small book about him, and the contrast of his world-view with the busyness of this weekend couldn't be greater.

Of course, his story isn't unique. There are examples galore of individuals who discovered more in simplicity than a thousand do in riches. These are people such as Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, the lady down the street with all the cats and a really nice smile who goes to church every day, and loads of untold individuals who long ago decided that once you look a little more deeply you find simple riches that have nothing to do with what you have, what you buy, what you do, or what floats your boat. (Jesus, of course, is a prime example of this as well.) And there's probably not a lot of reason at work in that world either. But it's clearly a universe away from the "popular" one that's exemplified by Black Friday.

And we still need grace to get from one to the other. That's still pretty obvious to me at least. Hence we pray... probably not enough.

By the way, the quotation in the beginning was from Aristotle. But before you start thinking that I just carry Aristotelian quotations around with me, know that I found it on the back of a GoodEarth teabag tag. I guess I should be glad that we bought that tea.... on sale.

Wasn't Aristotle also the guy who said: "The unexamined life is not worth living"? I think that most Americans would be uncomfortable with that sentiment. Why would we want to waste our time examining our own lives? There are things to buy, schedules to keep, goals to fulfill, people to impress. It's the way things are done, either by chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, or desire.

Somehow I think that we may be looking down the wrong end of that particular telescope.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Death of organist, composer, and friend Paul Manz

Along life’s little journey, we are sometimes privileged to encounter certain individuals who simply and deeply touch something at the core of who we are. I have to say that Paul Manz was one of those individuals, and I would hasten to add that his wife, Ruth, is part of that package. She was like the texture of sound that supports and enhances a fine melody. I just found out that Paul died on October 28th at the age of ninety. Ruth passed away only last year, after 65 years of marriage. Having known both of them, although briefly, many years ago, I can see him being quite ready in every way to move on to her, and God’s, everlasting embrace.

Dr. Manz was a Lutheran organist and composer of extraordinary skill and depth. His compositions, hymn improvisations, and performances at hymn festivals – a genre that he practically created himself – have been, and continue to be, a testimonial to the wonder of God’s grace alive in our midst.

I’d first contacted him some 25 – 30 years ago, after I’d heard a record (you know, those round black things with lines and bumps on them) of his hymn improvisations and had let him know by letter how well he had captured the words of each verse of "Were You There" with his musical interpretation. His playing was a musical sermon for the words. Subsequently, I attended a week-long organ workshop that he conducted at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. (I was the only Catholic there, as it turned out.) After having gotten to know both of them there, I’d invited them to spend a couple of days at Mont La Salle in Napa, which they did.

Once with us in Napa, they took some time for relaxation and visiting the area. He also played the recessional hymn at our Sunday Mass (the good Lutheran hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past, of course) followed by a rousing postlude. But what stood out for me was his calm, giving presence, and the fact that as he met my mother, who’d come for the Mass, he began speaking with her in Dutch. Having spent years in Belgium, studying with Flor Peeters, he knew Dutch quite well, much to my surprise.

Later on, he composed a setting of our Institute hymn “Honneur a Toi” and dedicated it to me, which was totally unexpected. For years, I would send to their home in Minnesota a bottle of the Zinfandel Port that had been specially made for Br. Timothy’s anniversary as a Brother. It was something that he had enjoyed when they were in Napa. And like a fine wine, the “aftertaste” of their visit and our occasional letters lingered on long after the fact.

His best known composition, no doubt, is “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” (Hear it here at YouTube). It was played and sung at his funeral in Minneapolis on November 8th. The words were written by Ruth when their young three-year-old son lay at death’s door (he survived), and Paul put the words to music. If ever the profound depths of faith were put to music by parents of a sick child, this would be one instance. The story of how it all happened is in the NPR interview posted here. The words of the hymn are these:

Peace be to you and grace from Him / Who freed us from our sin / Who loved us all, and shed his blood / That we might saved be. /// Sing holy, holy to our Lord / The Lord almighty God / Who was and is, and is to come / Sing holy, holy Lord. /// Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein / Rejoice on earth, ye saints below / For Christ is coming, Is coming soon / For Christ is coming soon. /// E'en so Lord Jesus quickly come / And night shall be no more / They need no light, no lamp, nor sun / For Christ will be their All!

