Kolbe, Love, Milosz, and the A-Bomb

"While writing my poetry of the last few years I've been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I'm not sure how it came out in the end," say the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

“The last few years, while writing my poetry, I’ve been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I’m not sure how it came out in the end,” says the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

August 9th marked the deaths of both Maximilian Kolbe and Czeslaw Milosz. Cynthia Haven has written about how these two Poles have influenced the wider world in divergent ways that converge upon their Catholicism in the essay “The Doubter and the Saint.

Granted, Milosz was much more of a believer than we tend to give him credit. There is even a fairly badly translated series of letters exchanged between Milosz and JP2 available online here.

One goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are "sad stuff." But so is much of history and, not infrequently,  daily life.

One Goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are “sad stuff” and added a frowning smiley. But so is much of history and, not infrequently, so is daily life. But what does God have to do with that?

August 9th was also the 68th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. All of these convergences somehow reminded me of two short stories penned by the postwar Japanese-Catholic writer Shusaku Endo in the collection Stained Glass Elegies.

The first one features the strange encounter between a child and Kolbe during his mission to Japan. Later on, as an adult, the person shocked at the news of that someone so cowardly looking (like a mouse) found the courage to give up his life for another.

The other story involves a rich Japanese tourist visiting a Polish prostitute a severely economically depressed period in Poland and having an epiphany upon seeing a picture of Kolbe hanging on the wall (if I’m not mistaken) while waiting for her to undress.

All of this, in a roundabout way, brings me to a moving meditation on the blog City and the World about Nagasaki and Kolbe that I’d like to excerpt for you:

“…As I study the [picture of the relic, see below], I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb’s effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans’ photos reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin? I can’t know for sure, but I also can’t help but wonder whether they might have done so.

"Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint's hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb's victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier's body and the bodies of their kin?"

“Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin?”

What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, ‘Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates.’ For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption…”

You can read the rest here.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of all these connections, but I’ll add another one: Despite the Youtube description, below you will find an excerpt from the excellent Krzysztof Zanussi film about Kolbe, “Life for a Life.” You can find copies of this film scattered throughout the States. Unfortunately, only a few of Zanussi’s films are available in the States. I’d recommend “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” which features stunning (nearly silent) performances by Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska. It is set in the devastation of postwar Poland.

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UPDATE: The whole film is available in Polish (with much German) on YouTube. The acting is good enough that you could watch it without knowing either one of those languages.

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Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

Forgiveness Wins: The Perversity of the Prodigal Father

Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora's box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their "glad tidings": "A child has been born unto us."

Only the full experience of this capacity [for natality/forgiveness] can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, thosetwo essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” –Hannah Arendt

I reluctantly watched the new Arendt biopic. The trailer seemed to offer the same bowdlerized version of history I hated so much in The Lives of Others and Life is Beautiful.

Agnieszka Holland is much more up my alley when it comes to dealing with World War II, because she puts all the rough edges of history up front and center, which is what I believe good historical cinema should be about. Her breakthrough biographical film Europa, Europa dealt with so many twists and turns that it drove Lanzmann, the director of the classic documentary Shoah, into hysteric fits.

Reading The Human Condition softened me up to watch the new film about Hannah Arendt. The book spends a lot of time discussing the fragile practice of human freedom as it plays itself out in the plurality of the many networks of human relations that encompass us. Freedom is the quintessential obsession of the modern world, but Arendt thinks (this came out of nowhere for me) that freedom requires forgiveness. This is because freedom is by definition unpredictable. Furthermore, even with initial good intentions, as freedom gets channeled through the complex web of human relations, there is a high probably that it will cause harm to others.

