Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen

Today is the bicentennial of the death (at 41) of Jane Austen, Regency England's most famous novelist. In her memory, this year I resolved to reread Pride and Prejudice. Actually, much as it shames me to admit it, this was in fact really my first reading of it. Of course, I know the story and have seen more than one film version of it. But, back when I was actually required to read the book in junior year of high school, I did not do so - for ridiculous reasons embarrassing enough not to go into any further. I have always looked upon this as one of the more regrettable lacunae in my education, and this finally seemed the right time to rectify it.

This is not the first time in my life I have read a book after seeing a movie or TV version of it. (Usually, in fact, it is the latter that kindles interest in the former.) When one does that, of course, inevitably one's reading is amplified by visual images from the film or TV version. Having seen more than one version and each more than once, that was certainly especially true with my reading of Pride and Prejudice. I could anticipate scenes and vividly picture them in my mind as I made my way through Austen's masterpiece. It was an experience that says a lot about the dominance of visual media in the way we experience real literature today.

As for the novel itself, which Winston Churchill is supposed to have re-read during World War II, I have little to add to the virtually universal chorus of praise that has enveloped it these past two centuries. (Even Japan has a Jane Austen Society!) That its popularity has survived such dramatic social change, which has made the novel's world almost unrecognizably alien, in a way that it was not yet quite so alien when I first ought to have read it as recently as 50+ years ago, is another tribute to Austen's art. 

A Vicar's's daughter (something she shares with Britain's present Prime Minister, Theresa May), Jane Austen was, I believe, at first published anonymously. But then her work was applauded by no less a person that the Prince Regent himself. Her work has continued to be applauded ever since - and if anything even more so - in recent decades. 

The basic building block in a novel like Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the archetypal human story: boy meets girl, boy and girl get together in spite of any number of real and imagined obstacles, all set in the context of a social marriage market, accepted as critical for the fortunes of the individuals involved and taken for granted as foundational for society's successful functioning and continuance. In Pride and Prejudice, after turning down the unappealing but obviously sensible choice for a woman in her position, Mr. Collins, the heroine gets to marry (and for love) the much more desirable Mr. Darcy, and becomes therefore the mistress of Pemberley, with all that accompanies Pemberley in terms of wealth and social position.

In retelling the archetypal human story, Austen creates characters completely recognizable in their human dilemmas, even as she flawlessly evokes a faraway world whose intricacies of class and social status she seems to have been perfectly skilled at portraying. Sir Walter Scott said she presented her readers "a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around" them. That too is part of her appeal – especially so today, when we look back with wonder and amazement at such a seemingly well-ordered world (so unlike ours in its orderliness and sense of place), while at the same time we recognize the underlying emotional stress that could chaotically co-exist with all that apparent orderliness and which she identified so well - and so perhaps helps us better to identify in our own less well-ordered world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing Seed

A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we all heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing those familiar opening words to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived almost all of my life in cities, parables about farmers sowing seed sound strangely exotic to me. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ original audience would have understood the farmer’s behavior. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farming-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been difficult at best. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean that some seed will be wasted, but it probably also guarantees that at least some will fall on good soil and take root and produce good fruit.

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and so is how he expects his Church to act in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.

We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it - if in fact all we do is talk. We rightly honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who journeyed to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute some 20-something percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

Hence Pope Francis’ evangelization prayer intention for July: that those who have strayed from the faith, may, through our prayer and witness, rediscover the merciful closeness of the Lord and the beauty of the Christian life.

Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them.  The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church. Knoxville, TN, July 16, 2017.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What a Family!

These past three weeks (in churchspeak, the 12th, 13th, and 14th weeks of Ordinary Time), the Old Testament reading at daily Mass has been taken from the biblical book of Genesis. The readings have recounted the amazing family story of the patriarchs - from God's initial call of Abram in Genesis 12 to today's account of Israel's settlement in Egypt and the deaths of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis 50. 

As is so often the case with the Lectionary, large sections of the story are omitted - even at times within particular pericopes. So, for example, a week ago Friday the reading strung together several excerpts from Genesis 23 and 24, mentioning the death of Sarah, then Abraham's plan to marry his son to a relative from back where he came from, and then jumping ahead to Rebekah's arrival and marriage to Isaac. In the process, of course, a lot of the family story's details get left out. The omissions obviously make the story harder to follow. But, even considering all the omissions, it remains a fascinating story of history's most famous family.

God's sudden move in Genesis 12 to call Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) marked a shift from the universal primeval history of Genesis 1-11 to a new focus, centering salvation history in the story of one family - Abraham and his descendants, through whom, in Jesus, the promise would be finally fulfilled, that All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham has rightly been exalted (e.g., in Romans., Galatians, and Hebrews) as a paragon of faith. There is much that is edifying in the story of Abraham's readiness to respond to the Lord's call and to trust in God's promise, even at the cost of having to pick up and move (at the age of 75 - the age at which we nowadays compel bishops to retire). God famously tested Abraham's faith in the promise when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac (through whom the promise was supposed to be fulfilled), and Abraham passed that extreme test. 

