It has now been about four months since I last wrote a proper post for this blog. A few things have happened. I studied for – and passed – my doctoral field examination, which means that I’m now what is commonly known as an “ABD” – “all but dissertation.” (In other words, I’ve completed my entire PhD except for the most important part).

What else has happened? I mourned the death – and celebrated the life – of my dear uncle, Robert Cummings, who passed away last November. I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family. I travelled to southern Arizona -one of the sunniest places on earth – where I explored a cave, climbed a canyon, and reconnected with a dear old friend whom I hadn’t seen in eight years. I assisted with the organization of one academic conference and presented a paper at another. I spent some time pretending to write a novel (I’m currently at about 48,000 words; I hope to reach  60,000 in a month or two). And, as always, there are my 179 bright-eyed undergraduate student to attend to!

So now, as I approach this blog again, I can’t ignore a slight feeling of trepidation. It’s not unlike walking barefoot on a beach at the beginning of summer. There’s always a sting in that first splash of cold water over my feet! So, once again, I must try not to flinch at that chill and then step further into the sea, trusting that as soon as I can get waist-deep, it will feel as warm as bathwater.

Needless to say, readership of this blog has declined dramatically since I stopped writing on a regular basis (not that it was ever that high to begin with)! Nevertheless, I am grateful to those of you who have continued reading, as well as to those who have stumbled on my blog by chance. In mid-January someone was even so kind as to post one of my articles on Twitter, which definitely gave me a thrill. Like many aspiring writers I dream of reaching wide audiences, but at the end of the day that is not what this endeavor is about. If I can learn something by writing this blog – whether from the comments I receive or from the process of writing itself – then my time is not being wasted. And if there’s any chance that you can learn something, then my efforts are not in vain.

So, in attempting to dip my toes in the water, I’d like to start by sharing a few items that have been on my mind during the past four months – items that I would have written full posts on if I’d only found the time:

 – The US Health and Services Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage

The United States department of Health and Human Services has mandated that all institutions that provide healthcare to employees must now include coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients in the healthcare plans they offer. In others words, the US Federal Government is obligating religious organizations who oppose these forms of healthcare to place their moral convictions aside and comply with the moral stance of the federal government. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations have reacted with indignation; in the words of  New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Meanwhile, the entire conflict has sparked a national debate on the somewhat unclear boundary between the secular law on which our country is founded and the diverse religious and ethical stances which that law is meant to protect.

Where do I stand on this issue? If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you will know that I firmly oppose the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. Nevertheless, I cannot back the HHS Mandate. I believe that workers should have access to the healthcare they require, but I also believe that religious institutions have their own right to operate according to their conscience. I am not so sure that this is an issue of “freedom of religion” as some religious leaders are saying, but it is definitely too deep of an intrusion of the federal government into Civil Society. Therefore, I have signed the petition against the mandate, and I hope and pray for a peaceful solution to this dispute.

– The 2012 Presidential Election

Unfortunately there’s not too much I can say on this one. My vote doesn’t really count anyway, as my home state is true blue, but naturally I’m concerned about the outcome. This seems like another case of a “lesser of two evils” decision. Another four years of Obama seems unlikely to bring us anything good, but would giving the reins back to the other team really put us in any better shape.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve just said nothing. I’ll give this issue some more thought and get back to you in a month or two.

Poland’s 2011 Parliamentary Elections, which took place last October

“Huh? Poland?” you might ask, scratching your head in confusion. Yes, Poland. Given that this is supposed to be a Catholic blog, doesn’t it make sense that I would take an interest in what is arguably the most Catholic country in the world? Perhaps my interest goes the other way – my love for Poland is the very thing that has preserved my long-standing love for Catholicism. No matter. I bet some of you didn’t even know that Poland was a predominantly Catholic country, did you? Unlike in so many other European nations, where twentieth century Catholicism became a symbol for fascism and the old regime, in Poland it was emblem of freedom, of national identity, and of a well-loved culture that people refused to let forty-four years of totalitarianism wipe away. For the Polish people, Pope John Paul II was more than just a religious leader. His  invocation to “Be not afraid” became something of a rallying cry, and the Solidarity movement which  resisted (and ultimately defeated) communism during the 1980’s  transformed Christian symbols into national ones:

However, the Poland of 2012 is not the Poland of the 1980’s; as in many places, secularization – at least of the public sphere – continues to occur. In last October’s Parliamentary elections, Palikot’s Movement – a new political party led by the unapologetically anticlerical Janusz Palikot – garnered forty seats, or ten percent of the vote. Not bad for a political party that isn’t even two years old. Palikot’s popularity with Polish youth reveals that Poland (and the place of religion within it) is changing, and I for one will be watching these changes with interest over the coming years.

