Saturday, March 17, 2007

Praise God!

The Aggies are in the Sweet Sixteen! Whoop!! Thank you, St. Joseph and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. (God is re-paying me for the Saints not making it to the Super Bowl.)

The Liturgy and The Whining

Sometimes when reading Catholic blogs and listening to all the complaints about the liturgy, I get visions of grown men behaving like Scarlett O'Hara on her knees when Rhett Butler is leaving her: Where shall I go? What shall I do? "What if the only church service I can attend is Novus Ordo, and the priest makes jokes on the altar? What if there are female extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist??!!! Wah, Wah, Wah!!!"

These are serious concerns, and I am not making light of them. (I've posted about it previously here, so please don't think I'm ignoring the experiential aspect of the liturgy, but at the same time those who honestly believe the Novus Ordo is automatically outright heretical are, IMO, off their rocker.) Rather I'm questioning the effectiveness and purpose of pronouncing it in the echo chamber of the internet, a medium which can often make things seem far worse than they are (it's far more sensational and noteworthy to complain than it is to praise). I'm baffled as to how individuals who one would think are well-read enough to know better, sometimes behave as if this is the first time in history bishops have done extremely strange, detrimental, and even heretical things! And I'm certainly questioning the whiny tone in which the criticisms are sometimes delivered, as if God should have dropped all manner of wonderful things in your lap, including the liturgy of one's preference. Please, let's not mistake aesthetic fetishism for spirituality.

And as for spirituality (since I've already played the gender card, it's only fair that I play the race card now), my grandparents lived in a place and time where they had to pay to attend Mass and then were usually not allowed to sit. Other black Catholics in this time period were not allowed to even stay to the end of Mass, so as to avoid any contact with the white congregation. Many black Catholics in southern Louisiana actually had no place to attend Mass, as they were banned from the white churches. Forget whether or not they were spiritually nourished in a Latin Mass, for they were not allowed to enter the Church. Thus, they lost their faith. That is grievous error, that is a Church hierarchy completely and lackadaisically disregarding the lowliest members of the community. Thanks be to God that I live in a time where I am not banned because of my race from attending a Catholic Mass! Thanks be to God that I do not live in a time and place where I would have to worship Him in a cave and risk being hung upside down if discovered! Thanks be to God that He has given me the opportunity to be literate, and read volumes of books, if I so choose, about the liturgy! Praise God for giving me access to the internet, where I can come on here and praise Him or whine about His Church! Thanks be to God for sparing me the suffering of impaired fingers due to motor disorders as I sit here and type this, and for preserving my fingers from mutilation for believing in Him that I would have suffered in previous centuries!

I have walked out of Masses, I have been surprised that my head hasn't spun 360 degrees during some, I have prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy rather than listen to a priest's homily, I have written letters to CCD directors, priests, and a bishop or two about the state of catechises and practice. Then again, I am a Novus Ordo baby, and can count on one hand the number of times I have attended the traditional Latin Mass. Perhaps what I post about on my blog is reflective of all the inherent problems in the Novus Ordo and the graces I haven't gained, or maybe that's just my personality and sinfulness. Either way, while I certainly acknowledge the pain of bad Masses, I think it's oh so much to get worked up about on the internet. Otherwise, I'd begin to suspect that Daniel got it wrong in his interpretation: Have It Your Way certainly must have been written by the finger of God on the wall of Belshazzar's palace, or maybe it was on the original tablets that Moses threw down in anger when he saw the Israelites with the golden calf.

The above is irreverent, but what really bothers me about the complaints is the hand-wringing. When reading them, I often think of Hamlet's line to his mother:
Leave wringing of your hands: peace; sit you down,
And let me wring your heart... Hamlet Act III, Scene IV
For that is what we should be inviting Christ to do. Instead of getting worked up about the current liturgical problems (to the point, for Heaven's sake, of going to a different rite or Church), why not pray to Christ for change, and for that change to begin with you? It's always baffling to me that the very same people who denounce the modern Catholic Church as ultramontanist seem to believe in a caricatured ultramontanist model of the Church most strongly - that other members of the Church have no input through the grace of the Holy Spirit in the body of the Church. That it would mean nothing to sit/stand/kneel through an awful Mass, offer up your suffering to God, and pray to His Blessed Mother and the saints for order in this chaos. That Romans 12 somehow no longer applies. Why not pray Galatians 2:20, for Christ to live in you, for His graces to pour into you to transform the Church Militant, which is in constant need of renewal? Why not stand with the saints who have loved this Church and instead of complaining to internet strangers for something to be done, pray to God "Why not me?"

