Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Feast of St. Andrew

On the feast of St. Andrew, the apostle to Byzantium, an update on his legacy.

Hagia Sophia
"Converted" if you'll pardon the expression into a Mosque in 1453
Today the Ayasofya Museum

Another excerpt from Joshua Trevino's report from Istanbul:
At night, the Hagia Sophia is invested by wild dogs. You walk about the expanse between it and the Blue Mosque, and you pull your coat tight against the early winter chill. The dogs are everywhere. They are in the streets, lolling contentedly as the odd taksi veers about. They are on the concrete, rummaging through strewn trash. They are on the grass, rooting about in the flowers, and gnawing upon disgusting chunks of rancid flesh. They ignore you. One of them barks, and at once they are all on their feet and yelping. They lope toward a solitary taksi driver who performs a small charity of sharing some meat.

Overlooking it all is the Hagia Sophia, red stone capped with black metal, topped with the golden crescent of its conquerer. It is massive. Chronicles of the Dark Ages and the Medieval era tell of Western travelers seeing the Queen City for the first time, and being stupefied at its grand church. And so I am, as Sunday slides into Monday in the dead of a Constantinopolitan night. The hulking form overpowers the grace and grandeur of the Blue Mosque, a park's length away. The great mosque apes the great church, except it is white instead of red, its minarets are native instead of alien, and its believers are thriving instead of dying.

The Christians of the Queen City are dying. The Ecumenical Patriarch housed in the Fener district used to be ecumenical – an Orthodox Christian, to be sure, but of no particular nation. No longer. Because the Patriarchs of old lived with the Emperors in their very city, they grew accustomed to the strictures of state power – unlike the Popes, who exercised temporal monarchy of their own. The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire saw fit to continue the relationship, reaping handsome profits from bribe-profferring claimants to the Patriarchate, and forcing the occupant of the seat of St Andrew to answer for their co-religionists. Usually this entailed a conferral of a limited intra-communal civil power upon the Patriarch; but in the Greek War of Independence, the Patriarch was lynched for his rebellious millet's temerity. As with the Sultans, so with their successors: the Turkish state continues to dictate the terms of existence for a Patriarchate that predates the mere existence of Turks in Turkey by at least seven hundred years.
Who could have imagined that this might happen to one of the great centers of Christian life and culture?

Could it happen to St. Peter's in Rome ... to Notre Dame in Paris ... ? If it ever does, it will be due more to the loss of faith in the West than to the ferocity of its external enemies.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Time and Time Again . . .

"By Your light we see light," says the psalmist in Psalm 36.

What's called the "Enlightenment" was a rescinding of this path to lucidity analogous to its first abrogation in the Garden of Eden, albeit one deeply indebted to, and suffused with, the Christian moral and intellectual tradition it disavowed. To see with our own lights only is to see through a glass darkly.

Now that the academy has abandoned Enlightenment rationality for sundry trendy escapades, its last practitioners are to be found the main-stream media. Main-stream journalists have a touchingly childlike faith in the core myths of the Enlightenment. Struggling under this handicap, their offerings are predictable, but not without poignancy for those less encumbered by journalistic prejudices.

The Church is not the kind of thing one can figure out on the first few tries. Viewed through the main-stream media prism, she is an odd sort of thing to be found sitting right in the midst of an age to which she seems both utterly irrelevant and strangely imposing.

The Church is "a sign of contradiction" to the world, time and time again, the guardian of the intellectual, scientific, cultural and spiritual gifts she is routinely accused of obfuscating.

The Church, as a sign of contradiction, is often the voice of one heard crying in the wilderness, and sometimes the voice of Rachael weeping for the lost children.

Joshua Trevino, writing in the Brussels Journal, posts this from Istanbul, the former Constantinople, once the robust center of Eastern Christianity:
Today, there are approximately two thousand native-born Christians, almost entirely Greek, in the Queen City of Christendom. They are mostly old, mostly die-hards, and mostly clerics. As the Turkish state intended all along, the faith is nearly extinct in one of its most ancient lands – and the time will come when no native-born Christian “Turk” will be competent to sit upon the Patriarchal throne. And what then? Will the Ecumenical Patriarchate simply die a quiet death after long centuries? Will its demise be met like so many other tragedies of Christendom, with small regret and apathy? Will the Turkish state be a better, more Turkish state without its Christians?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Obedience of Faith

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Matthew 6:21

That, it seems to me, is the synoptic analogue for Paul's references to "the obedience of faith" in his Letter to the Romans (1:5; 16:26). As for the Johannine echo: it's at John 1:38. Jesus turns to the approaching disciples of John, catching them off-guard, and asking abruptly: "What do you want?" Everything depends on the answer to that question -- our ethical lives, our attempts at virtue, the plausibility of our hopes, everything. We are desire; the question is only: what is the object of our desire?

Having been the source of consternation to both the theological conservatives (so-called) and the (so-called) ecclesiastical progressives, Henri de Lubac is a steady and reliable theological compass. He has a marvelous passage about the "obedience of faith," which he contends is something entirely different from "the faith of obedience."
The latter, placing the individual in a position of purely external submission to authority, delivers him over, through his fault, to a tyranny from which he can escape only by insubordination or which he can tolerate cheerfully only through indifference. Then, as Fenelon says, “the practice of faith only amounts to not daring to contradict the incomprehensible mysteries, a vague submission to which costs nothing.” Whoever is satisfied with this is caught up in a sterile, parrot-like discourse. He “does not meddle with dogmas,” as he sometimes likes to say, but he does not live by them either. He may be a perfect conformist, but he does not know what it means to be a Christian. Obedience of faith, on the contrary, is interior; obedistis ex corde, says the Apostle. [Romans 6:17]
Only this latter obedience, de Lubac insists, “deserves to be called a theological virtue.”

The Christian Faith, p. 238-9.

The bitter truth ...

Mark Steyn is not famous for his diplomacy or tact. One occasionally winces at his bluntness, while nevertheless (sinfully) sharing his wicked delight in running some fashionable nonsense up the flagpole to show just how silly are the pious ideologues who salute it. He has done it again, and I recommend his latest to any who may not have seen it yet. It has been one of the most widely circulating pieces on the internet since it appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times: here.

Compared to Steyn, even at my grumpiest I'm sweetness and light.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jordan Elizabeth Bailie

Jordan Elizabeth Bailie - 6 lbs. 1 oz.

