Benedictus Discalceus

This photo says it all: if B16 is willing to take off his red prada shoes for interreligious dialogue, then what more can we ask of him to show his commitment to peace and mutual respect? Hasn't he suffered enough?



There's a fabulous article from last week's Globe defending my hometown, Cranston, Rhode Island, which apparently was rated one of the "Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America". Ahem. Love the Wein-o-Rama reference. I reproduce the article in full below:
"There's no place like home, especially Cranston, R.I."

By Tina Cassidy, Globe Correspondent | November 18, 2006

CRANSTON, R.I. -- When the author of "The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America" placed this city on its list -- proclaiming Cranston an ideal location for "white trash, mall rats, mafia wannabes, ultra guidos, old-school metal heads, and paper clip company employees" -- I laughed.

Then an editor asked me to defend in print the quirky place where I grew up, and I choked. I have rarely asked for an extension on a deadline, but I had to this time. I needed time to reflect, and to do some additional reporting. On the one hand, this was a place that I -- and every one of my friends -- abandoned after graduating from Cranston High School West in 1987. But it is also a place that we look back on fondly and, sometimes, with warm bemusement.

We left for college, for bigger cities, for bigger dreams, for places that were more expensive, more pretentious -- places where you can't get a Del's Lemonade in July, or a heavenly slice of cold strip pizza from the aptly named Superior Bakery, or veal at the legendary Mike's Kitchen inside the Tabor - Franchi VFW Post, or a dog with everything from Wein-O-Rama , or anybody's grandmother's meatballs on a Sunday.

When my friends and I left for Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and even more-exclusive ZIP codes smattered around New England, we left behind the Falconettes, our high school's acclaimed half time high-kicking dance troupe. We left behind the Italian feast in Knightsville . And we left behind our tight-knit families. But we always come back.

And what we find when we get there is not white trash or mall rats (unless -- and I say this good-naturedly -- you count my sister-in-law, but she is originally from Boston). There might be some mafia wannabes, but there are just as many in Medford. There may be some ultra guidos, but what does that mean 20 years after the local Chess King closed? If you are looking for mullets, poke around in New Hampshire; you won't find any here in this fashion-conscious city. Old-school metal heads? They live in West Warwick, the next town over. Paper clip company employees? Now the authors are really stretching it. Just ask my mother, a bank executive who became president of the Chamber of Commerce, for real, after I accepted this assignment.

"We just made Money magazine's list of the Best Places to Live -- number 78," she said patiently, before e-mailing me a two-page love letter about Cranston, a place where she moved us 29 years ago. (I was born in Connecticut.) "We don't have a mall," she gushed. "We have Garden City." Garden City, for those of you who have never been, is an outdoor mall. She also ticked off other amenities, including its proximity to other places. There are local farms, she added, and yacht clubs sited on Narragansett Bay. The public schools, she noted, educated me and all my friends who have since moved on to become artists and law partners and advertising executives and PTO organizers.

Next I consulted the Money survey. The magazine cites Cranston's low crime, short commutes, and bevy of cultural attractions as merit-worthy highlights.

But, of course, there were some finer points that no survey could take into account.

"What about sledding at the ACI?" my Cranston-bred friend Beth, now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., said without any hint of irony. (ACI stands for the Adult Correctional Institution, one of several incarceration and justice facilities situated in a hilly section of the city.)

How could I forget?

Then Cheryl, in Connecticut, another classmate from West, piped in: "I agree with the mall rat thing, but white trash? Maybe I'm fuzzy on the definition, but I think of white trash as the illiterate, unwashed, and ignorant. People who don't mow their front lawns," she said.

And have you ever seen the front lawns in Cranston? Immaculately manicured, if frequently bracketed by a set of white concrete lions, freshly spray-painted white every spring.

"And mafia wannabes ?" Cheryl continued. "It's not like they're petty burglars. Maybe they sell stolen speakers out of the trunks of their [Chevy] IROCs , but they don't break into houses. And they'd kill anyone who broke into their mother's house."

Her comments made me think lovingly of my own brother, Jake, who, despite having a well-paying job in Boston, preferred to live in Cranston -- with my parents (and his wife) until recently, a few months shy of his 31st birthday.