Lucky for me on this ranting day is the beautiful Prayer of St. Patrick that implores Christ to enter our lives and surround us (the entire prayer can be found here):
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of
every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of
every one who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of
every one who sees me,
Christ in every ear
that hears me. Amen.
St. Patrick, pray for us.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! (Rant over. And BTW, I'm right and feel no need to argue, so don't bother debating me.)

Cystic Fibrosis and Chloride Conductance

Cystic fibrosis is the result of reduced Cl- conductance in epithelial tissue. An autosomal recessive disease that is a result of a mutation on chromosome 7, affecting the cystic fibrosis transmembrance conductance regulator (CFTR), patients with cystic fibrosis die young, usually of lung failure. (There are also problems with sweat, pancreatic function, and infertility.) There is currently no cure; gene therapy is probably the best hope for the future. (I will post about gene therapy in the future.)

There are several classes of mutations in the CF gene that can be responsible for the malfunction in chloride conductance. These mutations disrupt CFTR function in the following ways: preventing expression of the transcript, reducing cell-surface expression of CFTR, impairing channel regulation, or by altering the channel properties. However in 70% of cases, the mutation is a three-nucleotide deletion which eliminates the amino acid phenylalanine from the protein CFTR, and because of the location of the absence, CFTR does not fold properly and cannot leave the endoplasmic reticulum/Golgi system.

As a consequence of these changes, chloride ions (negatively charged) that usually move passively through the CFTR and maintain equilibrium between the intracellular and extracellular space, now become trapped inside the cell. This in turn disrupts the electrical gradient, so that sodium ions (with their positive charges) also do not have their usual concentrations inside and outside the cell (sodium now stays inside the cell). Since NaCl becomes trapped inside the cell, water also moves from the extracellular space into the cell by osmosis, resulting in the accumulation of a higher than normal concentration of salt outside of the cell - the basis for the sweat test for cystic fibrosis (patients have higher than normal concentrations of salt in their sweat).

Due to this accumulation and the lack of normal water transport, the fluid layer in the lungs becomes more viscous and contains a higher concentration of mucous than in normal patients. The mucous plugs impair breathing and trap bacteria, making infection more likely. Additionally, the high NaCl concentration of the surface fluid in the lungs inactivates the antibacterial agents secreted by the lung epithelial cells. The bacteria therefore multiply, and most CF patients have established chronic pulmonary infection within the first few months of life. The resulting inflammatory response contributes to the mucous and leads to chronic lung damage.

So see how much trouble a little thing like negatively charged chloride ions not being able to move out of your cells can cause?? I hated taking a course on ion channels my first-year in grad school (I'm a behavioral neuroscientist, and had had all the electrical engineering I wanted in college), but the darn things are actually very important.

Information taken from Ion Channels and Disease (2002) by Frances M. Ashcroft. Graphic and description can be found here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

For Someone I Love

On occasion of his 28th birthday…I don't like using my blog for personal messages, but he deserves it.

I wish I could write you poetry, but you wouldn’t want to see me make the attempt. But here are the things I will do for you: I will re-learn Spanish so that I am capable of reading Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Jorge Luis Borges in their native language. I will even “cutely” read them to you in Spanish. I will re-learn, in Latin, all the prayers my mother taught me. I will never play Mahler for nine hours straight. I will never be able to pronounce your name correctly, but instead of calling you V for Volatility, I will choose something more suitable. I will not watch 300 for the hot men, and avoid making you feel any jealousy. I will climb to the top of a mountain with you, without complaining. I will receive the Eucharist in whatever way you decide is suitable. I will listen to Glass and Reich, if I must, for extended periods of time; and will not make you listen to Webern. I will cook, and not always make you wash the dishes, and I will not force you to make pumpkin bread or any other baked goods for me. (I can also mow lawns!) I will trust you, and be unafraid. And I will love you.

