Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unforeseeable Encounters

Blogging puts one in touch with unlikely correspondents. This week I received a pair of comments from a native Russian-speaker living in Latvia. I was particularly struck by “Master Bo’s” comment on a post about the CL Fraternity Exercises:

Well, I saw this Fraternity Exercises from Riga Latvia. And I`d like to ask you about Giussani and Dorothy Day. May be you know, what was Giussani`s opinion about Catholic Worker? Sorry for my English. My native language is Russian.

I did not have an answer for my new on-line friend, but he was asking about two people I care deeply about. Giussani is the founder of Communion and Liberation, Day nothing less than the most important American Catholic, male or female, of the 20th century (IMHO*). So I asked my friend Suzanne Tanzi, the editor of the CL magazine Traces, if she could shed any light on Bo’s question. She replied:

Don’t know about that--I doubt very much that DG [Don Giussani] actually opined about the CW [Catholic Worker] Movement--but I do know that DD [Dorothy Day] was invited to Rimini and there was a syntony between them. Do you have anything on her visit to Rimini?

I had to look up syntony. That’s why Suzanne’s the editor, I the writer. Syntony is “[the] state of being adjusted to a certain wave length; agreement or tuning between the time period of an apparatus emitting electric oscillations and that of a receiving apparatus, esp. in wireless telegraphy.” In other words, the mot juste.

An hour later, Suzanne came back with this:

Here is what I was thinking of--it was not Rimini but something else.

What followed was a reprint of a 2006 Traces article. While it does link DG and DD, most notably it contains the remarkable story of artist William Congdon’s conversion. I reprint it in full, for your interest and that of Master Bo, my new friend in Latvia.

Recalling an Unforeseeable Encounter
In October of 1963, while on a vacation and speaking trip in Italy, Dorothy Day met Fr. Giussani and artist William Congdon, who acted as an interpreter for one of her talks. Here is an excerpt from her travel journal, originally published in The Catholic Worker.

by Dorothy Day

When I was in Milan last May, I spoke to the university students and [artist] Bill Congdon translated my talk. The meeting was held after a Sunday morning Mass at the Church of St. Anthony, Abbot, when the transepts and the body of the church were packed with students who began their worship with Prime. It was thrilling to hear the old Latin hymns. The Mass was in the Ambrosian rite and the students sang the Gelineau psalms. A meeting later was held in the Cardinal Schuster School in the paved and roofed-over cloister. It had been made into a large meeting hall, and the imposing rostrum was presided over by a plaque of Ozanam, who also started his apostolate as a student and continued it as a teacher and married man. Our own Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh spoke about Ozanam as a model for young men in a talk he gave before the Newman Clubs of the United States.

Fr. Giussani’s Talk
It was easy for me to speak, thanks to that plaque, because it kept me in mind of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, which all Catholic students understand and which are all-embracing in the intellectual or manual labors which are before them. Within the colonnades of this cloister there are great paintings from the lives of the saints, eight or ten feet high, and, over the plaque of Ozanam, a Byzantine crucifix. I was surprised to see how pervasive was the Byzantine influence in the art of Italy, but I should not have been, considering the pre-Christian and post-Christian influence of the Greek civilization.

This meeting went on all morning and I was impressed again at the patience of the Italians, as I had been on the trains especially, which are always overcrowded (though they run on time). The students were intent and disciplined during this long meeting. Don Luigi Giussani is the inspiration of this work among the youth of Milan. They are given the best in intellectual and spiritual leadership and Don Giussani is not afraid of taking their time, asking all, demanding search, research, more meetings, preparation for that moment, that opportunity, that choice which will affect their entire lives. All this emphasizes the need to intensify their prayer life. The meetings stimulate their minds, inflame their hearts. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh. There cannot be too many words of this kind, words that crowd out frivolities. Read, study. “Wisdom is the most active thing.”

Bill Congdon
Meanwhile, as Don Giussani spoke, Bill was writing out the translation. Bill Congdon at previous meetings had spoken to them–he is fluent in Italian and they responded to his warmth, to what Jacques Maritain called his “strangely deep douceur, his defenseless candor, a vulnerability to any spiritual arrow, either the arrow of distress in this world and of that beauty which wounds the senses, or the arrows of the supramundane shores.” The fact that I was introduced by him and interpreted by him made my welcome a warm one.

I have before me now as I write, In My Disc of Gold – Itinerary to Christ, with “presentations” by Jacques Maritain, Father M. C. D’Arcy, and Thomas Merton, published by Reynal and Company, New York. It is a book of plates of Congdon’s paintings produced in color and in black and white, beginning with a black and white of Staton Street, right off the Bowery where he lived for a time right after the war. During the war, he had served with the American Field Services, as a few of our editors had also, and for a time afterward he returned to Europe to do relief work. When he lived on Staton Street, he wrote in his own account of his conversions which is printed in this remarkable book: “At that time I could no longer face the comfort, security, the thinking and living by tradition to which I was born and had been accustomed. I went to live in a one room, cold water flat for seventeen dollars a month just off the Bowery.” Staton Street is just around the corner from the Catholic Worker.

“I did not paint as I had studied, reproducing the object through an art of illusion; I painted the image of the object that rose up within me as emotion, that impelled me to paint, in its own time, not mine. This was my first conversion in 1948. The tenement facades began to bloom within me, to grow into an image that palpitated with multiple suffering within them; and within me no doubt as well. Blocks of identical tenements, identical miseries repeated street after street as I had seen them repeated in dressing stations in the war, in hospital corridors, and in the numbered huts of concentration camps. The Bowery, Staton Street, Mulberry Street, Spring Street.”

He went back to Italy which he loved, and went to Assisi for the first time in 1951. The Byzantine crucifix which spoke to St. Francis spoke to him too, in another way. He began to read The Little Flowers of St. Francis. One of my favorite stories in The Fioretti is “This then is perfect joy.” For the eight years which preceded his conversion he was never separated from this book.

And then “a stranger” drew him from his solitude and introduced him to the Pro Civitate Christiana “where he was given a greeting of such affection that he could not forget it.” Don Giovanni Rossi, founder of the association, and friend of Pope John XXIII, asked him in all simplicity if he was thinking of becoming a Catholic. He ran away at this point. “I traveled rapidly and constantly, seeking in the redemptive symbols of others substitutes for my own salvation.” He went to India, to Greece, to Egypt. To the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea and to the desert of the Sahara. Eight years later he returned to Assisi, to Don Giovanni, and in August 1959 he became a Catholic.

He took a small house in Assisi, 600 years old in an olive and fig orchard, and I visited him there. Sally Douglass and I were his guests at the Pro Civitate Christiana, and it was from there that we went to the students in Milan. There is much more to William Congdon’s story than these short paragraphs. His book tells much more, besides giving reproductions of his paintings. His paintings are found in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Duncan Phillips Gallery, and the Betty Parsons Gallery.

The text provided in the article was reprinted with permission of The Catholic Worker.

* In my humble opinion

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your reply. I`m Master Bo but I made ​​a new real name.

    ReplyDelete

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