It was not about money. It was about community. About my aunt and uncle and cousin across the street, another cousin and her family next door, my grandparents down the street, and friends from childhood all around. Cranston is a place that doesn't let you leave. It's sort of like the ACI, come to think of it. But with much better food.


Paulist Center - All Are Welcome DVD

So in very exciting news, thePaulist Center has released its 15-minute promotional video, "All Are Welcome", as part of its ongoing outreach program. If you've never been to the Paulist Center, this might be a good way of getting a taste of what the community is like. And, if you stick around till around the 13th minute, some of you might see a familiar face...

Ecumenical Round-up

So lots of ecumenical stuff happening these days.

Yesterday, despite a relative dearth of media coverage, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, had a short private meeting with B16 in Rome. You can hear his interview with Vatican Radio, and read his talk at San Anselmo here. (Thanks to open book for the links.)

And, in the buildup for the pope's visit to Turkey in a few days, lots of activity, ecclesiastical and political. Yesterday a group of Islamist protestors occupying Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, and had to be dispersed using tear gas. Expect a lot more along those lines in the days to come.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has published the official papal visit website, which includes a podcast on Orthodox-Catholic relations. In many ways the lowkey nature of the Anglican primate's visit to Rome in contrast with B16's visit to Constantinople for the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the city, is a good signal of Benedict's priorities: the Anglican dialogue, while important, is not at the top of the Vatican's current priorities or hopes. B16 has long held a personal interest in Roman Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation. And, while B16 is not the showman that John Paul II was, I wouldn't be surprised if we see some sort of dramatic gesture, either symbolic or practical, during his visit to the Phanar.


Blogging at the AAR

So I'm here in the main convention hall of the AAR, craziness is all around.

Most disturbing is the Employment Information Services center, where crowds of sweaty, stressed out graduate students are waiting for interviews. As if it wasn't bad enough that said students are all waiting in a large holding pen outside a hall outfitted with curtains to make some interview cubicles, the area itself is about four stories under the ground floor, requiring one to take a number of escalators down into the depths. I'm hoping to get a post-it note above one of the escalators soon reading "lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate."

There are tons of fashion mistakes, as well as the always surprisingly large cohort of snappily dressed postmodernists. (You can always tell by the chunky glasses.) Peacebang is likely having a field-day.

I have one interview this afternoon, and another today or tomorrow that is yet to be set up.

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine...


Don't have time to deal with this...

I'm trying to finish a chapter before I head to the American Academy of Religion meeting tomorrow, and am preparing for some job interviews there.
I don't have the time, or the emotional energy, to start talking about the one-two punch of the U.S. bishops' statements on homosexuality or reception of communion, but I'm not very happy about them. Part of the strength of Catholic Christianity has been, IMO, its ability to say a lot but to leave a lot of middle ground unsaid, in order to give people room to live as best they can. These two documents say a lot, and get rid of a lot of the middle ground on which I've been standing for a while.


Loving God Perfectly

Today's readings of the Shema Israel from Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Mark reminded me of a short, piercing, pregnant poem from Mary Oliver's latest book, Thirst, which includes many pieces reflecting on the death of her partner:

What I Said at Her Service

When we pray to love God perfectly,
surely we do not mean only.

(Lord, see how well I have done.)


Baltimore Basilica

The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore was rededicated today.

As America's mother church, where the plenary councils of the Catholic church in the U.S. were held in the 19th century, the Latrobe-designed basilica is an architectural masterpiece of inculturation: Roman Catholic Christianity in republican America. Rocco has a beautiful full report over at Whispers. If there's time to escape the AAR in D.C., I may have to head up to Baltimore for a day.

From Stephen Colbert

"Senator Kerry does not support our troops. If he had won the election, there wouldn't be any troops left in Iraq. President Bush, on the other hand, has given our troops an opportunity to fight without end. That's creating jobs. In fact, the president's policies helped create 104 more job openings last month. Now who's stupid, Senator?"
STEPHEN COLBERT, host of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central

With credits to the Globe.