I love you Arturo Vásquez, and I don’t care who knows it! Happy Birthday!

300, briefly

Forewarning: Pseudo-Iamblichus honors me and other bloggers for our meditations on Roman Catholic life, art, and practice, and this is what I’m posting today. Alas, I can’t pretend to talk about Catholicism all day - count me in with the great sinners that make up the Catholic Church and need it so desperately. And do not take this post to mean that Christ in my life hasn't taught me better, I'm just still human.

Why is this brief? Because there isn’t much to write about the movie 300 (directed by Zack Snyder from the graphic novel by Frank Miller). It’s bad. Sparta, as portrayed here, has no redeeming values. Everyone speaks in platitudes, the voice-over narration is beyond silly (in that meant to be weighty manner), the effects themselves are straight out of a comic book. While other people like this style of filmmaking (video-game style), I don’t. If I want to see a cartoon, I’ll go watch a cartoon. I’m also about sick of the ochre-tinged lighting that is meant to signify “the ancient world” (spoken with a booming voice). The grotesque characters aren’t even creatively so: I saw the fat man from Hellraiser, the evil warrior from Kickboxer (Van Damme warmed my young heart nearly two decades ago in that movie), and Chunk from The Goonies (who later dons a cap to look like a gnome). None of these characters are actually scary, just really silly. One thing I had never seen before: a hallucinating satyr, and I really would have been fine having never seen it. Xerxes is beyond hilarious in both look and voice. Gosh, this was a bad movie, except for one thing….

This has to be the most homoerotic (for men) movie released in wide distribution in a LONG time. My gosh, men in nothing but thongs and capes, moving in slow motion. Men with really defined musculature disposing of bodies wearing nothing but boots and leather straps. Men’s six-packs, men sweaty, men naked, men's backs, men’s thighs…this is not a movie I should have been watching during Lent (or perhaps, any other season if I want to be a good Christian). And I got to see it on IMAX (this movie would have been completely unacceptable in any other format). I had to take my coat off, and even though it was cold in the theatre, there were times when I could have used one of those fans that spray water to cool down. If I ever bought this movie, it’s the type I’d hide under my bed. Because it’s that bad, and oh, that good. If you’re a woman or a gay man, and someone who temporarily sets aside the sinfulness of lusting and sexual objectification of others, this is a must-see movie. And on the biggest screen you can find.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Diamonds and Details

Someone dear to me, Anthony Tully, has posted about the crowns at Napoleon's coronation. Since both jewels and history have a real fascination for me, it's a must see.

Mr. Tully is a well-respected and credentialed Pacific War historian. You can buy Shattered Sword, and be on the lookout for his upcoming book about the Battle of Leyte Gulf (from Indiana University Press). But he also really loves Late Roman Empire and Byzantine history (be still, Niketas Choniates). He's the only person I've ever known whose major question in heaven would be to know the location of the Chrysotriklinos in Constantinople. He has a real gift for narrowing down political discussions to the underlying issues, and an incredible eye for photographic detail, as can be inferred from the above post.

Mr. Tully is indeed the reason this blog of mine even exists; he set it up for me himself as I refused for over a year to have my own blog and to lift a finger setting one up. So you can go over to his and at least throw tomatoes for any time you have wasted reading one of my long-winded blog entries. He also posts about politics more than I do, so be sure to harass him (or not) for his political views. One can also read my comments (pseudonym Psych) to some of his posts when in full "go sit in the corner" mode, if one wants to see my debating rottweiler persona (here and here, downright rabid and talking to myself - one can see why I don't post about politics on my own blog).


Betrayal (1978), written by Harold Pinter, directed by Rick Snyder for Steppenwolf Theatre. Jerry (Ian Barford), Robert (Tracy Letts), Emma (Amy Morton) in March 13, 2007 performance

Briefly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), written by Milan Kundera

[Note to those who are students in Chicago: Many Chicago theatres offer great student deals – subscriptions for half-price and the like. They are much nicer than the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony in trying to make performances affordable for students in advance of the day itself. Steppenwolf offers a student subscription of 5 plays for only $20 each play.]