His passion was the human voice in unity, as a choir or as a congregation, and his organ playing would build up, tone down, and weave all around the singers like a wind lifting a series of leaves in a wonderful cascade of sound and motion.

A fitting epitaph was spoken by Paul himself: "It's all about grace...thank you for the grace of singing with me across the years in good times and in bad, when our words have stuck in our throats and when our eyes have overflowed with joy. It has ever been a Song of Grace: "Love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be."

Note: There is a terrific Pipedreams program on Paul available online, where he plays his music and talks about his life, faith, and compositions. Click here to go to it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Called & Chosen Retreat 2009

This last weekend, we held the first "Called & Chosen" vocation discernment retreat for this school year at our camp at the Russian River. This one was for young men; the one for young women from our schools is held next January. The location is one that has been a recreation spot for the Brothers of the District since the 1920's. Within the last ten years or so, the place has increasingly been made available for various retreat occasions or meetings. It's just the right location for those who want to get away for awhile and sort of rough it (no private bathroom or showers, but hot water and all the other comforts of home). And there is a terrific view of the river.

This year we had 13 young men from five of our high schools join us for the retreat, along with four Brothers, four other adult leaders, a Dominican priest and good friend of the Brothers, and a third-grader (son of one of the adult leaders). The retreat was organized and led by Ms. Marilyn Paquette, with whom I work in vocation ministry. She is the retreat pro, both in preparation and execution, and is a fine resource and participant for something like this.

Although we only spend about 48 hours together, the activities and input is such that by the end of that time, these young men have seriously looked at their faith journey up to this point, listened to others speak about their vocational journeys (a married couple, a single person, a priest, and several religious), discussed and asked questions in large and small groups, spent several sessions in guided meditation, prayer and Mass, enjoyed recreational time together, cooked and cleaned up, visited the ocean nearby, and the like, gradually coming to a better understanding of the direction of their lives.

Like most retreats, times like this are opportunities to focus on specific aspects of our lives... and intentionally so. We seem to spend so much time doing other things - all those necessary things, you know - that when we do take time to "step aside" for a while, all sorts of internal dynamics can kick in with a minimum of effort, as if they had been waiting in the wings all the time, hopping from one foot to the next in anxious anticipation of getting center stage. Retreats are a time when the really important stuff can get to center stage. Most of the time those of us who organize or "lead" such retreats just set up the structure, guide a bit of the process, and get out of the way. And so it was on this retreat.

Along the way, we find out that there's a lot more to other people (and to ourselves) than first meets the eye. Yes, we already thought so. But unless you experience it every once in a while, the conviction can begin to fade away. And we discover that within the nooks and crannies of our experience, something good and graced and helpful is more present than we realize, bringing us to know ourselves more deeply and guiding us in imperceptible, quiet ways.

It's good to pay attention to that sort of thing occasionaly. It was good to help others do so as well. The results of our efforts, both in respect to ourselves and in respect to others, we will not, we should not, and we can not know. But it's enough to know that it all makes a difference.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Good Music for Mass

As some may know, I have an abiding interest in liturgical music. And like most folks with such an interest, this means that I have clear preferences. (Check out the last post to see the irony in that.) Or perhaps I should say that my best judgment about what would likely enhance prayerfulness in a worshipping community runs along definite lines.

In any case, I've noticed with interest that the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) is sponsoring a contest for musical settings of the new English translation of the Mass, which will soon be published in the new Roman Missal. (Those blue links will take you to the websites with the details.) By next July interested composers may submit new settings for all of the major parts of the Mass that can be sung, and the attendees at the NPM convention in July 2010 will vote for the winner.

Clearly a side benefit of this project is that both publishers and the church will be good to go on the music end of things when the new Roman Missal is fully approved and implemented. For composers, even the self-proclaimed ones, it's an opportunity to take on a project that would be good practice, if nothing else. For publishers, it's a chance to "graze the field" for their missalette resources and the like without putting up a lot of fuss or funds.