About nine months ago, Jordan Elizabeth Bailie came into the world. But last night around 11:30 she took her first breath, received her name, and opened her little eyes on the parents she is most fortunate to have been given, Hunt and Yuni Bailie. Her grandfather was unable to be present for Jordan Elizabeth's arrival, but he is beside himself with joy.

Jordan with her mother, Yuni

Jordan with her proud father, Hunt

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Benedict to Turkey

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares for his perilous and courageous trip to Turkey, he is being slandered there as a former Nazi by the same people who are vilifying him for not joining in the Muslim hatred of Jews. Go figure.

Recently Egyptian-born Nonie Darwish, a convert to Christianity and author of "Now They Call Me Infidel," was recently interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez on National Review Online.

Nonie Darwish:
As Arab children, we were taught about Jews in schools, at home, in the media, at mosque sermons, and by politicians. No one can escape the overwhelming anti-Semitic propaganda and the venomous hatred that my culture of origin advocated against Jews. In Gaza elementary schools I learned hate, vengeance, and retaliation. Peace was never an option; it was considered a sign of defeat and weakness. Those who wanted peace and compromise were called traitors and cowards. When I asked “Why do we hate Jews?,” the answer was “Aren’t you a Muslim?”
The primary reason for Benedict's trip is highlighted by the insults he has received from Turkish officialdom and the mindless effigies with which the Turkish press and the Turkish street characterize him: He is going to show solidarity with the tiny besieged Christian community in Turkey and to show that solidarity especially with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. At stake is something closer to Benedict's heart than easing tensions with Islam, namely working toward the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christianity. He will be doing so in a society where the choice to be a Christian is courageous, involving real hardships and very real dangers.

He deserves and needs our prayers.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


The current issue of First Things has an interesting colloquy between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward Oaks, SJ on the subject of Hans Urs von Balthasar's eschatology. Balthasar, Hell and Hersey: An Exchange. For those interested in perhaps the most original and controversial feature of von Balthasar's theological work, I recommend the piece. It is no surprise that, in my opinion at least, Fr. Oaks carries the day. He has long been one of von Balthasar's most insightful and gifted interpreters. Given the fact that Western Christianity has in recent decades (centuries?) allowed the eschatological dimension of the faith to atrophy, a lively conversation of such things is for the better, however one might decide between the Pitstick and Oaks arguments.

As for von Balthasar himself, in his treatment of this topic, which is deeply indebted to Adrienne von Speyr, he quotes a passage in an eschatological treatise by one W. Kreck that is helpful in approaching this subject:
Both the uncritical notion of a bipolar outcome of human history and the strident protest against it contain the same danger. They both want to draw up an eschatology from the point of view of the spectator, not of the man most intimately involved in it ... In spite of all the compelling negative evidence I may have, it is beyond my abilities and competence to assess to what extent, ultimately, a man is really persisting in, or can persist in, resistance to Christ.
Volume V: Theo-Drama, p. 299.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"We would not have persecuted the prophets..."

The jolly Chestertonian wag who goes by the name Diogenes over the the "Off the Record" blog of the Catholic World News site has a gift for puncturing ideological hot-air balloons. Here's one of his recent offerings:
Part of the syndrome of being a child of one's age is a lack of the historical imagination to recognize oneself in a different setting, endowed with a different array of sentimentalisms. In fact, such people are certain they'd be on the side of the angels in any situation. The personal advantages they have purchased by their social conformity are so enormous and comprehensive that they fail to see it as conformity at all. This was true in 1930s Germany, when the right wing was in the ascendant, and it's true in the West today, when the left wing is. Joseph Sobran once wrote:
[Liberals] want us to believe that their willingness to conform to today's fashions is proof that they would have had the courage to defy yesterday's fashions. Somehow I find it hard to believe that today's coward would have been yesterday's hero, if only he'd had the chance. More likely he would have been, like most people, a timid conformist in any circumstances.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks

Happiness doesn't lead to gratitude; it's gratitude that leads to happiness.

Gratitude is less measured by how pleased we are with the blessings we have received and more by how much we love those from whom we have received them and with whom we share them -- God ultimately being "the One from whom all blessings flow" and to Whom our gratitude must finally be expressed.

I am truly and sincerely grateful to those who visit this weblog and for the opportunity it provides me to touch and be touched by those with whom I share the faith that produced the first Thanksgiving and a determination to pass it on in a robust and uncompromised form.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Red Martyrdom

In a weblog post yesterday, I suggested we might need a category called "green martyrdom." The background to this, of course, is what is traditionally regarded as "red martyrdom" -- dying a violent death for one's faith -- and "white martyrdom" -- consecrating one's life (with vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience) exclusively to Christ and the Church.

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, who had consecrated her life to the celibate service of Christ and who was martyred for her refusal of a forced marriage. She was hardly the only martyr to have been both a "white" and a "red" martyr, but the nature of her martyrdom certainly links these two together most powerfully.

When Liz and I were in Rome in 2005, preoccupied as we were with the huge scar on Liz's head from the brain surgery she had recently undergone, we were both struck by the stunning sculpture of the martyred Cecilia by Stefano Maderno, showing her body as it was when her tomb was found and opened, the mortal wound to her neck prominent.

A small replica of this life-size marble sits on a bookcase in our living room, a reminder of many important things about the Christian vocation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Green Martyrdom"

For some time now, I have suggested that we had better start adding a new category to our catechetical instruction on Christian martyrdom: "Green Martyrdom" was the inadequate name I gave to it. Increasingly, it is likely to be the case that Christians in the course of their professional lives will face the choice between fidelity and professional advancement. This choice will probably have significant economic ramifications. The willingness to lose or forgo income in order to be faithful is something that it would be good for the Church to begin to valorize, providing at least the moral support and, where necessary, the material support for those who put their material interests in jeopardy for the sake of their Christian faith.

A case in point has just been reported by the BBC. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, has just lost her appeal to the airline's determination that she could not wear a small silver cross while at her job. Whatever the details of this particular case, it undoubtedly represents cultural trends that are far larger and weighter than the particular policy of one Western corporation.

