Saturday, May 21, 2016

Looking out the window

I wasn't eager to see a movie about Mother Teresa, whom I admired greatly, but I joined my wife in viewing "The Letters" last night and came away impressed.  It was not a piously sentimental story of a saint.

The 2014 movie was not a critical success, and I can see why: the title is misleading. We don't see the anguish felt in the many letters Mother Teresa wrote, including her sense of hopelessness and depression.

But writer-director William Reiad has chosen to give us the full story of the woman's spiritual growth from 1946 on. As admirably depicted by Juliet Stevenson, the saint of Calcutta has been teaching in India at a convent school for privileged girls. Looking out the window each day, she is bothered by the poor and hungry who are there and feels driven to move out of the cloister to help them.  She cannot ignore them.

Although many might agree with the Mother Superior, who asks skeptically, "how can you hope to make a difference amid such vast suffering?", Sister Teresa forges on to offer loving care to one dying person at a time among the poorest of the poor.  For me, this change of heart, from being happy as a teacher to leaving her profession for something wholly new and risky, was memorable.

It led me to think, why don't more people volunteer to work for justice and peace in this world?  Is it a sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of world poverty and hunger, by the refugee crisis in Europe, among other horrors?  Is it selfishness or perhaps the inability to imagine thinking outside the box?

Richard Rohr, in today's comment from the Center for Action and Contemplation, suggests another answer: that we easily fall into a kind of postmodern fatalism that leads us to retreat into our safe enclosures, where we try to remain. He refers to it as "the Late Great Planet Earth" view of history. Everything seems hopeless, and we easily believe that anything we do won't really matter.

How can people, especially believers, be happy or hopeful in such a culture?  Negative thinking, Rohr says, is a great danger and has helped create a cynical, aimless, and futile lifestyle even among those who are otherwise good and sincere.

Very few are called, like Mother Teresa, to undertake missions to the poorest of the poor. But anyone with imagination can look out the window and see that there are needs all around us: lonely people who need attention, infirm neighbors who need help, poor people who need a dose of love.

It's so easy to be cynical in this world; it's more challenging to be positive.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jesus Lives in Las Vegas

Each day for the past year, we receive a phone call--sometimes more than one--from the desert, actually from Las Vegas.  The caller knows my wife, who is a gifted listener; at times, I pick up the phone and chat with this woman of 60, who has stage-4 cancer and, although not apparently in pain, is dying of loneliness.  She and I have never met face to face and probably never will.

I have learned that the caller, whom I can call "M," fled her third marriage to live, alone, in Las Vegas, where she seems to know no one; she has no family.  Her one-sided conversation tends to avoid how she feels, instead dwells on the dull, daily events of her day. It is clear that M must have someone to reach out to, someone who will listen and care.

We have been selected.

I think of M. often and pray for her, mainly that she finds, somewhere, a caregiver or friend closer to her who can befriend her. I think often of human loneliness and the desperate need we have of love. And I think of Christ in the desert, that spiritual landscape as far removed from the glitz of Las Vegas as imaginable, feeling no doubt totally alone, abandoned.

I believe M. feels less alone after these daily phone calls, less helpless. I worry that she will die alone, forgotten, far away from us.

It was Jesus who said, "What you do to the least of my brethren, you do also to me."  That foundational statement of Christianity, and of most other religions, is a mandate to love one another as best we can. Love forms whatever bond we as isolated individuals have.

So even when the sound of phone ringing as many as three times a day annoys me, I must welcome it as a reminder of the pain of being totally alone in the trackless desert--and of the necessity of listening, which is surely a form of love and of prayer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It began with 'Hello'

When a couple from India, with their three-year-old daughter, moved across the street from me last year, I did what I often do on my street: overcome any inhibitions or feelings of awkwardness and introduce myself. When I saw them outside their house, I walked over and said "Hello, and welcome to our neighborhood."

They smiled broadly and remembered our first names. They must have thought it more remarkable than I did at the time since, despite vast differences in our ages and cultures, we have become friends. My wife and I are now tending their garden while they visit family in India.

After my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, gave the little girl one of her children's stories for her birthday, they reciprocated, at Christmas, with gifts of home-made vegetarian foods they had prepared.  Another little story followed, then an invitation to be their guest at an Indian restaurant, where we could learn more about their life in southeastern India and share our fascination with their culture just as they can learn more from us about America.  Food plays such a role in breaking down barriers.

