A foolishness beyond wisdom

It’s been a while since my last post.  Retreat followed by an absolutely crazy time in the parish left my contemplative well a little dry, admittedly.  That said, these weeks haven’t been altogether fruitless.  I’ve been studying a wonderful part of the Christian life, “Holy Foolishness,” something alluded to on this page, but today, I’d like to draw together a few things from DC life through this particular prism.

Holy Foolishness begins with Christ himself.  The Lord’s coming down from heaven to save a Creation for which he had absolutely no need (He’s God.  He doesn’t need anything.), makes not sense; it is foolish.  He did it for the sake of love… Love of the Father who asked if of him… Love of his Creation… a love that is inefficient and gratuitous.  This same foolishness finds textual expression in St. Paul who speaks beautifully about being a madman for Christ (I Cor 4).  The fool for Christ is prefigured in David who, overcome by the gift of victory he’s received from the Lord, dances naked before the ark entering Jerusalem.  David became like a little child, a fool in the eyes of many.

If holy foolishness comes from God’s example, prefigured in David, and codified in Paul… its expression flowers in the Church.  The early monks in the desert, the wandering contemplatives of ancient Ireland… St. Francis stripping himself before the bishop to identify with the poor for the rest of his life… St. Philip Neri dressing like a buffoon just to experience insults and so identify with Christ’s Passion… all fools for Christ.  Fools in the eyes of the world anyway.  Event St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps one of the greatest intellects of all history capped his life with holy foolishness.  Famously, at the end, he burned as many of his notes as he could get his hands on declaring, “It is all straw.”  One of his biographers put it this way,

“The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence.  And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand.  His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God… he is silent because he has been allowed to glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.”

Stupified as he peered beyond reason into the depths of mystery, Thomas identified with the fool.

Here in DC, following Pope Francis’ visit to our city can we, perhaps, engage in a little foolishness?  On a visit to Washington, my grandfather once commented, stunned by the beauty of Kalorama Heights, “In a city this beautiful, how can people fight with such acrimony.”  When we fight, isn’t it – so often – over issues of human wisdom?  Could we let ourselves be intoxicated by our surroundings convinced that great and good things are possible despite differences?  Have we become so efficient that we no longer have time for truly inspiring folly?  As an example: some might suggest that the space race was an act of inspiring folly.  Yes there was the cold war dimension of the effort, but what really inspired people was  not the idea of beating the Soviets to the moon, but rather the idea of human beings reaching to the stars… something inefficient, but inspired and beautiful.

In parish life I see the tension between the human wisdom of efficiency and the holy wisdom of being a little foolish.  Taking time to sit in silence and adore the Blessed Sacrament… celebrating the mass beautifully… standing up for ancient teachings no longer in vogue… All are foolish, inefficient, in the eyes of the world.  The temptation of the faithful is subtly evident in remarks like, “We need to be more relevant.”  “People won’t listen to us unless…”  “Isn’t that wasteful…”  There is a fear of being fools for Christ… a fear of dying on the Cross humiliated with him in the eyes of the world.   Can we consider following our Holy Fathers, St. John XXIII, Bl. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Benedict and now Francis in running with reckless, foolish abandon in the ways of the Church… doing so out of love for Christ?  We might just discover that it’s more fun in this life and the next to be fools for the Risen One, than wise in the estimation of very mortal men.

On Memory and Continuity

Continuing on the them of memory from my last post… Some thoughts about the National Mall.

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I was riding my bike earlier this week and snapped a few quick shots of buildings along our very own Forum Americanum,  The National Mall.  At first I was playing a game of “Which of these ones is not like the other one.  Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a little startling to say the least.

(Disclaimer: I have no problem with dedicating a museum on the Mall to the history of any particular culture .  Admittedly I wish we Italian-Americans had gotten a prime spot, but that’s neither here nor
there.)