Nadia Eweida

I have often remarked on how grateful I am to the selfless Sisters of Mercy who did their best to catechize me in my youth. It takes absolutely nothing away from them to say that for the most part they were unprepared for the task they could not have foreseen, namely the task of preparing their students for the upheavals of the 1960s. Perhaps we face a similar situation today; almost certainly we do. There are sufficient signs, however, which suggest that we need to prepare the young for a world that is a good deal less hospitable to Christian faith than was the world into which I was born.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Human all too human ...

When Liz and I were in Rome for a conference just after her first brain surgery, we had a visit with the preacher to the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., who has an interest in the work of Rene Girard. Fr. Cantalamessa gave Liz a blessing that was truly extraordinary.

The non-scriptural reading for today's Mass in the Magnificat is an excerpt from Fr. Cantalamessa's books. In it he makes the point that, far from making Jesus less human than the rest of us, Jesus' sinlessness was what made him the human epitome. For sin corrupts and cripples our humanity, which is inseparable from our Godlikeness -- made in the image and likeness of God as we are. Fr. Cantalamessa quotes Augustine:
To this point has human perversity arrived, that he whom lust overcomes is regarded as a man, whereas he whom has overcome lust cannot be a man. Those who overcome evil cannot be men, whereas those whom evil overcomes are men indeed!
To which Fr. Cantalamessa adds:
"Human" has come to mean rather what we have in common with the beasts than what distinguishes us from them, such as intelligence, will power, conscience, holiness.
This truth resonates on many levels, but Augustine's use of the vice of lust to illustrate a much wider human perversity brings readily to mind some familiar forms of it. Perhaps, please God, the young are today coming to their senses (the cultural influence that surround them notwithstanding), but in recent times virginity and celibacy were nothing but objects of scorn, while meretriciousness and sexual indulgence of any and every imaginable sort were unofficially regarded as signs of health and vitality. Augustine, as so often, saw the essential features of this in the 5th century.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Monkish Ignorance ...

St. Joseph's Abbey Church

Thomas Jefferson urged his fellow 18th century Enlightenment thinkers to burst the chains of "monkish ignorance."

Every morning I haul myself over to the nearby dispensary of "monkish ignorance" in an ongoing and altogether inconclusive effort to be liberated from the mundane ignorance from which monasticism freed my ancestors and probably yours. Those thus liberated subsequently used their freedom to create a culture so robust that one of its brightest 18th century beneficiaries was able to look down his nose at the spiritual pioneers who laid its foundations.

It has been aptly said that the health of Christian monasticism is the best measure of the vitality of Christianity itself. Meanwhile, the health of Christian monasticism isn't measured according to the usual calculus. The best measure of it is the depth and palpable solemnity of the monastic liturgy. By that measure and many others, it is an enormous privilege to be able to attend daily Lauds and Mass at St. Joseph's Abbey.

The window over the main altar

Thursday, November 16, 2006


As some of my older friends know, for several years the work I do now under the auspices of The Cornerstone Forum had another name: The Florilegia Institute. A florilegium is a collection of texts, an anthology of quotations. I used the term in the early days because an old friend of mine, Geoff Wood, and I once long ago did a series of joint presentations, and we called the series a florilegium. Because in those years I was leading explorations in various literary texts, and because my modus operanti was to place the texts in some kind of dialogue with one another, The Florilegia Institute seemed an apt name for what I was doing. For instance, I gave a series of classes in those days comparing the Gospel of Luke with Virgil's Aeneid. The series was called "The Poetry of Truth and the Truth of Poetry," the former a reference to Luke's Gospel and the latter to Virgil's poem. The problem was, of course, hardly anyone knew what the word florilegia meant. It's aptness notwithstanding, it was confusing.

Since then the work has evolved into another phase, and a few years back we changed the name of our mission to The Cornerstone Forum. I mention this because, due to Liz's needs and the limitations it imposes on my usual traveling and speaking, I will be doing my part of the Forum's work from home for the time being. In dealing with increasing time constraints, I may often make posts to this weblog consisting simply of quotations that I think are worth sharing. That's pretty much what a florilegium is.

I may or may not be able to resist the impulse to gild the lily with an observation of my own about the quotation, and I may not have time to indulge that impulse -- as I just have -- in any case.

Let me inaugurate this weblog feature with the following quotation:
"The acquiring of religious knowledge is akin to learning a skill. It involves practices, attitudes, and dispositions and has to do with ordering one's loves. This kind of knowledge, the knowledge one lives by, is gained gradually over time. Just as one does not learn to play the piano in a day, so one does not learn to love God in an exuberant moment of delight."
Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 172

On a Personal Matter ...

The pathology report from Liz's recent surgery was not encouraging. The choices we face are limited but nevertheless perplexing, and, though they may include a respite, they don't likely include a cure. Please keep Liz in your prayers and thoughts. We daily pray for all those praying for us, and I can vouch for the value of Liz's prayers in this regard.

Liz is peaceful and cheerful. She has lived a contemplative life for decades, and her faith is deep and abiding. She is just a little further down the road we all travel. She leads the way, like a good guide, by holding the lantern behind her, thus throwing more light on the path of those coming behind her than on the path she herself is treading.

There was nothing intentional about the fact (remarked upon in an earlier post) that we have just gotten around to framing and hanging the Caravaggio painting entitled The Taking of Christ, but there is surely something providential about the timing, as there have been so many providential aspects to the life Liz and I share. The painting hangs over the fireplace, and sitting before it yesterday as we were absorbing the medical news, Liz remembered the painting that struck us so in Rome, the painting of the Last Supper by the Italian painter, Jacopo Bassano, and she remarked on how similarly Christ is depicted in each painting. In Bassano's painting, the disciples are oblivious of the significance of what is happening in their presence.

In the Caravaggio painting, the long loneliness that Bassano depicts as beginning at the Last Supper intensifies and becomes life-threatening, but Christ remains poised, attentive as He as He was in Bassano's Last Supper to His Father's will.

These were not the idle thoughts of an art critic. They were Liz's insights into the mystery she was experiencing from the inside.

Please keep her in your prayers.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Arresting the Truth

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ:

Liz and I have finally had our reproduction of this painting framed and hung on the wall. It invites the meditative mind. The clamoring world -- restless to rid itself of Christ, His revelation, and his Church -- coming "with lanterns, torches, and weapons" to arrest Him.

