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Three moments of Beauty

Winter’s come to Rome. The surest sign of this was felt last weekend during our Advent triduum (a three-day retreat) at a nice little retreat house on Rocca di Papa, a town on a hill not far from Rome. On the final morning of the triduum, I took a walk in the garden only to find that most of the grassy patches seemed to have been painted white overnight. ‘Snow?’, I thought to myself. On closer inspection, it wasn’t snow but frost on the grass and leaves that fell on the ground. The dew that fell on the grass froze overnight and left a fine dusting of frost on them. Held up to the light, the frost shimmered like little jewels on the surface of the leaves and grass, almost as if a clumsy thief had run through the fields overnight, dropping his loot of jewels willy-nilly on the grass.

I didn’t take this photo but it comes very close to what I saw. [Original]

I picked up a leaf, aflame with autumn red, to examine the little ice crystals that formed on the surface. As a result of the leaf’s proximity to me and the fact that I held it in the sun to see it sparkle, the ice began to melt. Beauty changed. The sharp angular edges of the crystals quickly softened into subtle curves which then turned into beautiful glistening globes of water. Diamonds turning into pearls almost, before the droplets rolled of the leaf, revealing its full autumn finery.

The beauty of the frosted leaf and the revelation of the fiery beauty beneath led me to realise that what we call beauty is something not just complex in itself but infinitesimally changeable both in space and time. Upon further reflection on this experience, I realised that I beheld three moments of beauty in that small little leaf. The first was the moment of temporary manifest beauty of the frost on the leaf. The second was the moment of transitory beauty of the red autumnal leaf. And the third was the permanent existential beauty of the leaf itself.

Beauty that is temporary and manifest happens in the moment and is special. It does not last long, as the frost on the leaf demonstrated, but it provides a momentary insight into the possibility of the sublime. It’s often fleeing and we thus have to be attentive to the world around us so that we don’t miss the opportunities to participate in this form of beauty. Given the temporality of this sort of beauty, we respond by relishing and savouring the moments that we can catch, enjoying and participating in it as much as we can. It’s catching the moment of joy in the laugh of a child, the depth of a note in a piece of music that touches our soul, the flicker of a candle in the gloom of a darkened chapel. These are moments that we sense, relish and remember.

Transitory beauty is all about change but change in itself is a moment of beauty. I’ve been reminded how beautiful autumn can be as the trees along my normal running route changed over the past months. The change has been almost imperceptible but when one does realise it, one cannot help but wonder at how change and the seasons bring beauty anew all the time. We appreciate the process, the transition itself. It’s all about sitting to watch the sunset, enjoying the transition from day to dusk to night. Watching the light fade, colours deepen and shadows lengthen until all that’s left is the shadow of day. It’s realising that we too are continually transformed, from golden evening through crimson dusk to indigo twilight, every day of our lives.

And then there’s the permanent, existential beauty that lasts and underlines everything that is temporary and transitory. It’s the inherent beauty of the leaf that goes beyond the autumnal reds and covering of frost. And it’s not just the physical beauty that’s involved here – it’s the existential beauty of the thing that’s in question. The leaf’s not just beautiful in its shape and form but beautiful in its ecological function and even more beautiful in it’s being part of the creation of God. It’s beautiful because it’s a leaf that’s created by God and not for any other external reason. Existential beauty drives our ability to love. We’re naturally drawn to beauty and more than just the externals, we’re drawn to beauty that’s deep within all things that we see. There’s a power in the simplicity of this moment of beauty – a power that we appreciate innately but may find difficult to express. This is why people fall in love and stay in love with each other for their entire lives. This is why works of art remain works of art for all ages. Beauty draws us to it and draws us to love.

There’s beauty in the world and there’s beauty in the Word made flesh. During these last days of Advent, we’re invited to contemplate the coming of the Lord into the world. We feel the beauty of transition as we live in this liminal space, quietly living in anticipation as we reflect on how we are changed and brought closer to the Lord in this time. Our anticipation reaches a climax in the singular event of the Nativity that, while momentary, is also infused with the permanence of the Word who is its centre. We celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, the event of God becoming man to live among us. We also celebrate the permanence of this coming – of God’s continual presence among us now and for eternity.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 (KJV)

May this time of Advent be one of beautiful waiting and may the beauty of the Lord’s Nativity draw us into a deeper love for Him and His people around us. May the Prince of Peace bring true peace and joy into hearts so in need of consolation and may we have to courage to spread this joy to all. Amen.