Betrayal is a play about a love triangle. The plot: Emma has a seven-year affair with Jerry, the best friend of her husband Robert. Time moves backward, so we see the results of the affair before seeing its evolution and beginnings. It takes us out of the emotions as the characters are experiencing them, as we know that all their dreaminess at the beginning is going to end in disillusionment. The language is acerbic, the kind of language that only works in a theatre (one of the major problems with the movie version of Closer was that it was impossible to imagine that sort of speech away from a stage.) The performances were good, though I wish that they had dropped the English accents (the play is set in London) as they came off stilted in a way that wasn’t just British stiff upper-lip.

[Note: the play is also a bit dated, and not just in clothing and hairstyles. Set from 1968-1977, it’s now impossible to believe that a couple would have an affair for seven years including setting up a “second home” for their liaisons, but claim to not want to split up their respective homes because it would be so devastating for their children. Nowadays they would have just gotten divorced from their spouses around two years in, gotten married, and been some semblance of a big happy family. Honesty and personal fulfillment are more important than obligation and responsibility, or so it goes now.]

The play focuses on lying and hypocrisy: when Emma tells Jerry that she and Robert are separating (two years after their own affair has ended) and she has told Robert about the affair, they are both horrified that Robert himself has been cheating on Emma for years and Jerry is angry that Robert has not told him that he’s known about Jerry’s affair with Emma. (As stated earlier, because time is backwards, this occurs at the beginning of the play so all the interactions between these characters going back over the years are seen through the filter of what is to come.) The female perspective – why Emma has an affair with Jerry for years – is missing. However, it is entirely credible, given Jerry and Robert’s interaction, that what Robert is saying is true: “I never told you I knew [about Jerry and Emma's affair], because you’re my best friend and I probably prefer you to her anyway.” Ouch.

We’re also unsure why Jerry and Emma ever started their affair. The usual “thrill” of an affair is the risk of getting caught. But Emma is caught five years in, and continues on for another two years anyway. Is the betrayal itself exciting, in a passive-aggressive manner?

Betrayal is really about deception. All three characters do what deceivers do: to deceive is to construct a reality of one’s own making. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas and Sabina do likewise. They betray and deceive, in order to be lighter than the air, because such decisions ultimately do not matter (contrasted with the idea of eternal return). But it is also unbearable that these choices are insignificant, that lives could be insignificant. The worlds they make, which they think make them float, in fact burden others, force others into the same silence.

The world of deception is ultimately a world of self-imposed silence. It mimics the world of the flood, when God silenced humanity for its transgressions, except it is self-inflicted. It is to be in prison, where the only language one knows, and the only world one can construct, is limited by one’s own darkened imagination. It is a curse to be unable to communicate with others: “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time" (Luke 1:20). To lack language that speaks to others is to relive the curse of Genesis 3:14-19: “He laid His hands upon him and diminished him” (from B. Sanhedrin 38b), and to be unable to stand and tremble before God. (I need to blog about standing before God soon; wait for it.) Indeed, God is to be praised for “He has preserved our lives, and kept our feet from slipping (Psalm 66:9). And so the Psalmist prays, “Set me free from my prison, that I may praise Your name” (Psalm 142:7).

The illustration is Arthur Rackham's Alice and the Pack of Cards (1907) and I like it - I'm not suggesting that Alice in Wonderland is a story of childhood self-deception. Just like I'm classifying this performance as a movie though it was a play.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Music that I love...Fauré

I had forgotten how much I loved Fauré’s music. Today, I’ve been listening to Pelléas et Mélisande (NOT the Schoenberg or Debussy). I also love Laura Jacobs' description of this music in Balanchine’s Emeralds:

The score for “Emeralds” was pieced together by Balanchine from incidental music Fauré composed for theater productions of Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and Shylock (1889), and it combines impressionist washes of sound, perfumed and yearning, with simple woodcut melodies that seem sprung from medieval lore. “Emeralds” finds Balanchine deep in the poetic realm of Coleridge and Keats—it’s an enchanted forest filled with Darke Ladies and muses on the make—and in the compositional genre of hunt and vision scenes (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) and twilight gardens (Serenade). It is a work of trance and transparency. You feel you can reach through the green of “Emeralds” and grasp nothing.

