Of Many Things

When I scanned the newspaper yesterday, I spotted an item about the artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained by Chinese authorities in early April for unknown reasons in an unknown location. He had been granted a brief family visit, the first since his detention.

I felt a roundabout connection with this item. Just the day before, a friend and I had visited a public display of some of Ai Weiwei’s artwork—12 bronze sculptures of animal heads representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac. The bronzes were based on originals designed and cast for the Qianlong Emperor’s palace near Beijing in the 1700s by Michael Benoist and Giuseppe Castiglione, European Jesuits. This palace was destroyed by a British army in the 1860s, but seven of the original bronzes survived. In these reproductions by Ai Weiwei I felt another connection.

When I first read about these sculptures, I recalled a piece published about the emperor’s palace in Company magazine in 1994. That same year I had also written about spotting a Castiglione scroll painting in a museum in Taiwan and feeling a connection to it; this was the first article of mine that America published.

I love these connections. In Jesuit life, one finds them all over the world: buildings and artworks, books and place names that tell stories and challenge me with some heroes and lots of ordinary men working on mission. A church in Spain had stone reliefs showing scenes from the life of St. Ignatius Loyola; after the Society of Jesus fell out of favor in the 1760s, locals chipped off the heads of Ignatius in the scenes. (St. Francis Xavier, on the opposite side, survived; people liked him.) When the Soviets annexed Lithuania after World War II, they turned the great Jesuit church of St. Kasimir in Vilnius into a museum of atheism. (The church is back and very much alive.) Rivals sought to obliterate the connections with what had been, but the connections are very strong.

Connections to family can be particularly strong. In October 2009, I was able to visit relatives on my mother’s side in Ardara, Co. Donegal, Ireland. Some of us had met before in Chicago, but I had never seen the places or felt the sea air or heard the sounds of that beautiful part of the world that had so much to do with where I came from and therefore with who I am. I found the Breslin name everywhere and the Gallagher of an earlier generation.

One evening relatives and friends gathered in the cottage where my grandfather had been born in 1886; the peat fire burned warm and conversation flowed. The cottage is now part of cousin Lawrence’s B & B, and I learned that it costs a lot to keep up a thatched roof! All the while I felt not just connected but very much at home.

Our liturgy has much to do with connection. The Easter season’s readings move through the Acts of the Apostles, and we see our early heroes in faith saying words that Jesus had said and doing deeds that he had done. They kept the community together and brought new members in. They took to the road to make him known outside Jerusalem. They connected Galatians and Philippians and Romans with Jesus and with each other, as others later went to northern Europe and later still to Asia and Africa, to Pacific islands and America.

Connections great and small help us find balance and identity. They jog our memory and stir our imagination. Last Sunday my friend took a photo of me by the horse head sculpture, my Chinese sign. I do not know that I am so cheerful, quick-witted and popular as the Chinese interpretation of the horse says I should be. Still, no doubt I will look at the picture some day and remember and feel connection.

RUTH MCGUGAN
6 years ago
Catharine and I agree-it's great to see  your By-line again.
6 years ago
I love this piece.  Making connections...that's what makes life very meaningful and interesting.  To be connected is a gift and a blessing.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis talks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican May 24 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
I am praying that Pope Francis’ words have a lasting impact on the president.
Zac DavisMay 26, 2017
Gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Coptic Christians south of the Egyptian capital on Friday, killing 24 people and wounding 25, officials said.
The Affordable Care Act has changed our expectations for health care. It shifted the way we live, which may be shifting what we believe.
Michael RozierMay 25, 2017
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speak to the media about President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget in the Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The U.S. bishops have raised some serious concerns about what this proposal says about our national values.
The EditorsMay 25, 2017