Thursday, March 18, 2010

Three Gifts from Fr. Galdon: An Appreciation

I was never close to Fr. Galdon. Even though I took at least five courses under him, he was always a teacher to me, and never a friend or a confidant. The guys in our Ateneo freshman English class, school year 1976-77, used to joke, perhaps not inaccurately, that Fr. Galdon was always closer to the girls in the class. He would give them additional marks if they came to his class wearing skirts instead of the usual slacks. If memory serves me right, the Assumption girls—Candy Monserrat, Liza Lesaca, and Miel Esteban—and Tina Infante were Fr. G’s favorites. The mestizas.

Looking back, though, I realize that I didn’t mind at all, because he was such a good teacher, and that was more than enough.

I was sixteen years old when I first experienced being Joe Galdon’s student. In the summer of 1975, I had the privilege of being one of those chosen to represent Xavier School at the Ateneo Junior Summer Seminar. I remember very little about those two months between junior and senior year in high school, except that every morning, I looked forward to going to the Ateneo just to sit in Fr. Galdon’s English class. I cut classes a lot that summer, but I never missed a single class of Fr. Galdon. Thirty five years later, I still remember two revelatory pieces we took up: Nick Joaquin’s novella, Candido’s Apocalypse, and Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie. As a result of that class, I went on to read all the other plays of Tennessee Williams, and I decided that I would go to the Ateneo for college, if they would have me.

As luck, fate or providence would have it, I did get accepted to the Ateneo. Even more fortunately, by the second semester of freshman year, I was back with Fr. Galdon in two classes: poetry and composition. During the next four years of college, I took at least two (possibly three) other courses with him.
Fr. Galdon’s death yesterday made me think of him in a way that I haven’t for a very long time. And when I think of my debt of gratitude to Fr. Galdon, I realize I can express things quite simply. First, he taught me how to read. Second, he taught me how to write. Third, he taught me how to teach.

First, he taught me how to read. I think the title of a book by Robert Alter captures well what Fr. Galdon taught me: The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Fr. Galdon was an unabashed humanist in his approach to literature. There were no ideological readings of literary works; no cultural studies-based analyses; no post-colonial deconstructions of the work of dead white males. In class, we read dead white males and dead white females, as well as living writers of different colors, and he always asked us to look for the SHE: the “Significant Human Experience”—not, heaven forbid, a “moral lesson,” but what the work revealed about the grandeur and the misery, the complexity and the ambiguity of the human heart and human existence. And in the process, he showed us how to delight in the peculiar beauties of poem or play, essay or narrative. It was

Fr. Galdon who introduced me to many a great work of literature. In his class on classical criticism (which I confess I remember very little about), he made us read Horace and Longinus, Tasso and Alexander Pope. In the course on classical drama, I read Aeschylus’s
Oresteia for the first time and still recall the frisson of excitement I felt when, at the end of the trilogy, the Furies are renamed the Eumenides (“the Kindly Ones”), and the dark, barbarous history of bloodshed and vengeance finally finds resolution in justice, reason and civilization. In that same class, we also read Euripedes’ The Trojan Women and I still recall being overcome by the power of its depiction of the unspeakable atrocities of war: the child Astyanax hurled off the battlements of Troy ; the noble Hecuba, bereft of all she loved—kingdom, husband, children, grandchildren--being dragged off to be the slave of the scoundrel Odysseus. In that freshman poetry class, Fr. Galdon introduced us to Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi, Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, W. H. Auden’s MuseĆ© de Beaux Arts, and that glorious Shakespeare sonnet that begins, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” among so many others. This was heady, potent stuff to fill the minds of teen-agers with, teen-agers still so blissfully, stupidly unaware of life, its depths, its impending heartache. As if reading were not enough, he made us memorize. I realize now that most of the poetry that I still know by heart were poems that Fr. Galdon obliged us to memorize: Macbeth’s soliloquy (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .”); A.E. Houseman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” and “With rue my heart is laden”; most amazing of all, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, which speaks to me more powerfully now at 51 than it did when I was 17:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Second, Fr. Galdon taught me how to write—or at least, how to write with a little more clarity, a little more simplicity, a little less pretentiousness. Among the things I learned: Always use simple words, rather than “big” words. Try to use concrete words rather than abstract ones. (I remember he used Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics to
My Favorite Things as a writing exercise to stimulate concrete thinking and communication). Don’t be “OA”—which I suppose meant, don’t be pretentious or inauthentic to yourself or to the experience you are trying to communicate. (I recall the mortification of receiving compositions checked by Fr. Galdon and finding a red circle around some offending patch of prose, accompanied by the dread letters: “OA.”) Seek to communicate significant human experience.

