By Bronwen McShea - Mainz, Germany - Ordinary Time/All Saints 2011
This season, I had intended to compose a fuller essay, as I have in past issues. I had also intended that this issue would be up online by the end of August, not long after the Feast of the Assumption. But our production time was truncated and our publishing schedule delayed, the primary reason being a good upheaval in my life.
I am no longer editing the journal at a desk in New Haven, Connecticut, where I recently completed graduate studies in European history. Due to a professional opportunity that arose for me rather unexpectedly, earlier this summer, I recently moved to the city of Mainz in Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate. I miss my friends in New Haven, where I spent six very full years as a student, as a resident of the East Rock neighborhood, and as a member of the increasingly thriving Catholic community in and beyond New Haven. I miss Saint Mary's parish on Hillhouse Avenue. But I remain tied to New Haven, regardless of where I am now and where I may end up next year: Pilgrim Publishers, Inc. remains based in New Haven, and several of Pilgrim's editors and advisory board members -- and some of my dearest friends -- reside there. In the future, I hope to be a regular visitor to New Haven, if not once again a resident of that city.
I expect to be in Mainz through the end of August 2012. I will do my very best to ensure that Pilgrim's seasonal issues are published in as timely a manner as is possible, given new demands in my own professional life, and given the ever evolving professional and family responsibilities of our staff members and regular contributors. If the journal is not published more or less on a precise quarterly schedule, every three months, the reason is simply that Pilgrim is the organic work primarily of persons who are not journalists by profession, but who are committed to the project as long as it seems to facilitate our fulfilling a call each of us strives to answer, in different ways, in our diverse everyday lives. That call is to articulate, advocate, and more truly to live a holistic vision of a human life that is clarified and graced by intellectual and cultural activity, motivated as much as possible by loving assent to the Spirit of God. For this reason, we do not regard intellectual and cultural pursuits per se -- and certainly not intellectual production or output with a kind of mechanical regularity -- as ends in themselves or as vehicles for seeking attention and praise.
To share a bit with you about my new home, which is a university city of close to 200,000 persons and historically the city of Saint Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans, I am tacking on to this message two photographs. One, on the right, depicts the Saturday farmer's market in the center of the city, in the shadow of the great medieval cathedral named after Saint Martin of Tours, but known more familiarly as the Mainzer Dom. I can see the great dome and towers of the cathedral from the room I am renting in an early seventeenth-century building (which itself once belonged to the Society of Jesus, before the Jesuits were disbanded, temporarily, in the late eighteenth century). The other picture, above, is a detail from a stone sculpture inside the museum housed at the Mainzer Dom. It is a lovely image for Pilgrim: this band of blessed folk appears to be moving toward something -- their divine destiny, I presume. They appear to be aware of us onlookers, too, gesturing with their hands -- a sign of blessing, or perhaps a wave goodbye or Auf wiedersehen, looking forward in hope to meeting us again. The sculpture dates from the Thirteenth Century and is one of numerous works in Mainz by medieval artists and artisans.
Where I will end up after this year is uncertain: presumably, I will return to the United States. But I am learning never to be too certain about anything in this life, except about God's loving if mysterious Providence in it.
I would like to spend the remainder of this essay on a few reflections -- as yet only partly developed, because I am so newly arrived in Germany -- about what my sudden move from my home country, which I love dearly for all its flaws, means for me as editor of a journal called Pilgrim.
When the name Pilgrim was first considered for the web journal, I had a strong, immediate sense of its aptness for the general experience of Christians in the world, both today and throughout history. However, on a personal level, I was unsure it aptly characterized my own Christian experience up to that time. I had been Catholic since infancy, and I have been relatively very pleased about that throughout my life, despite the great challenge (which we can meet only with rivers of grace to carry us) of living up to Catholicism's numerous demands. My contentment, my joy, as a Catholic I owe a great deal to the witness of my parents and several guiding lights God placed in my path at key moments in my education and spiritual formation. I had also not moved around a great deal, or terribly far from home, throughout my life: I lived in the small town of Cornwall, New York, from the age of four to eighteen, then I spent my college years and three additional years in Cambridge, Massachussetts before moving on to New Haven. I had spent a few summers in more distant places -- Washington, D.C., and in 2008 and 2009 in Paris and Rome, where crucial seeds of inspiration for the project were planted -- but on the whole my sense of my own Christian pilgrimage has been vague and abstract, albeit deeply spiritual, in nature.
