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Monday

Hey Monday, how are you?

MondayListening: A whole lot of piano sonatas at a competition. Result: Not as we’d hoped, but Life Lessons abound, and that’s what’s important, right?

Last night, I let Brahms chamber music play for what seemed like hours while I read. It was good. I checkmarked this one as my favorite. 

Watching: Still moving through season 4 of Better Call Saul. 

Basketball, mostly sad.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Documentary Now! (starring my bff Fred Armison) I thought I’d gone into detail about my favorite, but looking back..nope. The hazards of being an introvert: you’re sure you’ve articulated things aloud or in writing that in reality you’ve only thought about.

I watched a few more. The standouts at this point are:

Globesman – an impressive takeoff on the acclaimed Salesman –  mid century cinema verite documentary on Bible salesmen – marketing to Catholics, intriguingly enough. I wrote a bit about it here. 

The attention to detail is, of course, meticulous – the appearance of the film, the quality of the sound, and the affect of the actors is mostly spot on and consistent with the period.

Better – and really excellent – is Juan Likes Rice and Chicken – a parody, in a way of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the subsequent Chef’s Table series by the same director.

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The surprising thing about Juan is that it’s not only hilarious about playing off of pretentious food-related media and foodie culture, it’s actually….affecting. I mean – it’s a 22-minute television production, parodying something else, but it also works as a stand-alone narrative and you might find yourself wondering why your allergies started acting up all of a sudden.

Reading: 

I’m currently about finished with the novel Dayspring a title which I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of until last week, after which I have been kicking myself for not knowing about him fifteen years ago when I was editing the Loyola Classics series. This would have been a perfect title for us. It’s not a perfect book, and I’m not sure how it’s going to play out (fifty pages to go), but it’s certainly interesting – the story of an agnostic anthropologist studying the penitentes in New Mexico in the 1940’s. From the introduction to the Ignatius edition, by Philip Jenkins:

Forgotten writers often deserve their oblivion. Either they were not all that good in the first place, or their work made sense only in the context of a particular era. Neither applies to Harry Sylvester, and especially to his three finest novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney(1947). In the mid-1940s, a generation ahead of their time, his novels were already exploring such enduring themes as Catholic social activism, corruption and secrecy within the Church hierarchy, and Church involvement in civil rights and racial reconciliation. Dearly Beloved denounced the Church’s failure to confront segregation and racial discrimination. Moon Gaffney, meanwhile, presented a daring and sometimes anticlerical portrait of New York Irish-American life, exploring the cynical involvement of some clergy in political and financial wrongdoing. Neither book makes any boast of calm objectivity, and we could easily dispute their historical accuracy, yet both remain eminently worth reading, and not just for the rich and unexpected picture they offer of mid-century Catholic attitudes. Each in its way represents the agonized response of a devout Christian to the compromises that a powerful institution makes to live in the world. The questions Sylvester raises are timeless.

Also take a look at good stuff from Dorian Speed – with whom I was delighted to spend a couple of hours on Friday! – at Scrutinies on the notion of “sharpening” as an element in friendship.

and my son on The Boys from Brazil. 

I’ll have a post on Dayspring tomorrow.

 

 

St. Patrick

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Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a day away, but don’t you want to prepare? Prepare yourself, prepare the kids...

St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

….

God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written.

Here’s the last page of the chapter:

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The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back. He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share.

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory.

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction. Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo! After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months. He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged. To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately. It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.

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(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.

7 Quick Takes

— 1 —

This is going to be very random. Sorry in advance. We’ve had a busy week, and my brain is just quite fractured. Piano Season is gearing up, braces were taken off, people are coming home with news about trips they are planning and the fact that yes, they are going to prom after all, it’s Lent, friends are coming into town….

 

Links from all over, a clear indication of the cacophony that defines “My Brain.”

— 2 —

Given longstanding Christian opposition to universalism, how has it gained so many adherents in recent times?

The change was a long time coming. As I show in my book, from the time of Origen onward there were individual Christian thinkers who held to some version of Origenist universalism. In Orthodox Christianity, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion. I found that Orthodox attitudes toward Origen through the centuries were double-sided and ambivalent (as my own attitude is), acknowledging Origen’s undoubted contributions to Christian theology and spirituality but finding fault with his speculative excesses. Western esotericists, who were outside of traditional churches or hovering about its fringes, maintained a robust universalism from around 1700 up to the mid-1900s.

