Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, now that I'm no longer the age of the stars

This post will possibly make no sense to anyone who is too young to remember the 90s. I make no apology. I am not speaking to The Kids here, but to The Eldritch, who remember a time when Leonardo DiCaprio reigned supreme on the silver screen, with his iconic hair and his cheekbones and (from the perspective of a now 42-year-old mother) his scrawny body. Somebody give that poor kid something to eat and put him in high school(googles DiCaprio's age)college.

Gentle readers -- and I call you "gentle" because it's just become obvious to me how old I am, so speak kindly to me -- last night I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for possibly the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1996, when I was 17. 

My birthday is in December, so in general I can calculate how old I was a given year by adding one and the appropriate tens digit. In 1996 I turned 18, which is more than Claire Danes did. Through the magic of IMDB, I've discovered that Claire Danes is about six months younger than I am, and it's just destroyed my whole paradigm. 

I never saw an episode of My So-Called Life, just as I never saw Beverly Hills 90210 or any of the other water-cooler TV shows. (Or whatever the equivalent of the water cooler is in high school, which I never attended.) But I heard about it, and I read about it, and I always wondered if I was missing out on something, if imbibing these touchstones of pop culture would give me some kind of panache, or some touch of Danes's flawless skin and acting savvy. I remember reading an interview with her, about the time that Romeo + Juliet came out, where she said that the rhythms of iambic pentameter worked themselves into her brain, so that she was saying stuff like, "Oh mother, will you pour the cereal?" at home. 

Mother. Cereal. Danes was 16 when she shot Romeo + Juliet. I now have two daughters older than 16, and one who's younger but looks older. Danes and DiCaprio passionately smooching, characters in the first flush of love? It's not sexy any more. What are they thinking, putting a 16-year-old actress in that kind of situation? 

And DiCaprio, poor emaciated waif. I wanted to pat him on his tousled head, stomp out that cigarette (not menacingly, like John Leguizamo's feline Tybalt, but in a maternal fashion), and feed him the meal that his Hollywood handlers weren't letting him have. Danes too. Honey, eat another bowl of that cereal, for Mother.

Danes and DiCaprio, interestingly enough, were the weak Shakespearean links in a production populated with heavyweights. Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence, Paul Sorvino as Old Capulet, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, and Harold Perrineau's electric Mercutio in drag -- all give human cadences to Shakespeare's poetry. (And Paul Rudd, who must have Dorian Gray's portrait aging in his attic, looks the same now as he did 25 years ago as Paris.) The youngsters do yeoman's work, but they sometimes feel as if they're uttering lines. Both are exceptional actors, and compellingly watchable, but sometimes one wanted a bit more language and a bit less L.A.

But what a production! The whole decadent, decaying world oozes with the most toxic cultural Catholicism, and it works. Latinate Capulets outfitted by Dolce and Gabbana, Irish Montagues prim in the older generation, and punk in the youth. (For more on the costuming of the film and its effect on fashion, read Romeo + Juliet's Sonnet of Style.) Pious plaster Virgins and a technicolor Sacred Heart on a Hawaiian shirt. Whoring on Friday, confession on Saturday, and a deliciously gaudy Novus Ordo on Sunday, replete with lace-albed choir boys warbling When Doves Cry. And guns, guns everywhere, emblazoned with flowers and crosses and the Sorrowful Mother gesturing at her flaming heart. The veneer of aesthetic devotion covering a beating heart of lust: lust for power, lust for revenge, lust for blood, lust for beautiful young bodies. 

This veneer is thin. As Juliet waits for Romeo, before she learns of Tybalt's death, she rhapsodizes about their coming wedding night:

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world shall be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (III.2)

I started when I heard Danes say this. The line as I'd memorized it is, "Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die..."* There is a world of difference between longing for Romeo to grace the heavens after his own death, and offering him up living as a suttee to grace Juliet's funeral pyre. As it turns out, I'm in the wrong here (see note below). But the world of this production does reflect this essential selfishness of Juliet's. Even the two innocents, Romeo and Juliet, are simply softer, prettier, cleaner versions of their feuding forebears. This is a world without grace or forgiveness, where "civil strife makes civil hands unclean". Action replaces hope, and prudence is more honored in the breech than in the observance.

My teenagers, for the most part, thought the movie an interesting look at the antediluvian world of the 1990s, and opined that their shaggy 12yo brother could benefit from Leo's hair stylist. "Why is everything so Catholic?" one asked, surveying Juliet's bedroom shrine. "Is this a particularly Catholic play?" 

"No," I said. "And can you believe that Claire Danes is about six months younger than me?"

The girls studied Juliet's eternally youthful face. "No," they said.

*My flaking paperback Folger Library edition, from which I must have memorized the passage, bears me out, but the historical record tells a different tale. Every early version from the Second Quarto (1599) on has "and when I shall die". The First Quarto (1597) does not, but only by omission: Act 3, Scene 2 has only four lines for Juliet before the nurse enters, cutting 25 lines of the famous monologue beginning with "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night". The Folger Shakespeare Library has facsimiles of these early versions, and their online reading text has "when I shall die". Why does my old paperback say "he"? Alas, the book has lost the cover and all the front pages, so I don't even know when it was printed, but the price on the spine is 45 cents. It's probably as old as I am, which, as we have established here, is old.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Pope St. John Paul II, Modernist (theatrically speaking)

 I had the great good fortune this weekend to see a production of The Jeweler's Shop by Karol Wojtyła, Bishop of Krakow (best known, of course, for his later career as the Bishop of Rome, Pope St. John Paul II). A group of Catholic young adults in Columbus decided, in best theatrical tradition, that they wanted to put on a show, and tackled Wojtyła's dense text creditably, with several fine performances and original music. The Jeweler's Shop is a show that's rarely performed, so I was delighted to have the chance to see it so close to home.

It's not that The Jeweler's Shop is a difficult show to stage -- no large cast extravaganza, no big sets, no special effects tour-de-force. It is, in fact, deceptively simple. Most of the action is interior. Most of the script consists of monologues to the audience, with lyrical passages of "rhapsodic" mediations on love. Those rhapsodic passages are key to understanding Wojtyla's approach to theater.

When people hear that a Catholic pope was formerly an actor and a playwright, their understandable assumption would be that he was a classically trained, old-school showman, standing in the solid theatrical traditions of Shakespeare and well-crafted plays and big proscenium-arch acting. And so, it is perhaps a shock to encounter the actual work of the man. Karol Wojtyła was no traditionalist. He didn't act in the kitchen-sink realism style of Stanislavski, or write standard five-act dramas replete with old-fashioned stuff like dialogue and scenes and story-telling structure. As a man of the stage, he was an experimental modernist.

For Wojtyła, theater was a ritual, as stylized as a liturgy, a vehicle for the Word. The actor is on stage to convey not a character, but an idea, which takes root in the minds of the audience who hear the spoken word and grapple internally with the problem the play propounds. This style, in which the word becomes, in effect, a vehicle of the internal movement of the soul, is called Rhapsodic. As he himself explains:

The Rhapsodic company has accustomed us to a theater of the word. What does this mean? Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word constitute an essential, primary element of every theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless, the position of the word in a theater is no always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as "song" -- separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes "rhapsodic", and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. (Wojytła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 372)

This rhapsodic vision is best realized in small-scale, experimental productions, with minimal set and a few significant props, and it was well-suited to the kind of underground resistance theater that Wojtyła spearheaded under the Nazi occupation of Poland. The rhapsodic group proclaimed the great patriotic Polish dramas and epics, stripped down to their essential ideas and staged not as dramatic scenes between characters but as ideas and themes presented directly to the audience:

[The Rhapsodic Theater] made of them not traditional 'adaptations for the stage', but always specific and authentic uncoverings of the very essence of the works, their thought and ideas, their authors' intellectual vision. This is a novel and revealing approach. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 373)

The religious, intellectual Rhapsodic Theater troupe forged on after WWII, under the challenging conditions of the Communist regime, which favored experimental theater, but of the atheistic, psychologically intrusive style pioneered by Jerzy Grotowski. (Fans of cult cinema will recognize his name from My Dinner with Andre, in which Andre tells Wally Shawn [later of Princess Bride fame] about his time with Grotowski's theater troup in Poland.) Grotowski also saw theater as liturgy, but unlike the Rhapsodists, he wanted theater to be literally liturgical, embued with the power to evoke in reality what it proclaimed through the word. Wojytła's rhapsodism was confined to an intellectual experience, in which the audience members would grapple internally with an idea and let it come to fruition in them through personal conversion and then practical action. Grotowski wanted his actors to literally experience the suffering or the ecstasy they were performing on stage -- an emotional transformation rather than an intellectual one. Many of his actors went on to have mental breakdowns through the abusive theatrical workshop training Grotowski subjected them to. 

