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Restoration Comedy

Well, for once I’m going to say that Pope Francis is getting a bit of a bad rap from whoever is handing out raps these days.

Because his homily to the Council of Bishops’ Councils of Europe ….wasn’t, you know…that bad.

It was a call to the continent’s bishops to wake up, embrace the profound need that all people have for Christ, and to share him, without fear or constraint.

Unfortunately, though, what limits the effectiveness of Francis’ words – as ever – is his absolute, apparently pathological fixation on a caricature of “the past” and “structures” as the enemy of the spread of the Gospel.

Ever since his election, reading his words, scripted and unscripted, there’s a sense that he’s in a continual internal argument with someone or something that often leads the listener to scratch her head and want to ask, Who are you fighting with? What are you talking about?

I am going to set down more thoughts next week about this fixation on – and against – the “past,” being as it is not only a poor fit with, you know, the totality of Catholic thinking, but for now I just want to take a look at this homily, which you can read here.

Let’s set the liturgical and historical scene, first.

It’s providential, really – the first reading at a Mass with the bishops of a continent marked by a collapsing faith is about the return of the God’s people to their land, traditional faith challenged and collapsed by conquest and exile.

The reading is from the minor prophet Haggai – the book is only two chapters and you can read it here. The setting is after the people’s return to Jerusalem, after decades of exile. They’re back, living and surviving, but the Temple remains destroyed, and the people are reluctant to rebuild it.

Haggai rises to the occasion. He tells them that while they are rebuilding their own houses, they’re neglecting God’s house, and they’re suffering for it. They need to be brave and faithful, get to work on the Temple, and when they do, they’ll be blessed.

Francis takes off on this, weaving his usual theme setting new against old:

After reflection, there is another step: rebuilding. “Build my house”, God says through the prophet (Hag 1:8), and the people rebuild the Temple. They stop being content with a peaceful present and start working for the future. Yet since some were opposed to this, the Book of Chronicles tells us that the people worked with one hand on stones, in order to build, and the other hand on the sword, in order to defend this rebuilding process. It was no easy thing to rebuild the temple. This is what is required to build the European common house: to leave behind short-term expedience and to return to that farsighted vision of the founding fathers, what I would dare to call a prophetic vision of the whole. They did not seek a fleeting consensus, but dreamt of a future for all. This is how the walls of the European house were erected, and only in this way can they be consolidated. The same is true for the Church, the house of God. To make her beautiful and welcoming, we need, together, to look to the future, not to restore the past. Sadly, a certain “restorationism” of the past is currently in fashion, one that kills us all. Certainly, we must begin from the foundations, yes truly from our roots, because that is where rebuilding starts: from the Church’s living tradition, which is based on what is essential, the Good News, closeness and witness. We need to rebuild from her foundations the Church of every time and place, from worship of God and love of neighbour, and not from our own tastes, not from any alliances or negotiations that we might make for defending the Church or Christianity

Francis gives a nod to roots, but the force of his words is directed, as per usual, at scolding a viewpoint that is centered on “restorationism” rather than looking together to the future.

Here’s the problem. Well, one of them.

In this context of return, sorry to tell you, the rebuilding of life in Jerusalem was understood as, yes, a restoration. No way around it.

Life was different, certainly. The monarchy was gone. The nation’s independence was gone. The wealth of Solomon which had made the previous Temple of glorious memory what it was, was gone forever.

So no, in a sense, the previous Temple in its original context could not be exactly and precisely  “restored”  – for that time had past. And it would not only be a waste of time to attempt to rebuild a duplicate, it would be a distraction from what was needed in the present. So yes – “restoration” in that sense, works as an obstacle to spiritual growth.

But that’s not what these prophets – of whom Haggai was only one – were calling for. Nor did they call on the people to “look to the future” and get dreamin’ with God, or, least of all, characterize “the past” as a useless place, inimical to God’s action in the present.

 The categories of “past” and “future” were not as relevant as were the categories that had always been at the center of their relationship with God: “faithful” and “unfaithful.”

And the way we sort that out is always by beginning with what God has revealed. That’s how we discern: first by asking – is what we sense we are called to do consistent with what God has revealed through Scripture and tradition – in the past.

For what is missing (and this will be a focus of what I write next about this) from these contemporary calculations and exhortations is any solid means of discernment. We are exhorted to not be tied to “the past” and listen to the “Spirit” in the present, but never offered any sense of what has occupied countless great spiritual minds over the centuries – how to discern what is authentic and what is just no more than our wishful thinking and egos at work as we look at the work of the Spirit in the present moment.

