Monday, December 29, 2014

One's orenda needs care

Some friends who live in western Indiana had me visit during the Christmas holidays. Years ago they completed what had been a weekend cabin for themselves and their children and today they enjoy a beautiful and somewhat rambling retirement home somewhere in the woods.

I've previously visited them and one of the things I most enjoy about seeing them is that they have a huge library of books, all of which they've read, and continue to read. One wall of their living room is full of books as is another wall in an upstairs loft. They are both voracious readers. Cynthia worked for me at one time and she continues to regularly put forth practical wisdom in the archdiocesan newspaper. She and her husband Ed continue to travel as well given that their family is scattered from the East coast to Europe. One family member, their eldest son, a retired naval officer, was in an English comp and lit class I taught about 40 years ago.

I am always eager to catch up on Ed and Cynthia's lives and adventures and reading. They are regular participants in conferences about Ernest Hemingway and are looking forward to one in his home town Oak Park, Illinois, in the coming year.

This year I told them of discovering a new book of fiction and for me a new writer. "The Orenda" is a book I couldn't put down and yet it is a book that did not leave me with warm, fuzzy feelings. Narrated by three different people, the story relates the clash of cultures between two tribes of native Americans and the French Jesuit missionaries of New France in the 17th century. Bird is a Wendat (Huron) who has killed an Iroquois family taking the daughter as his own. The daughter, named Snow Falls, does everything she can to alienate Bird but eventually comes to accept her new life. A French Jesuit missionary priest named Christophe is abandoned by his native guides and taken prisoner by Bird. All three provide the narration, obviously from different perspectives and motives, and the novel moves relentlessly toward a tragic end.

Christophe seeks converts. Bird seeks the welfare of his tribe, dependent on agriculture, and now prepares to move them to a new place as their planting grounds have become exhausted. Snow Falls only wants to return to her people. Each wants to outdo the other.

The title is a word defined as "a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois Indians to be present, in varying degrees, in all objects or persons, and to be the spiritual force by which human accomplishment is attained or accounted for." Just what each seeks to accomplish is far more simple and ordinary than modern ambitions demand. 

I came across the book while working at the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ontario this past summer. Someone there told me about this novel by a Canadian writer that was apparently quite popular in Canada. Published in 2013 it is the third novel of Joseph Boyden and I enjoyed it such that I now want to read more of his work. When I told Ed and Cynthia about this, Cynthia commented to me that she thought it was exciting not just to find a new book one enjoys reading but to find a new author and to want to read more of that author's writing.

Though historical fiction, Boyden takes liberties with his characters and events. The story roughly follows that of the Jesuit missionaries in New France. Christophe is modeled on Jean de Brebeuf though he often exhibits much less compassion and understanding of the natives than the Jesuit relations, the letters the missionaries sent back to France, convey. Two other Jesuits who arrive later - one named Gabriel and the other named Isaac - suggest Gabriel Lalemant and Isaac Jogues. In fact, the Isaac in the novel had his fingers chewed off in torture by the natives as the real Isaac Jogues did. But the novel's Isaac also loses his mental stability toward the end and attempts to poison everyone as the Iroquois attack so they may avoid similar torture.

The book is not an easy read because of the narrative style and because it is quite graphic in its depiction of torture. What helped put the story in perspective, however, and what left me with a very slight glimmer of hope, was the book's last line as Bird invokes his native goddess's wisdom. "What's happened in the past can't stay in the past (because) the future is always just a breath away. Now is what's most important. Orenda can't be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present."

God's tenderness

I have a friend who cared for his brother in the last few months of the brother's illness from cancer. The brother was a successful man, single, and in need of nothing materially. The brother was not a man of faith, at least, not a man of faith who followed certain religious practices. The brother had abandoned these a long time ago and my friend stated that his brother had great difficulty understanding or accepting any notion of faith. What did make sense to him was the virtue of hope and that's where they left their discussions on faith - with the possibility of hope. The brother was heard to say before he died, "I am receptive!". Had he heard someone invite him to greater hope? To whom was the brother speaking? No one knows.

Abraham received promises from God that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky (Genesis 15). Abraham was an old man and he and his wife Sarah were childless. Yet Sarah bore a son. Abraham put his faith in the Lord. He believed God and he hoped. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that "by faith" Abraham obeyed and led his people from their home in the Chaldees and walked to Palestine. "By faith" Abraham obeyed and received the power to generate. Again Abraham obeyed and "by faith" offered up his son Isaac. Abraham believed that God's promises would be fulfilled. How is such faith possible?