Yet until that point, few official church teachers in Protestant Germany, Britain, or North America publicly affirmed universal salvation—even though privately some may have been universalists. Something changed in the 1950s, and I believe it was Barth’s affirmation of universal election that allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. From the 1950s through the 1970s, universalism was most closely associated with modernist Protestantism. Prior to Vatican II, one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals, even though no official Catholic spokespersons affirm universalism.

The next step in the process occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed “the unchurched” and evangelicals debated “the unevangelized.” A book from the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, initiated a turn toward “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by the British evangelical John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

—3–

I Inherited a Failed Sunday School: Here’s How it Flourished

3. Don’t be afraid of teaching doctrine that you or your students don’t fully understand.

Just as we sometimes neglect to teach children how and why to worship, our pedagogical focus is often limited to teaching them morals and sentimentality without sufficient engagement with doctrine or dogma. Dorothy Sayers presciently critiqued the rejection of doctrine in her 1947 essay “Creed or Chaos,” and her argument is even more relevant 70 years later. “‘No creed but Christ’ has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning,” she wrote. “And however unpopular I may make myself, I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.”

When I first began to teach Sunday school at our small church, I found that I succeeded most when I aimed over the children’s apparent intellectual level, not under. For example, one of the most successful lessons we ever had was provided by a Bible scholar from our congregation who came in to teach the kids about Bible translation. The children loved exploring something new and were excited to learn how to write Hebrew words. For the same reason, the classes I taught on theological doctrines tended to go much better than I imagined. The students had something new to think about, and learning more about Christian doctrine helped them to connect with lessons and stories they had been taught in other classes and contexts.

–4–

From First Things – a really good article on “Memorization and Repentance.”  A must read for, well, all of us – but in particular anyone involved in parish ministry and formation:

We may be tempted to think that digitization makes memorization redundant. The truth is, rather, that digitization yields distraction. I can select whatever I want from online storage at any time. The possibilities are endless, and so the order, steadiness, and peacefulness to which Hugh alludes consistently escape us.

The distraction of our information age fails at character formation. What’s in cyberspace cannot shape our characters, only what is in the mind. (To be sure, data and images often move from cyberspace to our mind, at which point they do shape our character for good or ill.) Having information at our fingertips is not the same as having stored it in our mind. This is why both classical and medieval authors were deeply concerned with memorization. Traditional practices such as lectio divina are grounded in the recognition that distraction must be countered by memorization and meditation. (The two were virtually synonymous in the Middle Ages.) Medieval monks devised all sorts of ways to facilitate Scripture memorization because they recognized that it offers the boundaries and confines within which the moral life can flourish.

Memorization is a Lenten practice, reshaping our memories to be like God’s. When our memories are reshaped and reordered according to the immutable faithfulness of God in Christ, we re-appropriate God’s character—his steadfast love, his mercy, his compassion.  Repentance, therefore, is a turning back to the virtues of God as we see them in Christ.  Being united to him, we are united to the very character of God, for it is in the God-man that God’s virtue and human virtue meet. The hypostatic union is the locus of our repentance: In Christ human memory is re-figured to the memory of God.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since I read it:

Having information at our fingertips is not the same as having stored it in our mind.

–5 —

This, in turn, led me to a very interesting blog with which I am going to be spending some time. That of independent scholar L.M. Sacasas, who writes about technology. This was the first post I happened upon, probably because I was looking for material related to this passage from Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.

Sacasas concludes his brief commentary:

The assumption seems to be, “No worries, we’ve always been mediocre and always will be.”  This may be true, but it is a symptom of some kind of cultural anemia that we now embrace this line of thinking in defense of our gadgets and our toys.  The question is not whether we have in the past made any better use of our time, the question is whether our tools and our social climate in general are more or less conducive to the pursuit of some kind of excellence, however halting the pursuit.  Johnson noted a certain guilt that Eliot experienced when he perceived himself to have failed to use his time well.  It is perhaps the general absence of such guilt in the Wireless Age that is most telling of our present ills.