Are “it’s new” and “owns the Trads” and “it seems pretty loving” enough?

No.

That usually doesn’t work. And is rife with opportunities for exploitation and authoritarianism.

Just trust us.

The big picture of Exile and Return is, indeed, a story of creative restoration. The people’s task had to be creative because, indeed, times and changed, and their self-understanding of what it meant to be God’s People had been fundamentally challenged and had to adjust as they learned to sing a song of the Lord, first in a foreign land, and then deposed and dispersed.

But the task was rooted, deeply, not just in any vague sense of rootedness, but very firmly in what God had revealed to them in, yes, the past – the covenant and the Law and all of their experiences as a people. And the rebuilding of the Temple was not to be a new design reflecting the latest Persian styles, but it was, as much as possible, to reflect the original vision of the Temple – a “vision” which was essentially about God’s glory, God’s presence and God’s centrality in their lives.

The story of Haggai, and more broadly, the return of God’s people to Jerusalem, is certainly an effective and suggestive way to reflect on the present situation of the collapse of Catholicism in Europe – and the West in general, as a well as a way forward. Read Haggai, and you’ll see it all, much of which Pope Francis brings out in his homily: the prophetic condemnation of fearful clinging to comfort, the call to courage, and evocations of the emptiness of life when we rely on ourselves and push God out of His rightful place.

So much more complex than a war between past, present and future, with the past always held up as the enemy.

For besides all the other problems with this framing, we might well ask:  where does “the past” begin anyway?

What’s the cutoff?

100 AD? 1100? 1900? 1962? 2013?

How do we discern which part of “the past” is permissible to keep or draw from?

Because, you know, the Second Vatican Council started three generations ago. Long time!

When does a genial rootedness in “living tradition” transform into ideological “tastes?”

How can you tell?

What is this “restorationism” that “kills us all,” exactly?

Restoration of what from what part of the past?

Birettas and Latin?

Proclaiming Khalil Gibrain and singing Blowin’ in the Wind at Mass?

Which will “kill us all?” And how do we tell?

It’s incoherent, and simply doesn’t work as categories, as criteria of discernment, which is why in Catholic thinking…it never has been.

Effective reform and rebuilding in Catholicism has never taken “bad past” and “dreaming about the future” as a guiding principle.

What has?

Well, look back at Haggai. Look back at the experience of God’s people throughout salvation history. What are the prophetic calls to reform and hope based on? Yes, trust in God’s work in the present. Yes, a willingness to see what radical things God, who makes all things new, can do, far beyond what we imagine or even want sometimes.

But the ancient prophetic calls and the continual journey of reform in Christianity is never rooted in a simplistic divide that tells us to trust – just trust – in a nebulous sense of the activity of the Spirit in the present, privileging that over a hidebound past.

No, it’s fidelity. Faithfulness.

Which, as I pointed out above, has its own complications – after all, the Protestant Reformation was born out of exactly that – a conviction that fidelity to the Gospel meant throwing off the structures and accretions that had accumulated in the past.

But no matter the complexities – which we can’t avoid, and shouldn’t try to with simplistic categories and villainizing and othering those who think differently – that’s where reform begins: listening to the prophets, being honest about the moment, and in faithfulness to what we know is true and real, no matter when or at what point in our blip of human history it was revealed and developed – start to rebuild.

7 Quick Takes

—1 —

Next Monday – feast of St. Vincent de Paul – he’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

More on Monday.

I’ll also be in Living Faith on Monday.

— 2 —

Psyched:

— 3 —

Lots of good movies coming up. In the immediate future, as in a week from today, The Many Saints of Newark – the Sopranos prequel. Which is getting sort of mixed reviews, but I did watch the series – some of it twice – so it’s not as if I’m a stranger to the material. I’m okay with it if this review is accurate – it’s not a classic film, but a solid television episode. That’s fine.

— 4 —

Speaking of movies – usually the kind of thing I mention in my digest posts – for some reason, late last night, I watched the 1970 The Out-of-Towners with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. For some reason (again), it’s on the Criterion Collection, and so not really up for reading anything substantive, and substantive was all I had at hand, I opened the Criterion app on my tablet and scrolled. Again – not wanting anything deep, intense or long, I opted for this – no stranger to its existence, familiar with the plot, I thought, Well, I like Jack Lemmon and I’ve never seen this and maybe I should.

Okay. Do not recommend.

Well, if you’re interested in what NYC was like in the late 60’s – take a look. I’m always up for that kind of vintage scenery, which I find fascinating. But other than that?

