Tag Archive: Christianity


The West

On a hot July evening, coming in from the west, heading east, I drove down into the southern flatlands of New Mexico. The sun was a scorching, melting ball  of fire on the horizon, I was exhausted (having driven 12 hours already) and the dog was snoring in the backseat while the cat would mew in occasional, but futile protest. We came up over a hill on 1-10 and in front of me was the little town of Las Cruces, NM. The late evening light bathed it in an unreal purplish haze, the city shadowed by the nearby mountains while the sun disappeared in a blaze of orange. I remember thinking to myself  “I have never seen light look like this” as I descended into the city and to my motel room for the night.

A month and a half earlier I had driven through from east to west, with my fifteen year old nephew. It was already dark and we were hot and tired  as we deposited the dog and cat in the hotel room and got dinner. The next morning, as I loaded the car I watched as the sun came up over the mountains. My nephew, noticing the scenery walked away from the car with the dog to get a better look. He  stood and stared in silence at the mountains and the sun, transfixed, for several minutes as it gleamed over the ragged peaks. Even the dog seemed to be staring up, following the emergence of the light over the mountains from her decidedly close position to the ground. “This is the most beautiful place” my nephew said. I remarked to him “Of course it is, this is the land of the gods according to the native peoples. Father Sky and Mother Earth.” He nodded and lifted the dog into the car.

Today’s book is Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather. This is one of the great American classics, that for some, unfathomable reason, I had never read. I am glad, though, that I waited this long to read it, for I think I understand it better as an adult than I would have if I had read it when I was younger.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is not really a novel, or a cycle of short stories, but rather it is a sketching– a sketching of a time, people, place and religion. The book focuses on the 19th century missions of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant– two French Catholic priests who are sent by Rome to deal with the untamed Southwest, which had been left in neglect by the Spanish Catholic authorities for centuries.  The actual material of the book is based in fact, and is evenhandedly presented. It is neither hagiography or condemnation of the Church, rather Cather manages to remarkably present a gorgeous story that is well situated in the facts of history.

The story explores and grows the friendship of the two men, their work, the people of the land (Mexicans, Indians and whites) and the land itself. There are many things that are striking about this book– the first being that Cather allows the  land to be its own character in the book– the land is pulsing with life and meaning, and those undertones richly enhance the stories within the book. Cather’s descriptions of the land are spare, but stunning, much like the actual land itself. Anyone who had travelled extensively through Arizona and New Mexico would realize that right away.

What is wonderful about the book is that somehow it manages to hit all of the cultural nuances it contains squarely and sympathetically. Her portrayal of Catholicism is evenhanded–there are good priests and bad priests, those who were greedy and difficult, and those who are humble and pious– it also captures the faith of the people without being condescending– the way they venerate their saints, the local customs and miracles, their own humble ways of living.  The people were the living church, as the institution had long ignored them and not served them fully because they lived out on the frontier. Cather also manages to capture the Native indifference and anger towards the Church, and roots it well into the history of cultural and spiritual colonization.  All the little nuances here are correct in a stunning way– for instance the matched champagne colored mules that were so highly prized by the wealthy Mexican that Father Vaillant manages to procure– in the Native culture of the Southwest, animals with such a coloring were rare and understood to have “good medicine,” meaning that the rider/owner would come to no harm as long as he cared for and respected the animal properly.

And Cather always comes back to the land- the land that stole the hearts of the two Fathers (out in the desert– oh the Biblical parallels are enormous– there is layer upon layer of meaning in this book.) The land that drives men to madness, the land that is so beautiful and savage, the land that gives and takes away. This is a stunning book, I loved it- it goes on the shelf of my favorite books of all time, because to me, a person of the desert, whose ancestors live in a canyon not unlike those described in the book, who has the land in my very blood, to me, the book spoke in a way that few books have.

When I was nine my parents took me to Canyon de Chelley, (which Cather talks about in the book) on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Our Dine (Navajo) guide took us through the canyon in an open-topped Jeep and at one point paused and pointed to the top of a Mesa and said “Kit Carson and the government tried to starve us out here in the canyon, and some people surrendered. But some of our people remained, because the canyon had been given to us by the Creator. This is our land, and we are the land. The Canyon is a spiritual place.”  At nine years old the canyon look like an extraordinary cathedral of red rock. “God is here.” I whispered to no one. The Dine guide turned and caught my eye, and nodded.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Advertisements

The Angelic Doctor

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  As C noted, some of this is due to “the Aprils,” but it’s also just that there have been other things going on and on my mind that have distracted me from reading.  Nevertheless, we press on.  This is probably the longest I’ve kept up with a New Year’s Resolution, and I’m not going to let a little reader’s block stop me now.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, during Lent I thought I would take up one or two more spiritual reads.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to reread a classic by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.  It is a small book about a large man – and I mean large in every sense of the word: physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Since it’s writing, the book has received mixed reviews.  The great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson dubbed it the best introduction to St. Thomas’s life and thought.  Others, however, were not as impressed, labeling it in many ways amateurish (undoubtedly an adjective Chesterton himself would have used of it, again, in every sense of the word).  The book certainly is not a close engagement with the writings of Aquinas, but rather presents an icon, if you will, of the man and what he was fundamentally about.  The story goes that the way Chesterton wrote the book is by first reading everything he could get his hands on about Thomas, then asking his secretary into his office and dictating the entire thing.  As such, it is not a scholarly tome, but a portrait.