Hans Urs von Balthasar summarizes the Mysterium iniquitatis: "God's heightened love provokes a heightened hatred that is as bottomless as love itself." [Theo-Drama, Vol. V, 285]

T. S. Eliot understood in 1931 that his age (which was an earlier phase of our age) bore an animus against the West's Judeo-Christian patrimony:
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.
Caravaggio has painted more than just an episode in the Passion; he has captured something about the human drama as such. Inasmuch as Christ in Caravaggio's painting is being "handed over," the hands in the painting tell the story. The left (and symbolically sinister) hand of Judas, manhandling Christ as he betrays him with a kiss. On the upper left, the panic-stricken hands of a fleeing disciple. All of this frantic activity finds it counterpoise in the hands of Christ, folded as though in prayer. But then there is one more prominent hand in the painting. As he has done in other paintings, Caravaggio has placed himself in the upper right of the painting. There the artist holds a lantern, and the hand that holds it is poised like the hand of a painter at work.

This seems to me to be the artist's recognition, not only of his own particular vocation, but of the essential vocation of the Christian faithful: to tell the story.

"Absent thee from felicity a while," dying Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, "And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story." So must Christians, in season and out, bear witness, "meanwhile redeeming the time..." As Eliot put it in Ash Wednesday:
. . . Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jeweled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reluctantly ...

My interest in partisan politics all but vanished long ago, but by all indications I live in the bluest of the blue states. The victory of the Democrats here was a forgone conclusion, with or without the Iraq debacle. I may be wrong, but that debacle seems to me to have been due to the Bush administration’s rather naïve and residual liberalism, namely, its overestimation of the civilizing power of democracy and the market (absent the cultural and religious foundation which was the secret to the flourishing of these institutions in the West) and a commensurate underestimation of the role of religion in human affairs, for better or worse. It may have been the most generous assumption to make, but it was anthropologically naive. Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid!” adage was the quintessential expression of the bread-and-circuses liberalism into which classical liberalism has devolved in both major parties and to which both unabashedly resort at election time. It’s not the economy, of course; it’s the culture that matters, and culture without roots in a living religious tradition is like a cut flower in a vase. You’d better enjoy it while you can.

In my neck of these darkening woods, the recent celebration of the referendum on the mismanagement of the Iraq war and the political and moral corruption of those too long in power was cut short by the important business of preventing a referendum on the meaning of marriage, the fear among the professional pols being that the citizens of this state might embarrass themselves by expressing an opinion not in keeping with the enlightened wisdom of their betters sitting in solemn counsel on appellate court benches and in an almost giddy ideological unanimity on Beacon Hill.

The people might be allowed to decide American foreign policy on the other side of the world – or at least to stick their fists in the air over the mess in Iraq – but they must not be allowed to interfere with the dismantling of the central institution of culture, upon which the future happiness and wellbeing of their children depends. That decision, say democracy's warm weather friends, is to be taken out of the hands of the great unwashed and left to the experts. The speaker of the Massachusetts House has gone on record as saying that lawmakers must make sure that the issue of same-sex marriage “never, ever appears as a question on the ballot.”

I’m a small-d democrat, even though I have a good many reservations about democracy. Hitler was elected after all. Whatever my reservations, however, I prefer naïve democrats to scheming ideologues. William Buckley’s famous quip about having more faith in the first hundred people in the New York City phone book than in the faculty of Harvard University is more apropos today than when he first said it, though one can hardly expect Solomonic wisdom in either case. Fundamental alterations in a society’s cultural, moral and anthropological structure should not be imposed by ideologues, which is what is now happening in Massachusetts and elsewhere. So, for what it’s worth, the following reflection, which I post with reluctance.

I don’t really think the push for same-sex marriage is about marriage. The great majority of those suffering from same-sex attraction are males, and the statistics on the male homosexual lifestyle are as irrefutable as they are disturbing. Studies have consistently shown that men suffering from same-sex attraction have, by comparison with heterosexual men, a staggering number of sexual partners. Even those who declare their desire for a permanent union often acknowledge the unlikelihood that it will mean strict fidelity.

People can, to use Pauline language, be “delivered over” to passions which are inordinately compulsive precisely because they are “objectively disordered.” Are these data the result of “homophobia”? Is such rampant promiscuity natural? Do we prefer our ideological hobby horses to social and psychological reality? None of this would make a lot of difference to me were it not for the fact that those driving this revolution are in the process of radically rearranging the social furniture and making a first-class mess of the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.

As to whether or to what extent same-sex attraction and the compulsions typically associated with it especially in male homosexuality are inherited, the scientific evidence is inclusive. Many researchers argue it is not. But even if this disorder is to a degree inherited, that does not make the sexual behavior of those afflicted by it natural. A predisposition for depression or alcoholism or aggressive behavior or chemical dependency or sickle cell anemia does not make these things natural in the sense of being thereby exempt from either moral concern or therapeutic efforts to offset the effects of the inherited predisposition. The etiology of other things that are intrinsically disordered – like bulimia, anorexia and pedophilia – is uncertain as well, but few people think it inappropriate to discourage bulimics, anorexics and pedophiles from trying to satisfy their compulsions.

Today, however, same-sex compulsions are being exempted from any such social, cultural, or moral reservations – to the very great detriment of those who engage in these behaviors. The statistics of psychological and social pathologies and the level of suffering associated with homosexual life-styles will make the eventual day of reckoning for their cheerful apologists a bitter one.

I often feel sorry for those smokers standing in the cold foyer puffing on a cigarette they are not allowed to smoke indoors, aware of how unconvincing is the charade of freedom they often feel obliged to maintain. The truth is that they are enslaved to an addiction, and that they would be much happier if they weren’t. The compulsions which are a statistical probability for males suffering from same-sex attraction are arguably less freely chosen in the first instance, but they are enslaving nonetheless and those enslaved by them would be far better off were they not so enslaved.

Researcher Mary Jo Anderson cites FBI statistics showing that violent crimes against gays by heterosexuals represent just .0001 percent of all violent crimes and a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health showing that "39 percent of males with same-sex attraction have been abused by other males with same-sex attraction." How accurate these statistics are I cannot say, but they are undoubtedly a better approximation of the reality of the homosexual lifestyle than are the airbrushed and fog-filtered myths that our investigative journalists fail to investigate. The statistical misery associated with the “gay” lifestyle is copiously documented in respectable sources. Any journalist capable of spelling google could access these documents in seconds. If abstinence or chastity or wedded monogamy involved one one-thousandths of the physical, psychological and social dangers associated with the homosexual lifestyle, especially the male homosexual lifestyle, banner headlines would proclaim the perils.