My view, as if anyone asked, is that proven composers should be commissioned to write new Mass settings. In fact, wealthy Catholics might be approached to underwrite such a venture. However, the commissions should be specified in such a way that the resulting Mass settings may be sung both a capella (without any accompaniment), or with one or more easily sung harmonic lines, or with full choir, organ and accompaniment. In other words, the music should be layered onto a fine melodic line - such as many of the Latin chants were composed in the past. One of the problems with current Mass settings is that when you sing them a capella, you sort of have to imagine the accompaniment in your head just in order to make any sense of them.

I've got some folks in mind for the job; people such as Morten Lauridsen of UCLA. If you haven't heard his stuff yet, go online and listen to excerpts of his music. A fine example is this CD: Lux Aeterna. And near the beginning of this blog entry is a video clip of one of his compositions. When I was in LA last week, and visited the USC Catholic Center about vocation programs and resources, I also found out that the music department was just around the corner. So I wandered around the office buildings until I found Lauridsen's office. Hearing music through the door, I knocked and found myself face-to-face with the composer, who gave me a friendly "Hi" through a half-opened door. I immediately noticed that he was tutoring a student, probably about the music that was loudly playing on his speakers, and so I quickly mumbled some excuse and left. However, later that day I emailed him, describing myself in the subject line as "The guy who showed up at your office this morning", told him a little about myself and my experience with liturgical music and invited him to take part in the contest. He was very gracious and wrote back that he would take a look at the websites I'd included, but he was also full of commissions already, etc. So it was a fairly harmless venture on my part, but it was finally without probable results.

Nevertheless, I think that it was worth making the gesture. Perhaps my work in vocation ministry makes me much more willing to "make a pitch" in all sorts of different circumstances, knowing that even without an immediate positive response, such an invitation or gesture or effort or acted-upon intention may be of some unknown benefit down the line.

There's a Christian principle involved here. Had Jesus been a "realistic" guy, he should have seen that his speaking venues, his choice of followers, and his recruiting methods (not to mention his succession plans) were all questionable at best. Yet he planted many small but potent seeds - in the things he said, the things he did, the people he met, and the example he gave - the fruits of which are still being harvested and in fact continue to grow. Would that only one of our small seeds were to become as bountiful. And that is why, even today, we hope and pray and work, planting small seeds of kindness, making small gestures of appreciation, sharing small invitations with those we hardly know. It's the solid example of Christians (and saints) throughout history. Not a bad lot, that group, even if they would never make the cover of People or Inc magazine.

As Archbishop Oscar Romero famously said: "We are prophets of a future not our own."

Sidenote: This blog will generally be published two or three times a week. Doing so every day is a bit much..... for everyone concerned. That way I can do other writing on the "non-blog" days, still faithful to my resolution to do some writing every day.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Power of Preferences

For reasons that I cannot fathom, early this morning I awoke with a thought or insight that I believed was really important. And then it proceeded to flitter away and hover just outside the realm of comprehension, teasingly close yet maddeningly far away.

The thing had to do with the choices that we make on a regular basis. All of those small choices and decisions that we make every day - and their number is probably over a thousand - emerge through a set of preferences that are often unexamined. They're simply accepted and perhaps even relished. But the interesting thing, to me at least, is that these "preferences" are probably not the ones that we think we have. This is not to join those who say that our "animal" or "primal" or "Darwinian" natures are really in charge, whatever all that is supposed to mean in popular culture, but rather to recognize that we often act out of motivations, attitudes, and perspectives that are not only silly, when seen independently, but more importantly are hardly ever subject to direct scrutiny. They're generally unexamined, and like unruly children have the run of the house.

Of course it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe he knew what he was talking about. But who sits down and says: "I think I'll examine my preferences now, right after I organize my sock drawer."? Taking a deep and serious look at our inner life is just not part of my regular routine. Well, generally it's not. Actually, there is a human activity that's specifically geared to do just that, to look directly and regularly at our preferences and attitudes and motivations. A whole bunch of folks have been recommending this human activity for centuries. In fact, when such quiet intentional examination is done within a specific social context and follows a prescribed structural pattern of attention, the results are said to be quite dramatic. Guessed what it is yet? Starts with a "p" and ends with an "r", and I'm talking about the interior kind; not the public kind. Our Founder, De La Salle, became quite good at it and wrote lovingly about the experience.