Today’s blog entry is very thought provoking and brings together many threads waving about in my own head:

Taylor notes again the “blowing off steam” hypothesis. If you don’t find a way to relieve the pressure within the relative safety of semi-sanctioned ritual, then you will get more serious, uncontrolled, and violent eruptions. But Taylor also notes an alternative or possibly complementary hypothesis present in Turner’s work: “that the code relentlessly applied would drain us of all energy; that the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Coming back, then, to my intuited analogy, it goes something like this:  carnival is to the ordinary demands of piety in medieval society as, in contemporary society, the back stage is to the front stage relative to identity work.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Indeed, I confess that I may be stretching a bit to make it work. It really only focuses on one aspect of the backstage experience as Goffman theorized it:  the backstage as a space to let one’s guard down, to relieve the pressures of a constantly calibrated performance before an ill-defined virtual audience, to blow off some steam.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something useful in the approach. The main idea that emerged for me was this:  in our contemporary, digitally augmented society the mounting pressure we experience is not the pressure of conforming to the rigid demands of piety and moral probity, rather it is the pressure of unremitting impression management, identity work, and self-consciousness. Moreover, there is no carnival. Or, better, what presents itself as a carnival experience is, in reality, just another version of the disciplinary experience.

Consider the following.

First, the early internet, Web 1.0, was a rather different place. In fact, a case could be made for the early internet being itself the carnivalesque experience, the backstage where, under the cloak of anonymity, you got to play a variety of roles, try on different identities, and otherwise step out of the front stage persona (“on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, etc.). As our internet experience, especially post-Facebook, became more explicitly tied to our “IRL” identity, then the dynamic flipped. Now we could no longer experience “life on screen” as anti-structure, as backstage, as a place of release. Online identity and offline identity became too hopelessly entangled. Confusion about this entanglement during the period of transition accounts for all manner of embarrassing and damaging gaffs and missteps. The end result is that the mainstream experience of the internet became an expansive, always on front stage. A corollary of this development is the impulse to carve out some new online backstage experience, as with fake Instagram accounts or through the use of ephemeral-by-design communication of the sort that Snapchat pioneered.

Indeed, this may be a way of framing the history of the internet:  as a progression, or regression, from the promise of a liberating experience of anti-structure to the imposition of a unprecedentedly expansive and invasive instrument of structure. Many of our debates about the internet seem to be usefully illuminated by the resulting tension. Perhaps we might put it this way, the internet becomes an instrument of structure on a massive scale precisely by operating in the guise of an anti-structure. We are lured, as it were, by the promise of liberation and empowerment only to discover that we have been ensnared in a programmable web of discipline and control.

–6-

My son continues to post about movies:

Apocalypse Now

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

The Last Movie

This might be the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

–7–

St. Patrick’s Day is coming:

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

….

God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also  have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

 

 

[The Church of England clergyman]  argued long and gently, the Roman Catholic argued long and fiercely, while the nonconformist sat as a bemused umpire between them.

 

 

Why bore you with my sad writing non-skills when you can enjoy a couple of paragraphs of Waugh?

 

 

AS MR. BENTLEY had foretold, it was not long before Ambrose found himself enrolled on the staff of the Ministry of Information. He was in fact one of the reforms introduced at the first of the many purges. Questions had been asked about the Ministry in the House of Commons; the Press, hampered in so much else, was free to exploit its own grievances. Redress was promised and after a week of intrigue the new appointments were made. Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the Folk-dancing De- partment; Mr. Pauling went to Woodcuts and Weaving; Mr. Digby-Smith was given the Arctic Circle; Mr. Bentley himself, after a dizzy period in which, for a day, he directed a film about postmen, for another day filed press-cuttings from Istanbul, and for the rest of the week supervised the staff catering, found himself at length back beside his busts in charge of the men of letters. Thirty or forty officials retired thankfully into competitive commercial life, and forty or fifty new men and women appeared to take their places; among them, he never quite knew how, Ambrose. The Press, though sceptical of good results, congratulated the public upon maintaining a system of government in which the will of the people was given such speedy effect. The lesson of the muddle at the Ministry of Information — for muddle there undoubtedly was — is not that such things occur under a democracy, but that they are susceptible to remedy, they wrote; the wind of democratic criticism has blown, clear and fresh, through the departments of the Ministry; charges have been-frankly made and frankly answered. Our enemies may ponder this portent.

