Stefano, Troy

Name: Troy Stefano
Location of Study: Paris, France
Program of Study: University of Paris Sorbonne, Summer Studies
Sponsor(s): Kathy Tuthill


A brief personal bio:

After earning a BA (magna cum laude) in History from St. Thomas University, I studied classical languages, theology, and philosophy at the University of Chicago for two years. I then received a university fellowship for the MTS at Notre Dame in the History of Christianity, graduating with high honors, after which I taught as an instructor in theology, philosophy, and ancient languages at three Catholic universities (St. Thomas University, Barry University, and St. John Vianney College Seminary) in South Florida for one year. Most recently, having attained a Dean’s Fellowship Award, I have begun work on my PhD in the History of Christianity and Systematic Theology at Notre Dame.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

The development of the theological relationship between history and transcendence intellectually and personally engages me deeply. It is my sincere hope that this will shed light upon the role of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Christian faith considered in its constitutive narrative, anamnetic, historical, and temporal axes, in order to lead to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for transcendental encounter in sacramental presence. Successful execution of this project would be impossible without mastery of the French language for several reasons: first, French is a critical research language in philosophy and theology; second, the development of the relationship between history and transcendence in late 19th and early 20th century French thought is one of my intended Comprehensive Candidacy Examination questions; third, the most important modern and postmodern pioneers into philosophical and theological considerations of history, time, and narrative have been in the French intellectual tradition, especially at the University of Paris Sorbonne and the University of Paris X (Nanterre); fourth, accordingly, I intend on pursuing dissertation research at the Sorbonne, requiring written and spoken proficiency in French. This opportunity is vital to my professional and intellectual development.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

This grant has made possible for me an opportunity that otherwise would not be within the realm of possibility; as such, this grant has provided the occasion, not only for the direct results and effects to be gained during the summer experience, but the subsequent, longer-term effects that this opportunity provides in my academic and personal life. As regards the short-term effect and results during the summer, I hope to engage French language and culture, in order to gain sufficient familiarity and fluency to pursue my long-term goals, such as studying French theology and philosophy as part of my dissertation, and to that end, applying for a dissertation research grant in France.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. At the end of the Summer, I will be able to communicate in French at a level of proficiency at least two semesters beyond my current French coursework.
  2. At the end of the Summer, I will have gained sufficient fluency in French, and in the particular terminology of my field of study, that I would be able to study for my dissertation at the Sorbonne.
  3. After the end of the Summer, I will be able to take the French Competency Exam (to be scheduled in the future) that would determine my ability to apply to study at the Sorbonne for dissertation research.
  4. At the end of the Summer, I will have gained a knowledge of France’s cultural and religious history that will enrichen my engagement in research that touches upon those subjects.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

In addition to the generally available cultural attractions characteristic of Paris, including guided tours, I intend to extend my language practice opportunities and cultural exposure primarily (but not exclusively) in the following ways: (1) I intend on engaging contemporary religious, social, and political issues in an interactive context through conferences and discussion groups at the “Collège des Bernardins,” whereat there will be dialogue and discussion on Current Issues in France (in partnership with The College of France, 05/29/12 & 06/19/12), Social Issues (05/30/12), and The observation of Modernity: Facing Muslim Societies in Europe (06/05/12). (2) I would partake of the rich religious traditions of France by participating in Mass and religious festivals, such as the celebrated festival of Saint Germain des Prés (05/28/2012), among others. The Church of Saint German des Prés also has lively student involvement in the Vincent de Paul charity work at which I am interested in volunteering during the weekends; (3) I intend on taking three excursions to different parts of France: (i) 06/29/12 – 07/03/12, Avignon (for the Festival d’Avignon, which includes theater, medieval towns, concerts) and Aix en Provence (International Festival of Art); (ii) 07/13/12 – 07/15/12, Rheims (Les Flaneries Musicales); and (iii) 08/03/12 – 08/05/12, Chartre (Festival of Lights). (4) The University of Paris-Sorbonne has weekly “reading groups” in the summer during which selections of French literature are read aloud and discussed among the students.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: La Belle France: Initial Impressions