In the world made tolerant of sexual deviance by earlier victories of the sexual liberationists, the material and social advantages of the married state are minor, while the corresponding obligations and responsibilities, if taken seriously, are not insignificant. No, the push for same-sex marriage is, I think, about respectability. It is about removing the moral onus that has attached to sodomy and the related forms of homosexual “sex” for millennia. More importantly, perhaps, it is about eliminating the lingering sense among sexually active homosexuals themselves of the “transgressive” nature of their sexual behavior.

The hope is that if sodomy is made morally and legally indistinguishable from the nuptial embrace of a married man and woman, then those living sexually active homosexual lifestyles will be relieved of the gnawing sense of illegitimacy and the commensurate feelings of indignity associated with their behavior. Those naïve enough to hold out this hope should remember that the ideologues have predicted this outcome at each and every step in the long march of the sexual revolution, and it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t. In a variation on an old East Tennessee adage – No matter where you go, there you are – after all the social furniture is broken and marriage has ceased to have any distinctive shape, those living what we today call the homosexual lifestyle will still be haunted by misgivings and the histrionics typically employed to demonstrate the non-existence of these misgivings will ring even more hollow then they do today. The wreckage will have been for naught.

If the North American Man-Boy Love Association has its way and pedophilia is given a respectable place in the erotic repertoire of 21st century culture, or if adult incest is eventually afforded legal protection, does anyone think that the moral discomfort that haunts those who engage in such behaviors will vanish? There isn’t a plebiscite in the world that will remove that moral discomfort. Not a Supreme Court opinion. Not a personal letter from the Pope. Nothing. Except, cessation of the unnatural behavior. Dignity is a moral, not a legal or psychological or sociological, category. The dream of some is that, liberated from moral normativity, both social opprobrium of those offended by certain behaviors and the lingering moral misgivings of those who engage in them will vanish. It is a pipe-dream.

It is inconceivable to many today that those who refuse to repudiate the received wisdom of the ages in favor of the reckless indulgence of this one might be motivated by an empathy for the very people who have come to believe that the repudiation will end their suffering. But one doesn’t show compassion for a pedophile or an anorexic by making pedophilia and self-starvation into sacraments, or by listing them as respectable lifestyle options in public school textbooks. The Christian injunction against judgmentalism is not there to make us moral zombies. (Those who condemn others for “moralizing” are moralizing, even when the moral revolution they advance is normless hedonism.) Still less does the injunction against judging others justify placing several generations of young people in even greater moral and spiritual jeopardy than they are already by telling them, in effect, that the black diamond marker on the steep side of the snowy mountain is just a semiotic suggestion for those who decide they like that interpretation.

In my own way, I heartily agree with the Beacon Hill pol who feels that the issue of same-sex marriage should "never, ever appear on the ballot." The difference is that he doesn't trust what the people would do once they got to the voting booth and I don't think they should put to the trouble of going there in order to protect the single most culturally respected institution in the history of the world from those who have deep-seated ulterior motives for betraying it with a kiss.

For Those Who Have Fallen

As I've said here before, my father was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. The son of two of my dearest friends was killed in Iraq in 2005. On this Veterans Day I think of them. For them and all who have fallen with them, here is Thomas Merton's marvelous poem, one that has been especially dear to me since I first read it many years ago:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirsts,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveler.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed -
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand
And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

The Three Massketeers

Three of the most thoughtful and spirited of my friends have launched a blog, which I encourage you to visit. Nothing pleases me more than to be able to introduce them to you. I've added their site to our links, but here's the short route.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Getting the anthropology right ...

Due to a combination of circumstance and personal predilection, in recent years I have been trying – when and where the opportunity presented itself – to encourage Christians generally but Catholic hierarchs, clergy and theologians more specifically to recognize how indispensable René Girard’s work is if the challenges facing both the Church and Western civilization in our time are to be better assessed. In doing this, of course, I must take into account the terms of the conversations currently underway among those to whom I am appealing. Catholic Christianity is an especially cacophonous ensemble of conversations and shouting matches, but there are two somewhat interrelated discussions that are especially important and that seem most in need of Girardian collaboration: The first of these is the retrospective assessment of Vatican II that has been underway in recent years, with a special concern for the alacrity and naïveté with which its central document – Gaudium et spes – seemed to embrace the culture of modernity and its underlying anthropological presuppositions. The second conversation of special interest is the discussion now underway about the alarming decline in post-Conciliar Catholicism’s sacramental and liturgical life. In short, the conversations that are crucial today concern the need for a better understanding of culture and cult. Girard’s work is essential to each of these conversations, but there are resistances, some methodological, some doctrinal.

For centuries, Catholicism has found the periodic refurbishing of the Summa of Thomas Aquinas more fruitful than any of the available alternatives. One thing this long tradition has demonstrated is that, whatever Thomism’s limitations, it is where incipient heresies go to die, and having such a disinfectant on hand under present circumstances seems most prudent. My tone-deafness with regard to philosophy notwithstanding, I concede the greatness of the Thomistic accomplishment. The problem is that its strength is in its ability to rationally repudiate philosophical objections to Christianity, and the contemporary rejection of Christianity has nothing to do with philosophical objections.

Be that as it may, in the Catholic theological toolbox, Thomism, in one or another of its permutations, is the all-purpose appliance. Consequently, the question about the Council’s misreading of modernity is being debated between two loosely defined Thomist camps: those Michael Novak calls “Whig Thomists” – who regard modernity – with its democratic polity, market economy, and individual rights discourse – as congenial to the Christian vocation, and those (increasingly postmodern) Augustinian Thomists who see in the modern and postmodern West a gleaming but misshapen juggernaut, complete with a “latent normativity” that is homogenizing everything, sweeping everything in its path, including, conspicuously, an objective appreciation for goodness, truth and beauty and the moral lucidity that they foster and instantiate.

The names usually associated with the “Whig Thomists” (whether fairly or not, I cannot say) are Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus; while the roster of Augustinian Thomists usually includes Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler, and Joseph Ratzinger, the latter being highly significant of course, for the pontificate of Benedict XVI seems likely to be one during which the debate will ensue between those who find the contemporary outworking of the Liberal zeitgeist congenial to Christian evangelization and those who regard significant elements of it as subtly but devastatingly antithetical to what John Paul II called the Gospel of Life.