It’s Neil Simon, so you know what you’re in for, and other than the Odd Couple, I can’t think of much of Simon’s work that I’ve much enjoyed. That style of comedic writing just doesn’t age well. Secondly, it’s just broad and not subtle, and the disasters begin at a very high level and escalate from there, with both main characters being insufferable in their own way – Lemmon because of his cartoonish hostility and yelling, and Dennis, whom I don’t like anyway, with her simpering. It might have been an almost endurable film with a different take on the wife’s character with a different, less whiny personality.

Also: If you’ve ever experienced travel-related tensions – nearly missed flights, actually missed flights, lost luggage, lost hotel rooms – do not watch. I have a high tolerance for cringe-inducement, but the first half hour of this really did put my stomach in knots. Triggering, we might say. A reminder of all the negative travel experiences you’ve ever had, with the attendant panic and helplessness. Painful.

Note, also – there is a very startling allusion to possible, but not actual child molestation, not kidding. It is so weird – the couple happen upon a little Latino boy crying on a park bench in Central Park and Lemmon gets the horrible idea to see if he has any money on him (because they have none by this point), so he takes him behind a bush – geez – where some other woman sees him and starts yelling and Lemmon, in explaining to his wife what happens, mimes himself putting his hands down in the child’s pockets.

YIKES.

A lot of times we say, Well, they couldn’t make something like that anymore.

In this case: That’s a very good thing.

— 5 –

Feeling energetic? Feeling that you really accomplished something with that 3-mile walk this morning?

Well, meet the 5-year old who walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine….

— 6 —

I happened upon this story as I was looking into a sort-of-nearby hiking spot for us – Flagg Mountain, which has an interesting history (more on that in a moment) – and one of the key figures involved in the mountain’s redevelopment is a fellow named “Nimble Will” – whom this family encounters. He’s trying to become the oldest person to through hike the AT.

More about Flagg Mountain: it developed in the 1930’s as a state park, with structures built, of course, by the CCC – but the war interrupted and it was never finished, until a group took it up and has gotten busy the last few years.

In 1933, a contingent of young men with the CCC came to Weogufka, Alabama, to build the state’s newest state park in Weogufka State Forest. Its centerpiece would be Flagg Mountain.

The men began to clear land for what forestry and CCC officials proclaimed would be the most scenic park in the state. The Corps built several log cabins and a massive stone dining hall, and at the top of the mountain, they constructed a 52-foot tall tower made out of thick hand-carved stones. The tower was topped with a 12-by-12-foot room that offered a 360-degree view. To the north, you could see the light of Birmingham, and to the south Montgomery twinkled in the distance.

But, the park never opened. The advent of World War II disbanded the CCC, and the facilities atop of Flagg Mountain were turned over to Alabama Forestry. In 1989, Alabama Forestry abandoned Flagg Mountain, leaving behind the incredible handy work of the CCC.

— 7 —

Finally – some family time:

Looking for a cute Halloween craft? Simple and quick? Take a look at these kits from my daughter’s Etsy shop. 

(Patterns alone also available for digital download here and here.

Check out SIL’s new single on Spotify here – and follow him!

And finally – Movie/Writer Son (blog here) is publishing another novel in November – The Sharp Kid – ebook available for pre-order here.

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

Padre Pio today – he’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

More here about the book – and the other books in the series. Which you might consider ordering for yourself or others to support your home-based religious education efforts!

Wednesday

Late, but still. Let’s digest.

Writing: In this space, just scroll back. Coming up with a plan for some more organized blogging in this

amy_welborn

space next week. So much stupidity out there.

I’ll be in Living Faith next week – Monday, I think.

Book due in the beginning of February. Probably should start thinking about it.

Cooking: As I keep telling you, with only two of us here most of the time, and one of the two out and about quite often, cooking is not a daily activity these days. But I did make something great this week – this recipe of short ribs. I’ve never prepared short ribs before, never eaten them in a restaurant, and never understood why they merited attention – I mean….chunks of cow ribs, right?

Okay- I get it. Partly the recipe, partly the cut – this was delicious. Sorry, ribless cow.

I halved the recipe – I spent twenty bucks on two pounds of short ribs, came home and saw that the recipe was for more than twice that and thought – well, we don’t need that much and no way am I going back out, and no way am I spending forty bucks on meat for a meal for us – and it was, as I said, plenty for two – and a lunch for one more.