Ambrose’s post as sole representative of Atheism in the Religious Department was not, at this stage of the war, one of great importance. He was in no position, had he wished it, to introduce statuary into his quarters. He had for his use a single table and a single chair. He shared a room and a secretary with a fanatical young Roman Catholic layman who never tired of exposing discrepancies between Mein Kampf and the encyclical Quadragesimo anno, a bland nonconformist minister, and a Church of England clergyman who had been brought in to succeed the importer of the mahogany prie-dieu. “We must reorientate ourselves to Geneva,” this cleric said; “the first false step was taken when the Lytton report was shelved.” He argued long and gently, the Roman Catholic argued long and fiercely, while the nonconformist sat as a bemused umpire between them. Ambrose’s task consisted in representing to British and colonial atheists that Nazism was at heart agnostic with a strong tinge of religious superstition; he envied the lot of his colleagues who  had at their finger-tips long authentic summaries of suppressed Sunday Schools, persecuted monks, and pagan Nordic rites. His was uphill work; he served a small and critical public; but whenever he discovered in the pile of foreign newspapers which passed from desk to desk any reference to German church-going, he circulated it to the two or three magazines devoted to his cause. He counted up the number of times the word “God” appeared in Hitler’s speeches and found the sum impressive; he wrote a pointed little article to show that Jew-baiting was religious in origin. He did his best, but time lay heavy on his hands and, more and more, as the winter wore on, he found himself slipping away from his rancorous colleagues, to the more human companionship of Mr. Bentley.

Jonah

Today’s Mass readings center on Jonah.

Of course, these particular readings today are focused on the prophet and the Ninevites – after Jonah spends time in the fish. But here’s the section on the symbolism of the Great Fish from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories anyway. 

 

For reflections on the “Sign of Jonah” more directly pertinent to today’s passage, go to Msgr. Pope:

 

Here, then, is a deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah: if Israel will not repent, then God will take their power and strength and give it to a foreign land that knows Him not. These foreigners will shame and humiliate Israel, inflicting God’s punishment on them.

This is humiliating to Israel on two levels. First, a pagan country would repent while God’s own people would not. Second, they are conquered by a foreign and unbelieving people. The destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and resulted in the loss of the ten tribes living there. Only Judah and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.

Let’s apply this understanding of the sign of Jonah, first to Jesus’ time and then to our own.

Put Out More Flags

A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen his spirit . . . and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendour…

 

What do Bright Young Things do when war is declared?

That’s the story Evelyn Waugh tells in Put Out More Flags. He brings some of his characters from previous novels of dissolute, privileged Englishmen and women into 1939-40, the year of England’s entrance into World War II. There’s not much hindsight Image result for put out more flagshere – the book was published 1942 – which makes it doubly interesting, I think, as an exaggerated, ridiculous, but still almost journalistic record of this class during this period.

Since this is Waugh, you know you are not getting a gentle cosy. The satire is sharp and the humor dark. The characterization is not very deep, but, since this is Waugh, glints of humanity shine through, even a bit of pathos here and there.

Here’s what Waugh does, and why I enjoy reading him: he writes sharply and cleanly about human behavior, excising human foibles and weakness and verbally laying them out for us with witty succinctness. It’s poetic at times. And yes, it’s mean, but  guess what? We deserve it. You can look at Waugh’s world and say, “Well, that’s not fair. There’s more to it than that.” Of course there is. But the bits of life Waugh shows us are, indeed, there – we can’t deny it – and so we might as well face it.

So that’s what we have: A group of highly privileged, fairly lazy men and women who find themselves at the beginning of a war. It’s actually rather thrilling, isn’t it?

“Tell us all about the war,” said Sonia.

“Well — ” Basil began.

“No, darling, I didn’t mean that. Not all. Not about who’s going to win or why we are fighting. Tell us what everyone is going to do about it. From what Margot tells me the last war was absolute heaven. Alastair wants to go for a soldier.”

 “Conscription has rather taken the gilt off that particular gingerbread,” said Basil. “Besides, this isn’t go- ing to be a soldier’s war.”

 “Poor Peter,” said Sonia, as though she were talking to one of the puppies. “It isn’t going to be your war, sweetheart.”

 “Suits me,” said Peter.

 

 

“No one seems interested in my scheme to annex Liberia.”

 “Beasts.”