…"Only the most beautiful emeralds contain that miracle of elusive blue,” wrote Colette in Gigi. And it is through elusive blue we must travel if we are to grasp Jewels, through Fauré and Debussy and the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck to the deep-sea mystery of Mélisande, the ingenue-soprano who has kept opera lovers guessing for almost a century. She is the central question of Maeterlinck’s play, for she herself will answer no questions. We, along with Golaud, the older man who marries her, know only where he found her—Maeterlinck’s stage direction reads: “A forest. Mélisande discovered at the brink of a spring.” It could be Balanchine’s stage direction for “Emeralds.” Mélisande is lost and weeping, has dropped the crown she was wearing into the spring, and will later drop her wedding ring there as well (a Freudian slip of the fingers). Pelléas is Golaud’s younger half-brother, and he has instant affinity with Mélisande, which becomes love and leads to his death at the hand of Golaud. Where Pelléas believes in “the truth, the truth, the truth,” Mélisande offers evasion, as if unversed in human rules. She nurses a secret sorrow, and is allied with water, fountains, the sea.

What—not who—is Mélisande, may be the better question. There are those who believe she is one of the water sprites immortalized (and they are immortal, unless they mix with humans) in Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine (1811). Also, the name Mélisande is very like Mélusine, the undine of a famous French fairy tale. (Mélusine marries a human on the terms that he must never interrupt her privacy. Breaking the terms, he enters her chamber and finds her transformed, playing in a pool. She leaves him.) And in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a work of ravishing irresolution begun in 1893 and premiered in 1902, the closest the composer comes to a true aria occurs when Melisande lets her otherworldly hair fall from a window. Mermaids are known for two things - their long, long hair, and their song.

Although “Emeralds” has been likened to a tapestry, to chivalric France, to green earth, it has always been described with liquid images. Verdy commented on its “underwater quality,” and Kirstein described it as a “submarine summer-green garden.” In his book George Balanchine, Richard Buckle reports that in 1958 Balanchine had discovered the music of Fauré and imagined a “tipped ballroom” behind a scrim with “a projection of the sea . . . which pulsates.”

...Move in close and Jewels acts more like a solitaire under a spotlight, a single gem glinting a spectrum of hue and allusion. Jewels is knee deep in French Symbolists, Mallarmé as much as Maeterlinck. Listen closely to Fauré, and you hear Debussy’s tumescent woodwinds, Mallarmé’s faune stretching in the leaves, wondering “Loved I a dream?” Jewels takes up the tensions of the Symbolists, who took up symbols of the Romantics before them—their use of the half-human to understand the human, their sense of the dislocation between possession and privacy, infatuation and freedom. Jewels is a vision touched with myths of transformation, with the conflicting impulses of escape and rescue. That the mermaid swims through all channels of Jewels is yet another flash of recognition: mermaids have always symbolized the free flow of the mind, the sea of the subconscious. The questions whispered in these waters and woods are the stuff of Balanchine’s dreams, and they are unanswerable: to what extent can you possess a woman, a wife, a ballerina? To what extent can you possess your Only Desire without killing it?

There is an alternate view to Mélisande’s identity, and its meanings move deep and dark under Jewels. This analysis also comes by way of the opera. If Mélisande has dropped her crown into the spring, the obvious next question is, who gave her the crown? She says: “It is the crown he gave me. . . . I will have no more of it! I had rather die.” The scholar Henri Barraud identifies Mélisande as one of Bluebeard’s ex-wives escaped from his castle. Perhaps she is a wife to be. One of Charles Perrault’s more rigid and unforgiving tales (it’s hard to call it a fairy tale), Bluebeard’s Castle connects with Pelléas et Mélisande in its atmosphere of hot and cold unknowns, its Symbolist portents ripe with erotic suggestion. Another link is Maeterlinck himself. He wrote a version of the tale called Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, and he named one of the wives Mélisande.

The entirety of Jacobs’ essay on Balanchine’s Jewels can be found here.

Kundera's Compassion

All languages that derive from Latin form the word "compassion" by combining the prefix meaning "with" (-com) and the root meaning "suffering" (Late Latin, passio). In other languages - Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance - this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means "feeling" (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ–czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).
In languages that derive from Latin, "compassion" means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, "pity" (French, pitié; Italian, pietà, etc.), connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. "To take pity on a woman" means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word "compassion" generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word "compassion" not from the root "suffering" but from the root "feeling," the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other's misfortune, but also to feel with him any emotion - joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

From Milan Kundera's
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Painting is Baglione's St. Sebastien Healed by an Angel (1603)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When the Saints Come Marching in...