In her analysis of the controversy between these two schools of Thomism, Tracy Rowland assumes that the West must choose between Nietzsche and Aquinas. This is obviously where Girard’s work needs to be introduced. Beneath Rowland's choice lies the choice that Nietzsche himself highlighted between Christ and Dionysus, and only by understanding cultural processes in the light of Girardian thought can the particulars of that choice be appreciated.

Implicitly at least Rowland seems to understand that, for she acknowledges that modern liberal thought is being challenged by postmodern “genealogists,” heirs of Nietzsche, who are as dismissive of the Thomists as are the moderns. All this prompts Rowland to worry that the Thomists are fighting the last war:
In the longer term, the danger is that the Liberal discourse will itself be marginalized and displaced by the discourse of its Genealogical competitor, and the Thomists will be left fighting a battle against the Genealogists with concepts borrowed from the marginalized Liberal tradition.
Mimetic theory – which I have of late been calling “perichoretic anthropology,” much to the chagrin of its originator – is indispensable here. The problem is that it is perceived by many of its admirers and detractors to be a theory expressing a quintessentially modern liberal point of view: anti-sacrificial, critical of the cultic, favoring the “prophetic” over the “priestly” etc. etc.

Thinking Outside the Box

“Most critiques of liberalism,” writes Francisco Javier Martinez, Archbishop of Granada, Spain, have in the long run “worked in favor of the establishment of the very secular culture that was at the basis both of liberalism and of the critiques mounted against it.” The problem of “thinking outside the box” in a culture that takes “thinking outside the box” as its operating principle is a tricky business. “The dominance of the Liberal interpretation in popular discourse,” writes Tracy Rowland, “means that those whose knowledge of concepts is tacitly acquired end up thinking within a Liberal ideological framework.” Hardly a day goes by without the discomforting reminder of how “tacitly acquired” many of my own concepts have been. Paul’s admonition to be not conformed to the spirit of the age is surely among the most daunting of tasks because it requires not only prescience but humility.

Meanwhile, Martinez insists, the very success of liberalism “spells the death of all its professed ideals,” a verdict in which Rowland concurs in observing that “what secularity has most ruined and actually denied are the very things it apparently celebrated: embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience and human political community.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Affirmative Fiction Program

Yesterday the New York Times reported that the New York City Board of Health will likely soon rule that “people born in the city would be able to change the documented sex on their birth certificates by providing affidavits from a doctor and a mental health professional laying out why their patients should be considered members of the opposite sex, and asserting that their proposed change would be permanent.”

As Diogenes at "Off the Record" puts it:
If I get a note from my shrink, explaining that I have the psychological outlook of a tall man, can I change my driver's license to show that I'm 6'5"?
The proposal, the Times is pleased to announce, “reflects how the transgender movement has become politically potent beyond its small numbers, having roots in the muscular politics of the city’s gay rights movement.”
The change would lead to many intriguing questions: For example, would a man who becomes a woman be able to marry another man? (Probably.) Would an adoption agency be able to uncover the original sex of a proposed parent? (Not without a court order.) Would a woman who becomes a man be able to fight in combat, or play in the National Football League? (These areas have yet to be explored.)
The ruling’s most immediate effect would be to make the whole issue of same-sex “marriage” a moot point, for two men could “marry” as long as one of them (but only one!) decided to be a woman. Presto, same-sex “marriage” disappears as a matter in need of more public scrutiny.

As for the affidavit “asserting” that the gender designation is “permanent” – permanence becoming a criteria only on the occasion of its renunciation – the requirement would be laughable were it not for the damage rulings like this will cause, especially among the already sexually traumatized young.

The chief symptom of what René Girard has called the contemporary world’s mimetic crisis is the “crisis of undifferentiation” or the “crisis of distinctions.” If the “disintegration of all differences that mimesis brings about” was of concern to Girard as he was writing Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, and if in that book he was apprehensive about “the increasingly aggravated state of undifferentiation that marks our present situation,” how much more aggravated has the “disintegration of all differences” become today? Popular culture, stealing, as always, just enough of the Gospel to be both morally convincing and socially reckless, insists that our attention remain riveted on those able to assert – the “muscular politics of the city’s gay rights movement” notwithstanding – a plausible claim to victimary status, but the deeper crisis today is the “disintegration of all differences.”

The crisis of distinctions finally reaches the point at which all distinctions, be they ever so irreducible, must give way to desire. Desire trumps everything; nothing must stand in its way, not moral standards, not common sense, not anatomical science, not laws, not decency, not the sanity of the next generation, nothing.

Euripides had another name for the crisis of distinctions: Dionysus. Here is Euripides' Dionysus gloating over his handiwork:
Dionysus, to your work. ...
Be revenged on this man.
But, first, unhinge his mind,
make it float into madness.
Sane, he never will accept to wear a woman’s dress.
But once his wits have broken loose, he will.
I want the whole of Thebes to laugh
as I parade him through the streets ...
Except today it isn't only those suffering from same-sex attraction that are being seduced into a world of make-believe. Lest the fiction be recognized for what it is, the citizens of Thebes must be made to go along with it. Once again, the purported cure is but a more advanced stage of the disease.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jeremiah on Election Day ...

My friend Mark Gordon over at Suicide of the West is something of a contemporary Jeremiah. He is also a very nice man, and he has kindly encouraged his readers to pray for Liz. Let the Jeremiad below serve as my tribute to those like Mark who are trying to do for our age what Jeremiah tried to do for his.

The Israelites of Jeremiah's time put their trust in empty temple rituals, and the prophet mocked their incantations: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord ..." Today we believe in politics. The voting booth is where we go to assure ourselves of the peace and prosperity for which we long. Just as temple worship was an Israelite essential, as Jeremiah would affirm, so, too, is the democratic process. But the latter is even less likely than the former to rectify the kind of deep-seated cultural and spiritual ills by which we are today beset.

The Trinity Forum recently published on its website a sobering jeremiad by the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson. In it Johnson pulled no punches, declaring the 20th century to have been "the worst age since the human race came into existence, in terms of moral turpitude," due largely, he argued, to the "growth of secularism and the spread of ideologies based on the proposition that ideas matter more than people," an ideological characteristic for which, he argues, Islamic jihadists have countless Koranic proof-texts ready at hand.