The museum’s jagged motif and bronze coloring  are startling in the midst of the classical splendor that characterizes the Mall.  The shock value of the building inspired me to do some research.  The NMAAHC’s design is drawn from a traditional three-part column characteristic of the Yoruban culture of Africa, as well as the motif of a crown.  For more details on the building philosophy, see this LINK for the Architect’s vision.  Unto itself, I’m actually somewhat impressed with the museum’s design concept.  So why do I still recoil?

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum

Relative to it’s neighbors the NMAAHC doesn’t seem to match… but riding along further I was reminded that other structures on the Mall also don’t seem to fit.  The Air and Space Museum, East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshorn, American Indian Museum and even the Smithsonian Castle.  Under closer examination I realized that MUCH of the National Mall doesn’t match DC’s general Greco-Roman theme.  So what does pull the Mall together?

I.M. Pei’s  East Wing of the NGA is built along the angles characteristic of DC’s squares and traffic circles.  An unorthodox structure perhaps, but thoroughly Washingtonian even if only subconsciously.  Also it’s facing stones match the white-gray color scheme of classical architecture.   The building is part of who we have been.

The Air And Space Museum
The Air And Space Museum

Color and general shape links the air and Space Museum to the rest of the Mall as well.  It’s proportions and building materials help it blend in.  As to it’s actual design, simplistic and brutalist architecture represent a major movement in post-WWII western art, which fled from the ornament of previous ages for a highly utilitarian (if not exactly exciting) design.  Similar principles inspired the Hirshorn Gallery’s geometric purism.  Both buildings are thus part of who we have been.

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American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum is clearly drawn from the native cliff dwellings of the pre-colonial southwest.  It is a part of what America was long before it was America.

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The Smithsonian Castle looks NOTHING like the Mall today… but the Mall once looked much more like the Smithsonian Castle.  It’s a leftover from the Victorian-age of red brick neo-gothic architecture (still with us in the turrets and brick faces of our townhouses).  Like Augustus in Rome, FDR found Washington a city of brick and left it a city of Marble. The Castle is certainly part of who we have been.

In the end, the unifying principle behind today’s National Mall seems to be a memory of who we have been.  My anxiety, I think, springs from the past tense of that sentiment: who we HAVE been… because putting it in the past tense leave open the question: Who are we today?  and  Who will we be?

As Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity guiding us as a Church.  There’s no rule binding DC or even the US to a hermeneutic of neo-classical continuity… but the questions remain, “Do we know who we are anymore?” “Are we running toward a positive new identity, or just fleeing from an old one?” I don’t have answers but I think these are  all questions worthy of examination through eyes of faith.

Screen on the Green and a Little Elegance

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Talking with some parishioners after mass yesterday, I learned about several “Screens on the Green” – outdoor film initiatives here in DC (for more info, check out this LINK).  What really excited me was not the possibility of strolling over to Lincoln Park to see Casino Royale (July 16)… No what really enthralled me about this young couple was   their excitement about going to see the film together… and with a touch of elegance.  They were planning out their picnic, looking forward to selecting some meats, cheeses and maybe even a little vino to compliment the evening.  It reminded me of a line from Hello Dolly, “We’ve got elegance.  If you aint’ got elegance, you can never hope to carry it off.”

Elegance has very little to do with living in a ritzy manner, per se.  It’s more about acting on our best impulses.  The concept goes back to the Greek understanding of beauty, “kalon.”  For the Athenians, the beauty of nature was characterized by kalon or “elegant order.”  So when human beings live elegantly, it means that we bring a certain degree of purposeful order to bear upon a given activity.  Put another way – as St. Thomas Aquinas might say – “virtue is in the action… the living-out of the idea.”

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These two young adults, planning their movie-night were so excited to DO something about their love for each other… their commitment became manifest in a plan that they are actually going to carry out and live… and that dear friends, is very elegant.  It’s not so much about whether you’re buying a bottle of wine or a six-pack of diet coke… It’s about carrying out our desires to live as the best version of ourselves.