Paris is a place of epic captivation: the streets and buildings, interspersed with the ancient as well as the new, whisper the stories of a tradition both long and rich. The golden-topped buildings, such as L’Hôtel national des Invalides, and the ornately-powerful architectures, such as the Louvre, equally demand upon the spectator a sense of awe as they do perhaps an even deeper sense of sobriety. The past heights of French imperial power, which rivaled – though never fully attained – the heights of its culture, have made their indelible mark on French social and historical fabric ever since. New buildings are hidden among the old, and the old become hidden among the new; and yet these architectural wonders tell two stories, one of the heights of French glory, and the other of the depths of social inequalities. As each of the famous cultural artifacts of pre-Revolutionary France speaks its story through French society, it contains the tension of French Romanticism and French Socialism, that is, the “upper-”story of the border-limits of the human capacity for aesthetic beauty in architecture, art, and culture, and the “lower-” story of the backs of those on the expense of whom such a glory was attained. To make this point clear: one only has to ask whether the beauty of the hall of mirrors in the Château de Versailles speaks of the glory of the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or whether the hall of mirrors reflects the injustice that led to the room of shattered glass on the eve of the Revolution? It is both of these memories, the one breath-taking, the other sobering, that are the two threads that weave the collective French memory in France today. If there is any truism with respect to French culture at the current, it is that it is constitutively, if not entirely, defined by its post-Revolutionary position, both temporally and thematically. This comes with its advantages (such as the evolution of democratic ideals), but also its costs (such as authentic religious liberty, among others, to be explored in future entries). This opportunity to drink from European wells has been nothing short of a blessing. My own memory formation has been a joyful admixture of the larger, historically-more-notable features of Paris (such as the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon, etc.) and the everyday life of the Parisians (such as the baker, the butcher, the restaurant waiter). It is somewhere in the midst of these two, the extraordinaire that has become mundane and the mundane itself, that the story of Parisian life and culture is told – a story which lives in fragments, pieces, and unresolved tensions. I have the privilege of living for the summer in the “sixième arrondissement” (near Gare Montpanasse) and of walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg everyday to and from school, absorbing Parisian life in all of its particularities and richness. It is always so difficult to fully absorb the unique rhythm of a foreign place, and I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:  La Sorbonne: The Old in the New

The division of the University of Paris-Sorbonne in which I am studying is a modern branch of the university dedicated to educating foreigners of all levels of proficiency in the French language. As such, it takes its origin in the French Cultural Revolution of 1968 in which the University of Paris was divided into thirteen autonomous universities, thereby creating a predominately nominally continuous institutional entity with its twelfth-century forbearer. “Even so, even so:” for someone like myself who has spent the better part of the last 5 years daily reading in Latin the writings of Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of Hales, and others, all of whom studied and/or taught at the University of Paris, this proximity bears in me incredible excitement and joy even as I walk through the different buildings of the Sorbonne, imagining behind all of its modern scaffolding what they would have experienced. The Sorbonne’s philosophical and theological heritage is as rich as it is longstanding. While studying French here, I am becoming not only part of the French-speaking community, but of a tradition – albeit indirectly and only proximately – that is connected to these figures whom I have grown to know so intimately through their writings. All in all, I find that I can only say: “C’est magnifique!”

Reflective Journal Entry 3: Community-Abroad

“One day, there were two psychiatrists who met in the street. One of them kept brushing his suit jacket with his hand, and the other asked, ‘What’s the problem?’ And so the first one said, ‘Nothing really. It’s just that these invisible insects have been crawling on me all day.’ And the second psychiatrist replied, ‘Don’t brush them on me, ok?!’” — This translation of a short joke, which I heard a few days ago in France, points towards a truism that I have more profoundly discovered while abroad: like attracts like, and this is particularly true when it comes to cultural groups. I did not expect to learn more about my Hispanic (Cuban) culture, or its significance, while in France; and yet, one of the factors that has surprised me most about being abroad is the international sense of fraternity and solidarity among Hispanic people. In my French class, there were five students from Puerto Rico; the administrator for the Sorbonne’s phonetics center was from Argentina (we would call him “Che”); some of the other students and administrators were from Spain – and despite the geographic diversity of these origins, upon learning that I was Cuban, they embraced me with open friendship and hospitality, united by a sense of Hispanic warmth and affection. I have noticed certain cultural markers in broad strokes, of course with none of them being exclusive or exclusively constitutive, nor present in every case: American, French, and Hispanic cultures represent three different but at times overlapping cultural centers. The hospitality and warmth of Hispanic culture, the cultural and intellectual richness of the French, and the hard-working drive of American culture are each – generally – unsurpassable in their own way. As with all people, each in his or her own mode and degree, I perhaps suffer from Kierkegaard’s critique of not wanting to become particularized and finite, the desire to hover above a specifically defined existence, which simulates the divine infinity; nonetheless, I have truly found aspects of these three cultures, which I have grown to know and to love intimately, in myself. I wonder if it would be helpful to imagine “cultures” as each emphasizing distinct colors within a full-spectrum of colors, without excluding any particular color in its own spectrum, such that French culture would have more “blueness” and Hispanic culture more “redness,” etc., with the full range of colors being defined anthropologically, and thus hopefully universally. This means that every culture can find analogates of its most accentuated features in other cultures, even if the different cultural emphases on specific aspects of human life may differ.