So as they go to  the Hindu temple and we go to church, we always wave. I will miss them when they leave (she, a physician, will be moving next year), and I feel that my wife and I, by a simple gesture of welcome, have bridged an important gap often left by busy, impersonal neighbors who remain strangers behind closed doors, especially in our large metropolitan areas.  The result, sometimes, is hostility and suspicion of the newcomers as outsiders, potentially dangerous, in an age when terrorism in on many minds.

Although our Indian couple has never said so, we know they are grateful to feel less like foreigners, with dark skin, in our white neighborhood of strangers.  It took very little effort for us to reduce whatever fears they might have had.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Looking at Pope World

One of my former students, a librarian at the Orlando Public Library, asked me recently if I would repeat my talk, "Behind Vatican Walls," as part of the library's Preservation Week. The topic, she said, was all about saving and preserving the culture in various parts of the world, and my talk, which she had heard last year, was important.

I was initially surprised at the invitation because my research into what happens in the world's smallest country, Vatican City, had focused mainly on the surprising customs and practices of what I call Pope World.  Yet, as I thought about how the Holy See (the papacy) has for centuries valued tradition and maintained its vast art collection, library, and archives, I realized that the preservation emphasis was worth emphasizing.

So I mentioned how Latin is still spoken by 200 or so of the priests who work in the Secretariat of State, translating documents (and many of the Pope's tweets) into the language of Cicero and Caesar.  Latin is not a dead language at the Vatican, although Italian (along with English and other languages) is used for daily business. The Vatican uses eight official languages to communicate with the world.

I mentioned how the Vatican Library's vast treasures include the earliest example of Arabic (a 7th-century Koran), 800 Hebrew manuscripts, including a Torah used by Maimonides, as well as Persian and Hindu texts,  rare papyrus manuscripts dating back 2,500 years and 300,000 Greek and Roman coins. This library was founded in 1451 and has been open to scholars since the 17th century.

The so-called Secret Archives are not really secret (just private)--except that, for the past 100 years, scholars can consults nearly all of them. They include the letters of Henry VIII asking for an annulment of his first marriage, the excommunication of Martin Luther, letters from Mozart and the first Queen Elizabeth.  Official documents from 1939 to the present remain sealed, but many of the famous documents, like letters from President Lincoln, can be viewed online.  Novelists who write sensational fiction about Vatican secrets prefer to ignore what the Archives are really about.

I also mentioned (among many little-known facts) that the first high-ranking woman hired by the Vatican was Jewish: Hermine Speier was hired in 1934 to set up a photographic archive, which she headed for forty years. Today, 41 percent of the female employees have university degrees: they are curators, librarians, linguists, media experts, historians, and lawyers. About 19 percent of the staff are women.

I mentioned that the Vatican Observatory has been doing important work in astronomy for 400 years and now is a partner with the University of Arizona. Of course, the eight museums with 100,000 objects from Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Greek and medieval times as well galleries filled with Renaissance art make the Vatican home to the greatest concentration of art in the world. Today, there is a Ministry of Culture to promote exchanges with other museums.

Although the past is a constant presence in Pope World, I reminded the audience that the Pontifical Academy of Science (and of Social Science) has regularly invited scholars of many faith traditions to discuss humanitarian issues: most recently, stem cell research and the environment.  When the mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, recently attended an economic summit at the Vatican, he declared that, for the first time in his life, he could say that "the Church is one of the centers of progressive thought in the world."  Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia Univ. economist, has been a regular consultant on the environment; he stated that the Catholic Church, through the various Vatican agencies, has provided leadership on nuclear disarmament, the international debt crisis, human trafficking, and refugee relief.  A lot goes on behind those old walls besides theology!

I have been fascinated to learn how the past and the present intersect in this unique place that Lord Norwich, the historian, has called the "most astonishing social, political, and spiritual institution ever created."

The Vatican has been around a long, long time, often as a center of controversy and conflict, but also as a powerful institution that affects much of the world, beyond the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church.

Thanks to my interest in Pope Francis and the way he is reinventing the papacy, I have learned a great deal about the colorful, complex organization he heads and have enjoyed sharing what I've learned with audiences.