However, Grotowski was a card-carrying communist, and the Rhapsodists were practicing Catholics championed by Bishop Wojtyła, a thorn in the side of the Communist regime. In 1960, the year that Wojtyła wrote The Jeweler's Shop based on his years of pastoral experience with married couples, Grotowski's Laboratory Theater was just getting off the ground, with funding from the government. By 1967, the Communist government of Krakow had suppressed the Rhapsodic Theater, in large part because of its association with Wojtyła, newly appointed a Cardinal. Grotowski went on to great acclaim in theatrical circles, and Wojytła went on to become Pope, and we shall see who is remembered as more influential.

The Rhapsodic Theater did tackle more traditional styles of drama, but Wojytła himself realized that this style wasn't really suited to dramas built on standard theatrical elements such as characterization and plot. As bishop, he wrote a review of Actors in Elsinore, the Rhapsodic take on Hamlet using various scenes from Shakespeare:

This Shakespearian production has been a great effort for the rhapsodists, because Shakespeare, as I have said, is not at all rhapsodic but theatrical, dramatic, comic, and tragic in his own way. He re-creates life and does not evade its concrete events; on the contrary, he enriches his plays with them. It is not easy to isolate in Shakespeare a pure construction of ideas or to stylize the action in a rhapsodic fashion to give sway to the word. For this reason, while agreeing that this production... had its origins in the rhapsodists' profound need for self-definition and undoubtedly expresses that need, one must also state that it is a new confirmation and experience of the proper direction of this particular theater. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 378)

 So! Wojytła's plays are not well-crafted theater pieces in which the dialogue and plot does most of the work, independent of the skill of the actor (which is why A Mid-Summer Night's Dream can be performed by middle-schoolers and still be basically intelligible). And this is why you generally won't see the pope's play performed by your parish drama club, and why I was so excited to see any performance of it. It was written both as a Catholic meditation on marriage, to be contemplated individually by readers, and as an experimental piece of theater for a troupe trained in the particular and demanding style of Rhapsodic theater.  

(For all drama clubs: Wojtyła's most traditionally-crafted and accessible play is an earlier, more obscure work, Our God's Brother [1949], based on the life of Polish patriot, artist, and religious brother Albert Chmielowski.)

Sunday, April 25, 2021

David Suchet reads the Gospel of Mark

Perhaps you know him best as the definitive Poirot, but actor David Suchet is also a devout Christian who came to the faith through reading the Bible in a hotel room. In this glorious two-hour recording from St. Paul's Cathedral, he reads the entire gospel of Mark straight through as it would have been heard by the first Christians, without chapter or verse breaks.


It's easy to think of the gospels, or of any book of the Bible, in the small chunks that we normally read or hear at Mass. But hearing the good news as one whole narrative is a reminder that God's time is not our time, and that we, too, are part of a narrative that is not yet ended, and will not end until Jesus comes back. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Wanting Catholics To Do Better

Sometimes institutions we love and identify with do things we don't like.  I've had occasion to think about that this week, as we've dealt as a family with frustration at the way Franciscan University of Steubenville has declined to allow their county health department to offer a COVID vaccine clinic on campus, despite the county's offer to do so and the fact that the university now has an outbreak on campus which is rapidly spiraling out of control (and thus at risk of shutting down in person classes.)  This is an issue for us not just in a vague "with my alma mater would do better" sort of way, but quite directly because our eldest is a freshman at FUS this year.  Indeed, right around the time we found this out she got put into quarantine (for the second time this semester) after someone she's been in contact with (this time a roommate) tested positive for COVID.  (At the end of quarantine she tested negative again and was able to go back to normal.) 

I had assumed that the university (as many are doing) would have a vaccine clinic on campus in order to get their students vaccinated.  Although COVID is not terribly bad for most people student age, the fact that they can pass it around rapidly while living in close quarters makes them a problem for professors, staff, and people in town.  But not only did the university apparently turn the county down (one assumes because some key administrators adhere to the belief -- which the CDF has rejected -- that there are moral reasons Catholics should refuse to receive the vaccine) but they did not see fit to inform parents of this or provide transportation off campus for students to go get their own vaccines.  Once we found out what was going on, we had to set up an appointment for our daughter to get the shot at a Walgreens a mile away from campus and ask her to walk there since as a freshman doesn't have many friends with cars.

A number of friends have made comments along the lines of "that's why I'd never send a student there" or "I'll definitely never support that place".  I understand the impulse behind these sentiments.  It is certainly disappointing to see an institution which is so clear in its commitment to being "passionately Catholic" take an unreasonable and irresponsible action in the name of the faith.  I've heard similar sentiments expressed before whether it's in regard to the bishops, a parish, or some lay organization.

However, I don't want to cut ties with the university or cease to support them.  After all, the reason why I chose to go there, and why it attracted our daughter, is that the university fosters a culture in which being a faithful Catholic is so normal as to go nearly without saying, rather than being considered alien and freakish as it would be on many university campuses.  I want the university to succeed in being a place where both faculty and students are faithful Catholics while at the same time pursuing academic excellence.  

There's a pair of opposing errors that people often make as they deal with the mistakes of organizations they see as being on their side of the cultural divide in our country.  Either they excuse (or even praise) any mistakes made by institutions on their side in order to show that their side is right, or they suggest writing erring institutions off entirely.  Both of these approaches are mistaken.  

I think it's wrong to defend Steubenville when it errs just because they're generally speaking a good Catholic college, because to defend error along with truth is to give the impression that the error is in fact truth.  If the value of Steubenville is that they are "passionately Catholic" then we should not want to see that Catholicism melded onto error.  Steubenville is admirable in not trying to combine Catholicism with the many intellectual and moral errors that people rightly are concerned about in many secular colleges.  Many colleges have successfully made their Catholic identity meaningless by trying to combine Catholicism with the sexual revolution, moral relativism, scientific materialism, cultural consumerism, and the rest of the modern grab bag.  But it would be no comfort to see Steubenville escape this while at the same time grafting Catholicism onto another set of errors.  

At the same time, immediately suggesting that we abandon support for Steubenville and support secular colleges instead is also misguided.  Secular colleges come with their own whole host of errors about the nature and purpose of the human person, morality, etc.  It's easy to think of these errors as normal because they are so pervasive in our culture, but they are nonetheless errors and very destructive ones at that.  All in all, I'd still see a college which is right about Catholicism but wrong about COVID vaccines as better than a college which is right about COVID vaccines but wrong about the whole host of issues which form the modern progressive consensus.  And yet, what I want is not to excuse Steubenville for this error, but to see it be more right by being both Catholic and also prudent and informed when it comes to vaccines.  

This presents practical difficulties.  People often say that the only way to send a message to an organization is by refusing to support them at all, which with a college I would assume means not attending or donating.  I suppose the "shake the dust from your sandals" approach does send a clear message, but it's also a relationship ending move.  I'm less sure how to go about urging an organization to do better without presenting some consequences for failing to do so, but then that's the difficulty that we face in human relationships all the time: how to urge people we care about to do better without totally cutting them off even if they do not in fact choose to do better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Two Steps Back

 One effect of pandemic at our house is that it moved many children into more online activities, whether it be classes or socializing, while impeding the use of the family desktop in the library where Darwin now needs to be closeted working from home. As a result, my laptop has become the primary family computer, not just during business hours, but for people doing homework in their bedrooms in the evening, or chatting with chums after school. I do not see my computer for days on end, and when I see I am generally not the one using it. 

In related news, my writing output has dropped to only what I can tap out with a thumb on my phone. And my motivation to compose any more than that has similarly plummeted.