For all its faults, the book does give the reader a lively sense of Aquinas the man, the scholar, and the saint.  Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas with the other saint about whom he wrote a biography, St. Francis.  Despite the many superficial differences between the two, Chesterton argues that fundamentally they were at one, particularly in their emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  For both these great saints, matter mattered – creation is good and God-given, and as such it is to be affirmed.  For Chesterton, this devotion to the Incarnation explains much of Thomas’s thought: his adoption and baptism of Aristotle, his obsession with the error of the Manichees, his affirmation of a common sense acceptance of the existence of the world.  In a typically Chestertonian witticism, he writes, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be – that is the answer.'”

More moving than the man’s intellect, however, is his singular devotion to Christ and to following the call of God.  Thomas’s family had plans for him: he was to be the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, at the time a position of wealth and status.  Thomas, however, would have none of it.  Resolute in his conviction that he was called to the upstart mendicant Order of Preachers, he stood his ground against the protestations of his family, casting aside status for the beggarly life of the Dominicans.  Chesterton’s discussion of the famous vision Thomas had of Christ offering him anything he wanted puts the story into perspective.  Here was a man who would willingly trade an entire city for a copy of a homily by St. John Chrysostom, but when the Lord offered him whatever he wanted, he replied, “Only thyself.”  For all his brilliance and scholarly acumen, his devotion took precedence even over the greatest intellectual gifts.

It is perhaps true that The Dumb Ox is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas – this is often the case with books by the great British journalist.  Even if the book may not be the single best introduction to the great doctor’s thought, it nevertheless does convey the spirit and the fervor of this medieval man of mystery.

Twenty-two down, (at least) thirty to go

Ta,
J

A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.

Ta,
J

The Silence of God

“The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”

This evening I finished Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  Endo, as the translator notes in his preface, is sometimes described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and as I read the story I did notice some similarities to Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  Set in 17th century Japan, the novel follows the story of a Portuguese Christian missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues, who heads for the island with a companion despite the recent outlawing of Christianity and accompanying persecutions.

Endo paints a vivid and stark picture of the perils these missionaries and others like them faced.  To reach the island, they have to sail ashore on a beach rather than at a harbor and under the cover of dark.  The missionaries hide in a small hut in the mountains during the day and minister to the underground Christians only at night.  Travel to another underground Christian village is fraught with danger of discovery and imprisonment.  Moreover, the Japanese government offers a generous reward to those who turn in Christians – an understandable temptation to peasants living on next to nothing.  Less than half way through the novel, Rodrigues is captured, betrayed (unsurprisingly) by the very man who brought him to the island, a Japanese Christian who regularly renounces his faith to save his skin.  The rest of the novel describes how the priest wrestles with his faith, particularly in light of the suffering his arrival has brought upon the Christian peasants of Japan.

The silence of the title refers primarily to the silence of God in the face of the horrific suffering the Japanese Christians endure: some are tied to stakes in the ocean and left to die over the course of several days; others are bound and thrown into the sea to drown; another is beheaded by a samurai; and still others are tortured in “the pit,” the gruesome details of which I’d rather not go into here.  Faced with this horrific suffering, Rodrigues regularly asks God why he remains silent.  Ought he not show himself the Lord of the universe when his chosen ones are suffering at the hands of his enemies?  At the same time, the priest frequently meditates on the face of Christ, the one who also experienced the silence of God and whose beautiful face the Japanese rulers want Rodrigues to trample in an act of apostasy.  In his better moments, he sees his own suffering and that of the tiny flock in his charge as a participation in Christ’s own sufferings, but it is clear throughout the novel that his courage and conviction are challenged by his experience.  Add to this experience the weakness of his betrayer and of another Portuguese missionary, Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who apostatized and chose to collaborate with the Japanese, and the temptation to follow suit becomes practically overwhelming.

Silence is a complex, moving, and challenging novel.  As I read it, I felt torn in two directions.  On the one hand, as Rodrigues continually asked God why he remained silent, I wondered how well he had learned the gospel and counted the cost before he set out on his mission.  Jesus never said following him would be easy – on the contrary, those who would follow him can expect the same kind of treatment he received, and last I checked, crucifixion isn’t a walk in the park.  But then I asked myself, how would I have responded in the same situation?  It’s easy to accept suffering when it amounts to an annoying student here, a tedious meeting there.  If I were to witness first hand the kind of horror that Rodrigues faces, could I look it in the eye and remain strong?  I hope so, but I don’t know.

One more theme the book emphasizes is the seeming incompatibility between Christianity and Japan.  The Japanese rulers insist that Japan is a “swamp” in which the sapling of Christianity cannot grow.  William Johnston notes in the preface that Silence caused quite a stir among some contemporary Japanese Christians, who would contest this claim.  Yet I wonder if the voice of the Japanese rulers represents Endo’s own voice.  He himself was a Christian, and he portrays many of the Japanese Christians in heroic ways.  I suppose the ambiguity is one of the things I found compelling about the novel – despite its simplicity of style, the thrust of the story is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.

If you have any interest in 17th century Japan, the interface of Christianity with foreign cultures, or issues of faith, doubt, and apostasy, then I highly recommend Silence.

Five down, (at least) forty-seven to go.

Ta,
J