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.