This is not solely, I think, assignable to the upheaval of the past year, although that time of change has opened a door. For the past while, I have had a very direct sense -- perhaps I would even go so far as to say that it is a divinely infused message -- that I need to put myself forward less. This cuts across many forums. Put my opinions forward less on social media. Put myself forward less in volunteering to take over some function because I think I can do it better than someone else. Put myself forward less in solving other people's problems. 

Not only this, but on the occasions lately when I have chosen to put myself forward, often against the direct prompting of my conscience, I have had the grace of being almost instantly mortified by discovering that I've misunderstood a situation or have made things worse by my interference. I call this a grace because it leads to instant change. How often in life do we bumble along, going even years without realizing that some behavior or other is destructive until the cumulative effects of it are well beyond our repair? To be able to change instantly, to back down right away instead of becoming entrenched, to make amends as soon as possible -- this is a grace, and must be received with gratitude.

This does not mean that I don't pitch in when I'm asked to help out with something, or to give my opinion if I'm asked for it, or refuse to step up to do the work that needs to be done without a formal invitation or schedule. But there is a difference between these basic elements of maturity, and putting oneself forward. And I'm working on discerning that boundary, every day.

One incentive to develop this basic humility is the behavior of public (or aspirationally public) Catholics, who are devoted to selling the image of a particular lifestyle for which Catholicism is a kind of spiritual window dressing and mental furniture, without laying a true foundation of dying to self. This "putting forward" -- when the product being sold, at root, is oneself -- has underscored my sense of being called to move away from this behavior. It is a hypocrisy that can bear only the most ephemeral kind of fruit, as if Jesus needed us to build him a brand or sell him to souls. 

Jesus, in fact, needs nothing from us, and all that we have from him will go back to him, for nothing the Father has given him will be lost. But whether we will cooperate with that grace enough to build on the talents he has given us -- that is indeed the challenge of the Christian life, and that building is not done so much by adopting the trappings of some kind of professional Catholicism as it is by stripping away everything that inhibits our cooperation with his grace. And this growth is often painful -- not necessarily a cruel painful, but the kind of stretching that comes with exercise or any change. 

The question, then, becomes how to build without laying a false foundation of self. There is no question that we are called to build. The parables insist on it. But they are also equally clear that he is the vine and we are the branches and we bear no fruit apart from him, and unless the Lord builds a house, in vain do the laborers labor. (That's the psalms, not the parables, but it's all the word of the Lord.) And I do not want to spend my limited human energies laboring in vain. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

Sense and Sensibility, Streamed!

 Gentle readers, one silver lining of the pandemic is the rise in live-streamed theater. And this is a very direct benefit to us this weekend and next because Franciscan University is broadcasting its production of Sense and Sensibility, (in Kate Hamill's acclaimed production, late of Broadway), featuring Eleanor Hodge as Mrs. Jennings, the nosy neighbor. And you can watch it with us, this weekend and next!

STEUBENVILLE, OHIO— Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Anathan Theatre will perform Sense and Sensibility as its mainstage student production April 9-18.

The play is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel by Kate Hamill and will be performed in Anathan Theatre, ground floor, Egan Hall. Performances are open to the public. Seating is limited and mask-wearing by audience members is required. Accommodations to maintain proper social distancing will be followed.

Directed by theatre professor Dr. Monica Anderson, Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Dashwood sisters, sensible Elinor and her romantic sister Marianne, as they pursue love and dodge gossip in 18th-century England.

For the first time ever, in collaboration with Franciscan University’s Communication Arts Department, the play can be viewed April 9 as a livestream event and on-demand via the University’s website April 10-11 and 16-18.

Performances will be about 2 hours long with one intermission. They will be held over two weekends: Friday, April 9, and Saturday, April 10, at 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, April 11, at 2:00 p.m.; and Friday, April 16, and Saturday, April 17, at 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, April 18, at 2:00 p.m.

All times are EST.

Here's the direct link to the show. The password is Sense.

And if you watch and enjoy the show, the Communications Arts department is accepting donations for making the livestream possible. 

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Pride & Prejudice Sequel We Need

 There have been plenty of attempts to satisfy readers who wish they could know more of what happens to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy beyond the brief closing notes which Austen provided for her readers.  While in other areas, what might be called "fan fiction" is confined to the web, there have been numerous published novels in the Austen Extended Universe.  But as we were taking our walk the other night, we were realizing that all of these we were aware of simply give us more of the same: more of Lizzy as a fairly young woman, happily married perhaps but still essentially the same type of story that we have in the literary classic.  

But really, short of silliness like zombies or murder mysteries at Pemberley, we already have the story of Elizabeth nee Bennet the young woman.  If there's going to be another story, it should address a point where the characters have changed.  And, as MrsDarwin and I decided during our walk the other evening, the interesting thing to do in terms of seeing these characters at a different point in life would be see them again 20-25 years later as the Bingleys and Darcys.

In the original novel, the activity of being a mother of marriage-age children is made humorous by the shallowness of Mrs Bennet herself.  The fact that the only really sensible people we see that age are Mr and Mrs Gardiner can make it seem like it's an inherently silly set of concerns.  But of course, it isn't.  In Austen's society in particular, it was by far the most important hinge point on people's lives: career and family rolled into one.

So in counterpoint to the original story, it would be fascinating to see an older Elizabeth and Jane going through the same stage of life that we last saw in their mother.  Not only is that interesting from a character point of view, but it opens up fascinating options in terms of history.  Although the (lost) first draft of Pride and Prejudice was written in the late 1790s, the novel was actually publishes in 1813.  Let us take it that this means that it takes places in 1813, because that provides more interesting scope for this sequel.  Why?  Because we could set this sequel twenty-four years later in 1837 and thus have it take place the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.

Let's give Lizzy a break and take it that with her first child she laid to rest any fears about inheritance in the Darcy family by having a boy, young Fitzwilliam.  After that, however, she had three girls in a row, followed up by young Edward.  As the story opens, Lizzy's daughters are 20, 19, and 17 and none of them are as yet married.  Georgiana Darcy did, in the end, marry, but being of more delicate stock she has only one child, though the Darcy girls all love their frail cousin dearly.

Jane on the other hand, has four boys.  With the eldest splitting his time between learning to manage the Bingley family money and learning to manage the London season debutants, Jane could wish that she had her mother's problems.  The second eldest is up at Oxford and may pursue a career in the church.  

Indeed, one of the great things about this timing is that we can both play with Anthony Trollope style ecclesiastical politics, but the Oxford Movement is beginning to cause waves through the Anglican Church.  John Henry Newman and other young clergymen began to publish Tracts For Our Times in 1833, and Newman's scandalous decision to join the Church of Rome would occur in 1845.

The Bennet family has its own window into ecclesiastical politics because Mary Bennet surprised all the family by contracting a late marriage to the most reverend Archbishop Westcott.  Pedantic, imperious, and given to odd hobbies such as building model churches with meticulously leaded real stained glass windows, the archbishop was attracted to Mary's seriousness and her obvious attraction to him.  He also hoped that, after the death of his first wife, Mary would keep his children in order.  And they are in much need of keeping in order as his eldest son (less than ten years younger than Mary herself) has spent rather too long on the Grand Tour soaking up the splendors of Italy, and he is now showing dangerous signs of aligning with Newman and the Tractarians.

To no one's great surprise, it took only a few years for George Wickham abandon Lydia, though in typically improvident fashion they had two children during those short years.  They are not technically separated.  Wickham went abroad to pursue a venture with a friend from the army in the West Indies, and although his infrequent letters promise that he is always on the verge of making a fortune it does not take much imagination to realize that he has no intention of returning or sending real support to his wife.  He works as the foreman on a friend's sugar planation and lives with a series of dusky beauties seized from among his charges.  Lydia seems to thrive, in her way, on having the basic respectability of a husband without the limitations of having him actually present, and she cheerfully sponges off her sisters.

Kitty never did marry, and she and Mrs Bennet spend much of their time visiting Jane, where Mrs Bennet can enjoy the reflected glow of her rich son in law.  (Mr Darcy is too intimidating to be so easily used.)  Still, although Mrs Bennet spent so much time about what would become of them when Mr Bennet died, he remains hale in his early 70s, splitting his time between his own library and that of his favorite daughter Lizzy.