Simeon and Anna waited in prayer in the Temple to see God's promise fulfilled. Simeon understood from the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he would see 'God's consolation' with his own eyes. Simeon trusted God with great faith and lived in the hope that God's promise would come true. Anna gave praise and thanksgiving for the fulfillment of the promise. Both lived in faith and awaited the fulfillment of God's promise in hope.

In his homily for midnight Mass, Pope Francis asked, "How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? 'But I am searching for the Lord' – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me?" Somehow Abraham, Simeon, and Anna all let God love them. God sought each of them and loved them. It is a challenge to admit that none sought God themselves but God sought each of them.

These figures of the Old Testament experienced the tenderness of God. This seems so despite the difficulties each experienced - Abraham uprooted his family and moved to a strange new land. Then God asked him to sacrifice his son. Simeon waited patiently for an answer to prayer. Anna endured her life as a widow. Did my friend's brother experience God's tenderness through his care?

God's tenderness often seems absent in our relationships with one another. Only by offering it to someone else can we receive it ourselves. What opportunities do I have to provide tenderness to those in need of faith and hope?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Turning hearts around

One of my spiritual directees reminded me that liturgy cannot change our lives. We were talking about the tendency of some of our seminarians to give all their attention to rubrical matters when celebrating liturgy. A few fret about the number of candles on the altar, their position on the altar, the use or non-use of bells for the consecration, the exact position of the chalices and other externals that they tend to magnify out of proportion. They can sometimes become so concerned about such non-essentials that they miss the spirit of the action in the liturgy. Our young men are idealistic and searching for certitude in an environment - our society - that offers very little. Their desire is that liturgy will change their humanness into holiness.

Holiness is sought when we participate in the liturgy but it will not lessen our humanness. If we did not bring our humanness to the liturgy, the Mass would be less meaningful. Our humanness is caught up in God's love and mercy. It is there we meet God's saving action, but we are not likely to become disembodied angels by our presence. We still live ordinary, daily lives. We may be disappointed that we remain so far from perfection. Liturgy reminds us we journey to life with God.

Some want the liturgy to remain static. Keep it on a shelf like a statue of our favorite saint. Admire it but keep it distant and do not allow it to permeate our being. Liturgy becomes that thing we go to each week, or even each day, and we keep our eyes closed and our hearts turned inward failing to notice God's presence around us. We sometimes tend to keep the liturgy locked away like a favorite photograph. We often remain frightened of it and do not always allow it to touch us and give us the momentum to bring change to our lives.

A priest recently told me that he felt judged by some of our seminarians. His parish hosted an event for which our seminarians were asked to serve the Mass. Where were the bells? they wanted to know. His parish does not use them. For these seminarians liturgy can become a theater piece and the object is to put on a good show. As a young seminarian myself, I recall meeting Msgr. Martin Hellriegel, author of the words to the hymn "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King," who was using English in some of the sung parts of Mass at his small parish in the 1920s and 1930s. In later years he became upset with some of the experiences he saw in how some celebrated liturgy after the Council's reform. He remarked that the object of the liturgical movement was to turn hearts around, not to turn altars around. It was not that he favored the altar facing the wall. Too much emphasis, he felt, was being placed on externals and one set of expectations were being replaced by another.

When I was growing up Mass was a silent affair. Not necessarily a reverent one. Just silent. As one of a few hundred children in the pew at the daily school Mass, I recall lots of squirming and dozing and whispering (if one could get away with it). We did not participate. We observed. If you were smart, you had a St. Joseph Missal and followed the priest. But there were no parts for the laity. The priest read everything. In Latin. One hoped the priest prayed. He read everything to himself. There were no lectors. Anyone attending Mass had to be in the pew by the time the Offertory began. Otherwise one missed the beginning of the principal parts of the Mass and thus one must confess that in confession. One could not leave Mass until after communion. As soon as you received communion, you were free to leave.

It was only with the advent of the Second Vatican Council that we began to be taught about the unity of the liturgy. It was not just being present for the consecration that was important. The whole Mass was important. Christ was present in the Eucharist (we always formerly just called it communion) not only in the host and its elevation but also in the priest, the Scripture that is read, and in the people who are present. The liturgy was a whole. It was not just the elevation of the host that made the liturgy.

Two Latin terms were familiar to us. A successful Mass occurred ex opere operato. It made no difference what the priest or the people did or did not do correctly. Sacramental graces existed because the Mass was the Mass. A Mass that was offered Ex opere operantis meant the priest did his part.

Jesus once asked if the Son of Man will find faith when he returns? Sometimes we get caught up in Pharisaism and forget to live as Christians. We forget that the liturgy cannot change our lives. What we can do is seek to enrich our prayer and deepen our faith by investing ourselves completely in the liturgy rather than expecting it to be this week's top entertainment event.