 “No imagination. They won’t take suggestions from outsiders. You know, Sonia, this war is developing into a kind of club enclosure on a race-course. If you aren’t wearing the right badge they won’t let you in.”

 “I think that’s rather what Alastair felt.”

 “It’s going to be a long war. There’s plenty of time. I shall wait until there’s something amusing to do.”

“I don’t believe it’s going to be that kind of war.”

 

This was February 1940, in that strangely cosy interlude between peace and war, when there was leave every week-end and plenty to eat and drink and plenty to smoke, when France stood firm on the Maginot Line and the Finns stood firm in Finland, and every- one said what a cruel winter they must be having in Germany.

 

Who are the characters? Well, there are a lot, but these were the most notable to me:

Angela Lynes is one of Waugh’s stronger female characters, rather complex and mysterious. She’s married, has been the lover of Basil Seal (more on him in a moment), but is clearly different from the other women around her. She’s more serious (which Waugh shorthands, as he would, as being “like a man.”), and she’s more deeply impacted by the looming clouds than others are, a reaction Waugh sketches indirectly, as we watch her be absorbed in the news, grow more reclusive and drink more.

She stayed to the end of the party and then returned to Grosvenor Square alone. Since the war there was no lift-man on duty after midnight. She shut herself in, pressed the button for the mansard floor and rose to the empty, uncommunicative flat. There were no ashes to stir in the grate; illuminated glass coals glowed eternally in an elegant steel basket; the temperature of the rooms never varied, winter or summer, day or night. She mixed herself a large whiskey and water and turned on the radio.

 Tirelessly, all over the world, voices were speaking in their own and in foreign tongues. She listened and fidgeted with the knob; sometimes she got a burst of music, once a prayer. Presently she fetched another whiskey and water.

 

Ambrose Silk is an interesting character, whose portrayal would doubtless offend many. He’s a Jewish homosexual writer, a bit stereotyped as weak, easily manipulated and living in a bubble of romantic yearning – romantic in the broadest sense.

Waugh does, however, give Ambrose a scene with some of the most poignant writing in the book, one which is almost breathtaking in the gentle, but powerful metaphor for the artist’s fraught relationship to his or her work and life:

Here Ambrose settled, in the only bedroom whose windows were unbroken. Here he intended to write a book, to take up again the broken fragments of his artistic life. He spread foolscap paper on the dining-room table; and the soft, moist air settled on it and permeated it so that when, on the third day, he sat down to make a start, the ink spread and the lines ran together, leaving what might have been a brush stroke of indigo paint where there should have been a sentence of prose. Ambrose laid down the pen, and because the floor sloped where the house had settled, it rolled down the table, and down the floor-boards and under the mahogany sideboard, and lay there among napkin rings and small coins and corks and the sweepings of half a century. And Ambrose wandered out into the mist and the twilight, stepping soundlessly on the soft, green turf.

And then we have Basil Seal. Put Out More Flags is stuffed with characters going in all sorts of different directions, but the cynical Basil Seal outshines them all in his ability to never let a crisis go to waste.

His two major exploits involve:

  • Developing a scheme, based out of his family’s country estate, to make a fairly steady income from serial placement of three horrible evacuee children.

 

  • Making a name and place for himself in some war office or other by manipulating Ambrose – who himself has gained a post in a division of the Ministry of Information – to edit a prospective piece of writing in a magazine, on, Basil assures him, on artistic grounds – but the way the final piece reads to an outsider, is that of an unapologetic fascist sympathizer. Which gets many involved in trouble and on the run and gets Basil a fine apartment – Ambrose’s, of course.

It’s fairly breathtaking in the audacity.

As I mentioned, through the satire and darkness, we see glimmers of humanity. It’s there. Some of us, eventually do learn:

“Yes, darling, don’t I know it? But you see one can’t expect anything to be perfect now. In the old days if there was one thing wrong it spoiled everything; from now on for all our lives, if there’s one thing right the day is made.”

I enjoyed Put Out More Flags, although I did have a hard time at the beginning keeping all the characters straight. But that’s just me and my always, too-quick initial reading of Related imagethings. Some people approach food in a gluttonous way – I do so with books. Same effect – things don’t last, and I have to go back and take a more considered approach if I’m to retain anything.

