Saturday, August 13, 2005

What I did on my summer vacation.

Yesterday the novices of Loyola House returned from our two-week villa at Omena, a particularly lovely corner of the Leelanau Peninsula overlooking the Grand Traverse Bay. Every summer for the past sixty-odd years, the novices and scholastics of the Chicago and Detroit Provinces have gathered at Omena for a vacation-cum-reunion. Though the men in formation staying at Omena are expected to attend daily Mass and keep up a regular prayer schedule, otherwise we're free to spend our days boating, golfing, lounging, shopping and so forth. Boating is something I did a little, joining some of my fellow novices on afternoon jaunts to nearby Suttons Bay and Traverse City. I haven't golfed in years, and I passed on the opportunity to take it up again. However, I did do a fair amount of lounging (being able to sleep in for a change was nice) and shopping (especially at local bookstores, both used and new). I also spent a fair amount of time getting to know the Leelanau Peninsula, which I've fallen in love with - perhaps in part because it reminds me of the area I grew up in, albeit much more sparsely populated and with much more open space.

In my last post, I promised to offer some specific highlights of my time at Omena, so here goes. The Traverse City Film Festival - the first installment of what backers (notably including Michael Moore) hope will become an annual event - was great. I managed to see two films on the festival calendar - Downfall, a finely-crafted chronicle of the fall of the Third Reich, and Gunner Palace, a documentary about a U.S. Army unit quartered in a half-ruined palace in Baghdad. Though both films were about war, they struck me very differently. Downfall blew me away with its outstanding performances and superior production values. Gunner Palace, by contrast, genuinely surprised me by eschewing politics and focusing on the almost-mundane details of daily life in a war-torn country: details like a soldier carefully removing a tomato slice from a fast food hamburger as he eats lunch atop an APV, the mixed attitudes of Iraqi kids following troops on patrol, and a suspected Ba'athist leader ("#89" on the wanted list) pausing before a mirror to comb his hair before being taken in for questioning. There's also a truly hysterical scene in which SPC Stuart Wilf (a Colorado Springs GI who essentially serves as the film's protagonist) recounts something of his life story while his buddy SPC Tom Susdorf complements the narration with a brilliant series of pantomime gestures (for instance, dropping out of school is represented by a quick downward motion of both hands). If you only see one movie about the Iraq War (not that there's many to choose from at the moment), see Gunner Palace.

Among other Omena highlights, I should probably say something about my visit to the Cross in the Woods Shrine and its Nun Doll Museum. The giant crucifix that gives the shrine its name is truly impressive, standing 55 feet tall and seeming even taller because it stands atop a 20 foot mound. The Nun Doll Museum was intriguing if somewhat spooky at times. It's clear that a great amount of the dedication and devotion went into assembling the collection, which includes hundreds of dolls of various sizes representing a plethora of different women's (and some men's) religious orders. The comprehensive scope of the Museum's holdings was proven to me when I found a doll representing the Servants of Jesus, a very small diocesan congregation headquartered across the street from Loyola House (as reported here). For all I know, there are probably even tinier religious orders represented in the Nun Doll Museum's collection, but I can't say for sure. I can say, though, that it was a poignant experience to walk through the Museum and watch older visitors point to dolls on display and say things like, "I was taught by those nuns" or "my aunt belonged to that congregation." If you grew up with women religious - as I and many of my contemporaries in the post-Vatican II Church did not - you could find yourself curiously moved on a visit to the Nun Doll Museum. For my part, I was moved to see people who were moved by the experience.

I also got a lot of reading done at Omena. After polishing off a volume of selected letters addresses by our late Superior General Pedro Arrupe, I read Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk. Norris' book shows a strong affection for the Benedictine tradition and offers interesting insights on sundry topics related to the psalms, prayer, saints and the experience of 'being church.' I should also say here - because I honestly can't mention The Cloister Walk without doing so - that the book had an interesting cameo in my vocation story, even though I didn't read it until a few days ago. After I told my parents that I was applying to enter the Society, my mother went to the local library in search of books about religious life. As Mom reported later, all they had was The Cloister Walk, which was singularly unhelpful. Later, Mom found a number of useful books on Jesuit and Ignatian topics, including vocation director faves The Fifth Week and In Good Company as well as Paul Mariani's Thirty Days and Bill Byron's superlative Jesuit Saturdays. In any case, The Cloister Walk came first, and I'll always remember that. (Will you, Mom?)

Lest you think it took me two weeks to slog through the four-hundred or so pages of The Cloister Walk, I must note that I read a few other books at Omena as well. One of these was Greek Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis' Light Through Darkness, a fine introduction to Eastern Christian spirituality. After finishing Chryssavgis, I read a modern classic of American religious history that I'd been meaning to pick up for years - Robert Orsi's The Madonna of 115th Street. I enjoyed Orsi's book, but I also appreciated the change of pace that came with the next title on the list - Kathleen Stocking's Letters from the Leelanau. A Leelanau County native, Stocking offers a book full of incisive slice-of-life essays about her home peninsula. As I noted above, I've already fallen in love with the Leelanau, so I look on Stocking's book as a real gem.

In novitiate life there's seldom rest for the weary, and my two weeks at Omena provided a welcome vacation in what's been a busy summer. Now it's back to work, however - this weekend the Loyola House community will be busy preparing for our second-year novices' profession of first vows on Sunday. Though a busy time, this is also a happy one, and your prayers for our vovendi would be most welcome. Expect an update on the proceedings sometime in the next couple days. AMDG.


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