Monday 14 July 2008

St Benedict and the FMA

The other day was the feast of St Benedict, but the net has been down, so here I am finally today.
St Benedict brings back memories of Subiaco, an extraordinarily beautiful place in Italy which was the privileged witness of his early years as a hermit. I discovered Subiaco thanks to my association with AGESCI, the Italian Catholic Scouting Association. Our scout leaders told me they were organizing a trip to a 'monastery' for the young people of Roma 60. When we reached the 'monastery', which was a 1,100 year old hermitage called San Biagio above Subiaco, I saw the monache, the nuns, with knee-length grey habits, and a suspiciously familiar looking cross. They turned out, in fact, to be Salesian Sisters, FMA. San Biagio had been entrusted to them, and they were running this utterly beautiful place overlooking the wooded hills of Subiaco as a sort of youth ashram, a casa di accoglienza.
I have seen miracles at San Biagio. There was Fabrizio: Sr Maria Pia Giudici, during her lectio divina on the people of Jerusalem "being cut to the heart", suddenly turned to him and addressed the Word to him. Fabrizio burst out crying. He was soon bundled into the sacristy where a Benedictine monk was waiting for confessions. He came out half an hour later, his face radiant...
Then there was Maria. Maria sat next to a young and beautiful sister called Renata, the whole time during the long rosary in a darkened room, just staring at Renata. By the end of the rosary, Maria rushed out of the room in tears. The girls went after her. We heard from Maria herself later: "These sisters are mad. They are wasting their lives up here on this hill, so far away from the city. And yet they are happy, and I am not." I learnt that day what a powerful witness a young religious life can be, when lived out in fullness and transparency.
We have several of Maria Pia's books in our library. Maria Pia is a poet, her Italian is extraordinary, and I never fail to feel the beauty of Subiaco and recall the wonders of that place, coming through her words...
God be praised for San Biagio and for Benedict and Maria Pia and Renata and thousands of others who have sanctified this place.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Hosea and the bhai

Yesterday I came across this extremely interesting statement in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City:
I am calmer with people who threaten me, more tolerant. I know what I can do if I am really provoked. That knowledge makes me magnanimous, forgiving of slights. I become a better human being because I know I can get the person of my choice murdered. (pp. 268-9)

In the course of writing his book on Mumbai, Suketu managed to get a telephonic interview with one of the reigning dons of Mumbai. He found the don fascinating, and the don in turn took a liking to him, so much so that he offered him a parting gift: one free kaam, which, in Bambaiya Hindi, means one free murder...
This is the favour and the knowledge that makes Suketu calmer, more tolerant, magnanimous, better.
And I have been thinking: there is really much truth in that. The point is that the more secure I feel, the calmer and kinder I can be.
The reverse is also true: when I am agitated, and harsh, and unkind, then it really comes from the fact that I am not feel secure enough, not powerful enough, not loved enough.
The powerful message of Hosea is that I am loved. Loved even when I repeatedly go away from the One who loves me. He says he will come after me even if I have gone away again and again like Hosea's wife. He will punish me, he will draw me apart into the desert for purification, but he will love me.
I am loved: I need to hear that, again and again. I need to open myself and accept that with all my heart.
When I believe I am really loved, then I will be calmer, more tolerant, magnanimous, a better human being. Because God is my bhai.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Dance with all your might

Vally was sure I would put Robert's goodnight story on the blog, but I will not... Instead, I think I should put up something that has remained in my heart ever since I heard it some eight years ago, at Boston College, during a Lonergan Workshop. I think the name of the speaker was Ben Birnbaum; he was, if I remember right, editor of the campus magazine, and he was Jewish. I forget the title of Ben's talk. I remember it was in the evening, at the end of a packed day; but it was the first time I was hearing a Jewish person speak about the scriptures, and it was wonderful. Ben said that Jews have always been wondering how to interpret the incident in 2 Samuel 6, where David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the oxen stumble, Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the Ark, and God, furious that he had touched the Ark, strikes him dead. The text goes on that David was angry with the Lord for having broken out against Uzzah, and diverted the Ark into the threshing floor of Obed-Edom... Three months later, David hears that Yahweh has blessed Obed-Edom and his family, and brings up the Ark of the Lord into Jerusalem with great rejoicing. And we read that David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing only a linen loincloth, and that his wife Micah was filled with contempt. "Is my Lord not ashamed to uncover himself before the maidens of Israel, like one of the common fellows?" she says. And David says: "I danced for the Lord."
So here is the problem. Why, the Jews ask themselves, did God break out in anger and kill Uzzah on the one hand, and why does he seem pleased instead with David dancing before the Ark like one of the base fellows?
Many answers have been attempted. But Ben offered us one that he had found most satisfying. The key, he said, was to be found in another text of Scripture: "Know before whom you stand." That is the point, he said. David knew what he was doing: he was dancing with all his might. Uzzah, on the other hand, put out his hand to touch the Ark without thinking. He did not know what they were doing, he did not know "before whom he was standing"...
So "know before whom you stand." Are we being called to become hyperconscious? Perhaps not. I think there is honourable place for routine in prayer as in life. But perhaps Ben was talking about passion. "Dance with all your might."

