Friday, 9 August 2013

Signing off for now

It's August in New York, so I thought a nice, cool reminder of last winter would be in order (my present abode, occupied by yours truly, plus the Divine Prisoner in the chapel, and, intermittently, a mouse in the kitchen).  This summer, however, has been mild so far:  after a couple of toasty weeks in June, the withering heat and humidity of July and August has failed to materialize...

I mentioned somewhere here before that I embarked upon this whole blogging business while I was living in Rome during canon law studies, immersed in the Eternal City's "arcane circles of ecclesiastical scholars," as Slate called it (  But like the Hobbits returned from Mordor, I've been "home" now for four years.

The pontifical university I attended was recommended by a priest-canonist I trusted, and the price was right:  as across much of Europe, graduate tuition at Rome's pontifical schools is still under a few thousand dollars a year, compared to the licentiate program at Catholic University in Washington -- the only canon law school in the United States -- which is about $40,000 this year, just for tuition alone (for the JCL; the JCD is significantly less).  My only goal was to go to Rome, stay on track, and get out, preferably with licenza in hand.  It nearly finished me, but I did it.

During the academic breaks in my five years of the licentiate program (two an accelerated STB cycle followed by three years of the JCL), I came back to the United States most summers to work, landing in places such as Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, and on the way to or from, the United Kingdom or the south of France.  Merely to give some indication I was alive, I would post photos or articles on this blog for my friends and others.  I rely more on facebook now, and it is primarily to that forum I reserve posting of my whereabouts and/or things that interest me or pertain to my work, and only for my friends (and not just so-called facebook friends, since most of the people I am connected to on fb are people I know and like in real life). 

Sometimes I can't believe I survived all that time in Italy, especially dangerous and dirty Rome, and could never understand why any of the (mostly Catholic) Americans or Anglophones in general I knew there wanted to hang on and try to fabricate some kind of life for themselves.  The only thing I could figure out is that the ones who were most determined to stay came from dreary locations, places they wanted never to see again and were embarrassed to be from.  As I discovered during my time with them, they seemed to be attempting to escape any number of things:  burned bridges, suburban malaise, social isolation, academic or vocational failure, dead-end jobs, the responsibility of caring for aging or disabled parents, etc.  Yes, for them, I am sure Rome appeared wonderful.  They spent time mostly with other Anglophones, some of them barely learning enough Italian to order in a restaurant even after several years, frequently posting photos of themselves and their surroundings hoping to make the people back home envious, but often complaining bitterly about the locals' quirks and way of navigating through the day...perhaps unaware that many of these same flaws are actually their own.

Recently I went back -- for what I hope was my last trip to Rome ever -- for a conference, Sacra Liturgia 2013 (, and having had a series of all-too-vivid reminders of just how difficult and even toxic life was for me in such a place, I can't imagine any normal person -- unless one is Italian -- wanting to spend his or her life there.  Though now to think of it, "normal" may be the (in)operative word, since most of the hangers-on are not merely slightly eccentric expats, but seem to have subclinical afflictions of the psyche and/or seemingly intractable problems of character that apparently do not allow them to live what might pass for a normal and fulfilling life in their places of origin.  It's different if one goes abroad for school or business, meets a native and gets married, and so has to make a life in a new country, or if one immersed oneself in the local culture and populace to the point where they became "my people" -- but to stay on because there's nothing to go back to or hoping eventually to finagle a way into some (often Church-related) position that would be virtually impossible to attain at home seems like a poor plan for one's life and perhaps an indication of something fundamentally amiss.

La dolce vita...non tanto.

So I think this blog has served its purpose and now I will probably let it lie fallow, or even delete it at some point.  I had thought of doing so last year, but then I got involved with the organization of Sacra Liturgia 2013 and thought that some posts about it would be all of the dozen or so people who check in here regularly.  People frequently access the posts about Father Stanley Jaki, as well as my few reflections on clerical continence, so I may just leave those.  But now that the conference is over, I see no point in continuing to maintain this.

Besides, in my life there is very little to chronicle for the most part.  I've not posted things that often, and I do not need to show everyone photos of myself and my friends at the Met or Boulud or having a twilight cookout on the beach.  I have achieved certain goals that I set out to achieve.  Actually, I think I have achieved most of the things I've wanted, with one or two exceptions, but I remain hopeful and committed to realizing those too, Deo volente.  After a great deal of hard work, perseverance, and not always succeeding but trying to remain supple in the hands of the Almighty, I am happy with where I am in my life and work, more so than ever I thought would be possible.
Returning to live in New York after eight years away has been a joy (five years in Rome, and a year each in San Antonio, Denver, and finally Washington for canon law doctoral studies at Catholic University).  I have been warmly welcomed back by many people here.  Best of all, I have been able to resume spending time with friends I had missed painfully:  phone and e-mail are great, but there's nothing like time together in person.  These days I think many people tend to forget that.  At least I know I do.

The city is a delight as ever; but now more peaceful and tidy than before.

I am enjoying having a car again, the first one I've had since my twenties, and even that was a gift from my father.  So it was high time I got one of my own, especially a nice new one.  Except for morning and evening rush hour, which I avoid at all costs, traffic in New York City itself is barely worthy of the name.  I don't know exactly why or how, but the city has become fairly tame and manageable.