Those who come to embrace the deeper dynamics of the apparent preference jungle, by means of the discipline of interior p....r, come to describe their life experience with words like "acceptance", "following Providence", and "self-abnegation". It's as if they've come to know that preferences just get in the way. Many years ago, I'd read a short phrase from a 4th century Buddhist text, and it's always stayed with me: "All things are possible for the one who has no preferences."

I don't know why that quotation captured me then and holds me still. But I think I know where it's drawing me toward.

At least I prefer to think so.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time to start again

Sometimes you just have to start something in order to move ahead. Over the last couple of weeks I've been thinking of doing more writing, and I've decided that the best way get into the habit of doing so is simply to take advantage of having this blog. Even if nobody really reads the thing, it will at least be something that will structure a discipline of intended activity on my part.

Some time ago, I'd read about an organizational method called GTD (Getting Things Done) by David Allen. For what it tries to do, the method is fairly good and I currently use a number of his suggestions. One of the major "rules" is to figure out, for every and any goal that you have, one specific question: "What's the next step?" What's the next physical or practical thing to do in order to move the thing forward? Well, for me and on this topic, the thing to do is simply to start spending a half hour a day writing something on the blog.

Another story I'd heard is also a motivator for me. The prolific novelist James Michener, it is told, wanted to be a writer from a very young age. When he was in high school, his father told him to get a job for the summer. But James argued that he'd wanted to be a writer and go to a class about writing, or some similar activity in pursuit of his interest. His father said: "Okay. If you want to be a writer, I'll help you out. I'll hire you as a writer, but only on the the condition that each day you write 10,000 words. I don't care if it's the same word, or jibberish, or whatever. But it must be 10,000 words each day. If you can do that for the summer, I'll pay you the minimum wage per hour for your work." James agreed to do so and brought out his typewriter. For the first week, he wrote whatever came into his mind, without thought or grammar or sense. By the second week, he'd become bored with all that and he began writing things that made sense. And, he said, by the end of the summer, he was pretty well on his way to being a writer. Nice story.

I don't pretend to be anywhere near writers like Michener, but the principle stuck with me. If you want to do something, you just have to start the damn thing and see where it leads. For me, this is what I'm drawn to do right now - even in the midst of many, many other things that demand my attention - and so I'll make the time to take the time, and we'll see where it leads.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Day Fifteen - The Last Day

This was the last day in Paris and the last day of this phase of our Footsteps projects. It's amazing how fast the time has flown by, both because of the intensity of events that were concentrated into the time available and because of the dynamic of the individuals involved. We were constantly on the go and on the job, and uniformly we were focused on the job to be done.

The first thing to do, at 8:30 AM, was to film a segment that had been interrupted repeatedly by cars and motorcycles and the like rushing by, without any chance to get even 30 seconds of relative silence. This was the clip that we filmed a couple of blocks away from the Maison de La Salle, where there was both a small statue of DLS in a niche in the corner of a building built by an order of Sisters, and near where the main house for the Brothers in Paris was in the 17th and 18th century. It was from that house that the letter to DLS was sent, asking / ordering him to return from the south of France and again take up the "holy work" of leading the Brothers.

We reached the spot during a wonderfully quiet time period, with few people walking about and only the occasional car. After setting up the camera and working out the lighting possibilities, we did a few takes. But since it was early morning, things weren't jelling yet, and so we did a few more takes. By now, people were beginning to wander by, crossing the street in front of us as they looked over. One man had obviously spent the night imbibing and hadn't yet slept, judging by the way he swayed across our screen, looking over with frank curiosity. Another take. Then we would do well but at the end some car would come screaming down the street, breaking up the quiet we had just experienced. I was beginning to despair that we'd never get a good take when all of sudden everything came together and at the end we all said: "That's it!"

From there, we walked to the Barre Sisters place - another couple of blocks away - in order to film the front door for a later voice-over possibility, since (as Gerard told us) these Sisters had been closely involved with us both in the beginning and later in our history, when, for example, they joined us in going to Malaysia to teach there. When we got to the place, we tried the door and spent a while trying to convince the lady overseeing the entrance to let us film inside. But it was no good. She didn't quite trust us, I think, and we hadn't received previous permission, so we had to be satisfied with some footage of the front of the door, and a peek inside when a work van entered the place.