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Is it theology?

In a move that surprised many, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I shan’t go into the drama that ensued after the announcement and how he almost seemed to snub the Swedish Academy (which awards the prize) as they tried to inform him about it. What I do want to write about is the speech that he wrote that was read at the awards banquet last weekend. It was a simple, humble acceptance speech which had a depth that touched me greatly.

The man himself. Artist, musician. Literary prize winner.

At the heart of the speech is the question of what makes literature literature or what makes good art good art. Using Shakespeare as an example, Dylan asks if one needs to know if one is writing literature when one writes something for the consumption of others. When an artist sets out to create, he or she would usually not be concerned with how the work would be received or what awards it would win but more with the technicalities of how to create it well in the eyes of the artist him or herself. An artist creates because he or she feels the need to do so, not out of the need for recognition from the world. That last bit seems to be the little subversive element to Dylan’s message. It’s a subtle (or perhaps not quite so subtle) jab at the Nobel Prize committee that, to him, ‘canonises’ texts and writers and in the process, determines what constitutes literature (or not). That’s not how artists work.

He wrote in the speech:

‘I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”‘

What touched me about this was the reflection about how ordinariness can become extraordinary, whether acknowledged by a wider audience or not. He wrote about Shakespeare wondering about casting, staging and finances as he wrote his plays – important but very mundane questions that dramatists like him would have to worry about as they write plays. Dylan himself wondered about his songs and other technical but very mundane things. This lies at the heart of what we do – we don’t set out to be extraordinary but go about doing and worrying about ordinary things because what we do is important. We care about what we do, what we produce and what we create. This, I feel, makes the difference.

In a very roundabout way, this leads me back to where I am now and what I’m doing. It leads me think about the ordinary things that I do and wonder, ‘Is it theology?’ It leads me to think about what makes theology theology. Is it all about studies, books and peer-reviewed papers? Or can it be reflections that stem from the life of us ‘ordinary’ people? I’m tempted to say ‘yes’ to both with one caveat – that theology should be related with our relationship with God and with our lives in the church. My favourite definition of theology is fides quaerens intellectum or faith seeking understanding. That can come in the form of a complex well-researched paper on faith or a simple yet profound reflection on our lives of faith. In our normal lives, we ask questions about faith and God all the time. Taking some time to deepen these questions, to try to understand what our faith is all about – that’s the start of theology.

The beauty of simplicity, courtesy of Linus and Lucy. [Link]

Not everyone can write books and articles on theology but everyone of faith can think about and seek God. We’re all called to try to deepen our faith, our relationships within our faith communities and our relationship with God. We do that through the ordinary questions that we ask and the ordinary things that we do. We question and seek because we care about who we seek and what we do. Dylan mentioned honesty as being important when performing to a small audience. That applies to us to. Our personal attempts at theology as we try to question and seek in our lives require honesty, both to ourselves as well as to God. Our honesty helps keep the questions real and relevant to our lives, our faith and relationship with God.

So let’s continue living in our ordinariness, revelling in it and relishing all that we do and create. Let’s note the questions about our faith that emerge from our ordinariness and seek answers for them in the best way that we can. And let’s be honest with ourselves and with God so that we can be content with the things that we do and ready for the answers that can come our way. That, to me, is the start of theology and the basis of a wonderful life of faith.

The answer doesn’t always blow in the wind for it’s sometimes already deep within our hearts.

And three things remain: Inspiration, Faith and Love

In the closing of the year, one cannot help but feel a tad reflective. It’s been quite a year for me – starting in Kuching and ending in Rome. The transition has not been easy and I still feel that I’m in the process of adjusting to life here. Slowly or as the Italians like to say, ‘piano, piano’ or ‘gently does it’ seems to be the way to go. What follows is part of what should have been a letter to all the students I met and worked with during my time of regency at SJPS but especially to the first graduating batch. I offer my congratulations to the graduands and my prayers and best wishes to everyone. This one’s for all of you.