An appreciation to all my Brothers and Sisters who, through Christ, spoil me so!
Every morning around the same time as the sun is rising, my father comes into my room and kisses me on the cheek, though I'm still sleeping.
Every night, my mom comes and kneels next to my bed, and we say our bedtime prayers…Our Father Who art in Heaven…, Hail Mary, full of grace… (three times), Glory be to the Father, the Son…, O My God I’m heartily sorry for having offended You…, Angel of God my guardian dear…, St Michael the Archangel defend us in battle…, Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord…, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, we love you, save souls. She then sprinkles me with Holy Water (she keeps the bottle in the pocket of her robe), says I love you, kisses me on the cheek, and says Bon soir, bug as she walks out.

I became acquainted with the saints very early on. They were on their pedestals in church, on the windows, on prayer cards, around the house, in my coloring book. (I’m grievously sorry, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, that I colored your veil green and your face a motley range of reds and purples. I'm also sorry that this picture of you is of such questionable artistic merit.) I would get my mom to read me the Bible and the stories of the saints until I had them memorized and could correct her when she was reading to me and mis-spoke.

I was only partially joking when I said here that we bargain with the saints. I said the Prayer to St Joseph every single morning for years, lured by the promise of Christ visiting me on my death bed. I said any number of other prayers, and still do in a jiffy to get certain favors (my favorite is the Prayer to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, that is accompanied by the wonderful line “it has never been known to fail.”) My eyes light up like a kid's at Christmas when I see the words "Promises to those who say this prayer" next to the text itself. I think we Catholics salivate over those “say this prayer (this way) and (such-and-such) will happen” the way others must pick out their lottery numbers for the jackpot. But it's not really that it's works-based - it's how we know that they are holding our hands. In the same way someone is just an acquaintance until they give you a true gift, a sincere gift from their heart. It's how God and the saints become our intimates. Besides, I'm sure God knows we're human.

I loved reading of the martyrs like St. Cecilia, who had held her hands in a certain position and prayed for three days with her head only barely clinging to her trunk, I loved seeing bad pictures of St. Francis Xavier with a ball of fire above his head and having the facial expression of a man who is about to burst an aneurysm. I loved reading about all those young saints, so consumed with God’s love that it was literally consuming their bodies, and they were happily suffering and living on nothing but the Eucharist alone. St. Aloysius Gonzaga as a rosy-cheeked boy cherub. St. Rose of Lima undergoing all sorts of self-deprivations. St. Anthony of Padua being offered the Child Jesus by the Blessed Virgin. St. Rita of Cascia taking solace from the pain of a bad marriage in the pain of the suffering Christ.

We have saints that always knew they were going to be saints (St. Maria Goretti) and saints who got there initially kicking and screaming (St. Francis of Assisi). Saints who refused to fight (St. Martin of Tours) and ones who led armies (St. Joan of Arc). Saints that levitated during Mass (St. Joseph of Cupertino), and saints that fell asleep (St. Therese of Lisieux). Ones who were kings (St. Louis) and ones who did without great possessions (St. Anthony the Great). Ones who founded religious orders (St. Madeleine-Sophie Barat) and ones who did great things in existing ones (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). Ones whose lives are concealed behind myth and legend (St. Dymphna) and ones who kept diaries (St. Maria Faustina Kowalska). And on it goes. I risk irreverence here, but I always felt we Catholics could do a commercial: "We've got thin ones, tall ones, short ones, fat ones. Smart ones, silent ones, old ones, young ones. Mystics, peasants, nobles, confessors...."

I started reading the actual writings of the saints at a fairly young age. I read the writings of the Carmelites, Spiritual Exercises, St. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, I read a book of Patristic writings while deliberately skipping everyone who wasn’t a saint - I checked my saint book first (so long, Origen and Tertullian), I even read chunks of Summa Theologica without knowing one single thing about scholasticism. (What I did know was that St. Thomas Aquinas had the sweetest, most quizzical expression on his face in my saints book for children). All I knew was that a saint had written it, so it must be good, and he wrote some cool things about God and human nature.