"Between them," he wrote, "the three anti-God regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung were directly responsible for the death of 120 million people. Mao Tse-Tung’s regime accounted for 70 million of these, and on the evidence of Jung Chang’s meticulous investigative biography, he must be accounted the most evil man who ever lived, of whom we have detailed knowledge, without any redeeming qualities whatever."

Nor is there reason to think that the appropriate lessons have been learned, for, as Johnson warns, we see around us "the rise of a brutal technological adventurism which may deprave and ultimately destroy us." And he sums up this lament with an anecdote:
I recall attending the opening of Tate Modern, brainchild of Nicholas Serota, said to be the most powerful individual ever to hold sway over art in Britain. I found a room there empty except for a large video screen and three children, a girl of about ten and her younger brother and sister. They were sampling modern art—a video of a man masturbating. That this kind of episode was no accident I deduce from the latest obiter dicta of Charles Saatchi, said to rival even Serota in the power he wields over our art:

"I know I sound like some ghastly creep, but there is something enchanting about seeing children sitting around a Chapman Brothers piece showing penises coming out of girls’ eyes, and drawing it neatly to take back to their teacher."

Pushing aside this distasteful nihilism, it is worth remembering that art produced in an age of faith often reveals human beings at their most constructive, rational, and eirenic. I recently had the pleasure of painting the glorious west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral. This noble edifice is surrounded by a parade of secular European history and progress, modernistic glass and steel buildings of unspeakable ugliness and repellent design, housing the European Parliament, the Court of Human Rights, the international this and that—and of course thousands of identikit bureaucrats. Here we have the basic machinery which recently tried to foist on Europe a constitution which repudiated their Christian past. Yet in the midst of this moral chaos is the Cathedral, actually built by Europeans cooperating together, designed and decorated equally by French and Germans over five long centuries of devotion and worship, a building which grew almost organically under the overarching religion which they all shared.
A jeremiad to be sure, but not without an expression of the kind of theological hope that not only cannot be extinguished by historical catastrophes, but which is stirred to life by them:
Somehow we have to bring back into our private lives, and into our public life, the spiritual element, the sense of awe at the magnificence and possibilities of creation, the pride in goodness and altruism, the fear of wrong-doing and materialistic arrogance, the poetry of the numinous, and, above all, the love of our fellow human beings which is inseparable from the belief that all human life, in some way, is created in the image of divinity.
Amen to that. At the end of the day, the purpose of all the dire warnings is a positive one: to bring us to our senses by bringing us to our knees.

Many Thanks ...

Liz is home and resting. Thanks to those who are keeping her in prayer.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Politics as seen from the Intensive Care Unit

For those anxiously awaiting my profound words of wisdom on matters political (I jest of course), let me not disappoint. My political suggestion is to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. I hope that helps.

While Liz is in intensive care, there's little time for these posts. By way of notes for future reflections, it might be worthwhile, when time permits, to try to sort out two sets of issues.

First: what might be the meaning of freedom in relationship to obedience (in the biblical sense) and submission (in the Islamic sense) and arbitrary self-will (in the postmodern secular sense)?

Second: what is the difference between fun, happiness, and joy? Preliminary surmise: the first might be an escape from suffering that has the effect of compounding it; the second a respite from suffering; the third the fruit of suffering, its indispensable correlative.

Thanks for keeping Liz in your prayers.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Panis Angelicus ... A Sunday Reflection

The other day, in an email to my adult children about Liz’s surgery, I appended one of the occasional little fatherly sermonettes that they have come to expect from me, and which they generally receive with magnanimous forbearing and a playful rolling of the eyes. In my little exhortation, I admonished them not to forget that the Eucharist is a great teacher, and the thought stayed with me. It’s based on long personal experience of the sort that leaves little empirical residue and easily eludes tangible proof.

As I think more on it, it occurs to me that the better way to say what I meant is that the Eucharist is the great school of Christian faith. Unlike other schools, however, one doesn’t even need to know how to read or write. In this sense, the Eucharist is the supreme antidote for Gnostic elitism. Someone with an IQ (whatever that is) of 190 has no advantage over someone with Down’s Syndrome. Childlikeness being more important than cleverness, the latter, in fact, may have a slight edge. The school of the Eucharist may indeed involve a minimal amount of homework, and there are occasional tests -- often in the form of unexpected pop-quizzes -- but all in all the Eucharist is the gentlest of teachers, a correspondence course if ever there was one. What T. S. Eliot says of the Church is true as well of her sacramental nourishment:
The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way –
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
The Eucharist is the school of daily bread; it works incrementally. The changes it produces occur so imperceptibly and at such a depth that it may take years even for the person changed by it to realize how profoundly he has been refashioned.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Update: Liz's Surgery

Liz's surgery took six hours, but the surgeon tells me that it went well. It will be 10 days or more before we have the definitive results of the biopsies. Meanwhile, Liz is doing well. Beneath her completely bandaged head, her bright eyes and beatifically childlike smile are a welcome sight. She is having difficulty speaking, but we hope and expect that that will improve in the days ahead. Meanwhile, she is radiant and resting in the intensive care unit, but she's anxious to go home. We will be here, however, for several more days.

We are grateful to all those who have included Liz in their prayers.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Souls Day - Part II

My grandfather died when I was 4 years old. I wormed myself in between his frantic daughters (my mother among them) to be at his bedside when he died. My father had been killed in World War II, so my grandfather gave me my earliest glimpse of what it means to be a man.
John O’Connor
(Born: February 13, 1882)

Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
William Butler Yeats

Too Irish to show, but with a wink, his love
And smelling of cigars and being awfully old
Were all the faults I knew him guilty of,
Though he thought it almost a man’s disgrace
To be so ill to need such kindnesses
From first his wife, then family, then the priest.
(On the porch one day he all but told me this.)
It seem a lingering darkness up ahead
He brooded on, though he had done no wrong
More grievous than the wrongs he might have done,
But the God the Irish love, the Irish dread,
So keep the Virgin’s statue by their beds.
And it was at such elbows I learned things
About the way men draw inside themselves
To find what’s God’s to keep on Judgment Day.
So I rehearsed for life, while he for death,
And my rehearsal took its cue from his;
What might have been my foil became my lead
As we improvised duets to make us strong:
I gave a sing-song chant and he a wink,
And each forgot if he was old or young.
Ours was the splinter party of irrelevance,
Off to the side of all that seemed to count,
For age excused us both from worldly things.
Ours was the inner circle of the cast
Offstage between the curtains: up or down.
(One waits the first; one waits the last.)
And while we wait, we wish each other well.
So when his coughing started I crept in
The room where frantic women did their best.
I tried to be unnoticed (and I was),
So I could watch the angels loose his fist
And relieve him of his gasping and his flesh.
I saw them whom the innocent can see,
None of my doubts have ever doubted this.
I learned from him how to use a rocking chair
To make the wrestling look like it’s but rest;
From me he learned he still had that to teach.
And to this day the play I play this life
Is taken from the things he showed me when
He rose up from that high-backed wicker rocker —
His brooding done — and gave a wink and nod,
And stepped upon the apron of life’s stage
And bowed, not to the crowd, but to his Maker
And gave himself in keeping to his God.
February 13, 1982
This weblog is devoted to reflections on faith and culture, and it is dedicated to the concerns of the Cornerstone Forum. I have taken All Souls Day as an excuse for two personal reminiscences that congealed into verse of very modest literary merit many years ago. In future posts I will return to matters of more general interest, though I will report briefly on Liz's medical condition as I am apprised of it.

All Souls Day

Yesterday was All Saints Day, today All Souls. The liturgical calendar reinforces the nostalgia that has been my default mood of late. I closed yesterday’s weblog post about Liz’s upcoming surgery with a reflection on Howard Thurman, an indulgence in nostalgia which gave me much pleasure. All Souls Day is all the license I need to continue in that vein.

It is part of the task of being a Christian to bear witness to what Christ has done in our lives. Every Christian is an epiphany, you might say. Some (All Saints) the Church recognizes as major canonical epiphanies, others (All Souls) are minor, almost accidental epiphanies, most of whom aren’t even aware of how helpful their example has been to those who knew them.

On this All Souls Day, I was thinking of my grandmother and grandfather. In fact, it was while thinking of my visits with Howard Thurman that I was reminded of them, because many years ago I wrote a poem that was, in part, about my grandmother. But it was mostly about an old black man I had known as a child. I presented the poem to Howard Thurman on one of my visits with him with some trepidation, for in the poem I used the word nigger, in keeping with the casual racism of the world in which I was raised. I was greatly relieved when Dr. Thurman read the poem and said: “It had to be said that way.”

So here is my All Souls Day tribute to a man I barely knew and a grandmother who left an indelible imprint on me, in gratitude for the example they gave me.

He left Niggertown like it was Kingdom come
To make a living doing what needed done.
Before he knocked on doors, he took his hat
In those enormous hands, then turned and spat
Tobacco hard at yet another gutter.
Said: “Hello Miss Dixie” . . . my grandmother . . .
“Jake,” from behind the old screen door,
“It’s the yard needs mowing and a chore
Or two after that: cut the honeysuckle vine;
Lose your temper on it, Jake, and if there’s time
Trim the hedge, and keep this child outdoors,
He loves to watch, while I sweep and mop the floors.”
And so I’d spend an occasional summer day
Being Jake’s best friend who’d overheard hearsay
Yet knew that he was really brown, not black,
And good and kind and had a Negro knack
For fixing everything that needed fixed.
I never knew I loved him; I was six,
But hope he knew, though he’s been dead these many years,
What it meant when he took out those shears
To cut the hedge and gave me a man to see,
And let me run to fetch the ice and tea,
Sit next to him, and while he’d slowly quench
His measure of his worth: his thirst, I’d inch
A little closer: “It’s hot Jake, huh?” I’d say.
He’d mumble: “God made it that-a’way;
It’s up to us to love the way it’s made;
He’ll give us a little tea and ice and shade.”
And when the tea was gone, I’d grab the rake,
Helping out again my old friend Jake.
I guess I was too busy to notice when
Months passed, Jake didn’t come round again.
Grandmother Dixie O’Connor went away a died,
And some of those tears I finally cried
Were for the quiet old occasional friend
Who took Miss Dixie’s place now and then:
He had even let me wear his smelly hat,
And though he rarely talked, I remember that
He’d pat me on the head and almost smile,
As to say: “Not now, I’ll tell you afterwhile.”
One summer he came to call me by my name.
I leapt alive the way the preachers claim
You’re supposed to do when, despite the Fall,
God’s big enough to love you after all.
Late tonight or at the crack of dawn tomorrow, before Liz and I leave for the hospital, I will post another poem, likewise written many years ago, about my grandfather.

Please keep Liz in your prayers.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Liz's surgery . . .

My wife Liz will be undergoing another surgery on Friday (Nov. 3rd) for a brain tumor. Please keep her in your prayers. The hospital where the surgery is being performed is two hours away, so I will be staying at a hotel near the hospital for the estimated five days Liz will be there.

When there’s time, I will post updates as to Liz’s medical situation. I will be at her side during her recovery, and I will probably have ample time to pray and reflect. When I return to the hotel after visiting hours, if any of the day’s thoughts seem remotely worthy of your attention, I will post them.

What comes to mind for some reason is this:

I had the good fortune to know Howard Thurman, a wise and faithful black Protestant preacher and spiritual counselor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. I didn’t know Thurman well, but I met with him in his home a few times, and I heard him preach on a few occasions. He had been the dean of the chapel at Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1944, he received a letter from a group of people in San Francisco who were trying to start an interracial congregation. He was asked if he knew any newly ordained ministers who might be willing to come to San Francisco, live on practically nothing, and help launch the new congregation. He wrote back: Mrs. Thurman and I would love to!

I don’t know much about the events of those early days, but Dr. Thurman told me one thing that has stuck with me, and which comes to mind when I think of Liz, who has the faith that moves mountains. Dr. Thurman said that at one critical point he had to say to those who were on the verge of giving up hope: “Trust it with my trust until you can trust it with your own.” That, it seems to me, is the essence of both parenting and any education that is worthy of the name.

Howard Thurman was at the other end of the religious spectrum from the Roman Catholicism and the rich baroque sacramentality that is my meat and drink, but he was a living sacrament himself, a man of great integrity, whose faith contributed to mine at a critical moment in my life.

When dark uncertainties loom, the faith of those who have gone before us shines like a beacon.

Howard Thurman, 1900-1981, may he rest in peace.