On our way back to the Maison, Gerard and I stopped into the Vincentian church just down the street where the body of St. Vincent de Paul was displayed, under glass and well-lighted, above the main altar. It's probably one of the main reasons why I would never want to be a saint (or a recognized one anyway). You end up having your bones and body parts scattered hither and yon for veneration, and you have the rest of you folded into a wax effigy that lies under glass and plastic flowers until the second coming. Not that for me. I'd rather wish for the burial that the Cistercians have, with their monks buried the day after they died in their habit and wrapped in a simply sheet. That's what the "ashes to ashes" is supposed to be about, I should think. Anyway, Vincent lookied quite the saint up there above the altar, and the church was pretty impressive by itself.

We returned to the Maison and after a break took off for Notre Dame and the 10:00 AM Mass there. Scott would join us later, after Mass, for some sightseeing. When we got to Notre Dame, we found the place pretty full already, but the Mass parts were in Latin so some folks were able to join in. During the Mass, hundreds of tourists would idly walk down the side naves, looking around and taking pictures. It gave a surrealistic sense to the whole thing, with devout things happening in the center nave and simple curious observation happening along the perimeter. But perhaps that's the state of the church in any case. At the end of Mass, I'd looked forward to a good organ postlude, but all the organist seemed to want to do was to place his fore arm on the several keyboards at once, at the loudest setting, and make suggestive noisy gestures. I'm sorry to say that I eagerly left Notre Dame in order to avoid listening to more of the organ than I had to. God knows why organists think that they're being clever when they play something that's more of a nuisance than a creation.

Scott eventually found us on the square and we proceeded with our quickie tour of Paris. He had never been to Paris, and it had been awhile since the rest of us had seen the sights. We took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower and watched hordes of tourists stand in line to buy tickets, after which they would stand in long lines to get into the elevators that would take them to the first level of the tower. The upper level was closed because of the Tour de France. It was clear that we wouldn't be going up on those elevators, and nobody had a real hankering to do so anyway. So we contented ourselves by simply walking around and taking photographs here and there.

On our way out, Roch suggested we take the Seine water tour as a good way to see some of the major sights. Upon general agreement, we got our tickets and got onto a boat that would stop at major sites along the way. It was a get-on and get-off sort of thing, whereby you could get off when you wanted and get onto another boat that would be along within 15 minutes. After a couple of stops, we wanted to have some lunch, so we got off at the Latin Quarter and found a small restaurant for a fine little lunch. We'd had to cross the road right next to the Seine - a road that had metal barriers on each side but which could be easily breached by people crossing the road.

When we'd finished lunch, we found Gendarmerie (police-types) filling the road and we could no longer cross to get back to the Seine and our tour boat. The only option was to take the Metro under the Seine and then to walk back over. So we joined several thousand other people who needed to cross in lining up at the Metro, getting onto a jam-packed train, and getting off at the very next stop. The Tour de France riders were still hours away, but there was no way that the police would let anyone cross those barriers. Some thirty minutes later, we had made our way back to the river on the other side and rejoined our boat tour.

About 80% through the tour, at one of the stops, there was bright yellow display area that advertised the "Live Strong" program of Lance Armstrong. I wanted to get off and pick up whatever trinkets might be there for some cyclist friends of mine, so I left the others to briefly run up there and see what was what. Of course, when I returned some two minutes later, the boat was in the process of leaving the dock for its next stop. O, well, these things happen. The others went on and would make their way back to the Maison and I would somehow do the same. I did pick up two boxes of yellow chalk markers which that "Live Strong" site was distributing, inviting kids to write messages on the ground within a demarcated area, which many of them did. I just looked for a Metro stop nearby.

I walked a good way and ran into the staging area for the "parade" that accompanied the Tour as it reached Paris. These were the sponsors who had the privilege (?) of driving all sorts of funnily adorned vehicles advertising their products ahead of the bicycle riders. By now they had arrived and were busily throwing to the crowds all sorts of advertising trinkets, most of which were not quite worth the effort of reaching out for them. But the folks gathered there were reaching for them and jumping up to catch them as if they were 10 Euro bills. All fun to watch, of course.