Waugh was not an outsider to war, of course. He served throughout the war in varied capacities all over the map. Here’s a good overview. His Sword of Honor trilogy draws heavily on his experiences, and in reading the “true story,” it is startling to see how little Waugh exaggerated – startling because the events of Sword of Honor are as absurd and ridiculous as those in Put Out More Flags.

What is Waugh telling us as he tosses his feckless pleasure-seekers into battle against Hitler? Is he suggesting that it’s all simply a massive folly, and that ideals of goodness and justice are a sham? Not at all. Well, he might be suggesting the first – but not the second. But what is true in Waugh’s world is that most people don’t, in fact, act out of any idealistic sensibilities. They may claim to be and they may even think they are, but most of the time – they’re not. And in the process of purportedly making the world a better place – we just wreck it more.

Reading Waugh provides a potentially quite healthy corrective to the weird present moment of unrelenting, inescapable manufacturing of false narratives-as-reality. I’m going to take this in a perhaps odd direction, but as I read Put Out More Flags, this is what kept coming to mind – the present crisis of migration and refugees in Europe and the United States. I’ll focus on the American situation, because that’s what I kept thinking about.

We are told, repeatedly, that we must think about this situation in certain ways. Depending on which side you’re listening to, that “way” will differ, but what both share in common is a devotion to an idealistically-framed, black-and-white narrative. This is what the Border Situation is all about – and all presenting themselves at the border are this kind of person motivated by this need  and all defending the border are this kind of person motivated by this purpose.

And if you deviate from thinking about the situation in this way – if you want to admit the possibility of venality, weakness, self-interest, exploitation and yes, stupidity – on the part of any one playing any role in this situation – you’re deemed, of course, as either inhumane or unpatriotic. A heretic, either way.

Where’s the contemporary fiction surveying the current social and political scene in which – really, this is what it is – everyone is a bad guy? Not that everyone is unrelentingly, deeply evil – but simply – every person is weak and most of us are short-sighted and tend to view our situation, not in terms of ideals – even our professed ideals – but in terms of what’s in it for us, right now.

Can you imagine a Put Out More Flags or Sword of Honor trilogy taking on the US-Mexico border crisis? In which some people, here and there, are noble, but everyone else – that is most – are just…people in a situation that everyone’s short-sightedness, ego and many people’s mendacity and stupidity is just making worse?  Perhaps it exists (from either side) – if so, clue me in. I’d love to read it.

There’s a bit of this kind of take-no-prisoners political satire  on television – Veep comes to mind, a show which comes to us originally, from Scotsman Armando Iannucci as an adaptation of his dark  political satire The Thick of It.

British, of course.

Of course. 

 

PATER NOSTER

Image: Daniel Mitsui

Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray. We know how it goes:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So you should pray like this:

‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.’

‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.’’

Of course, we have taken Jesus at his word here and taken these prayers as literally– how we are to pray.

Although, I wonder how widespread memorization of these words are among those who aren’t Catholic? Years ago, my daughter was in a high school production of Lilies of the Field down here in Birmingham.  There’s a scene in which the sisters recite the Lord’s Prayer. They weren’t off book then, but, you know…the Lord’s Prayer. My daughter was the only one who knew it by heart, here in Bible country. Perhaps none of the other girls were church-goers at all, but it did prompt me to wonder…would evangelicals  – those of whom who aren’t so much into Bible verse memorization anymore – know the Lord’s Prayer as a stand-alone?

Anyway, as a memorized prayer, taking Jesus literally, the Lord’s Prayer is foundational. But it is more than that.

Pray like this. Use these words, certainly, but just as importantly, listen to the shape of it, attend to the perspective. They are about how to pray, no matter what words – or no words – we bring. They are about an attitude and approach.

So often when we think about prayer, we focus on petitions and on ourselves. We begin by spilling out our guts to God about our problems, needs and the state of the world as we see it.  But how does Jesus tell us how to pray?

By beginning in giving praise to God and acknowledging who God is.

Half the prayer is that – God is Father, God is holy, God reigns. Oh, and then…may we be sustained. May we be forgiven. May we be faithful in the face of temptation.

Amen. 

Not a lot of words. No self-centered babbling. A lot of God, not much us.

As I said, a conscience-pricker.

A bit more, on a slightly different angle, from The Words We Pray. 

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