Tuesday 8 July 2008

The metaphysical point of view...

Our MPh students are just recovering from a very demanding course by Fr Joaquim D’Souza in which they read - really read - the first thirteen questions of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Some of them, I guess, found the going very heavy.
Thinking of them during mass this morning, a passage from Insight floated into my mind, a passage I like very much: the contrast between living like an animal in a habitat, and taking one's place - tiny, and insignificant though it be - in the great universe of being. Growing up means having to negotiate this contrast, making the passage, and finally being at home in both worlds.
It is, in fact, a conversion. One part of the conversion to the metaphysical point of view. And I think it has also something to do with the conversion from myself as centre of my world to God as the centre.

Pink crocus


Here is the pink Divyadaan crocus...
I was intrigued to learn from the Wikipedia that the spice saffron is obtained from the stigmas of a species of crocus, and that the name crocus itself is linked to saffron: it is derived from the Greek κρόκος, krokos (attested in Homer's Iliad, Book XIV, verse 347), which in turn is a Semitic loanword (Hebrew karkom, Aramaic kurkama, Persian and Arabic kurkum, all meaning saffron or saffron yellow).
Saffron itself is surely linked to our zaffran: I wonder where that comes from. It sounds Persian. Perhaps William Falcao might enlighten.
Which reminds me of the Malayali waiter and his zafrani Hyderabadi pulao in Cheeni Kum...

Monday 7 July 2008

Divyadaan crocus


It is the season, it seems, for crocuses in Nashik... There are clumps of deep yellow ones here and there, adding wonderful splashes of colour, and two beds of deep pink ones, marshalled together in neat rows, but strikingly beautiful all the same...
I remember the huge plain on Monte Gennaro in a spring in Lent, all carpeted with violet crocuses, as if God himself had dressed it in preparation for the rite of reconciliation that we had there for the young people.... We were three priests that day. The youngsters were in a circle, singing, praying, and we were outside. Almost all came for confession that day. I learnt a precious lesson: prepare young people, give them the opportunity, don't let them wander away, and provide the priests; and they come, most of them. Confession is a sacrament that we priests need to appreciate more...

Albano D'Mello and parish ministry

I read the other day that Fr Albano D'Mello, SDB, who served many years in the North East, has returned to his native Goa, which now forms part of the province of the Konkan.
Reading that brought back memories of what Albano had shared with me some years ago, when he was parish priest of Gauhati: he had asked each of his parishioners to contribute Re 1 to the parish every Sunday. He had 16,000 parishioners, he told me: he was soon getting something like Rs 16,000 every week. He went one step further: he began putting his accounts on the notice board for all to see.
I think that was a brilliant idea. It has several marks of a brilliant idea: it is simple; it breaks down large problems into manageable ones (who can't contribute Re 1 every week?); it harnesses the power of accountability.
Welcome back, Fr Albano! I am sure the Konkan province is delighted to have you.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Marathi Kathakathan