If we take our meditation a step (maybe a small leap) farther, we find that this concept of the elegant even touches on the sacraments.  Christ left us things to do and to do beautifully as the most clear living-out of his life among us.  Thats why parishes where sacraments are well celebrated are so much more satisfying than places where they are not… because the community sees itself doing something about realizing its highest aspirations.  Just as a girl might reasonably question a boy, “If you love me so much why didn’t you bring me flowers?  Why didn’t you do something about it?”  Christ will ask us, “Did you care for my little ones?  [c.f. Mt 25] Did  you celebrate the sacraments I left you when I said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’?  And did you do it in a slipshod or an elegant manner?” [c.f. Mk 14:15]  …just something to consider.

Drawing in Silver and Gold at the National Gallery


“Born of a Virgin, he came forth from the womb as the light of the hole world in order to shine on all men.  His perpetual light that night can never destroy.  The sun of our daily experience is succeed by night, but the sun of holiness never sets, because wisdom cannot give place to evil.” -St. Ambrose

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Print of a Woman by Rogier van der Weyden on display at the NGA

As another beautiful day dawns over Washington, keep you eyes open for the light coming into our world, Christ.  Seek him in the beauty of our daily experiences… and if you need some help consider stopping in at the National Gallery of Art for an incredible exhibition – Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns.  The exhibit is a study of metal point drawing/printing.  Two quick thoughts…  First, the technical detail achieved by the artists in this exhibit is amazing considering they were scratching out images by hand on metal!  Second, these prints have an almost ethereal quality.  The images almost “materialize” as you study them… It’s all a consequence of the printing process but it reminds me of Christ’s light illuminating each of us a little at a time, making each of us more distinctly and more perfectly ourselves as we get to know him better.  ‘just something to think about as you pass through the galleries.

Print of a Dog by Albrecht Durer on display at the NGA
Print of a Dog by Albrecht Durer on display at the NGA

Picnics and Ponderings

IMG_0564It’s spring in Washington… one of our two all too brief seasons when we can enjoy outdoor activities without either freezing or melting.  One of may favorite spring activities is picnicking.  I don’t get to do it all that often, but when I do, what a gift it is.

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By it’s very nature a picnic pulls us out of our normal routine… gets us to look at things differently by placing us in new surroundings.  Since picnics work best bucolic settings, they can also be a chance for us to strip away the worries of the world and get back in touch with our truest nature.  Two easily reached picnic destinations I’ve enjoyed recently are: The C&O Canal and Sugarloaf Mountain (see photos throughout this post).

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The Canal was intended to be a great water highway connecting the capital with the western hinterlands of the new United States (i.e. Cumberland, MD back in the day).  Never able to turn a long-term profit, the canal never really worked out.  Thanks to preservationists though, it has become a hugely successful national park with ample opportunities for hiking, biking and camping from here to western Maryland.
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Sugarloaf Mountain (in Dickerson, MD about an hour northwest of the city) was a privately owned estate that has now become a nature preserve with trails for hiking, climbing and mountain biking.  It also boasts some wonderful opportunities for animal watching and great views of Montgomery and Frederick counties.

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Picnicking with friends is obviously a great chance for conviviality – a subject covered in previous posts.  That said, don’t discount the blessings of a solo lunch-in-the-wild.  Consider the following thoughts from 20th century theologian Fr. Romano Guardini:

“…man’s attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him  His mind is restless; his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing.  Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man’s attention from sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit.”
This “rescue” mission, Fr. Guardini goes on to say, restores man to his fullest sense of self allowing him to face the world in a more genuine way.

Guardini applies his teaching to composing ourselves in preparation for mass, but I think we can reasonably extend his thoughts to another type of meal: the picnic.  Eating out in nature is a great exercise in composure.  It’s a chance to focus on the basics: eating, breathing, perceiving the beauty around us.  Over time, the storm of other sensory and emotional distractions calms… or rather all these “other” things enter orbit around the joy of the meal.  We might even suggest that if a picnic on a beautiful day is a manifestation of God’s love for us, then it is precisely his LOVE that restores order to our chaos.