All that having been said, still the story of the patriarchal family stands out as much for its strange and seemingly unedifying aspects as for its edifying ones. There is, of course, Abraham's lying about Sarah. Then there is Isaac's seemingly frivolous way of awarding his final blessing, Jacob's cheating to get it, and his mother Rebekah's collusion with her favorite son in what certainly seems like an impious act of deceiving his father (as well as cheating his brother). Jacob himself turned out to be an even less successful parent - favoring Joseph over his brothers, provoking their jealousy and thus causing them to try to kill him. That all of this providentially made Joseph everyone's savior in the subsequent famine highlights God's ongoing commitment to this family and his ability to bring about blessing for many others as well, even in spite of repeated human misbehavior and chronic familial dysfunction. But it does not hide that repeated misbehavior and chronic dysfunction from our notice.

Just as well! For the biblical story is not intended for perfect families such as only exist on Norman Rockwell magazine covers, but about actual struggling people and their consequently flawed families - the regular folks who might be inspired by the Rockwell cover and aspire to imitate its idealized image, but most likely fall far short of it (although are nonetheless better off for aspiring)..

Most of us may feel we fall short of the ideal embodied by Abraham's faith-inspired move to Canaan at 75, but we may find much more to identify with in the more mundane struggles of the patriarchal family, though which we too may aspire to the faith of Abraham and its abundance of blessing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Focus on the Senate

Amid the endless daily distractions concerning which Trump or Trump surrogate may have said what to which Russians and vice versa, the most immediately consequential issue remains in the Senate, which is still struggling to find a way to keep the majority party's promise to take heath care away from millions of needy Americans in order to give more money to the richest ones, who have no need at all.

Of course, Russia is important. Finding out what happened in the 2016 election (and hopefully not normalizing candidates' cooperation with hostile foreign powers in the future) is important. 

But, our media-driven obsession with scandals and rumors of scandals notwithstanding, the future health prospects of millions of Americans are more important!

A column in last Sunday's NY Times compared Kentucky and its neighbor Tennessee. Prior to Obamacare's full implementation, Kentucky had 14% of its population uninsured and Tennessee had 13% of its population uninsured. But, by 2015, Kentucky, which took full advantage of Obamacare's provisions and implemented the law as was intended, had cut its uninsured percentage of its population to just 6%, while Tennessee was stuck at 11%. That shows what Obamacare, when fully implemented in the public interest for the sake of the common good, has accomplished. And it shows the peril into which people are being put by the majority party's repeal agenda.

Like Obamacare itself, the proposed replacements are complex. One can easily get distracted by all the dreadful detail. And obviously attentiveness to detail is important if we are ever to be at all successful in addressing this problem. Even so, the essence of the problem with the Senate bill (as with the bill already passed by the House) is clear. It was simply stated by the Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a June 27 letter to the Senate and reaffirmed yesterday in light of recent proposed changes in the bill: "All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does not provide access for all people which is truly within their means." 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Air-Conditioning and Its Discontents

It is summer. It is hot, very hot. So I virtually live in air-conditioning. I didn't do so growing up, of course, because then air-conditioning was (or was thought to be) an expensive luxury, something people of our social class presumably didn't deserve. Even the family car wasn't air-conditioned. Nor, come to think of it, was the only car I ever owned (as an assistant professor from 1977 though 1981). The seminary wasn't air-conditioned either, nor were some of the churches I have served in. I know there are people who don't like air-conditioning, who don't mind the heat. But I have no patience with heat, whether at  home or at work or in the car. Heat kills! And air-conditioning has been invented!

That said, I am all too aware of the vicious circle of environmental damage air-conditioning contributes to. As Brian Strassburger, SJ, has recently written at The Jesuit Post
“With global temperatures hitting record highs the past few years, AC use has likewise increased. World energy use for cooling has outstripped the energy used for heating. … In an increasingly hotter planet, air conditioning can be a life-saver. But if it is contributing to heating the planet, does that balance out?”

(Strassburger is a Jesuit-in-Formation, currently working - without air-conditioning - in Managua, Nicaragua. His entire post can be read at: https://thejesuitpost.org/2017/07/air-conditioning-a-luxury-we-cant-afford/)

Air-conditioning has been a godsend - not just in beating the summer heat but also in enabling me to make it through allergy season each year. I can't even imagine anymore ever choosing to go without it. Still, I get the Jesuit's point - not to mention that of an even more prominent Jesuit, Pope Francis, who also has rightly taken aim at air-conditioning (see Laudato Si', 55).

Of course, air-conditioning is one of many culprits in environmental degradation and climate change. But so is so much of modernity. I consider the automobile to be perhaps the most disastrous modern invention - not just for its deleterious effects upon the earth's physical environment, but also for its destructive effects upon our social environment, the harm it has done to family life, community (especially urban) life, etc. I genuinely hate the automobile and all its works. Yet I drive every day. I have to - to do my job, to do almost anything. Like the rest of my contemporaries, I am trapped in modernity's self-destructive web.

All of which points to one of the core dilemmas of contemporary life. Modernity may be killing us (certainly spiritually and, in the case of environmental degradation and climate change, physically as well). We know modernity may be killing us, but we no longer know how to live without it - and probably couldn't do so even if we did know.