Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Amtrak and God's Merciful Providence

We recently got back from our trip to Milwaukee for the annual Society of Saint Polycarp retreat at Holy Hill Monastery. This was essentially the same journey as last year, but with some joyful changes - both expected and unexpected.

Once again, we took Amtrak's legendary City of New Orleans train from New Orleans to Chicago, an overnight trip in a sleeper room - followed by an hour-and-a-half commuter ride on the Hiawatha completing the journey to Milwaukee. The return trip was the same, only in reverse.

We learned our lesson from last year and took an earlier Hiawatha (Milwaukee to Chicago) on our return trip so as not to miss our connection. And we're glad we did. Instead of being stranded in Chicago overnight and then relegated to coach for the overnight trip, we were able to enjoy our privacy and comfort and stay on schedule.

Once again, the meals on Amtrak were outstanding, and the service friendly. And Leo being five instead of four made a great difference. Under the circs, the "Last of the Spartans" did really well. Especially considering that he was stuck in a monastery for a couple days with no children to play with - that is, unless one considers Brother Latif to be in that category. The game of "toss the beret on the deacon's head" was a hit.

And speaking of Br. Latif, he and his wife Ruth were most gracious in putting us up for a couple days of vacation and sightseeing after the conclusion of the retreat (not to mention a cookout that, in the words of Arlo Guthrie, "could not be beat"), even treating us to a visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, trips to local coffeehouses (and Jimmy John's!) on Brady Street, and a bag of Alterra coffee to take home. We also experienced The Spice House for the first time. Thank you, dear friends!

The retreat itself was a time of great refreshment, of prayer, worship, and discussion of spiritual matters with both lay and clergy brethren within our beloved Evangelical Lutheran tradition and confession within the Church Catholic. We celebrated the Holy Eucharist each day. There was a lot of time built in for catching up, as well as for presentations and book reports on a wide range of topics.

The meals at the monastery were largely home cooked by Christina (who remembered us from last year, but who unfortunately for us is moving on to better opportunities). The food was simply wonderful. We also enjoyed a couple meals in town together with all of us and our families. After the conclusion of the retreat, we met with a pastor from Oklahoma who was in town for another conference, and he was received into the Society.

Mrs. H. and I also met with fellow Polycarpian (and former parishioner) Mike Green and his wife Amy - as well as (for the first time) their daughter Jillian, who is our goddaughter. She is a delightful baby - happy and intelligent - and it was a great joy to see our friends Br. Mike and Amy for the first time in months. They are wonderful parents, and seem to be really enjoying the ride. We look forward to watching Jillian grow up.

The only real downside came in the form of disappointment in not seeing my friend and colleague who had fully expected to be there, the Reverend Shane Cota, whose radiator decided to go bad on the ride up. Fr. Shane is a devoted pastor and churchman, and was sorely missed. I hope to see him before next year's retreat.

Also, thanks to the Reverend Tim May for being "pastor-on-the-spot" and taking care of the retreat arrangements for us - as well as saying Mass for us two of the three times while we were on retreat. Thanks also for his celebration of the daily Divine Service at his parish, St. Stephen (LCMS) - which we also attended while in town.

It was, of course, also a great joy to see all of the rest of the brethren - whom for the most part I had not seen since last year - as well as a few new faces. Each year, our retreat has gotten larger. We're already starting to plan and make improvements for next year.

One unexpected grace came by what can only be described as pure unbridled divine providence: I got to meet with, and sit in on a Latin class by, the Carmelite monk Fr. Reginald Foster. Fr. Reggie was, until very recently, the pope's personal Latinist. All Vatican documents must be officially translated into Latin, and that was Reggie's job. He also developed quite a reputation for his unusual teaching methods and generosity (the latter of which got him in hot water with the Pontifical Gregorian University for which he formally taught).

Vatican Radio produced a series of podcasts featuring the unpredictable, irascible, and quick-witted friar known as The Latin Lover bantering with his equally unflappable co-host Veronica Scarisbrick (archives available for your listening pleasure here). I especially enjoyed this episode in which Fr. Reggie explains what it is like to be a Carmelite. This NY Times article from 2004 captures Reggie quite well - at least based on my own limited observation and reading what others have written.

Fr. Foster's class on the Janiculum Hill in Rome has been attended by people from every walk of life - including pastors of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. It seemed an impossibility to ever sit in on one of his classes, as parochial and family duties (not to mention those two impediments "time" and "money") prevent my traveling abroad.

Fr. Foster had returned to Milwaukee last year suffering with health problems (from which he has made a remarkable recovery). Meanwhile, he turned 70- years old and was officially retired from the Vatican. He now lives in a Carmelite monastery in Milwaukee and teaches Latin out of a local church basement. His teaching schedule is as rigorous as it was in Rome, and his classes are still free.

I would have been completely ignorant of this opportunity were it not for a fellow traveler on the Hiawatha, a gracious college student whose name was Gus. We didn't speak at all until we arrived in Milwaukee. I noticed the temperature was 63 degrees and commented to Mrs. H. that this was cold for us. Gus chuckled and told us he was from North Dakota originally and had the opposite perspective. We spoke about why we were in Milwaukee. Gus, it turns out, is a university student who is interested in linguistics - especially Latin. He explained that he was in town to study under Fr. Foster.

This was simply unbelievable! I took out my small Latin dictionary from my pocket and brandished it like a passport.