One of the things that kept me alive on long journeys as provincial were the Marathi cassettes so kindly acquired by Anaclete and Nazi: Pu La Despande (P.L.Deshpande) I had heard of, but Va Pu Kale (V.P. Kale) was a wonderful discovery, as were Madgulkar and Shankar Patil...
I have the impression that the recordings are some 40 years old at the least, but there are no dates, and I will have to go by internal evidence. Thus, in Tumhala kay vhaycha ahe, Pu La mentions Gavaskar: so that is one limit. Another indication is the light-hearted and sometimes even irreverent references made to religion: so probably pre-dating the rise of the BJP and this new atmosphere of humourless garva. There is the lovely story of Navin devasthanacha janma… Among my favourites is Shaletil samarambha, but unfortunately that cassette is damaged; I must exert myself to get another copy. It is a scream, the preparations of the teachers, the arrival of the pompous headmaster, the behind-the-scene planning to make sure the headmaster does not take two hours to thank the main speaker, the normal ushira arrival of the main vakta, and finally his speech, which is a real treat. Another favourite is Va Pu Kale’s Akash: lovely, touching little story, revolving around a beautiful young widow, her mother-in-law, and the broad-shouldered (saral-khandhyacha, actually, but how do you translate that) young lawyer who ends up as the jivan-sathi with the connivance and full approval of the mother-in-law who beats all the stereotypes… And then of course, Hundred percent Pestonkaka, Pu La Deshpande’s encounter with a Parsi couple in a train to Hubli. Va Pu Kale’s Partner seems to have been conceived during the years when Sartrean existentialism had made its entry into Marathi literature: it is dark comedy that progresses to tragedy. A Marathi translation of ‘the other is my Hell’ and the impossibility of love, but entertaining in a way that Sartre probably never was. Vandana Samant is another one of Va Pu’s darker and sadder stories, how a beautiful young newly married woman is seduced, artfully and meticulously, by her boss. Bhade is light-hearted and amusing, while James is wonderful in its encouragement to speak out one’s mind.
A wonderful way to improve one’s Marathi. I recommend it to all: put the cassettes on while you are shaving, or dressing, or pottering about in your room. I am a firm believer in the inborn capacity of the human mind to absorb language. Don’t try too hard. Just find a cassette player – they are getting scarce. Some of the tapes – but not all, to my knowledge – have been converted into CDs, so now an MP3 will also do…
PS: I have just learned from the Wikipedia that Va Pu was a follower of Osho… I laughed.
Also: downloads might be available on the net. There are certainly online listening possibilities.

Sankara's lotus...


In his Brahmasutrabhasya, Sankara gives the example of a "big, blue, sweet-smelling lotus" - nilam mahat-sugandhy-utpalam-iti. The flower in the photo above is not exactly big, neither is it blue, and perhaps it is not even a lotus, but anyway, it is as valid an example of definition by genus and species (jati and visesana) as the other...
Sankara's point is to show how the intrinsic definitions of Brahman - the svarupa-laksanas - are different from other intrinsic definitions or descriptions like that of the lotus. For Brahman is not a genus... And Thomas Aquinas would agree whole-heartedly. In fact, Henrici says somewhere that for Thomas, God is not even Being. But that needs to be checked and glossed. I suppose God is not Being in the sense in which creatures are. The mode of signification has to be denied even in this case. So: God is Being; God is not Being; God is super-Being, and in that sense beyond Being?

A Divyadaan corner


A particularly peaceful angle in Divyadaan...

Flowers of Divyadaan


The name was supplied by Ashley (who was the one who planted it here): garlic vine.
I went to the net, and there it was: garlic vine, lata parul in Bengali, with the botanical name cydista aequinoctialis, native to South America, introduced into India. It seems the leaves smell like garlic when crushed, and that the entire plant has medicinal uses...
Whatever: it is a glorious plant, and I love the photo above.
Welcome to Divyadaan!

Saturday 5 July 2008

Dominic Savio, Morialdo, Becchi



Vally preached a truly inspiring homily on Dominic Savio this morning. I will not attempt to reproduce that homily here. I just want to record a distraction. Among the things Vally said was that Dominic's parish priest and his mother both wanted him to go to Don Bosco's Oratory in Turin. I found myself wandering on the hills of Becchi, and to the little hamlet of Morialdo, which is really not far from Becchi, just the next hill. During our visit to Becchi during the General Chapter, we in fact walked over to Morialdo, saw the little chapel which has probably remained very much what it was in the time of Savio, even down to the altar where he struggled to carry the missal from one side to the other. So Don Bosco and Savio were practically neighbours, and it is not a wonder that Mamma Savio had heard of Don Bosco and wanted to send her son to him. The famous first interview with Don Bosco probably took place at Morialdo.
The little chapel of Morialdo is memorable for other reasons too, for it was also the place where Don Calosso was chaplain, where young Johnny Bosco found the father he had missed, where he spent many happy winter months studying Latin... and where he had to learn to be detached from earthly hopes and trust in his heavenly Father when the good Don Calosso passed away...