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So, if you’re feeling a little frayed at the ends this week, take advantage of the good weather, grab some food and a blanket, and enjoy a picnic… you might just come back from it a better version of yourself.

Music makes us wonder “Am I going or coming?”

Yesterday, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach presented an evening of music that was sublime.  Sublime not only for the quality of its execution, but also for the expansive history of musical / artistic thought that can be looked at through eyes of faith.  We’ll consider the two principal pieces, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso #1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra.

In theology we adhere to a principle called exitus et reditus.  The concept basically means that all things exist in a rhythm of coming forth from God and eventually returning to him.  This leitmotif characterizes all the activities of our lives.  Think of the whole scheme of life, for example, generated by God at birth and returning to him after death… exitus et reditus.  On a larger scale one could argue that this process was on display at last night’s concert.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, indeed his entire career represents an massive musical exitus.  In today’s common parlance, all orchestral music is lumped into the category of “Classical” music.  Take any music 101 course, however, and you’ll discover that actually, orchestral music has many subdivisions… most commonly: ancient music (pre 1500), the Baroque (1600-approx. 1725), Classical (1725 – 1800), Romantic (1800-1900) and modern (1900-present).  “Classical” music represented the zenith of a partnership between classical rules/forms, and the technical development and expertise of composers/artists.  Paragons of the classical movement include Haydn, and Mozart.  The Romantic period, begun about the year 1800 represents the shifting of that partnership decidedly in favor of the composers/artists.  Rules were tested and often broken to tap into the deep pathos of the listeners’ psyches.  Consider, Beethoven’s 9th: it includes – to very great effect – a choir… something unthinkable before him.  The other quality of the Romantics, something we find on display in Beethoven’s 5th, an immense subjectivity.  Understanding musical principal isn’t enough you have to know the composer in order to appreciate the music as he/she intended it.  In the case of the 5th Symphony this mean’s reading up on Beethoven’s conflicting attitudes toward the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.  Just by way of brief example: the pattern of the four famed opening notes of the symphony is considered by some to be a play on the four opening notes of the French national anthem.

This musical subjective turn, like the Cartesian philosophical turn that preceded it (“I THINK, therefore I am”) has pluses and minuses.  It pulls on the heartstrings of readers/listeners by diving into the deepest parts of the human heart… but it also arrogantly assumes that the author/composer’s point of view give an accurate, even authoritative account of reality.  Beethoven then is a musical exitus from the music that came before him, which found its beauty in an objective vision of music rather than the composer’s individual experience.  This process continued expanding through the Modern period, the twentieth century.

In Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso, one hears the influence of deconstructionist philosophy and materialism.  Tones and harmonies themselves have been broken down to atonality for examination… Music has become, in some senses a rationalistic laboratory, particularly in the atheistic Soviet Block under which Penderecki lived.  And yet…

Something in Penderecki spoke to him so that for all the exitus of the last two hundred years, something began to call him back to honor the old rules, structures and observances of classical and even Sacred Music.  As the Program Notes from last night indicate, the composer began to buck the communist system and even wrote a St. Luke Passion, that brought about his own re-conversion to Catholicism.  One hears both influences, the deconstruction and return, at work in the Concerto Grosso.

All beings have their own existence… a degree of exitus is necessary for life, for being… but balanced always and inevitably by the return to our origins (ultimately to God) having benefited and grown from the journey.  Is this where music and the arts are headed?  We’ll see.  But in our own lives, it’s a worthwhile question to ask, “How do I bring the two dynamics of going forth and returning to God into harmony in me?”

Thanks to maestro Eschenbach and the folks at the NSO for inspiring such an exploration here in DC!