The New Translation of the Roman Catholic Missal

The first Sunday of Advent 2011 found Catholics throughout the English-speaking world bending over prayer cards and fumbling through once-familiar songs and responses. The wording of long-ago memorized prayers had been altered – sometimes quite significantly. Translation  – particularly literary translation – is a very strong personal interest of mine, so I am naturally interested in the Third Translation of the Roman Missal since the Second Vatican Council’s decision to replace the Latin Mass with the vernacular. This new version, which was initiated in 2002 by  Pope John Paul II, aims toward greater faithfulness of the original Latin, a more elevated use of language, and more lucid Scriptural references (even most Catholics are not aware of the extent to which the liturgy is based on quotations from the Bible).

In an essay entitled “The Task of the Translator,” philosopher Walter Benjamin has stated that the process of literary translation causes the target language to become foreign to itself. I have found this to be the case when translating Spanish literary texts into English – usually, when I look back at my first draft, I find that my English sounds strange, perhaps like Spanish, but not quite. I must admit that I experienced this same kind of dissonance as I struggled over the prayers last Advent and even into this year – the old prayers were always there on the tip of my tongue, empty and clanging. Indeed, the experience of learning the new translation has definitely been a cause for reflection, for greater attentiveness to the words that we are actually saying, to the many layers of meaning embedded in the strange prayer we call the Mass. The adoption of the Third Translation is a process that has not yet been completed, and I will certainly have more to say about it in upcoming posts.

– Movies

Yes, you heard me right. Movies. After years of rarely even setting foot inside a cinema, I found myself seeing many interesting films which I would have loved to have written reviews of for you. By now they are long out of theatres, but I’m sure that they are viewable by other means. Some of the films I have seen and enjoyed include the following:

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Once again, this fantastic director compels his audience to recognize the complexity of humn nature and  to acknowledge the violence latent in each one of us and, at the same time, the utter vulnerability and humanity of those who commit acts of violence. To make a long story short, this film calls upon us to feel compassion for a rapist…and due to Almodovar’s brilliance, we do.

The Way by the American Emilio Estevez. This is a Catholic film if I ever saw one. A middle-aged man, having recently learned of his estranged son’s death, goes to France to retrieve the remains and decides to walk the Santiago Pilgrimage Route through Spain. It’s a beautiful story of a spiritual journey, friendship, and self-acceptance. The going matters more than the getting there…in fact, there’s no such thing as “getting there,” for we are always there already.

Surviving Progress, a Canadian documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. The message is simple: we are destroying ourselves. All our technology, our urban development, our “progress” is ultimately leading us toward global catastrophe. However, this is not just another doomsday documentary; the makers of this film suggest that there is still hope to be found, though it will require a radical effort on the part of all of us. Specifically, the film offers interesting snapshots of modern China (where economic development is rapidly creating a new middle class of people eager for more consumer goods) and Brazil, where a government that purports to seek protection for the Amazon often has conflicting interests of its own. Overall, the film is sobering, but necessary – by far the most important I’ve seen in a long time.

Pink Ribbons ,Inc. which takes a critical look at corporate involvement in breast cancer philantropy, exposing the startling contradictions of corporations who purport to support breast cancer research while often using carcinogens in their own products. Another problem highlighted by the film is the undefined nature of the “research” that the funds are going toward – only a tiny amount of which is directed toward cancer prevention. The moral of the story? “Think before you pink.” In choosing your products, don’t be swayed by “pinkwashed” cause marketing. And should you choose to donate money to charity, try to find out about where that money is actually going.

There’s a lot more on my mind at the moment, but I think that this post is already far too eclectic. As you can see, each one of these topics could have been its own post, and I plan to say more about them in the coming months. Unfortunately, I suspect that my posts will continue to be somewhat sporadic, but I will aim for two per month at least. And, please be aware that my original goal for this blog was to open it up to other voices. I welcome your comments. I welcome entire posts on religion, spirituality, secularism, politics and culture.

A Holy Place

August 4, 2011

To become as fragile as the tiny frogs hiding in the rain

as weak as the night butterflies encircling the lamp

and fear nothing –

To walk in the night from village to village

to hear the dark opera of the grasses

and fear nothing –

To lose yourself among the conifers

and then emerge in an open field

the size of the world,

to feel your own smallness

and fear nothing –

is it  still possible?

There is a place that I would like to show you. It may be far away from where you live, it may cost a lot of money to travel there. But if I can, I’d like to take you there, even if only for a brief moment, even if only through the medium of  a few pictures and words.  It is a place that you most likely have been needing to visit without even being aware of that need, without even knowing of its existence. Everyone who goes there is a seeker, a pilgrim hoping to receive something;   however, everyone who goes there also has the potential to give something. And that might just be what most of us are seeking – to find out what it is that we can give.

So, I invite you to come with me. The  journey is not long, but slow and lilting, lulling you to sleep as the train brushes against the tracks, as a slight breeze comes in through the cabin’s  partially open window. We rumble  past farms and open fields, through a few big cities and many small towns, until the landscape starts to become wooded. Now, we begin to see lakes – mostly small ones, really more like large ponds than actual lakes. Then, larger ones. Eventually we see the mix of old and new buildings that make up the city of Olsztyn, where the train stops. We gather up our things and make our way into the station; after checking the map, we see that we need to take one more train to Gotki. After grabbing some lunch – white borscht and pork chops that aren’t too bad as far as train station food goes – we board this second train. It’s only three stops to our destination, and then we disembark at a stop which appears to be in the middle of a field. For a moment, fear sets in – how will we know how to get where we’re going? But then, we turn and see that Zbyszek is waiting for us in his car, just as he’d promised he would. We get in the car and he takes us to Agroturystyka Bajka, his wife Teresa’s bed and breakfast, where we have arranged to stay for the week. She greets us with a smile, show us to our room and offers us a hand-sketched map to our actual destination:  Teatr Węgajty, tucked away at the edge of a forest, unknown to anyone who does not seek it out, yet nevertheless one of this culturally rich country’s most radical theatre companies.

Teatr Węgajty is a theatre company like no other. It is a place where all are welcome, where there is no hierarchy or division, no boasting or showing off. It is a place where everyone is invited to contribute something, whether by preparing a tasty German potato salad, leading a dance which all are inspired to join, or translating a conversation so that as many people in the multilingual audience as possible might understand. It is a place where an internationally acclaimed musician and composer will not only play his innovative, John Cage-inspired pieces for you, but teach you to create and perform your own; where a group of young girls from a correctional facility will perform a hip-hop piece about famous women and then teach you to write a hip-hop piece about your own experience;  where men, women and children of all ages come together to celebrate a remote village’s 645th anniversary by dancing to an old Hebrew melody while Wacek pumps his accordion and Mute trills on her clarinet. It is a place where you’ll stand in a huge field at dusk while waiting to watch Rui Ishara’s performance of Japanese butoh dancing and discover that the cloud of buzzing mosquitoes above us is one of the most beautiful forms of music we could hope to hear.

Again and again throughout this blog I have mentioned my struggles with religion.  In each pilgrimage I make to Węgajty – and to me, each visit I make there is indeed a pilgrimage, for it is a holy place – I learn the meaning of this complicated, inflammatory word. Religion is not a set of beliefs or dogmas. Religion is not a social institution. Religion is the way you feel when you’ve walked in the rain for nearly an hour, your shoes soaked completely through, and then realize that you’ve gotten lost and have no choice but to go up to a random house and ask strangers for help. Religion is when it turns out that those strangers are actually going to the same place as you, when they introduce themselves and offer you a cup of tea, when they invite you to get in their car and come with them. Religion is when you see that the world around you is teeming with life – frogs and insects,  flowers and mushrooms, each one another manifestation of the divine. Religion is when everything you do – the way you twist and move in a dance, the soup you serve to the person sitting next to you, the determination with which you stand up after tripping over a stone in the road – becomes a prayer, a way of speaking to God and listening for the response that seems to be coming faster than you can take it in. Religion is when you learn that our true nature is not to compete or seek domination, but to collaborate and form a community. In Węgajty I have found that community. Now, my challenge is to carry it with me, back to my home in Toronto, back to my students and colleauges and friends. Back to you. This is the challenge of every religious experience – to make sure that it does not die, to keep it alive even in the hectic daily routine of bills to be paid and papers to be graded, even amid the tumult of global wars and economic crises. Węgajty is a place without fear, without self-consciousness; it is a place where everything is possible, and where art really does change  world. Now, I am trying to share it with others. I hope that these simple lines will offer you at least one tiny glimpse of its beauty.