This is where forgiveness comes in for Arendt. It also comes in a theological register for her. Her insight is so surprising that reading it felt a little bit like Christmas in July. Only when I read the following words did it become apparent she was telegraphing her intentions while talking about the natality of human freedom, its ability to give birth to totally unexpected, almost miraculous possibilities:

“The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense. It has been in the nature of our tradition of political thought (and for reasons we cannot explore here) to be highly selective and to exclude from articulate conceptualization a great variety of authentic political experiences, among which we need not be surprised to find some of an even elementary nature.”

So much for the separation of church and state. She really buries the ditch between revelation and history with that.

Arendt goes on to comment upon the practicality of the various admonitions to forgive endlessly that issued from the lips of Jesus (7 times and so on):

“Crime and willed evil are rare, even rarer perhaps than good deeds . . .  Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly. Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trust with so great a power as that to begin something new.”

How scandalous is this in a world where we’re constantly grinding old axes instead of starting anew? Is it possible to live this way? But is it possible to live otherwise?

These are questions I’d like to revisit sometime with regard to Poland, especially since the complexities of its history tend to be so frequently flattened out, I would say Orientalized, by Western scholars. (You can take a look at the comments at the end of this post for concrete examples of what I mean.)

Finally, in a Girardian vein avant la lettre, she contrasts the liberating freedom of forgiveness with the automation of vengeance (which is painfully familiar to anyone who has more than one kid, especially if their age differential is small):

“In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.”

What’s most disappointing is how Arendt wants to limit the act of forgiveness to small offenses, precisely the typical everyday stuff that happens seven times seventy times a day. She ignores Matthew 5:44 in the collection of Gospel quotations she uses to ratchet down the applicability. This can, in part, be explained by the fact that she is writing not long after the Holocaust, which tested the limits of forgiveness like no other event in history. On the other hand, the triviality of the acts she counts as forgiveness severely undercuts the ontological weight Arendt attributes to the creativity inherent in the act of forgiveness. It is a contradiction she does not work out in The Human Condition.

The film, more or less follows the same tracks. In the film she continually struggles to separate out the “banality of [Eichmann’s] evil” from the unforgivably monstrous end result of  his acts. Besides the anonymous readership of her New Yorker articles, her (soon to be ex-)friend since their student days under Heidegger, Hans Jonas, is her most strident critic. He thinks her banalization of evil forgives monsters like Eichmann and he cannot stomach it.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, holds up an issue of Time magazine outside a military recruitment center after being released from prison in Istanbul on Thursday. Agca served more than 25 years behind bars in Italy and Turkey.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, holds up an issue of Time magazine outside a military recruitment center after being released from prison in Istanbul on Thursday. Agca served more than 25 years behind bars in Italy and Turkey.

But what if Hans Jonas was mostly right, save for his disbelief in the power of forgiveness to cure us from vengeance even in situations of the most extreme evil? I’m reminded of the “Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops,” where the bishops of a country that lost six million of its citizens (both Jews and Catholics) to the Soviets and Nazis were asking the Germans for forgiveness for the crimes Poles committed against the Germans during the war. John Paul II was one of the signatories of this document.  He carried over its spirit into a papacy highlighted by apologies and attempts at healing age-old schisms that made so many decent people cringe (a bit like Hans Jonas in the film) and not enough people took seriously.

In all of this it’s important to remember that the line between victims and victimizers is very thin. It is not uncommon for former victims to turn into victimizers. Take the example of Hitler and Germany. Would the horrors of WWII have been possible without the punitive measures imposed upon Germany by France after WWI? In fact, the French were so vengeful that the Germans only finished paying back their reparations in 2010.

We celebrated Rembrandt's birthday, the painter of the best known images of forgiveness, about a week ago.

We celebrated Rembrandt’s birthday, the painter of the best known images of forgiveness, about a week ago.

I realize that what I’m exploring here is much more perverse than the shenanigans of Deleuze and Guattari. The shift I am tentatively proposing is akin to seeing the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. I think this is what Philippians 2:5 might mean. I’m still trying to figure it out. It seems to make more sense of the rough edges of my own life, and the very rough edges of both my countries (Poland and the USA), than the “natural” culture of retribution.