Third, Fr. Galdon taught me how to teach. His striking resemblance to Bob Hope was a good start, but along with it, he brought an engaging classroom manner. There were never dull lectures from Fr. G, who was something of a performer, almost larger than life, in the classroom. His classes were always inter-active, dialogical, deeply involving, funny and fun. Yet he made us work hard: a quiz every blessed class, to aid fallen human nature and ensure that we read the works he assigned; regular compositions, at least once a week, I believe. He worked hard too: every quiz, every composition meticulously corrected and promptly returned. And his standards were high. I remember bemoaning why the masterpieces I poured my soul into ended up so often with a lousy, surely undeserved “7” or “8” (out of “10”); the occasional “9” for a composition produced a glow of pride that lasted for days. When, four years out of college, as a Jesuit regent, I taught my first English classes in Xavier University High School, so much of what I had experienced from Joe Galdon as a teacher I sought to bring to my own students. And now, after almost two decades in the classroom as a teacher myself, I still reverence Fr. Galdon as a teacher nonpareil.

When the news came last week that Fr. Galdon was dying, I confess that I was happy for him. I don’t remember exactly when the dementia began. All I know is that this once vibrant, intelligent Jesuit had become unresponsive, inaccessible, zombie-like. I suspect it’s been almost a decade, and it was painful to see. But I was relieved to know that this diminished half-life would soon come to an end. And yesterday, 15 March 2010, it did.

As I said, I never became close to him, even after I became a Jesuit. I read his homilies with profit and admiration, but I never really benefited from his ministrations as a priest. He was always a teacher to me. But, that was more than enough. He taught me—and so many others like me—how to read, how to write, how to teach. He honed our abilities; opened our imaginations; deepened our humanity. For these precious gifts, thank you, Fr. Galdon. May you now enjoy the fullness of life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Italian Boy's Confession

Someone sent this to me and I thought it would be an appropriate story for the feast of St. Augustine, who had something of a shady past.

'Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I have been with a loose girl'.

The priest asks, 'Is that you, little Joey Pagano ?'

'Yes, Father, it is.'

'And who was the girl you were with?'

'I can't tell you, Father. I don't want to ruin her reputation'.

"Well, Joey, I'm sure to find out her name sooner or later, so you may as well tell me now. Was it Tina Minetti?'

'I cannot say.'

'Was it Teresa Mazzarelli?'

'I'll never tell.'

'Was it Nina Capelli?'

'I'm sorry, but I cannot name her.'

'Was it Cathy Piriano?'

'My lips are sealed.'

'Was it Rosa DiAngelo, then?'

'Please, Father, I cannot tell you.'

The priest sighs in frustration.

'You're very tight lipped, and I admire that. But you've sinned and have to atone.
You cannot be an altar boy now for 4 months. Now you go and behave yourself.'

Joey walks back to his pew, and his friend Franco slides over and whispers, 'What'd you get?'

'Four months vacation and five good leads.'

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Men at Forty

I was led to this poem (and another one which I might post some time in the future) by a thoughtful essay by Exie Abola about turning 41. Maybe mid-life is slightly delayed for Jesuits because of their long course of formation, but I think the poem could just as validly have been entitled Men at Fifty. At any rate, the images of the poem--doors that will not be opened again, catching one's breath on a stair landing, seeing layers of time in the same face reflected in the mirror, the sound of crickets filling the twilight air, and unfinished projects like mortgaged houses--are arresting and perfect evocations of the experience. And the quiet that suffuses the poem, the tinge of melancholy but also the note of mild surprise and uncoerced acceptance of the way things just are, are on-target as well. I suspect there are not a few of us who might resonate with this poem.

Men at Forty
Donald Justice

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practises tying
His father's tie there in secret

And the face of the father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

"On the Death of the Beloved": A Blessing for Cory Aquino

Thank you to Inge del Rosario for posting this beautiful prayer by the Irish poet John O'Dononue on Facebook. It expresses the prayers of so many of us for the late President Aquino.

On the Death of the Beloved

Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.

Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives,
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of color.

The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.

Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.

Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was alive, awake, complete.

We look toward each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath
As close to us as we are to ourselves.

Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul's gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.

Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.

When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.

May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.

John O'Donohue

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"The Final Word of Ignatius"

The following is the concluding section of the homily preached by Fr. General Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., at the Eucharist celebrated on July 12, 2009, at the Ateneo de Manila High School Covered Courts, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the return of the Jesuits to the Philippines. The prayers and readings of the Eucharist were drawn from the Mass for the Feast of St. Ignatius. In a few simple and deeply personal sentences, Fr. General powerfully lays bare the heart of Ignatius' life and continued challenge to us, who dare to call him our patron and father. Happy feast to all!

"And the final word of Ignatius has always been: Give it all or go your way.

There is a poem of the Sufi mystic Rumi that says--and I paraphrase:
'This is the festival of love.
Give it all.
Or look for another festival.'

I am sure Ignatius could have made this poem his own if he had known it.

When I was elected General, I felt this was the last chance the Lord was giving me to finally 'Give it all.' I never contemplated the possibility. As the day approached and I began to see that things could get complicated, I was convinced I could easily decline and withdraw.

But when the hour came, I could not flee. Even now I am not sure I did the right thing accepting. But I felt deep down in my heart that this was the last call. You take it, or miss the flight of your life. It was time to give, time to love and serve, time to be grateful for everything received, time to give back, or rather, to let the Lord take back.

But this is not only relevant for the dramatic instant of being elected General. This is the call we all go through every time we approach the Lord with an open heart.

We might decide not to listen or to go on singing our own song. But the Lord is there giving, calling and waiting for us to say the final YES, the Ignatian YES, the YES that will finally make a difference.

One hundred fifty years is a good time to become aware of the fire that has kept the Province alive and creative and warm. But it also the time to realize that Lord is giving us another 150 years--on the condition that we say wholeheartedly the Ignatian YES and are willing to die as many times as our predecessors did . . . for the sake of the life of the Filipino people, of Asia, of the world.

Our imperfection, visible or invisible (although never invisible to our own selves) is our title of pride, as Paul would say. It is the best vehicle to share with people the ever life-giving goodness and mercy of God. We are not servants of a calculating and mean God, but of the life-giving God who can give life even to dead bones."

Adolfo Nicolas, S.J.
Superior General of the Society of Jesus
12 July 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mourning Michael Jackson?

These past two days, I have contributed my modest share to the unprecedented spike in sales of Michael Jackson music and to the dramatic increase in Internet activity connected to him. I have been watching old music videos. I haven’t seen—or even thought of--the Black and White video in over twenty-two years, but now I find myself watching it repeatedly during my free moments—as I have various reincarnations of Billie Jean, Beat It and Say, Say, Say. Beat It and We are the World have my been on my Ipod since I got my first Ipod five years ago, and David Cook’s version of Billie Jean since last year, but in the past couple of days, Man in the Mirror, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, She’s Out of My Life, and, of course, Black and White have joined their company.

Last night, I went to Mass and dinner with a group of Filipino priests and sisters. But at the bus stop, on the bus ride to the Collegio Filippino and on the return trip to the Curia after Eucharist, my Michael Jackson Ipod playlist was playing over and over again. It seemed a bit strange to be listening to Michael Jackson as Rome ancient and modern passed before my eyes.

"What am I doing?" I asked myself. I actually didn't know.

When I got back to the Curia later that evening, I had to squeeze into a tiny elevator with two tall and amply built American Jesuits who got off on the floor before mine. I had taken my earphones off to engage in the normal friendly chat. As they alighted and before the elevator doors closed, one of them said in parting, “You can go back to listening to Michael Jackson now.” I was a tad embarrassed. It felt somehow like being found out. A fifty-year-old priest listening to Beat It (which the sharp ears of my companion apparently detected from my dangling earphones) seemed a trifle unseemly, for some reason.

“I’ve been mourning,” I managed to quip back before the elevator doors closed.

Is that what this is: mourning? And if so: for whom?