By now, I'd found out that the riders would reach the Champs-Elysees nearby within about 40 minutes. Well, this was not to be missed of course. How often do you happen to be in Paris at the end of the Tour de France and have the opportunity to watch the riders ride down the Champs-Elysees as they end their arduous racing journey? I walked to that wide boulevard - remembered from Bastille Day - and after some searching found a spot near one of the wider plazas that reach into it. There, the crowds were only 3-5 people deep. I planted myself there, took out my umbrellas to protect myself from the sun - to the gratitude of an elderly French couple in front of me - and proceeded to listen to rapid-fire French announcers booming loudly from the speakers that lined the boulevard.

Some forty minutes later, a stir went through the crowd, cars with all sorts of logos rushed down the boulevard as if on the way to a fire, important people in colorful suits on motorcycles did the same, and word was passed the the leaders were about to reach the boulevard. I'd prepared my little camera to take some film footage of the experience and aimed it down the road. Now came more cars, more motorcycles, more important people doing who-knows-what as part of the race. It seemed as if this was a race of cars and motorcycles instead of cyclists. Finally, behind a phalanx of cars and motorcycles with cameramen riding backwards on the rear seats, came the first peloton. They were indeed going fast, and it was all I could do to keep the camera pointed at that first group, and then at the riders behind them. The riders were obediently followed by the support vehicles, each painted in some garish color and carrying the 8 - 10 extra bicycles on their roofs.

The riders went to the end of the boulevard, rounded the corner, and then came back down again for one of their 7(?) circuits that marks the end of the Tour de France. I only stayed for one. The short 5-minute video I shot has been uploaded to YouTube and you can find it here:

After the racers had passed by, I knew that the others from my group wanted me back at the Maison in order to pack, and I also knew that the Metro would soon be packed. So I made my way to the nearest Metro station, figured out which way I needed to go, and left for home. About halfway there, I looked at the names of the stations we were passing and realized that I was going in the wrong direction. Yikes! So I got off at the next station and figured out how to get to the opposite side in order to go in the "right" direction. It took a while, but I finally got to the familiar Duroc station and the Rue de Sevres that we'd returned to again and again over the last two weeks. It was all quite familiar and comforting to me now.

We packed our bags and spent a good hour or so packing the van in preparation for our early departure tomorrow morning. Our flight is at 7:00 AM, Gerard's is at 7:30 AM and Scott's is at 10:30 AM, so we needed to leave here at 4:00 AM - no time to pack early in the morning. With the seats returned to the van, there was precious little room, and we'd already had to make arrangements to send some of our equipment back via DHS or Fedex. There was simply no way that we could do so individually. The things we would keep, however.

This evening, we walked down the street a ways and found a very nice restaurant on the corner of Rue de Vaugirard and Boulevard de Montparnasse. I think our dinner on the Rue de Vaugirard was significantly better than that which the Brothers at Vaugirard in the 17th century had. However, we enjoyed our final French meal without guilt, at the end of a very busy two weeks, and I think that we were as relaxed as we'd been within this wonderfully French setting.

This marks the end of this phase of the project and also the end to this installment of the blog. It will resume at some point in the future. But right now I'm taking some "personal days" to regenerate the mind, body, and soul. Later on, Roch and I (and others) will begin to put together the final format for this resource. Suggestions, of course, are welcome. But not yet. I would like to hear, however, about DVD formation formats that others think would "work" well for the kind of thing that we'd like to put together, utilizing both the video clips, maps, written resources, and the like.

If you've followed our journey so far, thanks for coming along. There's more to come.

There's always more to come.

God be blessed

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Day Fourteen - Reims and Travel to Paris

This was our last day in Reims. Now that I'm writing this later in the day in Paris, I'm sorry that I didn't take a photo of my small room in Reims, because I certainly see it in my minds eye. It was sort of like an attic room, with one "wall" angled down under the roof, and a small window jutting out at chest level within a small alcove that held a small table and lamp. Looking out of the window, one could see the inner courtyard below. Besides the small bed and wash basin, there was an ancient, giant clothes cabinet that looked as if it had been made in the 17th century - rough wood, strange non-perpendicular angles at the corners, and rough metal hinges and locking mechanism. Everything was quite comfortable actually.