This, of course, leaves the unfortunate Mr Collins still without an inheritance.  He is also without a patron, as Lady Catherine shuffled off this mortal coil before she could see England's second ruling queen.  Aside from his natural and verbose mourning at Lady Catherine's passing, this puts Mr Collins in a delicate position as it is only after the death of her mother that it becomes clear that her daughter Anne de Bourgh, who inherits, never liked Mr Collins.  She cannot remove him from his living, but she can get her own chaplain and ignore Mr Collins, which is a crushing blow to his pride.  Mr Collins wishes that he might receive some position at the cathedral, but that of course would be in the gift of Archbishop Westcott, thus awkwardly making Mr Collins dependent upon the good will of Mary's husband.

And so, you see, there is any amount of fascinating drama to play out in this sequel, a passel of interesting characters of various ages to follow, and even the possibility of crossover characters from Middlemarch (set in 1829-1832, though it was written in the 1870s.)

Sunday, April 04, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Christ our Friend Vindicated (Easter Day)

 I thought I was going to write this last post on Friendship of Christ a few weeks ago, before members of our reading club begged a grace period to allow them to catch up. I'm glad I didn't try to compose anything then; I must have been reading in a dry period, and somehow the chapter didn't resonate with me, reminding me instead of the more dated elements of Benson's fiction. In preparation for an Easter post, I sat down with the book again, and this time I was in a more receptive frame of mind, and the chapter was much more alive for me -- like Christ on this Easter day!

Benson begins by laying out the pageantry that leads up to the Triduum: a vast panorama in which each character takes his or her part in what Hans Urs von Balthasar termed the "theo-drama". Not every character chooses wisely, although God takes every choice and turns it to the accomplishment of his will. One translation of John 19:1 that has always seemed apt to me is, "Pilate's next move was to take Jesus and have him scourged." What a perfect encapsulation of the desperate worldly calculation Pilate makes to salvage a situation quickly going downhill -- doing something awful he doesn't want to do, and doesn't believe is warranted, to mollify the crowd. And the crowd will not be mollified, and Pilate orders the death of an innocent man to buy peace. 

But we are not talking about the sordid human motivations in the Passion, Benson says. "From the Divine side the story is one of triumph; from the human side one of failure..." It does not matter if our human plans fail. We are not failures in God's eyes if our human plans fail. Our model, and our focus in this chapter, should be Mary Magdalene, who despite her sufferings and failures on earth, exemplified both halves of the Greatest Commandment: she "loved much" (You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind), and she "did what she could" (You shall love your neighbor as yourself).

This is a book on friendship with Christ, and so Benson draws out the ways that Mary related to Jesus -- ways in which he seemed to fail her through by his death.

1. He was her Absolver, and then he became sin itself.

2. He was her Savior, but he could not save himself.

3. He was her Friend, and he abandoned her, not only by his death, but by vanishing after his death so she could not even mourn him in peace.

Everything was taken away from Mary. By earthly standards, she was completely barren, with nothing to show for her love. But "no soul can weep that has not still some capacity for joy." (Or, to borrow the one good line from WandaVision: "What is grief but love persevering?") Mary's earthly friendship with Jesus was only a faint copy of the true model. Her friendship with Christ will be transformed by his Vindication, just as our earthly friendships -- even with Jesus himself --will finally be conformed to the reality of Heaven. 

***

"We have considered throughout Jesus Christ as our Friend," says Benson, in his final summation. "Let us on this day of His Vindication once more remind ourselves of a little of what this means."

Where are you finding Jesus right now? Where are you not finding him? In his presence in your soul? In the sacraments, especially the Eucharist? In the Church? In the saints? In his mother? In sinners? In ordinary people? In the suffering? 

Where in creation is Christ visible to you? Where is he hidden from you? Where do you wish he would reveal himself? Where don't you want to find him? 

So, then, He asserts His domination from strength to strength; claiming one by one those powers that we had thought to be most our own. To our knowledge He is the Most Perfect; to our imagination He is our dream; to our hopes their Reward.

Until at last, following His grace towards glory, we pass to be utterly His. No thought is ours unsanctioned by the Divine Wisdom; no love is ours save that of the Sacred Heart; no will save his.

***

Thank you, dear friends, for reading along with me, and may the joy of our risen Friend fill your hearts to overflowing.

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Sacraments in Psalm 51, Color-coded

 Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm of David, makes recurring appearances in the Liturgy of the Hours, including Good Friday's morning prayer. As I wrote it out in Adoration as form of meditation, I was struck by how many sacramental references there were in the psalm. I set myself to find allusions to all seven sacraments. They're noted here in different colors; readers may feel free to quibble or find more apt reference.

Baptism
Confession
Eucharist
Confirmation
Marriage
Holy Orders 
Anointing of the Sick

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.

My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.

That you may be justified when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge.
O see, in guilt I was born,
a sinner was I conceived.

Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.

Make me hear rejoicing and gladness.
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.

A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.

Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.

O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.

For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.

In your goodness, show favor to Zion;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Fast Supper

 I always have it in my head that we should have a nice family dinner on Holy Thursday.  It is, after all, the day on which we recall the Last Supper which Jesus ate with the apostles and at which He instituted the Eucharist.  And, of course, Jesus and the apostles were in turn celebrating an important meal, in that they were eating the Passover meal in remembrance of the delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  So it seems like a good time to slow down and have a good meal together.

Of course, there's also a directly conflict with trying to do this, which is that we're also invariably hurrying to get to mass, at which MrsDarwin typically has some kind of musical duties.

So in the end, what we often find ourselves doing is rushing through a nice dinner and then desperately trying to get everyone out the door to church.  

This year was no different.  Via the wonders pandemic-working from home I'd told myself that it would be no problem to knock off work by 4:30, make paneer masala and rice and naan, and have everything on the table by 5:30 so we could be out the door by 6:30 for 7:00 mass.  How I still have these fits of optimism after twenty years of familial experience I don't know.  

The difficulty with a tight timeline is that the accumulation of five and ten minutes delays which would be no problem at a normal time quickly accumulates and so once again we had our nice dinner in fifteen minutes (with an additional five minutes for desert!) and then did the mad dashing around the house to get people into church clothes and locate all the shoes which had mysteriously wandered off.  

You can see why God told the Israelites to have their sandals on before they had the Passover in Exodus, because otherwise Moses would have been chasing everyone around saying, "I just saw that shoe?  What did you do with it?" while Pharaoh was busy changing his mind and saddling up the chariots.

I suppose the secret to all this is not to be juggling a work day for one spouse and errands for the other while trying to have an early meal.  Or maybe my memories from when I was growing up of having a leisurely dinner on Holy Thursday and going to evening mass are actually from different years and we didn't try to pull off both in the same night.  

But it's of a piece with the overall Triduum experience was we tend to live it.  Celebrating these days with younger children always seems to be a balance of the devotions you want to do versus the reality of managing small people who may have a devotional sense but can only maintain it for five minutes at a time.  The older kids, of course, are different.  Indeed, as I write this the fifteen and seventeen year olds are driving off to do adoration for the last hour and a half until midnight.  But you can't expect that from the younger children so we saw the older ones out the door and are engaged in our own more prosaic tasks here.  The day will come for us, but not for another seven to ten years.

Though I suppose there's a scriptural echo to each of these complaints.  One can feel like a bit of a failure that the younger kids aren't those rare angelic creatures who reportedly want to sit quietly in adoration for long periods from a young age, but then Jesus couldn't get his followers to sit in prayer for an hour at a time either.  If even the apostles took more years of experience before they could sit in prayer for hours, there's probably for the younger offspring to develop the ability as well.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Study: The Pandemic and Parish Collections

 When JD Flynn, editor-in-chief of the The Pillar, told me that he'd like to have me do some data journalism for the Catholic news startup, my first struggle was with how one even does data journalism about the Catholic Church.  I very much enjoy working with data in my day job doing pricing analytics, but deciding how to price products is very different from understanding the eternal truths.  And yet, as we discussed possible topics, one jumped out at me as really interesting to try my hand at right away: assessing the effect which the pandemic has had on offertory collections at Catholic parishes.