What follows are three points that I’d like to offer, points that I hope will help those who are to begin transition and for those who might need a little push to be better in some way. They won’t make one smarter, faster or stronger but I hope they will go some way in making us all better human beings. And here they are.

Be Inspired
I remember writing this on some cards after ‘Us and Them’, our drama club production this year and this is what it means to me. To look for and hopefully find activities, interests or even mentors who can help open our vision to things hitherto unseen or not yet experienced. To be inspired (by someone or something) is to feel more alive, more open to the world and ultimately yourself. Being inspired does two things. First, it pushes us outwards as we learn new things and are made more aware of our relationship with others and the world. It makes us more keenly in tune with God who is all around us. Secondly, it brings us inwards as we see ourselves grow, recognise our innate gifts, and become more able to use these gifts. We become more comfortable with ourselves and in tune with God.

Have Faith
To have a strong belief in things not (yet) experienced is to have faith. Hope comes with faith, a hope that reminds us that things will get better and all we need is a bit of patience. This is a hope that’s not blind but one that’s confident in our abilities and the grace of god. To have faith is to know that things aren’t going to be easy but that there will be help, relief and comfort from others and from God. It’s know that we’re not alone in this journey, that some suffering can indeed build character and that hope lights up the deepest darkness.

Love
To love is simply to be and to live beyond ourselves. when we realise that we’re loved, we want to share that always. Love brings inspiration and faith together. Our inward inspiration allows us to see the love that we’ve received and the hope that it brings. To live not for ourselves alone but for others as well. To want to spread the joy of inspiration and the hope that faith brings. That’s just a small facet of this thing, this gift called love. And that makes our lives, no matter how tough, boring or ordinary, truly amazing ones. Why? Because they’re ours, unique gifts from God.

 

And the wisdom to know the difference

It’s funny how prayers have the tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it. Been struggling with school and adjusting to studying in a foreign environment (yes, still…) and what I’ve realised is that they don’t quite abate but transform as one goes along. Not the best of states to be in but somehow the Lord has a way of getting to us and drawing us out of the darkness and into a place that’s at least a little less dimly lit. One thing that helped was the memory of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer. We all know that one as it’s been printed on t-shirts, cards and all manner of religious knick-knacks but it’s ubiquity and near-cliché status should not detract from its deeper meaning. I’ve written about it before and if I’m not wrong, I was in a similar state then too.

The prayer in its full glory. I didn’t get further than the difference…

There are many versions of the prayer but this one sticks to me:

O God, give me the grace of serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should and the wisdom to know the difference.

In it, we ask for the grace of serenity, courage and wisdom. I see three moments of grace that are unique but interconnected which allow one to be able to face things around us, not just appropriately but with the love and hope that marks us as children of God. Explanations are in order.

We ask for serenity – not the serenity that comes from sitting cross-legged on lily pads in the middle of lakes but serenity of mind to be able to accept that God’s will can be different from ours. This is a state of being – a sense of being comfortable with oneself where one is without the need to struggle to change that state. This is particularly difficult for most of us now because for many of us, we’ve been brought up to believe that we can and should try to make changes to things around us so that we can live and function better. While that’s not all bad, we also need the strength of character to realise that it’s not the externals that need change, it’s just us. It takes humility to realise this, to realise that we’re not all-powerful and it takes a good amount of hope and patience for us to accept that things aren’t the way that we want.

The prayer would be nice if it just ended at the first line but it gets better. It gets us to ask for the grace of courage – true courage to stand up for things that are not right, to stand up for injustice that’s being done to us or others. We need courage and strength to do this as not everyone has the ability or willingness to go against the grain and speak out for what’s right. So there are indeed times where we need to step out of the serenity to try to make a change somewhere. Therein lies the problem – when do we do either.