I told Gus that I teach Latin to middle school kids using Hans Oerberg's book Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. It turns out that Gus's ambition is to become a Latin teacher and use this very same book! As our ride was nearly over, we closed out our conversation. I asked Leo: "Ubi est Roma?" and he replied "Roma in Italia est." Gus asked how old he was, and then asked him to count to five in Latin - which he did. I gave Gus my card and asked if he would contact me in the case that I might be able just to shake Fr. Foster's hand. I would consider that a great honor. I also got Gus's e-mail address.

A couple days later, I got a call on my cellphone. Gus said that Reggie would love to meet us, and passed along his cellphone number. I called him, and he was very gracious and invited us to meet him in the church basement. Br. Latif, Ruth, Mrs. H., Leo, and myself showed up just as he was finishing a session.

He sat in a wheelchair in front of a projector and "scolded" Latif and me for being late. We were given a copy of his large photocopied collections of readings that comprise his course. He held class for a few minutes until the break - at which time, we introduced ourselves. We took pictures and some video. He was delightfully cranky and contrary (all with a smile on his face). He was a good sport as we snapped his picture with this one and that. Leo even grabbed his projection device and moved it. Reggie tried to look annoyed, but shook Leo's hand and greeted him.

I repeated the question to Leo: "Ubi est Roma?" and upon Leo's reply, Fr. Foster knew that I was using the Oerberg text - which he proceeded to make fun of and explain that he doesn't like it (which he later said that it was actually a good text, but for him, a slow way to learn Latin). After blurting out gruffly that he doesn't sign books, that's just what Fr. Reggie did for us - inscribing beautiful Latin for both myself and Br. Latif - in my case, writing inside my little yellow dictionary that Reggie deemed "cute." I will keep the inscription to myself, as he was gracious and kind in his remarks about me and my family. I know Fr. Reggie has his cantankerous reputation to uphold, and far be it from me to spoil it.

Following the break, Fr. Foster allowed Latif and I to sit in on his "lecture" - though he corrected me that this was not a "lecture" but rather an "experience." Indeed, it was. On this occasion, he taught using Cicero, Caesar, Livy, and a medieval German author. He questioned students around the room, cracking jokes, telling stories, detailing intricacies of language, and used mild profanity on occasion. He was dressed in rumpled street clothes and drank PBR out of the can. He made a few wisecracks about us Lutherans, took shots at modern academia, and peppered his speech with grunts, groans, and eye-rolling (this very sentence could well have been written about one of our own beloved seminary professors - I'll just mention his initials: D-A-V-I-D S-C-A-E-R). I managed to scribble out a couple pithy quotes. Fr. Reggie's students (to use the imperfect tense) were loving it.

The Wikipedia article explains:

Foster's teaching style has made him the subject of BBC documentaries and a chapter in Alexander Stille's book The Future of the Past. It is characterized by a gruff style that feigns anger, disappointment, and a sense of despair for the future of Latin studies. Yet most students see that the demeanor is merely part of his style, and consider his "tough love" approach a refreshing contrast to the coddling of undergraduate American curricula. His pedagogy often can be a bit contrarian: In terms of his teaching, the task of translating any bawdy Latin text might, for example, go to a pious sister, and a text from St. Augustine or Pope St. Leo the Great to an atheist or a Jew.

Fr. Foster's class was education at its pinnacle.

There were about two dozen students, all young save for one (not counting Latif and me who are not young, of course). Their cars in the parking lot were from as far east as Massachusetts and as far west as British Columbia. They are there for the summer, and are receiving no college credit; likewise Fr. Foster is not charging them anything. Professor and students were all there for one reason: love of the Latin language. The students are not there for grades or a piece of paper.

After an hour-and-a-half session that flew by, we thanked Gus (who was very gracious and respectful), thanked Fr. Foster again, and took our leave. If circumstances were different, I would have loved to have enrolled for the summer. But that is just not to be. But the Lord in His infinite wisdom, mercy, and providence allowed me to enjoy a short but wonderful and inspiring opportunity to meet Fr. Foster and take part in a little of the "experience."

So our retreat and subsequent vacation were an unmitigated success. Though it is good to be back home, where the only time it is sixty-three is when you walk into an air conditioned restaurant. The people of Milwaukee were, yet again, gracious and vivacious. The folks in Chicago were typically Chicagoan. There is no need to elaborate. But we sure are glad to get back to our home, critters, books, and bed. There is a lot to do this summer, and a little R&R is just what the doctor ordered.

More pictures are here.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Who'd y'all get from Oklahoma?

Bror Erickson said...

Really, amtrak? I have never had a pleasant experience on Amtrak. This is the first I have heard of one.

Matthias Flacius said...

I'd love to sit in on Fr. Foster's class.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

I am Gus' mother! He just told me about this whole story! God's providence is really amazing! I will be blogging about this--what a fun story.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ana:

What a joy to hear from you! I have actually been meaning to contact you - my wife and I have some questions for you (I hope it isn't too pretentious of us). Your son is a great guy. I hope my son is just like him in 13 years or so.

I actually ran across one of your Amazon reviews not long ago.

So, I'll make a friend request on facebook to you, and will contact you by e-mail if that's okay!

Peace be with you!

Patrick Braga-Henebry said...

"The folks in Chicago were typically Chicagoan."

Hey! We're really quite nice!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Patrick:

Too anecdotal to convince me. ;-)

I actually find Chicagoans to be exceedingly nice folks - at least when they are in New Orleans. :-)