Part of the appeal was that offertory sits at an interesting crossroad: it's a financial subject which one can analyze numerically, and yet it's also closely related to the mission of the parish since tithing is needed to support staff, upkeep of buildings, charity, programs, etc.  Additionally, this was something about which there was no existing data, and yet there was an obvious source: many parishes publish their weekly collections in their bulletin, and many parishes also publish their bulletins online.  In order to measure the effect of the pandemic on parish finances, all I had to do was use online bulletins to collect the weekly offertory data from a reasonable sample of parishes.

Because round numbers are easy, I decided I would conduct a study of 10 parishes each on 10 dioceses.  This makes for a total of 100 parishes, and given that I was looking at collections each week of 2019 and 2020, a total of 10,400 data points.  

The Pillar agreed to pay me for the work, so I was able to farm some of the work out to MrsDarwin and to the older kids and other members of the parish youth group, and we got all 10,000+ data points collected in under three weeks.  

The findings are interesting, and you can read about them over at The Pillar, but to use the biggest headlines for links: The average parish was down in collections by $70k or 12% in 2020 versus 2019How severely a parish's area was hit with COVID had no correlation to the change in their collections, but the level of unemployment did, as did some other surprising factors.  

I hope you'll find these interesting to read, and I'd strongly recommend The Pillar to you if you don't already subscribe.  They do outstanding in-depth journalism on Catholic topics.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Fasting

Darwin and I decided to step up our Lenten fasting, both as a discipline and a spiritual practice. The spiritual practice definitely has a physical component -- the fasting itself is the prayer, and one recalls that the chief thing recorded about Jesus's fast was that he was hungry. The hunger is not exciting, not a drive, not at all the sort of thing that motivational speakers mean when they use "hunger" as a synonym for passion and drive. This hunger is intensely, consumingly boring  for a time, Then it fades away. You have to wait out the boredom and the gnawing and remember that this too shall pass.

"Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting," Jesus advises the disciples, when they were unable to cast out a demon in his name. So it's a strong offensive tool, to be implemented before you know you need it. But sometimes you wonder what you're fasting for.

And then on Sunday, our pastor, who had been mysteriously AWOL for several weeks, turned up at most of the masses to announce that he was resigning, effective tomorrow, after consultation with the bishop, and that he wanted to assure us didn't do anything criminal.

This is, believe it or not, the third priest in a row who has vanished on our parish. One was yanked after being pastor for about three weeks (if memory serves) because he was angry at the bishop and tried to blow up our parish in revenge for his assignment. (And let me assure you that a motivated priest with no concern for his reputation can do a remarkable amount of damage in three weeks.) His eventual replacement lasted much longer and seemed a better fit, but disappeared on us too -- into rehab, as it turned out. With this latest, his replacement, we seemed to be finding our footing. He seemed like a kind, pastoral man. We each are attuned to our own particular red flags, and he did not send up any of mine.

Father's announcement was mostly bland, simply a tone of moving on, so that a few people jumped up and offered applause. But I had to attend more than one mass that weekend, and the tone was very different when Father was not managing his own message. Confusion, dismay, sorrow -- all the things you'd expect when your father leaves without saying why. We are blessed to have an assistant pastor, so we are not left priestless. But we have been abandoned, again, and it is painful.

And now we know why we fast.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: The Seven Last Words (Sixth Word)

 Erin writes on "Into your hands I commend my spirit."

***

"In Christ's Name, let us begin. For Christ has finished."

To start here with Benson's closing line may seem like cutting corners, but it sums up his theme admirably. The old things are passing away -- which implies that there must be new things. But Christ does not suffer infinitely, because sin is not infinite. There is an end to sin. There is an end to suffering. And on the cross he has conquered both. And his victory is so complete and irreversible -- so finished! -- that he has the power to utter a humanly impossible cry of victory. He is not defeated by death. As the next and last word declares, he hands over his spirit willingly, because he is finished.

For it is a greater act to restore than to create, to bring the disobedient will back to obedience that to will it into existence, to reconcile enemies than to create worshippers, to redeem than to make. That God should man is an act of power; but to redeem him is an act of Love....

"It is a greater act to restore than to create": in our limited human capacity, we know this to be true. Homes, furniture, clothing, artwork, manuscripts, landscapes, governments, relationships: it is so much easier and less painful, so much less work -- and often, so much less expensive -- to tear down the old or simply walk away from it, and begin afresh with unscarred material. 

That is not what Christ does. He crafts all sin, suffering, joy, and work before him into an arc that bends toward him. The entire mess of history is the back of the tapestry, and the front is his victorious Passion, Death, and Resurrection. No human life or act of nature is pointless or fruitless any longer, and friendship with God is restored -- not just to the way it was in Eden, but a true mutual friendship, because now God has suffered too.

But what does it mean to hear our friend say that "It is finished"?

Friendship is, of course, Benson's theme, and his concluding passage of this section is one of the finest in the book, and for those not reading along at home, I'm going to quote the whole thing.

Christ’s work, then, is “finished” on the Cross—finished, that is, not as closed and concluded, but, as it were, liberated from the agonizing process which has brought it into being—finished, as bread is finished from the mills and the fire, that it may be eaten; as wine is finished after the stress and trampling of the winepress—finished, as a man’s body is finished in the womb of his mother and brought forth with travail.

It is finished, that is, for a new and glorious Beginning, that the stream which has flowed from His Wounds may begin to flood the souls of men, and the Flesh that has been broken, feed them indeed. For now the Passion of Christ begins to be wrought out in His Mystical Body, and she to “fill up those things that are wanting of the Sufferings of Christ.” Now the enormous Process that has crushed and mangled Him in His assumed Nature begins effectively to carry on that same work of Redemption in the Human Nature of His Church, which, mystically, is the Body in which He dwells always—One Sun sets in order that another sun, which is yet the same, may begin to run his course. “The evening and the morning are one day.”

And yet, we His friends—we, who in virtue of His Friendship are enabled to live, to die and to rise in union with him—live for the most part as if He had never died. Compare the life of a cultivated fastidious pagan with the life of a cultivated fastidious Christian. Draw the two from corresponding classes and set them side by side. Is there so enormous a difference? There are a few differences in the religious emblems of the two. The one has an Apollo; the other a Crucifix. The one has the Egyptian goddess with her son in her arms; the other has the Immaculate Mother of Jesus with her Holy Child. Their talk is different, their dresses, their houses—all those external matters that are wholly indifferent to the soul’s life. But are their virtues so different, their outlook on eternity, their sorrow beside open graves, their hopes beside new cradles? . . . Even before Christ died, children loved their parents and parents their children. Do Christians rise so much higher now—nearer to that yet more amazing degree of love by which a man “hates his father and mother” in order to be the disciple of His Lord? Even before Christ died, chastity was a virtue. Are we so far advanced now in that purity of heart without which no man can see God? Even a Roman Emperor once preached self-control, and practised it. Are our own houses any better models of the peace of brethren who dwell together in unity?

Did Christ finish His work, merely in order that society might decay no further? . . . God help us! As we look at what is called Christian Society to-day, it seems as if Christ had not even yet begun.

Yet here is this vast river of grace pouring from Calvary, the river that ought to be making glad the City of God. Here is this enormous reservoir of grace, bubbling up in every sacrament, soaking the ground beneath our feet, freshening the air we breathe. And we still in our hateful false humility talk as if Perfection were a dream, and Sanctity the privilege of those who see God in glory.

In Christ’s Name, let us begin. For Christ has finished.

Our friendship with him is now begun, and it means we are to be like him -- that is, different from the world around us. Does the Church today look different than the world around us? Does it speak the same words he does from the cross? Does it act as if it believes that Christ, on the cross, pours out sufficient grace to help sinners repent, let alone become holy? Do we believe him when he says "It is finished"? 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (Fourth and Fifth Words)

 Erin writes on "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

Several years ago I went on a weekend retreat with the theme "I thirst." It was a nice retreat, with talks that focused on Jesus's burning love, his thirst, for all souls. I'm sure I came away edified, but Benson's three pages on "I thirst" packs a more visceral punch than two days' worth of earnest talks. 