There are ways of reading what I’ve written here as monstrous. Go ahead. I can’t stop you. Comfort yourself with vengeance and resentment, but don’t let me know how that’s working for you. It generally hasn’t worked very well for me.

The film hints at this too as it closes with Arendt, who wrote her thesis on St. Augustine, making the classical argument that evil is a privation (another way of saying that it is “banal”?) of the good, which is truly radical, because it is the creative root of reality.

Kristeva’s Declaration of Dependence: On JP2

Kristeva in Assisi

Kristeva in Assisi

The only thing better than exposing famous atheists as believers as I did with Sartre and Camus is enlisting the help of atheists in unpopular ecclesial causes.  I sense the tide has turned, especially for Neo-Cons, on John Paul II.  Their attempts to baptize capitalism and every American war with the aid of JP2 have fallen short.  A surprising number of them now busies themselves taking the same sorts petty pot shots at Wojtyla they once hated from liberal Catholics (I won’t stoop to linking their attacks).

I would argue being in the crosshairs of both sides of the theological spectrum is a good place to be.  But don’t let me make the argument.  I’ll let Julia Kristeva, an atheist, feminist, and psychoanalyst make it for me. (She also appeared at the 2011 World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi.  You can read her call for peace between humanists and religionists here.)

Why is John Paul II significant according to her?

“‘Don’t be afraid of Christianity, and together we won’t fear religions!’ I find myself wanting to say to my agnostic, humanist, atheist friends. We hail from the same continent of thought, we often rise up ‘against’ each other because we are in reality ‘right against’ one another; let us continue our analyses . . . And I have a dream: may true complicities, essential in our face to face with the rise of barbarity, be woven not only, and to my way of thinking less, between Christianity and the other religions today tempted by fundamentalism, but between Christianity and this vision to which I adhere that grows out of Christianity, although it is detached from from it today, and has the ambition to elucidate the perilous paths of freedom. In his person and his acts John Paul II made this possible. Far more than sainthood, this pope has shown us his universal dimension.”

She made this statement in reaction to the pope’s passing and after re-reading his phenomenological treatise Person and Act, which is unfortunately only available in a botched translation entitled The Acting Person (which still might be available somewhere online).  However, Kristeva forgets how the “continent of thought” she’s talking about was created by the Christian revolution and cannot be detached from it so easily.

Let’s not get bogged down in the details, but it is true that without the fundamental Christian revolution we wouldn’t notice whole classes of people.  The Greeks, Romans, the Enlightenment (we should remember on the Fourth of July), and Nietzsche didn’t make much of the weak and dependent other than sporadically wanting to eliminate them.

And so it’s important to note Kristeva also thinks the greatness of John Paul II consists in his witness of weakness:

“[I’m never sure whether the original French or the translation is jumbled when it comes to Kristeva.  But I’m sure you’ll get the point, ed.] On that day, and up to his death, we saw a handicapped man expose himself.  All those handicapped citizens, their families, and those with whom I work to have the rights of these excluded people, not like the others, recognized, know the difficulty, or even the impossibility of ensuring that the dignity of the most vulnerable, those who make us face up to deficiency and psychic or physical death, was respected.  Whereas society, dogged by the cult of performance, of excellence and enjoyment, makes manifest the shortcomings of this culture of mutual assistance and, beyond, of the identification with the suffering of Christ on the Cross or the ease in Christian sadomasochism that John Paul II successfully maintained even on his deathbed, the body of the handicapped pope was and remains and invitation to know life up to its limits.  And to develop this solidarity with people who are dependent–the handicapped or the aged–which modern humanism has so much difficulty doing.”

You can read more of her thoughts on Catholicism, especially John Paul II, in her collection of essays, This Incredible Need to Believe.

"Ecce homo," says Kristeva

“Ecce homo,” says Kristeva