That’s the key to the prayer – it’s not just a call to action or a retreat within oneself. It’s a prayer for discernment. Having the wisdom to know the difference between when to act and when to stay silent is the most important grace to have. We cannot fight all the time and neither should we allow people or things to roll over us with abandon, hence the need for discernment. It’s hard because most of us would tend towards either extreme – to act or to withdraw and very often, we have to go against our normal tendencies to be or do things correctly. But, how are we to discern?

Discernment can take up an entire series of posts and volumes upon volumes have been written on it. However, what is useful here are some bits of advice that St Ignatius, who wrote The Spiritual Exercises, gave to retreatants and Jesuits. To discern well, we need to be in the right state of mind. We cannot be overly agitated by things or biased towards one mode of being or doing. We have to take that step back, reflect and pray before making a decision. Additionally, we have to note where our desires are taking us and what motivates them. Are we acting to change things out of some deep-seated desire to take revenge on someone? Are we keeping silent and accepting things out of pure resignation or are we keeping silent because that’s the path of greater love? Keeping such considerations in a mode of prayer helps.

And so I continue to ask for the grace of wisdom, to not only know the difference but to be able to continue to live and accept the life of constant discernment that we’ve been called to. I don’t feel particularly wise now but I do feel that asking for the grace to be wise helps. For what it’s worth, at least it’s helping to cause a change within – from existential angst to tentative hope. And with that hope, we can survive.

A Shakespearean Oasis in Rome

Shakespeare in Rome. In English, Shakespearean English at that. Not a connection that I’d make immediately but not quite as farfetched as one might think. The Globe theatre in London is the famous replica of the original where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. What was surprising is that there’s a replica of the Globe right here in Rome, in the middle of the Villa Borghese, made with wood from France and for the past week, had a British troupe close their 2016 Summer/Autumn season with a production of The Tempest.

Surprisingly, that wasn’t what first attracted me to the performance. It was the little note below the title that stated ‘in lingua originale’ – in its original language. Shakespeare in English in Rome? The icing on the cake was the chance to see The Tempest again, a play that I lived and breathed for more than half of 2015. The chance to see it done professionally in a setting that’s as close to the original that I can possible get was too good to miss. I emptied the piggy bank and got tickets.

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The final curtain call, with the Italian director of the Globe Roma. This was also the only time I could take photos ‘legally’ with the actors on stage.

This is not a review but a record of my reflection after the play. It was an oasis for me, a pool of familiarity and comfort, where for two and a half hours, I was whisked away from the worries of theology in Italian, undecipherable readings and articles and the banality of routine. At the Globe, I could lose myself in the metaphors and puns that I understood (I realise that metaphor and puns are the most difficult things to understand in a new language) and revel in the beauty that is Shakespeare.

More than that, the analytical (drama-mama) part of me watched the play with a critical eye to staging and direction, lapping up the novel ways in which the director was able to use the simple stage to dazzling effect. There was some validation and vindication (for me at least) in the way that many of the characters were portrayed, that told me that we weren’t too far off from the pros in our interpretation of the play. And while our production was a little more genteel and stately, this one was quite bawdy and almost manic, possibly to play to an audience for which the language is not completely familiar.

Which brings me to the final bit – why we go to plays and why plays attract us so. We can turn to TV and the cinema for our normal doses of suspension from reality but the theatre brings it that much closer to us. The immediacy of the action, the total immersion of ourselves in the drama that happens before us, with real people leading us into a world that’s beyond our normal experience – that’s why we go to the theatre and that’s why it can never be supplanted by even the most immersive of digital media. And that’s what continues to draw me back to drama – the possibility of bringing others such experiences, and maybe, just maybe, continue to bring the message of hope and love back to a world that needs it so.

Audacious beginnings

Beginnings are usually difficult. Birth pangs, struggles fitting in, initial bumps in the road. We have nice ways of saying how traumatic and disconcerting settling into a new place or routine can be. I’ve been here for a couple months but the real deal started this week. Classes began and the good news is that it’s not as disastrous as I feared but there’s still the feeling that one is drowning in a sea of Italian as the lecturer speaks. Not the most fortuitous beginning but I suppose it’s a start.