Reflections on an Urban Trek

Last week, with spring’s return, I put on my walking shoes and took my first urban trek of the season.  As regular readers know, the purpose of this blog is to look on life in Washington through eyes of faith.  What better way to do that than to just get out there and start walking.  This trek took me from the heights of Brightwood in far upper NW, to the carefully manicured gardens of Georgetown.  I’ll present my reflections in two parts.  The first follows:

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I began at Nativity Parish (13th and Peabody, NW).  Nativity one of the best examples of local church architecture that we have.  Built in a gothic revival style, it’s pointed arches and stained glass windows provide a feast for the soul, a lavish space where the Lord can easily enter our day-to-day experience.  And isn’t that precisely what the mystery of the Nativity is all about?  The parish population has shrunken significantly over the last several decades, but exciting work is going on there under the new Administrator, Fr. Evans, who is so dedicated to his people and their neighborhood of Brightwood.  If you live nearby, consider popping in for a prayer and a visit.  You may find yourself prompted to ask, “How can I be a part of bringing Christ to this part of Washington?”  You’ll find a warm welcome from Father and the angelic staff at the Rectory!

From Nativity, I strolled through Brightwood on my way to the bus corridor of 16th St., NW.  It was mid-morning and everywhere parents and children were walking to school and work.  Neighbors used to taking the same bus each morning found ready smiles and greetings at their various bus stops.  There was a wonderful sense of new life for a new day.  Along those lines, I was inspired by a local community garden.  What a perfect metaphor for new neighborly life!

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To cut just a little walking out of the trek, I took the S9 Metrobus down 16th Street to Mount Pleasant.  If you’re a resident of Silver Spring or another nearby suburb, the “S” bus lines from Silver Spring Metro are a great gateway into the city.  They’re generally prompt and there’s just something nice about commuting above ground.  I find that when I’m not behind the wheel myself, driving in DC is actually a pleasure… especially on 16th street where stately homes, and expansive recreation zones mingle in bright sunshine to cheer up anyone willing to look.  Those who have eyes should see!

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The S9 dropped me at Mt. Pleasant, a district always teeming with life.  Mount Pleasant is an interesting intersection of urban cultures and histories.  Rich in civil war history as a major medical camp for the Army of the Potomac, it has been considered alternately as: a site for the Lincoln Memorial, a palatial gateway to the city, a hub of DC’s African American Jazz and literary scene, a civil rights launching point and now a hub of urban renewal.  Here, The Salvadoran immigrant community mixes with the bohemian crowd from Adams Morgan, the well-heeled residents of expensive condos and the longtime African American population of the area.  Some iconic points preserve the the imprint of these distinctive cultures.

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Sacred Heart Parish has been the hub of Spanish speaking Catholic ministry in DC for decades.  It’s grand architecture was a double statement of (a) God’s glory and (b) that the Catholic community of DC had ‘arrived.’  Today it remains a palace for any soul looking to be ennobled and comforted by the vision of God.

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A colorful mural adorns a 15th Street row house just south of the merge into 16th Street.  It presents an intermingling of cultures and communities that is the reality and not fully realized goal of Mt. Pleasant.

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Following 15th Street South, I eventually came to Meridian Hill Park (a.k.a. Malcolm X Park).  The Park was one of the sights originally considered for the Lincoln Memorial.  This plan was eventually abandoned in favor of the National Mall.  Standing on Meridian Hill Today, it’s easy to understand why.  Locating the Memorial there, Lincoln would’ve dominated the city like an Olympian god; not at all in keeping with his devotion to our democratic republic.  The park became an ornamental Italian garden to rival anything you’ll find in Florence.  Cascading waterfalls, walking paths, shade trees and the occasional statue make Meridian Hill Park the perfect place to find some peace in the middle a busy day.  Here, you’ll find monuments to President Buchanan, Dante Alighieri and even St. Joan of Arc.  Situated at the head of the park’s upper mall, St. Joan charges into the bright sun shine, her horse rearing up over DC’s skyline… a powerful witness to her faith, hope, love … and patriotism… virtues available to each of us every day.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cardinal Newman advised that we should always look at life poetically… seeking mysteries wherever we can find them.  If you’ve enjoyed this first set of reflections, looking “poetically” at last week’s urban trek… stay tuned.  Part II will be posted soon!

John Henry Card. Newman
John Henry Card. Newman

“With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty, – we are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a Divine meaning in every event, and a super-human tendency.”
-Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman