Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Review: Little Chapel on the River (2005)

Little Chapel on the River is a warm memoir of a family and a community that eat, drink, and socialize at Guinan’s, a family owned Irish pub in the town of Garrison, N.Y. The pub, now closed, was on the Hudson River, across from West Point and next to the Garrison train station.

I am mostly Irish-American, and I enjoyed the depiction of modern day Irish-American culture.

The author, Gwendolyn (Wendy) Brooks is from North Carolina and is a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. She is in a relationship with another woman, Kathryn. Their apartment was across the street from the World Trade Center, and they had to flee on the morning of 9/11. Some months later, a friend brought them to Guinan’s, upstate, and Wendy became so enchanted with the place that they settled in Garrison.

Guinan’s became an important part of her life. The personalities and relationships of each of the diverse characters who frequent the pub are well drawn. Each comes across as interesting and dignified. Common courtesy is expected and people respect each other in general. Wendy doesn’t flaunt the fact that she is in a relationship with another woman but doesn’t hide it either. She comes across as a normal, even classy person and is accepted by the men and women who hang-out there. Soon enough, she earns the trust of the Guinan family and, inevitably, pitches-in at the pub whenever help is needed. She becomes a member of the inner circle of an extended group of family-like Guinan loyalists. Their lives became part of her own.

The event of 9/11 caused many who experienced it so reflect upon what is most important in life. Each chapter of Little Chapel on the River is suffixed with a recollection of the author from her childhood in North Carolina. For Wendy, post 9/11, the discovery of Guinan’s provided her with a network of relationships in a community of ordinary but very human and loving people, like the ones she knew as a young child.

The book evoked a bit of sadness in me. America has been in a decades-long love affair with the self and the almighty dollar. The pub and its community are a relic from the past, when persons, relationships, family, and community counted. Little Chapel on the River is a reminder of something that America has been slowly losing for a long time.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

My Encounter with the Communion and Liberation Movement

My first encounter with Communion and Liberation Movement and Msgr Luigi Giussani was the November 2004 issue of their monthly magazine, Traces. My wife and I had had a vicious fight right before she took the kids to Hong Kong for a month, in December 2004. I was home alone that Christmas season, feeling down, alone, and somberly reflecting on my situation. Meanwhile, at work, Virginia C. had left a Traces magazine on a co-worker’s desk, and so I took it and read it.

Two articles moved me greatly:
"God's Commitment with Man's Brutal Loneliness."
"Be It Done To Me According to Your Word."

With Giussani, intuitively, I saw the signs for the way out of my own personal tangle of formalism, moralism, authoritarianism, and intellectualism. I intuitively sensed that I had discovered a way of being Christian that would allow me to be fully and freely human and one that approached life as a wonderfully grand adventure; albeit, one where the stakes were all or nothing.

After reading the whole magazine, I felt like I knew Luigi Giussani personally. To understand why, you would have to have known one of our parish priests, Fr. Richard Joyce, when I was in grammar and high school (1960s/1970s). Fr. Joyce had regularly and spontaneously engaged young people in casual settings, with questions about the faith. He taught and evangelized people at their own level, but he also understood and discussed freely the philosophical trends and ideas that were current in society.  Joyce was passionate in his Christian convictions and acted freely according to what he believed, without concern for a career, status, conventional wisdom, or what anyone else might think of him, and I saw all that in Giussani. Beyond that, Msgr Giussani's ideas about evangelization, about what was wrong with society, the church, and how to fix it, agreed with my own observations, and that's about the first time that ever happened!

Back at work, and after I had read that issue of Traces magazine, I asked Virginia, "What is this? Who are these people?" I had only heard of Communion and Liberation once, years ago, in an article in the New York Times that labeled them as being conservative because they were loyal to the Pope.

Fr. Giussani had been a seminary professor in Milan, Italy. In the summer of1954, while taking a train to a vacation In Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea, he saw a group of teenagers on the train and, out of curiosity, decided to question them about their knowledge of the faith. He discovered that they were not only ignorant of Christianity but contemptuous of it as well. This precipitous encounter led Fr. Giussani to decide to resign his professorship and to seek a position teaching in Berchet high school, in Milan, Italy, that fall.  The youth group that he formed and the initiatives that they undertook evolved into what is known today as the Communion and Liberation Movement.

In addition to Giussani’s encounter on the train, I was profoundly moved by several other encounters that Giussani had in his first few weeks of teaching high school. Those incidents were examples of living what one believes, of preaching the gospel always--a powerful witness. In the interests of brevity, I won’t describe those additional encounters, but I will at least list them: (1) the encounter with the student named Claudio Pavesi in his very first class at the high school, over faith vs reason (2) the encounter with the students on the street who were wearing Catholic Action logos, (3) observing the groups of students gathered under the school stairways, passionately discussing Communism, and (4) the school assembly where students debated the politics of Communism and Monarchical-Fascism.  (Incidentally, in each of these incidents, Fr. Joyce would have responded in exactly the same way as Fr. Giussani.)

After I had read that issue of Traces magazine, I was still unaware of Giussani's method, teachings, perspectives on scripture, his wild and passionate writing style, his exemplary respect for people of other faiths, as well as his deep interest and value that he put on all things cultural, especially music.  Nor did I grasp Giussani's emphasis on experience. That took a long time and has been the biggest adjustment I've had to make.

A few months after my encounter with C/L, I attended a seminar in Manhattan on Giussani's seminal book, The Religious Sense. The seminar leader, Christopher Bacich, talked boldly and forthrightly about using experience to grow as a Christian, and I was flabbergasted. To me, experience meant experimentation and that was forbidden--the specter of rebellion, sex, drugs, radicalism, and violence!

At a social-psychological level, the reason that reliance on experience was so foreign to me was that I grew up Irish-Catholic at a time when Protestantism was still the dominant, overarching culture in America (that insight is courtesy of a personal conversation with Christopher Bacich). And my insight is that in that context, unity needed to take precedence over individualism. The mentality was one to circle the wagons--over-protect the children’s minds and morals, tolerate no dissent within the ranks and present a unified front--survival tactics well-honed in British occupied Ireland, transported to America. To learn from experience was too risky. The community might lose control over someone who did. They would risk making mistakes; they might fail. They might come to do something immoral, or worse, succumb to heresy. That is how I perceived it.

I needed to think about the implications and consequences; yet, though it was hard for me to imagine it for myself, I saw the reliance on experience as an invitation to walk and breathe freely in life, though I still could not accept it. It was quite a shock: I had just been given permission to be in charge of my own life. I am still working on overcoming my old, overly rigid ways, towards becoming more freely human, not to mention Christian, and of course, this is a life-long task.