All Souls' Day

So I had the privilege again last night of preaching at the Paulist Center, for our All Souls Vespers Service. A day late and likely more than a dollar short, here's what I said:

The first thing I have to say is that I want to talk about death, but that I need to admit my utter lack of credentials to speak about it. I am a young man; my parents are still living, my friends and close family are still living – the great danger of my saying anything at all about death is that I’ll start off into heady abstractions, at best, or pious, unhelpful, uncomforting fluff at worst.

I do know a little bit about the Gospel, so that’s what I’ll be going on here, but I beg your forgiveness if what I have to say seems to float away from reality.

What is it with Catholics and death? Why is it that my family could refer to the obituaries as the “Irish sports page”? That my parish held its annual summer picnic in the adjacent cemetery without anyone batting an eye? That our Mexican sisters and brothers are celebrating today as el día de los muertos, full of decorated skeletons and, again, picnics in the cemeteries? Don’t we Catholics know that death is something really, really bad, something to be afraid of, something to struggle against, something to hide away, not something to joke about?

One of the worst things we Catholics can do to undermine faith in God is to ignore the reality, the uncompromising reality, of death in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The more I talk to people who can’t stand to be around Christians, the more I’m convinced of the immense harm that has been done by pollyannish platitudes about “God’s mysterious plan”, by attempting to gloss over the deep pain of loss with a cheerful recommendation to “buck up” and “have faith”, by the quite frankly crappy theologies of death as an instrument of divine intervention in which we’re told that “God never gives us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t “need another angel” – he already has plenty. And God is not consulting a list of “naughty” and “nice” to determine whom he’s going to whack next.

You’ll be happy to know that, in my opinion, these simply aren’t part of the Christian understanding of death. In case we forget, there’s a torture victim hanging in the front of our churches to show us again and again that death – in all its gruesome details, in its violence and despair in so many parts of our world, in the emptinesses which it leaves behind – is not something God wants. Like all of the results of evil in our world, all of the results of sin, death – or at least death as we cause, suffer, and experience it – is a mystery, a mystery the Gospel tells us we only begin to understand in part as we are being saved from death in Jesus.

But how does that happen? Our reading tonight gives us a starting point. Paul writes that he is convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of Christ.” There’s our clue: “nor any other creature”. Do you see what category death falls into? God or not-God? Not God. Creator or creature? Creature.

Now, you see why my warning about being flippant about death comes into play was important; thinking of death as a “creature” can, and has, been read as legitimating exactly the sort of “death as how God micromanages the world” theology that tries to dismiss or ignore the painful reality of death. But I don’t think that is what Paul is up to here.

Instead, Paul is pointing out how, all appearances to the contrary, the things that seem most frightening to us, most threatening to us, including death itself, have no power, no chance of winning, no hold over us when compared to the love of God in Christ. The heights and depths which define our space, the future and present which define our time, the principalities and powers which define how our world works, even life and death itself – these are not even in the running when compared with God’s love. They are not God, they are creatures, and therefore, they aren’t in charge. God isn’t in competition in any way with death, and despite its apparent finality, death isn’t finally in charge. The resurrection of Christ, the “first fruits” of the bodily resurrection, is the real end for us and all the souls now asleep in Christ.

Every Sunday when we gather for Eucharist, we remember how in Jesus God entered into both parts of this complex relationship with death; how dying on the cross he cried out with the pain we know of death, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”; and yet how he died commending his spirit into God’s hands in love for God and for us. Paul knows that denying the reality of death would by lying about what it is to be a human being, for whom death is scary and painful in ways those words don’t begin to describe. But Paul also knows that it was because Christ trusted in God’s power over death that he was able to risk is life in an act of love for us. Every Sunday we make Christ’s act of love and of trust our own, we begin to see what life beyond – not without – death, looks like: it looks like the love of one who lays down her life for a friend.