Yet the Lord has suddenly provided me with a whole new scene of life, and lots of time in it, to learn what it means, more literally, to be a pilgrim, residing temporarily as a stranger in a strange land. And He has done so with a certain sense of humor: I had an inkling I would get the position in Mainz, one I had applied for in April but had many doubts I would get -- and also that I would continue with the Pilgrim project, despite any such move abroad -- when, passing through Terminal 2 of Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, on my way to Mainz for the first time for my interview, I did a double take in front of a large sign that read "PILGRIM" in a capital script very similar the Century Gothic font we use in our logo. (Pilgrim Danish Design, I later learned, is a Danish company, with boutiques all over the world, which sells jewelry, eyeware, watches, and other items priced for a high-end market.)
The transition from New Haven to Mainz -- and the United States to Germany -- is not an easy one, not the least of reasons being that I do not yet speak the German language with any competence. The sense of displacement I feel is not as sharp as the one I experienced my first time abroad, while living in Paris for six weeks, but at that time I knew my stay was of short duration, that I would be returning to New Haven, and that I was there primarily to learn French and was thrown together with a group of international students who more or less were in the same boat as I was. The sense of displacement here in Germany, however, has a certain intensity to it because I am more aware and confident than I was that summer in Paris that I am where I am supposed to be, on a vocational track set for me by God in His mysterious way, and all the more so because I really have no idea where I will end up next year: I have no choice but to leave it all in God's hands and to see what doors He opens, and which He closes.
In leaving home for a foreign land, I am discovering in Mainz, as I did a bit in Paris and Rome, how "at home" a Christian can truly be wherever there is a Catholic church and Mass to attend.
When I first arrived, exhausted from my trans-Atlantic journey and my heavy baggage, I was unexpectedly delighted by, and grateful for, the view of the Mainzer Dom from the window of my third-storey room. The bells of the cathedral ring several times during the day, reminding me of the Church's presence even when I am doing mundane work on my computer, or folding laundry, or feeling a bit homesick now and again. In my freshman year of college, the bells of the non-denominational campus church tolled every morning at 8:45 right outside my dorm-room window: the sound was horridly unwelcome to my groggy, undergraduate soul. Here, in this foreign city in a land whose culture I can access only in small bits and pieces at this time, the sound of Saint Martin's bells is like the voice of a welcome, dear friend which, before I even know the words to be spoken, is itself a comfort and a joy.
And it is nothing short of miraculous to me to experience the ordinariness, and accessibility, of the Mass here in Germany, even though the German words of the Mass, the German preaching, the traditional German hymns, and the church buildings themselves and people in them are all strange to me. The cause of this miraculous experience of feeling quite at home is of course Christ Himself: He is there on the altar of these churches, as He is back home in Cornwall in Saint Thomas of Canterbury where I made First Holy Communion, as He is in Saint Mary's in New Haven, Saint Gervais and Notre Dame in Paris, and all the other parishes, great and humble, I have visited over the years, receiving the Eucharist and being greeted with signs of peace by both strangers and friends.
The concrete sameness, the living reality of Christ in the Sacrament is unlike anything I have experienced in nature in its stability and constancy. I hope that, here in Mainz, I will remain open to, and always joyful about, His consoling Presence, and do my best to put into practice, in a very new setting, what I have always assented to in faith -- and to do the same for the ideals that Pilgrim is committed to expressing and sharing with all who visit the website.
If I can ask for prayers for Pilgrim during this period of transition resulting from my move, I would be grateful for any offered. (If I can encourage aspiring social critics, reviewers, artists, story-tellers, and poets -- of all ages -- to send work for our consideration, I would be grateful for any of that offered as well!)
God bless all during this season when we celebrate the ordinary life of the Church, and when we pray for all the dead and honor and ask for the intercessions of all the blessed saints who are already in Heaven. And, as the priests here in Germany say at the sign of the peace: Der Friede des Herrn sei allezeit mit euch!