Why? Because he's not dwelling solely on the spirit plane, so to speak. When Jesus says "I thirst," he's not uttering a spiritual truism. He means it miserably, horribly, painfully, literally. Thirst, Benson points out, is one of the most painful effects of crucifixion. The body is leaking fluids, hung out to dry out from every pore and laceration. (Julian of Norwich writes vividly about Christ's drying flesh.) Jesus was so thirsty and needed help so badly that he was willing to push up on the nails in his feet to get enough air to croak, "I thirst."

And someone helped him.

The bystander who raised a sponge soaked in cheap wine to Jesus's lips seems to have done it out of mere curiosity -- would Elijah come to Jesus's rescue? But it doesn't matter why he did it. Jesus asked, begged, for a drink, and this person provided what would aid and comfort him, if only for a second. It was an act of Mercy to God himself. And it is the only way some souls can approach him, not by accepting his help, but by being the ones to help him.

But here and there are souls that are deaf to Hell and Heaven alike, to whom the future means little or nothing -- souls that are too reckless to fear Hell, to loveless to desire Heaven. And to those He utters His final heart-piercing appeal. "If you will not accept help from me, give at least help to me. If you will not drink from my hands, give me at least drink from yours. I thirst."

It is an amazing thought that men should have reduced Him to this; and it is a suggestive thought that men who will not respond for their own sakes, will sometimes, respond for His. 

***

O God, come to my assistance,

O Lord, make haste to help me.

Around the world, as Christians take up their prayerbooks to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed, they begin with this plea. And it is to Christians that Benson addresses his next section. Jesus does not appeal only to the irreligious, who can hear him no other way. To the Christian who is himself bloodless, dried out, who says with Jesus, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?", Jesus says, "Come to my assistance; make haste to help me." 

It is only through him that we can thirst at all. 

It is not only that God is our reward, and our Lord; but He must actually be our Way by which we come to Him; we cannot even long for Him without His help.... We cannot even desire Christ without, except by the help of Christ within. The Christ within must cry "I thirst," before the Christ without can give us the Living Water.

This appeal, then, of Jesus must be our last and final motive, when all other impulses have failed. He is so beaten and rejected that He is come even to this. He must ask for mercy upon Himself, before He can have mercy on us. If we do not find our Heaven in Him, at least let Him find His Heaven in us. If we can no longer say, "My soul is athirst for the Living God," at least let us listen when the Living God cries, "My Soul is athirst for you." If we will not let Him minister to us, for very shame let us be content to minister to Him.

***

Benson follows his usual structure: from Christians, to the Church. The Church herself hangs in agony, sometimes in persecution, sometimes of her own making. Helpless, crumbling, humiliated, ridiculed: "She saved others, why can't she save herself?" How can an institution so flawed and corrupt and ultimately wretched offer the world salvation? How can a Church so needy have anything to give to those in need?

"Yet she can still cry out in pain," says Benson, "for her own sake." And enemies or observers who would not respond for friendship or be moved by her grandeur will respond from curiosity, as with the bystander with the sponge, or in a spirit of debate, as with the woman at the well, or from pity, as the centurion at the foot of the cross. And as they show mercy to the Church, they open themselves to receive mercy from God.

We too, Catholics who see with horror the flaws of the institutional Church, and they are many, are called to have mercy on the Church as the crucified Body of Christ. It's all too easy to become one of the spectators at the crucifixion, offering scornful commentary about Jesus's strategy on the cross and why he didn't stage his suffering differently, getting into theological debates while he slowly suffocates. Only one of these stepped away from analyzing him saying "I thirst" to offer him even the one basic, essential mercy he begged for.

***

Leah Libresco Sargent (a member of our reading club) quotes this chapter of The Friendship of Christ in her Other Feminisms newsletter

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask first.”

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I’ve heard variants on all these sayings in women’s spaces. At their best, they’re a way of giving permission to treat ourselves like people, rather than caring for everyone but ourself. They speak to a real difficulty, especially for women, in knowing when self-gift becomes self-erasure.

But they can also come with a message of “no.”

If you’re too tired, too neglected, too ill, too weak, you don’t have anything to give until your own cup is filled again, by yourself or by somebody else. The world can feel divided into the helpful and the helpless.

I saw a countervailing idea when I was reading Robert Hugh Benson’s The Friendship of Christ for a Lenten book club. In his reflections on Christ’s last words from the Cross, Benson dwells on a different idea of gift when Christ tells Mary, “Behold your son,” and John, “Behold your mother,” as they stand at the foot of the Cross, unable to aid Him in His Passion.

I feel like "I thirst" suits her theme even more aptly than "Behold your son." 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (second and third words)

The three remaining installments for this chapter each cover two of the last words of Christ. Erin and I will each take a word; here I write about the second, and she'll take the third.

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, seeing that you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)

All four gospels mention that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. Matthew and Mark note that both criminals abuse Jesus, John notes that their legs were broken to hasten their deaths. If these three accounts of Jesus's life were all that came down to us, we would know nothing of the drama of the Good Thief. 

Luke, however, recounts two exchanges: one between the criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Even John, standing at the foot of the cross, didn't hear or remember this detail, and indeed, a crucified man can barely get enough air to project his voice without excruciating pain. So Luke's source for this incident, as for the rest of his gospel, must have been someone who was so close to Jesus as to catch and hold every word: Mary.

Benson does not mention this detail, but his next section (on Jesus's word to Mary) reflects on how her share in Jesus's suffering makes her more truly our mother than her physical maternity of his body. And here, through Luke's account, we see her cherishing and honoring a man who who died publicly shamed and dismissed by everyone down to the three other gospel writers.

Benson focuses on the movement of grace in the soul, even (or perhaps especially) in a moment of particular horror and pain: "...in the silence, the Grace of God and the habits of the past have been at work together." The habits he refers to are of the other criminal, fighting and cursing to the end, but the line in isolation struck me as an example of how grace does often work in our lives: not generally through a blast of blinding light, as with St. Paul, but through what is ordinary, even to the habits we've fallen into. We do a thing one day, something we've done a thousand times before; we pass something we pass every day -- a tree, a building, a person -- and suddenly it is revealed to us as we've never seen it before. We perceive it, even darkly, as through a glass, as God perceives it. And we are aware of grace, whether or not we choose to allow it free rein.

This openness, even the slightest of cracks, is all. "...This man to whom [grace] came was not wholly self-centred," Benson said of the thief; "there was still in him enough receptivity for Grace to enter." Dante, in his Inferno, places the soul of a man still alive on earth, but dead to grace, in the very depths of Hell. This is poetic and literary license, but the horror of it prompts any self-aware reader to examine her conscience and beg Jesus for a heart of flesh, not stone.

But we want to have our spiritual cake and eat it too, what Benson calls "attempting to change God rather than ourselves", rendering ourselves "indispensable to the Divine Cause." And of course, reducing the spiritual life to a human scale of ambition and progress is a recipe for failure, even if externally the failure looks like success and prosperity and productivity. Those are not good benchmarks, for the plain reason that they are not what Jesus asks of us. 

Finally, for whatever reason -- a sudden flash of self-knowledge, as in Benson's example, or the rock bottom of pain and degradation, as with the Thief -- all we have left to offer Jesus is nothing. We can give nothing to him, and ask of him only that he remember us. And we wait miserably for the humiliation we know is in store for the person who gives up her very self.

"And then," says Benson, "by one more bewildering paradox, all is done; and the soul in that instant has what she desires. She has prayed that she may learn to serve, and with the very utterance of that prayer finds that she has been taught to reign. For she has learned the lesson of Him who was made in the form of a servant that He might rule kings -- of him who was meek and umble of heart, and she has found rest to her soul. For His arms are that instant about her, His kiss is on her lips, and His Words in her ear -- "To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!"

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 11, Christ in the Sufferer; and Chapter 12, Christ Our Friend Crucified (Part I)

I think that "Christ in the Sufferer" must disappoint many who turn to it in hope, at least if the few comments in our little reading group were to be believed.  

Some of us, being sufferers ourselves, are looking for instructions on what to do with our own suffering.  We have been told that we ought to unite our sufferings to Christ's.  We may have been told that we ought to "offer up" our sufferings, perhaps on behalf of some other soul; for example, one person reported being taught that suffering should be offered "for the poor souls in Purgatory."