Around adolescence, I started to get into Catholic apologetics. I have an analytical mind, so it was fun to learn about all the disputes on soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and all the other -ologies. Previously, I had never read a Council document. In the next ten years "for fun," I would read Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon; I would memorize canons and wordings from Councils; I'd read Patristic writings with an entirely different eye. I'd read modern Catholic theologians with an ear for edification, not illumination. I'd debate Protestants and correct my fellow Catholics, I'd chastize the poorly catechized and tell them to read, read, read. (Although those who honestly believe that Constantine founded the Roman Catholic Church and made Christianity a state religion DO need to read, read, read.) And then I got completely bored with it. Tired of it. It was an intellectual obsession that ultimately dead-ended for me. (Note: I am not criticizing Catholic apologists. Some great saints, like St. Francis de Sales, were apologists.) And it dead-ended because it was not where my heart was, it had no relation to the simply piety of my childhood. I took a two-year whirl through apologetics again, as someone close to me was considering Orthodoxy.

About six months ago, when the brouhaha over Benedict XVI’s Regensberg address was on-going, a friend sent me an article from the London Times that sought to address papal infallibility. I wrote what must have been a four page response, outlining every single way the article had gotten papal infallibility wrong, providing Scriptural passages, points of debate in Orthodox and Catholic circles, and so on. It felt so good to do and I was so sad that I hadn't saved it to admire my own brain's output. But after that triumphalist rush, I thought, "wow, that was a waste of time."

[Note: I hate when Catholics label themselves as traditionalist or neo or liberal or rad or whatever else, as if the Church is a political party and there are certain planks that define your position. For Heaven’s sake, if you are Catholic and feel you MUST label yourself, at least choose something that makes spiritual sense - something resonates with the rhythm of your heart and the melody of your soul. Say, “I’m in the beat of the Carmelites, to the melody of St. Teresa of Avila” or "I move to the rhythm of the Redemptorists, to St Gerard Majella's resounding baritone." Otherwise, you’re just talking about the ideas that bind your mind. (And the debate between Thomists and Molinists cannot slide in this way).]

I wonder, if I ever have children, what it is I will teach them. Maybe I'll read ecumenical council documents to them when they're still in utero. Will I whisper in their ears details of the Hesychast controversy while pushing them on the swing? Will I greet them every morning with a fact about humanism and sola scriptura? Will I demand discussions about the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity over the dinner table? Maybe I will tape pictures of Popes Hormisdas and Honorius I in their rooms, so Catholic-Orthodox debate will be natural to them. And I will put notes about free will and nature in their lunch boxes, to discuss with their friends at school. Maybe my children (by the age of 10!! God, I pray that in your infinite mercy and wisdom, you will give me genius children. Amen.) will finally figure out how Calvinists can believe in unconditional election and irresistible grace and yet care so much about what others do.

And yet this is outside the rhythm of my life. I like to pray the prayers I've known since childhood. I like the silly artwork and the medals. I like the variety. It has flavor, and I come from a family heritage that is a motley mix.

I began with the two images from my childhood for a reason. They are the images of St. Joseph:

O St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. Press His fine head and kiss Him for me, and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us.

And St. Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin:

Good St. Anne, mother of her Who is our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope, pray to her for us, and obtain our request.

The saints are everyday life. They are the rhythm, the ebb and flow. In the darkness, they are the medium through which God's light shines. They are family, and they have cool names and led awesome lives. Read about them, talk to them, get to know them. Find out what they have to say about Christ. They'll talk your head off, if you let them.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht).
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Published 1984.

Beloved - Part IV

From Toni Morrison's "Beloved" (1987)

In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek, or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

“Here,” she said, “in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unloosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them…More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

For the previous "Beloved" posts, go here, here, and here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Iam, Christe, Sol Iustitiae

Iam, Christe, sol iustitiae,
mentis dehiscant tenebrae,
virtutum ut lux redeat,
terris diem cum reparas.

Dans tempus acceptabile
et paenitens cor tribue,
convertat ut benignitas
quos longa suffert pietas.

Quiddamque paenitentiae
da ferre, quo fit demptio,
maiore tuo munere,
culparum quamvis grandium.