I again awoke before six, completely refreshed and ready for the day. Some 3o minutes later I was in the house, on the computer, uploading the blog I'd prepared the night before. Joined the Brothers for breakfast and then went off to the cathedral for Mass, while Br. Gerard and Roch and Scott did some shooting in the inner courtyard. They wouldn't need me, and I had enough pictures of them filming, so I was content to let them simply work it out for themselves.

The priest at Mass was another new face. The way he celebrated Mass was with gravitas - including singing, a homily, and long pauses between parts of the liturgy. I thought that he would have been a good candidate for bishop; or at least he was acting as if. After the Mass, I found out that he was the secretary to the Archbishop of Reims. Mystery explained. During the time I was there I reflected on the fact that in this vast, beautiful space, dedicated to the glory of God and the worship opportunities of the people of Reims, we were in a small back chapel - beautiful as it was with the Chagall stained-glass windows - occupying perhaps 2% of the space of the cathedral with about 20 people, while more visitors than that padded by quietly in the background in their tour of the place. Rather poignant and significant, I would say.

Returning to the Hotel De La Salle, the others were ready to take off, and all I had to do was jump in the van and start driving. We drove right away to the cathedral, where I'd already scoped out a good parking place close by. Since it was Saturday, the tour buses were out in force, but the local work force was at rest, so there were plenty of available parking spaces. We took all of our stuff - film equipment, tripods, lighting suitcase, etc. - and traipsed into the cathedral, walking confidently up the side aisle to the side chapel where DLS had said his first Mass and where there was a statue dedicated to him. We didn't need to show our letter of permission from the pastor, since the sacristan(s) seemed to know about us and didn't stop of from proceeding. An elderly Vietnamese sacristan (and apparently a student of the Brothers in Vietnam) came over to make sure that we had everything we needed. It would have been nice to have the lights of the cathedral turned on for our filming, but he explained that the day before there had been a flash flood because of the intense rain, and that all of the electricity in the place, beyond basic lighting, had been shorted out and wouldn't be available for a couple of days. We would have to work with what we had, not an unfamiliar situation.

Roch and Scott went to work, while I took photographs of them and of the various elements of the cathedral. In between times, I went to the gift shop outside in order to get some historical background booklets as references. In the shop, the woman behind the cash register was upset over the fact that she had no change for some customers, including me. When she rung me up, I placed all of my spare change on the counter, and she counted it dilligently. At the end, I was still shor 50 Euro cents, which I didn't have. She kept trying to figure out what to do, counting my coins over and over in the hope, it seems, that they would add up to more than what they were. Finally, I just took my money and said that I would buy it later, leaving her somewhat relieved but now having to face the person behind me who had no change to offer at all.

The filming in the small chapel went well, I think. It was also the chapel where Pope John Paul II came to pray on his visit to France. There's a famous photograph showing him kneeling at prayer at that altar, with the Founder's statue in the background; a photo taken at the direct suggestion of one of the priests of the cathedral who had been taught by the Brothers. It's the rare occurence when De La Salle shows up in an "official" public capacity.

After the side chapel, we moved to a placed right next to the high altar, where his stall as canon, number 21, would likely have been located. From there, you can gaze down the nave at the amazing stained glass windows at the far end, and Gerard talked about what it must have been like for De La Salle to pray there five times a day for over 16 years and see that vista before him each day.

Also at the location, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions, having him answer them extemporaneously - something that I think he's good at. I wasn't disappointed, and we took some fine footage of Gerard speaking about DLS's sense of Providence in his, and our, lives.

After this, we packed up and went in search of the Colleges Des Bons Enfants, the school which De La Salle attended from his early years until his MA degree. It took some driving down small streets and gazing at maps before we finally found the place, right along a busy street and solidly locked up. However, it was still a school after some 350 years, and the outside looked pretty much as it would have in the 17th century, so that was a blessing. We set up on the opposite side of the street and filmed a segment, trying to judge in between the noisy cars and trucks and motorcycles that would speed by.