But exactly how one does this is always left unsaid.

Others of us, and I count myself among them, may be searching for help learning what to do with other people's suffering.  We may feel helpless faced by the suffering around us:  faraway suffering that we only read about, or a suffering person right in front of us, whether it is a stranger or a loved one.  Maybe it is our appointed duty to do something particular to help; it can be a relief to know it; but perhaps what we can do is useless or incomplete, and then we are still left with suffering we can't help.  Or maybe we don't know what to do:  to say "it's not my job" seems wrong, and yet the fear that we might make it worse if we don't understand what we are doing is not an ungrounded one (see:  book of Job)!  Faced with a third suggestion, that we should suffer-with the sufferer, com-passion-ate ourselves... if we are not naturally feelers of others' feelings, how can we make ourselves do it?

There seem to be no easy answers here either.

And Benson's chapter does not help us.  He remains distant from the sufferer.  He does not help the sufferer, and he does not help the one who would serve the sufferer.   What are we to make of this?
I did not feel quite as alienated by Benson's take on suffering as most of the group did, but this was not a chapter that resonated with the readership. Fortunately, Benson is about to move from a philosophical discussion of suffering to ground zero: Christ our Friend Crucified.

***

And the first word of our friend, crucified, is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I. "...they know not what they do." This, Benson argues, is key, because it's very clear in the gospels that the various characters involved in the Passion thought they knew what they were doing: buying themselves peace by putting an innocent man to death. 

Drilling down even further, their error, and the error of all humanity, was that they thought they were doing it. The whole sordid soap opera of the Passion, all the tawdry human motivations on display, the strategies, the alliances, the manipulations, the key players the priests and Pilate, with Jesus as a pawn in their war: nothing more than surface-level dust. And deep underneath it all, on the cosmic level, God himself was willing each sacrifice and step of suffering to undo every tangled surface evil, undoing each deed as the people who thought themselves the chief players enacted them. They knew not what they did because they thought Jesus was truly weak and powerless. They knew they were hurting a man, but they didn't know they were hurting God. And because of that, he forgives them.

II. ...As we should forgive those who trespass against us. As Jesus suffered, so his body, the Church, suffers at the hands of the world. The Church suffers both for being Christlike and unChristlike. As it is unChristlike, as its members sin against each other and the community in ways both hugely evil and almost invisibly petty, this suffering is a purification. As it is Christlike, as it is persecuted even in the midst of providing Christ's love and mercy to a world that lashes out in its own pain, it suffers as Christ does -- which is, Benson points out, by forgiving its persecutors.
This prayer, then, is one which we can take upon our own lips.... We have abused the French Republic and the Portuguese revolutionaries, and the Italian Freemasons, and the Spanish anarchists, and the Irish Orangemen long enough. In the very point of our agony we must learn to pray: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I won't add any specific modern groups, because each person thinks the Church is being persecuted by his or her own enemies. The point is: pray for those enemies. Jesus thinks that they know not what they do, which must be enough for us.

III. And so we come to the real sting of the section: where Jesus forgives me, individually, not as his enemy, but as his friend.
We confess to a little sloth and lethargy, a little avarice, a little lack of generosity. We "know what we do," in part: we know we are not faithful fo our highest inspirations, that we have not done all that we might, that we have shown a little self-will, a little malice, and little pardonable temper. And we confess these things, and give an easy absolution. And yet we know not what we do. We do not know how urgent is the need of God how tremendous are the issues He has committed to our care, how enormous is the value of every soul -- of every act and word and thought that help to shape the destinies of such a soul. We do not know how here, in these minute opportunities of every day, lie the germ of new worlds that may be born to God, or crushed in embryo by our carelessness.

First of all, ouch, because Benson has just accurately and publicly dissected my last confession. 

Second, as a constant Friend, Jesus forgives us for repeatedly refusing his help in rekindling our first love for him. Benson sketches the arc of soul whose first ecstatic bliss who gradually grows colder and world-weary, letting its love for Jesus become a static memory rather than a living, changing, deepening relationship. But doesn't that same drama also play out moment by moment and second by second? Things are easy, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and rejoice, even just a little. Things turn harder, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and despair, even just a little. We create the future -- and the past -- in our own image, without knowing what we do. And as long as we relinquish that creation to Jesus and accept what he gives in return, we hold onto his friendship. And as long as we cling to our scripted joys or sorrows, we refuse the real opportunities to participate in his joy and suffering -- which is, in the end, the true work of a friend.

***

Next: the second and third words of Christ crucified.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sweat of My Brow

Last week was a scheduled week off lessons for us, and I had so many plans for my leisure time. I would rewrite the first chapter of Strange Plots. I would build a bookcase, for which I already have all the material to hand. I would write a letter a day for Lent, and get up and say Morning Prayer and do all the dishes each night after dinner.

What I forget when making these pretty plans is that I actually have a full-time job, which is running a household, and that this job does not go away simply because I declare a week off. And since the other adult in the house also has a full-time job, that means that certain maintenance activities that need to be done in daylight hours fall to me. 

So: I spent hours last week shoveling the snow that would not stop falling. I could have fired up the snow blower, but I've never used it, and the shovel has no learning curve. For me, that is: I sent my 12yo son out to shovel one day and ended up redoing the job, which is why I just did it myself the next time.

I spent time up on a ladder on the porch roof, removing snow and doing non-OSHA approved activities with a hammer, sharp screwdriver, and a heat gun to clear the ice dam that was making water back up under the slates and drip into the kitchen. 

Both of these were exhausting jobs, and instead of shaking off the snow and diving right into to creative work, I put in a certain amount of recovery time (cocooned in a comforter trying to restore feeling to my frozen extremities, in the case of ladderwork on the porch roof on the north side of the house, which does not have the aerobic component of snow shoveling).

So much for physical labor, but I also spent the week in constant prayer for and worry about conditions in Texas. Long-time blog readers will know that we lived just north of Austin for years, and many friends were in rather dire straits for several days. Each night as I snuggled in my warm blankets I prayed for those who were without heat; each morning for those without water. And so, the only part of my grand vacation plan I achieved was saying Morning Prayer before I suited up and went out to wrestle with the elements, feeling like offering up my work was the only thing I could do for my friends far away.

As to the dishes, I have been chipping away at them in the evenings, but this resolve also reveals to me the weaknesses in my housekeeping, because when you have eight people using dishes during the day, you can't clear the dinner dishes until you clear the lunch dishes, which you can't clear until you clear the breakfast dishes, which is definitely not happening regularly. "Make your kids do them, MrsDarwin!" you say, to which I say, A, I do, many days, and B) you frickin' come to my house and guide children to maturity day after day for eighteen years, and maybe there will be days when you too wish things would happen without your having to make them happen. And some days they do, and for that I'm very grateful to my big girls.

As to writing: I've forgotten how, and have spent fruitless time staring at a page not even sure how to put down a word to capture what I already know I want to say, and that is why I'm writing here, to build up those muscles again. "In pain shall you labor," said God to Man, "by the sweat of your brow shall you get your bread." And don't I rue it, until that sweat is the only thing I have to offer in solidarity with those far away. Then, work is a gift -- not to God, who requires nothing, but to us who want to feel like we're doing something

But even if that is taken away, then we are most like Christ, on the cross, offering himself through helplessness. And so every moment is a gift. It's just not usually the gift we asked for. But I'll tell you what -- if I'd had my perfect week of writing and bookshelving, I bet I wouldn't have been faithful to my Morning Prayer. And in the end, that's the only thing I did last week that will endure through eternity.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Snow Day

"I will write something clever," I said, and then I sat down and my hips began protesting because for the last few days, all I have done is shovel snow. And it's a great workout -- I'll see your Crossfit and raise you a load of packing snow -- but my wrists are sore.

So here: A Snow Day, in Photos.

This morning I came downstairs and discovered water on the counter, dripping in from the top of the windows looking out onto the screened-in porch.


The screens roll down from a box above the window, so any time water gets in a box, you have to worry about rust.


What's above that window, MrsDarwin? Glad you asked! The porch roof is covered with two feet of packed snow, except for this mound here, which is about four feet high. The snow covers the edge of the rubber roof of the porch. Could it be melting snow that was dripping down through the roof into the kitchen? Should someone climb out onto the roof to inspect it, and shovel off the weight of snow?