Words, especially of the foreign variety, can overwhelm…

This week also sees the start of the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, a gathering of over 200 Jesuits who are in Rome to elect a new Superior General and to consider the state of the Society in the world. It’s a gathering for new start for the Society under a new general and an opportunity to fine-tune our relationship and reaction to the world around us. At the mass marking the start of the congregation, the Master of the Dominicans Fr Bruno Cadore, who was invited to be the main celebrant by our current General Fr Adolfo Nicolas, spoke about audacity to act and demonstrate our faith in God – to dare to do the improbable and to do it with the humility that shows that everything depends on God.

I think that’s a good way of approaching the new. With audacity, a boldness to dare to live and to adapt to whatever new situations that we’re in. We have to dare to believe that the Lord will indeed help us in all that we do, even when it might sometimes feel like we’re drowning. And we have to dare to change ourselves, to be the new persons that we are meant to be when we’re put in the new situations. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about. Audacity in newness so that growth and change can truly happen.

Discovery makes all things new

One of the things I like best about coming to a new place is the opportunity to explore the city and I have to say that Rome is probably one of the best places for urban exploration. Rome’s a fascinating city with a history so rich and layered that it feels like one is in the grand dame of cities that looks on the other younger cities with a gentle sense of bemusement. Exploration is as exploration does and the main ‘task’ of exploration is to discover – sights, sounds and smells that are at once foreign yet familiar. Through exploration and the subsequent discoveries that we make, we enlarge our world view by adding experiences to the ones that we already have, enriching them and creating new ways of seeing the world. Discovery makes old things seem new and prepares us with new eyes to view the world that seems always to open up with every new discovery.

I’m a person who likes a little structure in life and the same goes with my approach to exploration. Like some of the explorers of old, I usually prefer a slightly more structured approach to exploration. What normally happens is that I search for places of interest, read up a little on their historical, cultural or religious significance and then check their locations on the map before planning a route for my little exploratory trips. These have been ‘successful’ in that the discoveries made were well worth the preparation and journey. In particular, a longer trip to the Papal Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls made some week ago was an experience that was enriching intellectually and spiritually. The church was beautiful and significant historically but what really struck me was the deeply spiritual atmosphere that I felt while roaming around. The physical connection that one could feel with the Christians of the past was palpable there and the church just seemed to be constructed in a way that made one comfortable praying. An added significance to us as Jesuits was that St Ignatius and the first companions made their first vows in one of the chapels within the church in 1541, hence the importance of that church to the Society as a whole.

The apse or area just above the high altar of the church. Jesus, Mary and the saints. Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

So explorations come and go and give us experiences to take with us in our lives. But what I need to remind myself is that exploration does not need to be well planned like the ones that I’m used to. Several evenings ago, I found myself free with legs that needed stretching and so I decided to take a walk to look for a park that I heard much about. After consulting a map, I set out in search of the park. I didn’t quite find a park but instead stumbled upon a beautiful church, which Google very politely informed me was the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It didn’t look extremely impressive on the outside but the dome of the church on the inside was covered with intricate mosaics of Jesus, Mary and many saints. It was a beautiful church made even more beautiful by the prayerful atmosphere that the art and architecture wrought. Outside in the piazza, there was a busker singing folksy-jazz songs with this guitar. The sun was setting at that moment, lending the scene a soft dusky orangey glow. Beauty to end an evening that was all about how beauty can appear in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine.

Discovery helps make all things new and gives us new insights into how we lead (or could lead) our lives. That’s well and good but the recent experience reminds me of one important aspect of discovery – being prepared for it. While one doesn’t quite go around waiting for amazing things to happen, we need to be sufficiently open-minded to be aware of things that could allow us new insights and ways of seeing the world. A little more religiously, it’s the acknowledgement of God’s role in all that we see and do and using that to realise that God indeed leads us to a deeper understanding of how we can truly appreciate creation around us. Just as scientists are often primed with a particular readiness to accept new experimental discoveries, so should we too be prepared to discover new things about our own world. Plans aid in making our lives easier – discoveries help us to grow in faith and wonder in the world.


about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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