Maybe “mourning” is too melodramatic a word. I’ve noticed a similar thing happen to me when Jesuits die. People you live with and take for granted as part of the landscape are suddenly gone, and all of a sudden, it’s like you see them for the first time, and realize how good and gifted these men were. So, in a similar way, the stark realization that the King of Pop is gone forever has launched me into a retrospective review of his work, and I find myself almost shocked into realizing some things that I’ve somehow always known, but, like everyone else, kind of forgot in the course of the bizarre, repugnant circus of his later life: that this is wonderful music, complex, rich, and utterly enjoyable; and he was a great and dazzlingly gifted musician and performer, original in an epoch-defining way.

And so, I suppose there is an element of mourning pervading all this: sadness that an artist who gave the world such delight should have been so deeply unhappy and ended up this way, a cautionary tale about our capacity for self-destruction. Sadness too about this perverse tendency in me, and perhaps in others, to appreciate things or people only when they are gone. As Michael Jackson sang (and I quote this from memory):

Now I know that love’s not possession,
And now I know that love can’t wait.
Now I know that love needs expression—
But I learned too late.

--She’s Out of My Life

But I think the point that really hits me is that I am revisiting songs that I never really listened to that closely when they were new. I don’t think I ever owned a single Michael Jackson record or cassette. And so the mysterious thing is: how do I know all these songs? I know the riffs, the lyrics, the vocal inflections, where the musical interludes should be. I am proud to say I never owned a record of Ben, and yet I am embarrassed to admit that I can sing the lyrics practically by heart. How did I end up memorizing the lyrics of She’s Out of My Life (which came out when I was a senior in college)—including my favorite phrase about “damned indecision and cursed pride”? How is it that Say, Say, Say, Beat It, Billie Jean, Rock with You, We are the World are all burned into some part of my internal hard drive, all filed in the folder “Old Favorites”? I can even sing the first part of You Are Not Alone, which came out, I think, in the early ‘90’s, by which time I had already stopped listening to popular music.

The only convincing explanation I can think of is that this was music that was so intertwined with my life world in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. To put it more simply, Michael Jackson’s music was the soundtrack of those years. His music came at me from everywhere: from the FM radio we listened to at home or while driving to and from the Ateneo; from the MTV’s I watched on TV; from the parties and the programs that were part of my teens and twenties. It was like the air. It surrounded you, and you breathed it in, hardly aware you were doing so.

So his music was intertwined with my youth, and the pleasure his music brought underscored and enhanced the heedless, unnoticed joy of being young.

And so, if there is an element of mourning, I suppose there is a bit of mourning for one’s irretrievably lost youth. The day Michael Jackson died, I read somewhere, the ‘80’s died. He is gone; those years and all they represent are gone; the world and I have grown old.

But lest that sound too maudlin and self-indulgent, I hasten to add that that the tinge of sadness is just that: a tinge. Mostly what I have experienced in my return to MJ music is pleasure. And gratitude: for good music, for the technology that makes access to it so effortless, and for the way that music brings back a time that, I realize now (again: the theme of not being present to one's own life as it happens!), was unburdened with regret, filled with possibilities, and uncomplicatedly happy. That Michael Jackson lives on in his music, and that there was such a time in my life are more than enough to assuage the sadness.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Holy Thursday Reflection, 9 April 2009


"'Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."' Have we done it so often that we have forgotten to be shocked by it?

When Jesus holds up the cup and offers what is in it as the fluid of forgiveness, he is not talking to people with a short list of minor sins. He is talking to people who will turn him in, who will scatter to the four winds at the first sign of trouble, and who will swear that they never knew him. He is talking to people who should have been his best friends on earth, who will turn out not to have a loyal bone in their bodies, and he is forgiving them ahead of time, as surely as if he had said, 'I know who you are. I know you will not be innocent of the blood in this cup, but I will not let that come between us. Look, here, I bless it. I make it my gift to you. Let it mean life to you, not death. Let my life become your life, through the blood of this covenant.'

The death cannot be overlooked, but it is the life that is being offered, the life that rushes out of that cup like a spring of living water. It is the new covenant and the last one--new because it is offered to us fresh each day and last because there is nothing more that God can say or do. This is as close as God can get: blood kin, indissoluble union, friend bound to friend for life, forever. 

When we lift the cup to our lips and drink, we accept the gift, renewing the covenant and reminding ourselves that we do not live for ourselves alone. We are possessors of a double life, having taken our friend's life and nature into ourselves. Inside of us God rides our bloodstream straight to our hearts where the covenant is written: I shall be your God and you shall be my people."

--Barbara Brown Taylor