Basilica of Mary, Queen of the Universe

IMG_7229My family visits a basilica in southern Wisconsin every December 31, giving ourselves some time to end the year in thanks and with prayers for the new year.

Although we’re in Florida this year, more than a thousand miles away from our home, we managed to keep our tradition alive. We visited the Basilica of Mary, Queen of the Universe, a beautiful modern church on 17 acres of landscaped campus in Orlando.

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An artist’s rendering of Saul on the road to Damascus.

The basilica has a number of striking pieces of religious art – sculptures and paintings – both inside and outside of the church. After the usual theme park visits and the abundance of over-the-top entertainment, the basilica in Orlando was a welcome, peaceful break.

 

 

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“I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation”

“We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us. But in our violent world, it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, and we don’t like the odds.”

These words are from one of the best reflections on Christmas I’ve read in a long time. The “true meaning of Christmas” may be the most overused, hackneyed holiday-special cliche of all time but it’s exactly what author Parker Palmer gets at in his essay The Risk of Incarnation.

Is the event of the Incarnation just God taking flesh as an adorable baby to charm us once a year? Or is it radically life-changing, a call, a challenge, a guide to living our lives?

Parker writes, “…I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short — yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.”

“An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as we get.” he states. “What an infant needs is not theological debate but nurturing. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that cry out to become embodied in this broken world. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to find the courage to take on flesh — to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming our lives along with the life of the world — they need the shelter of unconditional love.”

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

imageAs the husband of an Indian woman, I’ve come to expect certain reactions from my fellow Americans when I tell them where my wife Manju is from. The most common responses can be grouped into two main categories: 1) “Oh yeah, India, I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire” and 2) “Oh yeah, India, I read a book about the poverty there.”

Perhaps this over-proliferation of predictable responses is why I never got around to seeing Slumdog – in spite of the whole world talking about it – and had never read any of the many books about poverty in India – until this month.

What changed my mind about the reading thing was my boss tossing a book about India on my desk a week ago and my realization that it might be a good idea if I could eventually talk with him about it.

After just a few pages, I realized that the book in question, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, was going to be one of those reads that haunt you day and night. It’s a book you can’t stop thinking about.

I’m also convinced that it’s not really a book “about India” any more than, say, a book covering life in New Orleans is “about the United States.” It’s a slice, a small sample, but Forevers is about people who could be living in any place where extreme poverty and institutionalized corruption lead to desperation, deeply compromised moral and ethical decisions, and mistreatment of those closest to us (including neighbors, family members, and the very people who could band together and improve our shared conditions).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo writes non-fiction like a novel, getting inside the heads of many of the 90,000 residents of Annawadi, an “undercity” in the shadow of luxury hotels and restaurants near the Mumbai airport. The book’s title refers to an advertisement for floor tiles displayed prominently and ironically on the wall separating the two worlds

Boo’s skill as a story-teller allows us to get beyond the vast differences of economy and country and culture to appreciate both the daily and the life-long struggles of individuals ranging from young trash scavengers, girls coming-of-age, and desperate mothers trying to save their families and themselves from complete collapse.

As a New York Times writer, Boo also brings her journalistic sensibilities to the book. She uses the real names of everyone involved including the legion of persons who abuse the power of their position – police officers, politicians, court officials, even those running charities – to benefit financially or socially.

If good writing is about showing not telling, then Boo succeeds masterfully in describing almost dispassionately how these undercity residents live and plan and survive. Her narrative profoundly reveals her protagonists’ lives, detailing on a daily basis the suffering and moral complexity of living in a world in which none of the social structures work and, even more disturbing, how people at each socio-economic level ruthlessly abuse and profit from those below them.

In 2009, my family and I flew into the Mumbai airport and my wife’s brother took us to dinner at one of the luxury hotels in the area. Like my fellow Americans, I stared in shock at the undercities and the people sleeping on the ground next to the highway. I must have passed close to Annawadi at the time Boo was researching her book. At the time, I had no idea what I was looking at – or whom I was looking at. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I strongly recommend this book and, thanks to my boss, have overcome a literary blind spot.

I’m still not interested in Slumdog Millionaire though.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

"Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" by http://www.alindergallery.com/. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Moonrise,_Hernandez,_New_Mexico.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Moonrise,_Hernandez,_New_Mexico.jpg

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” by http://www.alindergallery.com/. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico via Wikipedia

Seventy-three years ago last month Ansel Adams made this iconic picture of a New Mexico village, landscape, and sky that is still one of his most popular works.

While he’s strongly associated with his native California, especially photographs of Yosemite and the Sierra wilderness, Ansel made several visits to the desert Southwest and his images from those trips have become equally known and loved.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is a photo I come back to over and over. For me it expresses in a quiet but powerful way the transcendence of beauty over emptiness, loneliness, the mundane, even over death itself.

The composition of the picture speaks of hope and inspiration, moving from complexity to profound simplicity. Beginning with the plurality of forms at the bottom of the photo, our eye rises through the grave markers and the more simple adobe structures of the church and other buildings, into the soaring beauty of the mountains and clouds, and finally we lose ourselves in the profound depths of the dark sky.

There in the sky, silent yet eloquent, solitary yet connected, simple yet awe-inspiring, is the form and light of the nearly round moon. Almost half of the picture is dark sky and still the moon holds its own, suspended in motion, blessing the landscape below.

I’ve spent time traveling in New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, and even the state of Chihuahua across the Mexican border. Much of the landscape in these places reminded me of Ansel’s “Moonrise.” The dominant memory of each trip is gazing with mouth agape, in awe of the surreal landscape of mesas, canyons, and deserts, often with snow-capped mountains on the far horizon.

Even my favorite series of novels is set in the desert Southwest. The mystery stories of the late Tony Hillerman captivated me from page one of The Blessing Way, the first book in the series. Hillerman loved the stark, stunning landscape of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico and that deep appreciation permeates every book in the series.

Ansel Adams made “Moonrise” after a long day working in another location in New Mexico. Driving just before sunset with his son and one of his best friends, he came over a hill outside the small town of Hernandez and saw this scene. Ansel stopped and yelled for everyone to get out of the car and quickly set up the camera. Seconds after he took this iconic photograph the sun set. The light was gone, the moment was over. He didn’t have time for even a second exposure.

Much has been made over Ansel’s vision to not only see this amazing image but also his ability to quickly set up and make a photograph. When he didn’t have time even to grab his light meter, he recalled by memory the luminescence of the moon and adjusted his exposure accordingly. His skill, his preparation, his training had all prepared him for that one moment and allowed him to make this picture.

This image is about life and death. The grave markers, reflecting the last light of the setting sun, are one of the most distinctive features of this photo. The image begins with death and the universal need for each one of us to consciously accept our own death. But this is done in hope, moving up through life and beauty to the simplicity of the One, the Light that overcomes darkness.

As we approach the winter solstice with the long nights and short days, and the gifts of Advent and Christmas and the Christmas season, this is a photo that brings comfort, hope, and inspiration.