Frassati and Don Cojazzi, SDB

Here is a reference, less than flattering, to a Salesian in the life of Pier Giorgio:
At Alassio our parents met Don Cojazzi, a Venetian Salesian whose boring repetitions imparted to us at home during our two first school years had only resulted in Pier Giorgio's 'solemn' failure in Latin...
Anyone who has heard talks or read books by Cojazzi about Pier Giorgio will recall that my brother used to ask him to tell a story about the life of Jesus. But what is less well-known is that it was only at the child's insistence that Christ was mentioned at all, during those two long hours of afternoon lessons. Nor was the boy Pier Giorgio satisfied with the explanation of the gospel sprinkled with jokes about the Madonna and the saints; he was only content when he could hear the sacred words pure and simple. (Luciana Frassati, Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati, 1990, 33)

Sad comment on a Salesian (Luciana Frassati is Pier Giorgio's sister.) But perhaps also a timely reminder to us, today, of the importance of returning to our roots, to Don Bosco and his apostolic passion: Da mihi animas, cetera tolle. "If the salt loses its flavour..."

Friday 4 July 2008

What Dominic Savio might have looked like...


Our Salesian houses in the province of Mumbai will be celebrating the feast of Dominic Savio these days. I think this is a good occasion to recount an interesting fact. Recently, when I spent a month at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome, I was fortunate to have met Don Ubaldo Gianetto, SDB, now a retired professor of catechetics and getting on in years, as you can see in the photo above. It might be interesting to know that, as a boy in the Institute of St John the Evangelist at Turin, Gianetto had been selected to be the ‘model’ following which a ‘new’ portrait of Dominic Savio was reconstructed, on the instructions of Don Caviglia. Don Gianetto himself was kind enough to supply me some information on the matter.
Don Caviglia, it seems, was rather upset about the image of Dominic Savio being propagated by the postulator of the cause, a certain Don Trione, an image that, according to him, was a historical falsification. He decided to do something concrete about it. Calling a young painter who had been a pupil of his, Mario Caffaro-Rore, he entrusted him with the task of creating a new and definitive image of Savio. This new image was to be done on the basis of the incision of Tomatis which Don Bosco had inserted into his biography of the boy as well as the eyewitness testimonies gathered for the process of canonization. But that was not all. Don Caviglia himself chose a boy who, according to him, had the right character and aspect, so far as could be gathered from the incision of Tomatis; this was Ubaldo Gianetto. Caffaro-Rore himself clarifies that the portrait he executed was not a question of a reproduction of Gianetto; rather, Gianetto served as a model from which to reconstruct an image as faithful as possible to the incision of Tomatis.
Caffaro-Rore’s first attempt was, in a sense, sabotaged on orders ‘from above’; he was asked to make Dominic look older, and was told that he should look like a modest Oratory boy rather than as a waiter…. In the end, however, it would seem that Don Caviglia’s ‘iron will and dogged persistence’ paid off, and the first portrait became the standard model for most subsequent images of the little saint; a warmly appreciative letter from Don Pietro Ricaldone, Rector Major, to Caviglia bears witness to this fact. The painter himself recalls with emotion that he subsequently received countless orders, many of them from outside Salesian circles, for new portraits of Savio.
So that is the little story of Dominic Savio and Ubaldo Gianetto. I guess those who die young remain young forever, in God’s eternity. But I kept wondering, in that month at the UPS, whether Savio would have looked like crusty old Don Gianetto if he had been granted more years…

Karl Rahner's memories of Pier Giorgio Frassati

Here is one part of testimony of the great theologian Karl Rahner about Pier Giorgio Frassati:
What was striking in him was his purity, his radiant joy, his piety, the ‘freedom of the children of God’ with regard to all that is beautiful in the world, his social sense, his consciousness of sharing the life and destiny of the Church. But what was even more surprising was that all this appeared so natural and warmly spontaneous! His faith had no human ‘explanation.’ If Frassati was Christian, it was neither in reaction to the liberal and anticlerical generation of his parents, nor because of some vague ‘cultural’ motive. His faith nourished itself with the very substance of Christianity: the existence of God, prayer as the leaven of existence, the sacraments as the food of eternal life, universal fraternity as the law of human relations. Here is where there appears the mysteriousness of divine grace that flies in the face of logic: in an ambient where Christianity is considered to have been overcome, there arises a Christian who breathes the joy of living, who has nothing sectarian about him, who lives his Christianity with a spontaneity that is almost frightening, as if he had no problems at all. In point of fact, he immersed his problems, at the price of who knows what sufferings, in the grace of his Faith. In brief, he was a man of prayer, a man who tasted every day the bread of death and of life, a man consumed with love for his brothers.