It is also lovely to live in real seasons again.  I arrived here last fall for the quintessential crisp Northeast autumn; the winter was ferocious but beautiful; spring was like a dream, and now summer is...summer.  It's warm and muggy, but there's plenty of air conditioning when one gets tired of dealing with it.  I've been taking care of an empty convent since I got here, a little gem of a place (exterior and interior photos posted above and below).  I don't know what the Sisters are going to do with this house -- I suspect they will relinquish it and it will be put on the market soon -- but it has provided a wonderful environment for prayer, for offering hospitality, and for readjusting to life in this part of the world, and but a stone's throw from my office at the seminary.

It's pleasant to head into midtown Manhattan or even over to the malls in Westchester County and shop for a few new things; nothing "fashionable" beyond some linen skirts and tops for summer and woollies for winter, shoes that fit and a new purse or two.  I've gone slightly overboard with books and DVDs and Blu-rays, catching up on a lot of films I missed over the last ten years or so, plus some old classics and obscure titles that are now available in these formats.  And resuming going out to the movies with pals is a treat -- I'm sure there's something lethal in the genetically-modified popcorn and "butter" but I can't resist when I'm there.

Of course New York has amazing restaurants, especially the spicy Asian cuisines.  Like some of my friends I too have made Gramercy Tavern a special haunt, and can't let more than a few weeks go by without dropping in.

And then there's Kiehl's.

I've been back to the Metropolitan Opera after many years and took some of the young seminarians with me (a perfect performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites), likewise to Carnegie Hall for a Beethoven recital (last three piano sonatas) by the incomparable Richard Goode.  I've visited my old favorites:  The Cloisters and the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and wandered again around a radically different World Trade Center/Battery/Wall Street area, which was always the most interesting part of town for me, with remnants of the old New Amsterdam in odd corners.

I enjoy going to the typically big and shiny American supermarkets, and to the ever-expanding farmer's markets (plenty of organic farmers in Upstate New York who send their produce to the urbanites), and to Whole Foods and stocking up on a wide array of goodies, ruefully wondering how I kept my patience all those years in Italy with only two kinds of cheese and two brands of shampoo, etc.  But I think my only utterly indefensible splurges are my daily two or three liters of Gerolsteiner and spa pedicures. 

The churches here are wonderful too, with the ancient Roman liturgy still being celebrated with glorious polyphony at St. Agnes, as it was when I lived here before, and as it was for many years before Summorum Pontificum, and now in a number of other places in and around the Archdiocese.  Weekday Mass in the usus antiquior is more difficult to find, but on notable feast days which fall during the week there are usually Masses in the old rite at churches but a short drive away.  There are many great Eastern Catholic liturgies to attend in this area, and the Russian Orthodox vespers on the Upper East Side are to die for.  As in Rome, clerics and aspirants to the clerical state continue to be part of my life.  Whether by such minor services as sewing the occasional items or laundering sacristy linens or having them over for a home-cooked meal, driving them to the doctor or visiting them in the hospital, tackling canonical issues and questions, helping with scholarly research and various projects, even just buying good books for seminarians, or sometimes simply being available by phone in the wee hours when ministering to the Church and Her children seems meaningless after years of effort, these things are usually touchingly appreciated even though they are truly de minimis.  I was always somewhat ashamed that I had little interest in helping the poor, or taking care of the sick or teaching children.  But over the years I came to understand that for me, priests are like my poor and my sick and my children.

The world of canon law is a complex one to say the least, fascinating to most of its practitioners though largely unknowable to those without formal training.  This is all the more true of canon law at the appellate level, which has been a real eye-opener for me.  It's like going from working in a small law firm or a courthouse in a minor municipality to serving as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or even the Supreme Court (of course that would be more properly analogous to the Apostolic Signatura or the Roman Rota -- though for Second Instance appeals our court is equivalent to the Rota).

I've been kidded about "do not judge others lest you be judged" -- but I don't judge anyone.  I evaluate the marriages presented before me according to the Church's law in which I have been trained.  This does not involve passing judgment on the people in these marriages.  Occasionally, if one or the other of the parties has suffered greatly in life, or has a history of unresolved, grave mental health issues or substance abuse problems, the very things which may have rendered the marriage null from the beginning, the other judges and I will recommend a monitum or a vetitum -- a formal caution or a prohibition against attempting marriage again -- not so much as a punishment but so that the person will be required to seek counseling or treatment before thinking about attempting marriage again.  I find this the most "pastoral" aspect of canon law work, in addition to the fact that I find I really am engaged in the defense of marriage -- the hard way.  I suppose that could be thrown into the balance against what might be perceived as a somewhat shallow and selfish existence.

In addition to being a judge on most cases and serving now and then as defender of the bond ad casum, I manage the tribunal on a day-to-day basis:  I work mostly alone, since the court runs on a shoestring and I am the only salaried staffer -- the other 60 or so judges and defenders, all priests in varied ministries,  carry out their work where they live and earn a five dollar honorarium per case.  Mercifully, instead of being at the chancery, the appellate tribunal is at the seminary, which is a place of great peace and beauty.  The seminary is nearly full these days, and the young men are impressive.  They make me very happy and give me much hope for the future.

I have just reached a milestone birthday, and am glad and slightly amazed to still be here and more or less in one piece.  I realize that after a certain age all bets are off in terms of health, and regrettably many of my contemporaries are enduring heavy burdens in body and spirit.  It all seems very unpredictable.  Anything can happen at any moment.  And so my task at hand is simply to do my work for as long as it's possible, with as much serenity and self-forgetfulness as possible, grateful for each day.

After four years back, it's time to both be at home and, at least as a blogger, to sail into the West.

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