Another doorway, this time associated with the Sisters founded by Nicholas Roland, who consider De La Salle as one of their co-founders, became the subject of our next quest. It was an important location because it was here that De La Salle and Adrian Nyel first encountered one another. Because of that meeting, De La Salle became involved in helping to establish those first schools and eventually became completely dedication to the education of the poor in Reims and elsewhere. The doorway was located on an especially busy street and it took quite a while to get a couple of good takes that we could edit and use later one. But by now we were used to various kinds of challenges, and an hour later we had what we needed and moved on to St. Remigius, the former Benedictine church where De La Salle would often pray through the night at the tomb of St. Remi, the one for whom the city is named.

This church is impressive for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the building dates back to Roman times and shows signs of architectural styles spanning over a thousand years. It's a building that has a strong, quiet dignity and a very appealing, contemplative atmosphere about it. Gerard said that it was his favority building in Reims, and I can sympathize with that perspective. It's one of those buildings that you can feel very settled and comfortable within, even though it's old and made of stone and somewhat stark and a bit dark. Somehow the whole thing works well. I noticed that people uniformly were quiet and respectful within it, without being asked, unlike other churches where they would have to be reminded to respect the place where they were.

There was one place left to visit, the church of St. Maurice, located nearby and situated right next to a Jesuit school and college that dates from 1619. It was at St. Maurice that the first school was established. De La Salle determined that Fr. Dorigny, the pastor, had the disposition and interest that would guarantee that Adrian Nyel's efforts would not be interfered with by the local authorities. Br. Christian, at the Hotel De La Salle, had arranged for someone to open the church for us so that we could film the statue of De La Salle that was within it. We arrived on time, but we found the church doors closed. After about 15-20 minutes, Br. Gerard found a side door open and we found a French lady inside waiting for us. The statue we discovered at the back of the church was one that none of us had seen before, Rather uniquely, it not only showed students with De La Salle, but it also showed Fr. DOrigny kneeling in respect to him. While this is something that DLS himself would never have tolerated, the statue conveys the respect with which he was held by the clergy of Reims, especially after the work had begun.

By now it was about 2:00 PM, and we returned to the Hotel De La Salle in order to finish up our filming segments there - in the chapel - and to add on an introductory segment from the archives on the bottom floor. Finally, we had completed our scheduled filming in Reims. We settled down a bit, had lunch at a nearby cafe, and then organized ourselves for the trip back to Paris. By 4:00 PM we were on the road, having thanked the Brothers profusely for their great hospitality and welcoming spirit.

The two-hour ride back to Paris seemed quite familiar to me now, except for when we entered into Paris itself, and the GPS took us along a lengthy section of the Seine river before bringing us downtown and the Rue de Sevres. By now, I think that I was driving like a Parisian, rushing down one-lane roads, pedestrians at each side, shifting gears up and down, darting around double-parked cars, old lady's trying to cross the road, and generally behaving rather calmly at what used to get my heart and mind racing a mile a minute. Like everything else, we adapt.

Back at the ranch, we took a rest for about 90 minutes and then met up again for our evening repart, taking the Metro to the Latin Quarter. Here, the evening was just beginning, with restaurants opening, young people and old people milling about, and musicians settling into the corners they would occupy for most of the night. We walked down lots of streets, looking at various restaurants, and finally settled on a fondue place that also had "regular" menu items. Here we stayed for several hours, enjoyed a well-deserved break from our furious pace. Afterwards, we walked a bit more and then made our way to the Metro and home to Duroc station and the maison on Rue de Sevres.

Tomorrow, the idea was to have time to fill in any needed filming that we hadn't done before this. But because of our efficient use of time throughout the week, we will only have one scene to film in the morning. Then we are pretty much done with this portion of the project. Gerard wants to contact some friends and professional acquaintances in the time remaining, and it's likely that Roch, Scott and I will do some sightseeing in the city. By late afternoon, however, we will begin organizing our luggage and the van for the 4:00 AM departure the following morning for the airport. And with the Tour de France finishing tomorrow in Paris, it's likely that our choices for sightseeing will be a bit limited and filled with tourists. But, on the other hand, it's a great opportunity to experience Paris on one of the busiest days of the year. Should be fun.

(Note: Click on small pictures to enlarge them.)