These windows are in our stairwell which overlooks the porch roof. I did not choose to unscrew the storm windows and force open the casements into the snow. No, I chose to open a bedroom window, put out a stepladder, and hoist myself out and down.


Understand that my hips are wider than the opening. I have spared you all video, though my 12yo son longed to record my contortions as I put my one foot onto the ladder while my other leg was still on the window sill, and the ladder sank into the snow.


That's the bottom step of the ladder, without sinking down through all the layers of snow.


And here's that mound. I took a couple of whacks at it before I remembered to get a picture.

"Mom, look up here!" my son yelled from the bedroom, and then he cackled and used my phone against me.


After all that, however, the likely culprit for the leak is our frozen-solid gutter.



The gutter which has icicles forming at the soffits, indicating water inside. 


At which point I took no more photos because I was tired, and I went inside and the dripping had stopped as mysteriously as it started, and then I sat around and stared at my phone for a while and then went out and shoveled the driveway again because it was still snowing.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Anti-Sacramental House

This morning I opened the door, took a nose-cracking sniff at the 0 degree air, and shut myself back in the snug house. Our power grid, optimized for winter performance, is working as it ought, and the water flows both hot and cold. We are not chilly, but if we were, we have winter coats and snow pants and boots for almost everyone. But we shiver in impotent sympathy for our friends in Texas, whose houses are build to shed heat, not retain it, whose heating relies on electricity from a grid never designed to withstand temperatures this low. 

A friend in the Dallas area recently built a house which included a fireplace. The fireplace, which is completely enclosed, runs on gas, with an electric starter. She asked the builders if she could pay extra to get a wood burning fireplace. No can do, she was told. You could put a wood burning fireplace outside, where burning wood belongs, but it was not allowed to include the safety hazard of a fire area designed to heat while safely venting smoke outside. Why would anyone even want such a thing, in Texas?

This week people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to heat their homes with fire without an area specifically designed to safely vent smoke outside.

I said that Texas houses were built to shed heat, and that's true in a sense, but let me tell you about the suburban box we lived in, north of Austin. Nowhere, in this house built in a region where there are routinely weeks above 100 degrees in the summer, were there windows on opposite walls to promote a cross-breeze. The house was not designed for air circulation. It was designed for air conditioning. Without electricity, the house barely functioned. The windows neither ventilated nor let in much light; the fireplace (gas, but we never had a gas log and so burned wood for a scenic blaze) was mostly for show, built into a tall open space where any heat it might generate quickly dispersed. Vestigial features, for plugged-in humans.

Such boxes are cheap to build, which is why they're built. They're not unique to Texas, of course; that's just where I lived in one. I don't know what we would have done in a historic cold snap, because we never had one in the seven years we lived there. I do know that if we'd had to heat our house for days on end without electricity, we could have burned every stick of furniture in the house without generating enough warmth to heat beyond the hearth, because the fireplace wasn't made to be functional. It was included in the house mainly to add a bullet point to the real estate list. It was anti-sacramental -- it effected the opposite of what it signified.

I don't know what changes will be made once Texas regains power and takes stock. People are suffering, and the immediate alleviation of that suffering is the first step. But maybe, this and other disasters will cause a rethinking of the very concept of house as aiding survival, not actively working against it.

Please, please pray for Texas, and all without power, water, heat, and food.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, and Chapter 10, Christ in the Average Man

 For Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, Erin reflects on a scripture passage in which the sinner and the saint are mirror images of each other:

Christ was crucified between two thieves, or revolutionaries, or both; between two Sinners. 

Christ died on the cross between a Sinner and a Saint. 

I think it is a little bit unfair to contemplate the Good Thief and think merely, "I am contemplating a Sinner."  It's not wrong—with few exceptions, all saints are sinners—but we are ignoring two things when we do this.  First, we are contemplating the Good Thief from a perspective that knows he is really a Saint as well; second, there is a perfectly appropriate example of a Sinner right there on Christ's other side

There will never be a better example of how Christ is reflected both in the Saint and in the Sinner.  The three men look alike in their agonies from the feet of the crosses.  Benson says, "For the crucifix and the Sinner are profoundly, and not merely superficially, alike in this—that both are what the rebellious self-will of man has made of the Image of God..."  Melanie Bettinelli and I have discussed this concept before as the concept of the "damaged icon."

So let's look at the other man.

***

Erin highlights Benson's point that the Saint and the Sinner are, in fact, mirror images of each other, and both openly mirror Christ. As Jesus said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." His lifting up on the cross was as Sin itself, and yet it is Christ as Sin that draws all men. 

What about everyone else who's neither Saint nor Sinner?

What about all the schlubs who are neither saints nor sinners? The folks just kinda doing their thing, living lives of quiet desperation, or not so quiet desperation, or maybe not desperate at all because they're good people, right? The jerk on the bus trying to impress a bored girl with some long story? The person holding up the check-out line to argue with the cashier about coupons? The clerk at the DMV who's spent the last five minutes gossiping with a co-worker about her sister-in-law while you're stuck in line? The people who are shallow, petty, ignorant, frustrating, self-absorbed?

All Christ.

Benson draws on the parable of the Last Judgment, with its separation of the sheep from the goats, and the ignorance -- "it would seem genuine and sincere ignorance," he notes -- of those being judged. The sheep are truly puzzled that they have been serving Christ all their lives. The goats are truly puzzled that they have not actually been serving Christ.

(Christians, note well: they did not realize that the way they were spending their lives was not actually serving Christ. Which means that they, who knew him, so they thought, thought also that they were serving him with deeds that he did not recognize.)

"But the explanation is not so difficult," Benson says.

It is that the ignorance is not complete. For it is a universal fact of experience that we all feel an instinctive drawing towards our neighbour which we cannot reject without a sense of moral guilt. It may be that owing to ignorance or wilful rejection of light a man may fail to understand or believe the Fatherhood of God and the claims of Jesus Christ; it may even be that he sincerely believes himself justified intellectually in explicitly denying those truths; but no man ever yet has lived a wholly selfish life from the beginning, no man has ever yet deliberately refused to love his neighbour or to deny the Brotherhood of man, without a consciousness, at soe period at least, that he is outraging his highest instincts. Christians know that the Second Greatest Commandment draws its force only from the First; yet, as a matter of fact, in spite of this, it is perfectly certain that though some men fail, for one reason or another, to feel the force of the First, no man has ever yet, without a sense of guilt, totally rejected the Second.

...Here then is an undeniable fact. The man who does not keep the Second Commandment cannot even implicitly be keeping the First: the man who rejects Christ in man cannot accept Christ as God." (emphasis added)

Finding Christ in the average person -- as he or she is right now -- "to do this perfectly and consistently is Sanctity."

Benson makes what I increasingly believe is a truth universally unacknowledged: that doing big exciting things because they are exciting is antithetical to Christianity. Not that projects large in scale can never be undertaken, of course -- but that the thrill of any given venture has nothing to do with whether or not God wills it, and indeed the thrill may be inversely proportionate to the call. 

...it is, therefore, a very real spiritual snare that we should mistake Christ's gifts for Christ, religiosity for religion, and the joys possible on earth for the joys awaiting us in heaven -- in a word, that we should mistake the saying of "Lord! Lord!" for the "doing the Will of the Father who is in Heaven." Continually and persistently, therefore, we have to test our progress by practical results. I find it easier and easier to worship Christ in the Tabernacle: do I therefore find it easier and easier to serve Christ in my neighbour? For, if not, I am making no real progress at all. I am not advancing, that is to say, along the whole line: I am pushing forward one department of my life to the expense of the rest: I am not developing my own Friendship with Christ: I am developing, rather, my own conception of His Friendship (which is a totally different thing).

Which leads back to the schlubs. We each have our own conception of what is attractive, even if it is one the World does not share; we each have our own way of seeing the diamond in the rough or hidden worth. Most people do not fall into our private category of loveability, and indeed, our private categories are irrelevant to a person's absolute worth in Christ. Better to learn and live this truth on earth than discover it to our horror at the separation of the sheep and the goats.