Reflective Journal Entry 4: Social-Reflections and the Fear of the Other

Everyday as I walk to phonetics class, I pass by roughly 13 homeless people, each with his or her particular story, method of asking for money, and particular “look” of need. Some of them are more sociable than others, as my daily “Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?” would reveal. But their robust presence in every quarter of Paris at the very least is tantamount to inscribing irretractable social-political columns or annotations on the French (and perhaps tourists’) conscience. There is an underlying tenor to the Parisian rhythm of life that is hard to articulate: its very nature resists determination through speech and thus any attempt to definitively capture it in writing de ipso facto entails an over-determination. Nonetheless, the hope of my words on the this matter is that they would function somewhat iconically, such that my many words, loud and over-determinate as they are, may point to the silence of these homeless as the true locus of reflection. It is impossible to truly tell whether they are silent or silenc-ed; but some observations can be made. I do not wish to entertain the social-political dimension of the question of homelessness in this reflection; for that would detain us too long, and can be pursued elsewhere. I want to comment upon something that I have noticed more predominately in the Parisian form of homelessness as compared to similar phenomena in the United States, a psychological-existential divergence of sorts. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I stepped out of my metro station at Vaneau (line 10), to find that the usual Parisian weather had come upon us: it was raining. I took out my umbrella, and I saw an elderly woman, probably in her late 80’s, becoming drenched as she slowly walked, with a limp to her left side, towards the metro station. I briskly walked towards her and covered her with my umbrella. She became terrified and almost fell over; I tried to help her up, explaining “Je veux seulement vous aider” (I only want to help you). But terrified as she was, that poor woman had become hardened in the mistrust of kindness commonly found among the Parisian people. Another store, similar as it is different, is when I was walking over the famously beautiful “Pont Alexandre III” (Alexander III Bridge) after class, and a homeless man was lying in a corner, partially covered on another rainy day with a cardboard box. As people walked across the bridge, he yelled out at the bystanders, me included, “Est-ce moi que tu regardes?” (Is it me that you are looking at?). While these two stories perhaps represent different cases of paranoia, there is an analogical relationship between these two accounts and Parisian culture as a whole: the fear of the other. There seems to be a culturally collective sense of fear of otherness, that has led to a systemic paranoia – albeit not entirely unfounded – and a crude individualism. As socialized as France may be with respect to its services and health-care, it seems that the Revolution’s violent replacement of religion, and its belief in charity and kindness, with reason alone, as Voltaire and Rousseau advocated, has left the French people as a culture with a rationality that replaces community of relations with collectivity of individuals, such that any display of kindness only heightens, rather than relieves, this deeply-laced fear of the other.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: Religious Intolerance, a “Revolutionary” secularism.

In the United States, we have begun to experience the separation of Church and State more sharply in recent years. The movement to a more rigid secularization, along with a more diverse religious and ideological population, has demanded that we revisit our interpretation of our founding documents, which had led in most cases to a greater degree of separation between Church and State than had hitherto been the case. Karl Marx long ago observed with respect to the United States that insofar as Christianity is the most popular religion, held by the greatest number of American constituents, the application of the principle of neutral secularity will be “neutrally” Christian, such that the interpretation and implementation of the constitution effectively would be a “Christian” government by other means. Nonetheless, the general tenor is one of an attempt at authentic neutrality, regardless of how illusory such a conception may be, given the affirmative ideological foundations of this so-called neutrality in the enlightenment era. The situation in France is quite different: the secular space could be described as a museum for the preservation of the anti-religious sentiment of the French Revolution. France’s secularism is not so much a neutral space with respect to religion, but is precisely defined in its aggressive opposition to religion. The Panthéon, with its colorful history, seems to embody this predicament: what was originally designed to be the Abbey of St Genevieve became, through the Revolution, the storehouse for the great French intellectuals, “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE” (To the great men, the grateful homeland); and this transition was at the cost of blood, even at the doorsteps of the Cathedral. The Christian martyrs that once sanctified the Churches through their bodily remains functioning as “portals” into the divine since they are ontologically and existentially the body of Christ, have now been replaced or “transformed” into the martyrs on behalf of the French Revolution, whose presence “sanctifies” the post-enlightenment French heritage. If Tertullian’s dictum (c. 200 AD) that the blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church rings true for early Christianity, then it also rings true that the blood of the Revolutionaries, who fought not only against the French monarchy, but against authority, especially as embodied in historic religion, and Catholicism in particular, is the seed for modern French culture. Churches, such as Notre Dame de Paris, become artifacts, as dead as they are ancient, to a past time, which has no bearing on contemporary forms of life precisely and only because it is designated and thereby disqualified as “past.” In a reflection that Hegel gives in his Phenomenology regarding the Enlightenment, and its bearing on modernity, he captures the nature of the universal intoxication of enlightenment modes of thinking and the forms of life to which they lead in relation to their historic forbearers: . . . the communication of pure insight is comparable to a silent expan-sion or the diffusions, say, of a perfume in the unresisting atmosphere. It is a penetrating infection which does not make itself noticeable before-hand as something opposed to the indifferent element in which it insinu-ates itself, and therefore cannot be warded off. (#544) It seems that this post-Revolution position of French culture is something that is breathed in like an intoxicating perfume, as indistinguishable from the atmosphere as the atmosphere itself. It presents itself as the mundane, and it determines the modes of life, patterns of thought, and social fabric, and the means by which to evaluate their relation to the historically previous. It seems to me that this has led to an impoverishing of the sense of freedom. The French national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, fraternity), which originated in the Revolution, but only became canonized during the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century, seems to be a very partial freedom indeed; it is freedom to be anti-religious, to be “neutrally” hostile to tradition, and to be “equally” dismissive of the ancient, merely on the grounds that it chronologically predates the enlightenment. In retrospect, this Revolutionary freedom, though concomitant with the true realization of certain goods, seems more imprisoning in a solipsistic modernity, than liberating in any true.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: Bid Adieu