Dies venit, dies tua,
per quam reflorent omnia;
laetemur in hac ut tuae
per hanc reducti gratiae.

Te rerum universitas,
clemens, adoret, Trinitas,
et nos novi per veniam
novum canamus canticum.

Now Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness,
let dawn our darkened spirits bless:
the light of grace to us restore

while day to earth returns once more.

Thou who dost give the accepted time,

give, too, a heart that mourns for crime,

let those by mercy now be cured

whom loving - kindness long endured.

Spare not, we pray, to send us here

some penance kindly but severe,

so let Thy gift of pardoning grace

our grievous sinfulness efface.

Soon will that day, Thy day, appear

and all things with its brightness cheer:

we will rejoice in it, as we

return thereby to grace, and Thee.

Let all the world from shore to shore
Thee, gracious Trinity, adore;

right soon Thy loving pardon grant,

that we our new-made song may chant.

Image is the central altar window at Berlin Cathedral, Anton Von Werner (1905)

And please God, let the Aggies get picked as a #2 or #3 seed this Sunday, playing in New Orleans next weekend! Also, please let them make it to at least the Final Four. Amen.


For A.V.

Worlds rise and collapse under the weight of a Yes. Humanity falls with a Yes (Adam and Eve to the serpent) and is redeemed with another Yes (Christ and the Blessed Virgin to God). People fight wars over when and where who said Yes. An entire industry depends on women joyfully saying Yes. The survival of the human race depends on the Yes. Yes may be the most powerful word we have. It is forever open to possibilities.

There are all sorts of ways to say Yes: they can be playful, excited, joyous, full of sighs, resigned, angry – is there any other word indicating affirmation that can contain so much?

According to Evan Zimroth (Collusion, 1999), Yes please and Sorry, my fault are the only two phrases a ballet student should ever utter in the studio. A Yes allows someone else a measure of control over you; it allows them to know your needs and desires. This is what I want. That is what I think. It also carries with it grave responsibility, Yes what I've said is true.

People will hold back on saying Yes out of anger and spite, in order to maintain individual control. There’s nothing like a two-year-old child, learning that he can change the world around him, who refuses to say Yes. Out of anger towards Agamemnon, Achilles doesn’t say Yes soon enough to save the life of a beloved friend:

Look, a world away from his fatherland he’s perished,
Lacking me, my fighting strength, to defend him.
But now, since I shall not return to my fatherland…
nor did I bring one ray of hope to my Patroclus,
nor to the rest of all my steadfast comrades,
countless ranks struck down by mighty Hector-
…But now I’ll go and meet that murderer head-on,
that Hector who destroyed the dearest life I know.
…I’ll lie in peace, once I’ve gone down to death.
But now, for the moment, let me seize great glory! - The Illiad, Book XVIII

But when he finally does, the fall of a civilization and the mythical founding of a new one appear on the horizon.

People who cannot decide to say Yes live between worlds, tortured. See Hamlet. Indeed, the omitting of a Yes is the same as a No.

The Yes can also be unspoken – the heart and soul give the affirmation before the mouth can give the utterance. Juliet is so eager to say Yes she does so before it’s asked of her:

Juliet: What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?
Romeo: The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.
Juliet: I gave thee mine before thou didst request it,
And yet I would it were to give again. Romeo & Juliet, Act II

There is even a movie titled Yes (2004), written and directed by Sally Potter. Large parts of it are in iambic pentameter; the plot involves a man and woman from entirely different cultures learning how to say Yes because to say Yes opens up the possible:

In fact I think I'd guess
That "no" does not exist. There's only "yes.”

One author complained that the English Yes was insufficient for the pregnant weight of the word itself. Yes does sound too resigned, too lacking in responsibility; a sí or oui carries with it excitement, expectation, and a sharp demand for satisfaction. My own favorite is the Russian pronunciation da. It's pleasant and warm, but could also stab if spoken harshly.

Of course, there’s the whispered erotic Yes, the breathless Yes. a girl where I was a flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. - James Joyce’s Ulysses (1934)
But the most important Yes is certainly that shared between lovers, whether man and woman ensuring the continuance of the human race, or God and person uniting in communion. The Yes that gives life and contains a promise:
He Who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. - Revelation 22:20 (NIV).