So, this may all be well and good, but what does this have to do with our celebration of All Souls, with the picnics in the cemetery and all that?
Only this: I think that our prayer with and for our dead sisters and brothers awaiting, with us, the final resurrection of all, is one of the major ways we remind ourselves of the creatureliness of death, the relative – I use the term very cautiously – unimportance of death, of the fact that while death is often the deepest crisis of our personal and communal lives, it still falls into the category of “not God.” When we pray with and for our dead in a Christian way, we aren’t doing so with a vague hope that they may be ok “somewhere out there”; we’re reminding ourselves that not even death, the painful and tragic deaths that some of us have experienced, can separate them, or us, from the love of Christ. We’re getting into the habits of people for whom God is in charge of everything, even death, and who will raise us up on the last day, as Jesus was raised on the first day of the week. That’s why the practices, the habits, of living as if death were not – the relationships we continue through prayer, the remembrance of our dead brothers and sisters in our lives, even the picnics and the flowers – are far more important over a lifetime of faith than anything I can say to make this unbelievably good news real.

Habits of faith in God can be dangerous – faith in God’s power over death inevitably seems to flower into risky acts of love. Look up above this altar; look at the alcove for the martyrs of El Salvador, and you’ll see what believing love is stronger than death can lead to. But when we pray for and with our sisters and brothers “who have fallen asleep in Christ”, when we use those words not to hide their deaths in a euphemism but to claim God’s power over their deaths, we begin to be freed ourselves from the habits that scare us away from living lives of love. And today on this feast of all the souls, we can be comforted in practicing our faith, in loving as if death were not, by the presence of our sisters and brothers, alive in Christ, encouraging us to imagine our lives through and beyond our deaths.



So typity typity typity - trying to bang out a chapter of the dissertation before the AAR (and hopefully some interviews???) in a few weeks.

But here are some varia to keep you busy.

- First, the title of this post is a shout out to Ben Schott (say that five times fast), author of Schott's Miscellanies; he was in town the other night to promote his new contribution to the worlds of learning and graphic design, Schott's Almanac. We chatted afterwards about the Vatican stamps honoring the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Guards.

- Second, fun op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by James Martin, S.J., author of My Life With the Saints, on recently canonized Mother Théodore Guérin, and her struggles with her local ordinary in the founding of St.-Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana.

- Third, today's Boston Globe has another fun op-ed, "Blame It All on the Gay Agenda", in which author Steve Kluger has his tongue firmly in his cheek. A highlight:

What's there left to do but come clean? Although we've attempted to keep our covert ops cloaked in diverting sequins, there's no plugging the leaks that have revealed our subversive intentions. It's the Pentagon Papers all over again.

The truth began to emerge last week when a male couple was wed in Massachusetts. Twenty minutes later, three heterosexual marriages fell apart in Kansas City. Under ordinary circumstances, one of our operatives would have been present to hide the evidence under a stack of Liza Minnelli CDs, but he was watching an episode of "I Love Lucy" with his 9-year-old niece so that she could go forth and recruit her young friends in fourth grade.

- Fourth, the guiltiest pleasure in my life lately (the deepest pleasure being the anniversary I celebrated with the bf on Tuesday...4 years, 0 homicides = Success!), has been Boston's Weekly Dig. It's entirely surpassed, IMHO, the Phoenix in quality, insight, and overall wittiness. Plus, it's pages don't get your hands turning all black, and you don't feel after reading it that you ought to start growing out a really, really scraggly ponytail and wearing black all the time. Their gubernatorial election round-up is quite good, not least because of the fun cartoons. Highlights:

On Kerry Healy:

All this negativity—she’s run one of the filthiest campaigns the state has ever seen—caused Massachusetts citizens to collectively brand her a major bitch, and after closing to within 13 points in one poll, her campaign imploded. [...] Several million dollars and one shriveled conscience later, the Herald called Healey’s campaign “dead in the water.” Some belated advice from us to you, Muffy: Next time you want to trade your soul for something totally worthless, make it a candy bar or a stale donut.

And on Christy Mihos:

[...]but it’s clear that Christy doesn’t think he can be governor. Nor is he trying too hard. He’s sunk millions of dollars of his own money into his doomed campaign for the sole purpose, it appears, of exacting revenge on the state Republican apparatus that dicked him over during his battles with Jane Swift. He’ll probably pull down 10 percent on Election Day—not enough to say he single-handedly sunk Kerry Healey, but definitely enough to make the GOP regret punching a hole in his ball or peeing on his red wagon or whatever they did to him.

- Finally, watch out for squirrels today.