This final journey entry is perhaps the most difficult to write. I realize the sobriety of my tone and the criticalness of my reflections in all of the preceeding. I would like to put forth some summarizing notes regarding my experience as a whole: I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for this opportunity. Paris, despite or even sometimes because of the reasons outlined above, will always remain a very special place for me, not the least because of the special intellectual heritage that it bears. I made friends of lasting import while in Paris; I loved hearing the whispers of such an historically significant world as I walked through its streets; I was amazed by the heights of its architectural and artistic achievements and by the limitless delicacies of French cuisine; I loved the small traditions of the locals, such as the bridge of the locks of love; I was fascinated by how, in comparison to American culture’s ceaseless and perennial emphasis on productivity, the French took their time to share in conversation over coffee and treats, perhaps their only remaining analogate for the experience of communion. All in all, I can recite with Charles Dickens, “What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world!” or with Ernest Hemingway, in his memoire, Moveable Feast, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Perhaps, to use the beloved French tongue, with Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot, I can say: “Mais Paris est un véritable océan. Jetez-y la sonde, vous n’en connaîtrez jamais la profondeur. Parcourez-le, décrivez-le : quelque soin que vous mettiez à le parcourir, à le décrire; quelques nombreux et intéressés que soient les explorateurs de cette mer, il s’y rencontrera toujours un lieu vierge, un antre inconnu, des fleurs, des perles, des monstres, quelque chose d’inouï, oublié par les plongeurs littéraires.” I bid adieu to Paris for now; but hopefully, not for long. Not for long.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

The amount gained during my time abroad is difficult to calculate, since my experience in Paris has planted in me more seeds for growth than are possible to quantify outside of the scope of their gestation throughout my life. With that said, my understanding of French language and culture has exceeded my prospective goals. I was able to read a little bit of French, on account of my study of ancient Greek and classical Latin, before entering this program. By the end of the summer, I completed my course of study with perfect scores as top in my class with students who have been studying the French language for six years. I was able to give a lecture in French at the Sorbonne on the philosophical and religious thought of René Descartes, and its influence in contemporary philosophy. This experience has been “fantastique” in every respect.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I reflected largely on my overall experience in my final entry, listed above, which cannot be described as anything short of incredibly impacting with respect to my life, both personal and professional. I would advise to anyone who engages in summer study the following four strategies that I took to absorb French language and culture: (1) practically-linguistically, I advise that you memorize the 88 standard French verb conjugations prior to, or at the beginning of, your study abroad. French verbs are the heart and soul of the French language, and once you memorize the full list of verb patterns, every other of the 12,000 or so verbs become easier to learn. (2) culturally-intellectually, I recommend that you attempt to learn as much about the history, both secular and religious, art, and literature of France prior to and during your stay as possible. I made it a point to read in French each week a different classic of French literature, ranging from Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires to Victor’s Notre Dame, from Descartes’ Principes de philosophie (tr., Claude Picot) to Pascal’s Pensées. I also would read as many French magazines and newspapers as possible. (3) culturally-historically, I strongly suggest that you attempt to take time absorbing all of Paris’ unique history, with frequent visits to the Louvre and the other museums, the historic sites, the many beautiful Churches. (4) culturally-gastronomically, I would definitively advise that you do not attempt to diet while abroad: in France, cuisine is an art, and what a wonderful art it is!

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

The importance of this grant for my professional and academic development cannot be overstated; in fact, this grant was nothing short of the condition of the possibility for my career to take its most flourishing and fruitful path. Not only has this summer opened up for me incredibly new horizons with respect to engaging in scholarship in French, it has made possible for me my dream of applying to the Sorbonne for dissertation research in the future.