Pier Giorgio was a guest of the Rahner family in 1921, and he recalls spending 'unforgettable days' with them, not least because of the warm affection he received from Louise Rahner, Karl's mother. Pier Giorgio was three years senior to Karl, and made a deep impression on the future Jesuit and theologian.
I think Rahner captures very well the heart of Pier Giorgio, that which makes him such a figure of attraction to young people (enough to browse the net to realize this). In my opinion, Pier Giorgio deserves to be made better known among Christian young people here in India – it would certainly go some way in balancing the Salesian angle a bit. He is passionate about Christ but in no way fanatic, narrow or bigoted. He has the joy and the ‘disinvoltura,’ I think, that must have characterized Jesus himself…. He has that fine sense for the beauty of creation, and at the same time he does not shirk from the very real sufferings of the world and of people… This was truly a life in which grace comes to transparency and even limpidity.

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati


Fr Vincent Vaz told me that today is the optional memoria of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Pier Giorgio is a fascinating twentieth century saint: a young man coming from the Italian upper classes, who died in the flush of youth at around the age of 24. I think the pictorial biography produced by Don Bosco's Madonna some years ago even shows him shaving: a first for a saint! Pier Giorgio's father was either the owner or the editor of a famous Italian newspaper, with probably anti-clerical leanings. His family could hardly have said to have fostered his Christian faith. And yet this young man discovered the faith, and lived it passionately and yet in an entirely ordinary manner in the short span that was given to him.
I remember reading an introduction to a little biography of Pier Giorgio, by no less a theologian than Karl Rahner. It would seem that the young Rahner knew Pier Giorgio; for some reason the latter used to spend some part of his holidays with the Rahner household. I should try to get hold of that introduction, which is a gem; the book is probably in our Divyadaan library...
I remember also Fr Casarotti telling me that some salesian had been Pier Giorgio's spiritual director. As it turned out, the Salesian used to frequent the Frassati household, but Pier Giorgio's recollections of him are less than complimentary. He says the priest used to come home, and he would never speak of God or of anything of consequence... A damning verdict, really.
From what I recollect, Pier Giorgio's short life was not without difficulties, even severe. What matters, however, is that he lived it wonderfully well, in the only way that matters... He measured up to "the high standard of ordinary Christian living." And he is a fascinating and attractive example of young sanctity in the twentieth century, a good model for our young people of the twenty-first century: a young saint who shaved, who had a girl friend, who went hiking, but one who also passionately loved Christ and his poor...

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Flower of Bethlehem



Two flowers of Bethlehem bloomed on our corridor this evening... One has to have patience with these flowers. They bloom once a year, and for the space of a few hours, after nightfall... But they are well worth the wait.

Stars and flowers

Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of Fullstarwell Sotun. Fullstarwell is a young Salesian from Khasiland in the North East of India, and that should go some way in explaining the name, though it is somewhat extraordinary even for the Khasis.
Tolkien speaks somewhere of the awakening of the Elves, the Elderkind, the Eldest children of Iluvatar; they awoke under the stars, and as they walked, flowers sprang at their feet. What a beautiful image, I thought, of the Eldest children of God, the Beloved children of God. And that we all are, as St John says.
More recently, there is Kevin Codd, nephew of a friend of Phyllis Wallbank’s, who has written a wonderful little book about his experience of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The book is entitled To the Field of Stars. (I must say I enjoyed reading the book, especially since Kevin is himself also a Catholic priest. Kevin is American, I am Indian, and yet I found myself identifying so often with his experiences. The transculturality of our humanity, despite postmodernism!)
We wished Full, or Fullstar, as he is popularly known, a life full of stars: that he might walk in the light of the stars, that flowers might spring at his feet.
Fr Joaquim of course remembered a Khasi joke. There was a gentleman called Hoppingstone who took a flight from Gauhati to Delhi. Soon enough the meal was served, and the air hostess came up to him and asked the usual question: vegetarian or non-vegetarian? Mr Hoppingstone replied firmly: Presbyterian.

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