You can look forward to a report on this in the next few days: I promised my son that I’d attempt a Spanish omelette/tortilla – I think I’ll be following this fellow. Hence, the two bottles of olive oil in the photo below – all the recipes say that the frying of potatoes must happen in olive oil, and I didn’t have a lot, so I had to supplement and here you go.

Reading: Harlem Shuffle, as described here.

Next up, the typical change of pace: Going to Church in Medieval England. Just started it, and I think it’s exactly what I need to be reading right now. As I keep telling you – read history to keep you sane and grounded in crazy times.

If nothing else, it reminds you of the persistence of weakness in the Church and that there was and never has been a “golden age.”

In terms of reading, generally clearing the deck, readying for this.

Watching:

As I wrote about earlier in the week, we’ve been watching the HBO/BBC 5-part series Chernobyl. We finished it last night. Given the limitations of format – television, with its narrative-shaping requirement (as noted by a commenter on that post) – I found it worth the slightly-less-than-five hours of my time. Good performances – with, I think, Emily Watson, if not the “worst” – the least interesting, but that is probably as much due to the shallowness of her composite character than anything else.

The most effective aspects?

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the vignettes, the smaller stories in which we get a glimpse of the impact of the disaster: the pregnant woman whose firefighter husband was one of the first at the scene and paid the price; the young conscript whose duty it is to kill any animals that are found alive in the zone; the heartbreaking brief scenes of Life Before.

Also quite good was the way in which the series explained what happened. The point of it all was to highlight the way in which dishonesty and authoritarianism led to the explosion, and in fact, when it happened, hardly anyone understood what had triggered it. And so, as the series progresses, we are experiencing the mystery through the eyes of those involved in managing the response – which means we don’t see the whole picture until the end, when they’ve finally been able to put it together themselves.

And I must say, science teachers everywhere could learn a lot from Jared Harris’ Valery Legaslov explaining the chain of events at the trial of those in charge.

A+. Even I could understand.

All of which is interspersed with a painful fleshing-out of the quick look we had in the first episode of the moments of the explosion, bringing home the arrogance, pride, impatience and fear that were ultimately responsible.

As I said, not a bad use of time – although here’s an article to explain some of what it got wrong.

Listening:

No more Mendelssohn for a bit – that recital was Sunday and went well. We’re moving on to nailing down some Beethoven and Ginastera, and starting to explore some Bach prelude and fuge and (gulp) this Saint-Saens piano concerto. What? Where am I supposed to get an orchestra, for pete’s sake?

Harlem Shuffle

A few weeks ago, I read Colson Whitehead’s story, “The Theresa Job” in the New Yorker and I liked it a lot. It’s an excerpt of sorts from his new novel, which hadn’t been published at the point I read the story, but whetted my appetite. I’d not read any Whitehead before, so while waiting for the publication of Harlem Shuffle, I read The Nickel Boys (which had been on my list anyway.) As I wrote here, I thought the Nickel Boys was good, but not Pulitzer-level good, and perhaps suffered a bit from its roots as historical fiction: that is, the need to be faithful to the historical record drained fire out of the narrative.

But that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for reading Harlem Shuffle – and imagine my surprise when last Tuesday, the day of its publication, I snagged a copy at one of my library branches. I’m still not sure how that happened, since there was a waitlist of over twenty for copies of the book. I think this particular copy was designated for a particular group or purpose that hadn’t yet been set in motion. But there it was, on the shelf, so I grabbed it.

(And I’ll return it today, so the next eager reader can have at it.)

A couple of weeks ago, I read this essay on the collapse of voice in contemporary American fiction, and I absolutely agree with almost every word. Whitehead is an exception. Which is probably why he wins the awards.

In fact, it’s been a while since I read a novel that I felt actually answered so many of the questions I have about writing fiction. As in…how do I? I felt as if I was in the midst of a very entertaining masterclass while reading Harlem Shuffle. I read it once, then quickly read through it again with sticky notes.

The novel surprised me. It’s a caper – as Whitehead himself has declared he set out to do – but it’s a little diffuse. There’s more than one caper, although one could probably say that the total, final effect is of one single, on-the-edge-of-sadness caper called life, led, as all of our lives are, on the borderline between light and shadow.

I really don’t like summarizing book plots here, and always let someone else do it for me:

Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home. 

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time. 

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either. 

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes. 

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs? 

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem. 

Harlem Shuffle is a marvelously entertaining, thoughtful novel. It wears the thoughtfulness lightly, but thoroughly. Set in the late 50’s and early 60, when Harlem and the rest of the country were on the brink of exploding, what’s fascinating is how much of that is in the background of the primary events.

We’re so accustomed to novels set in a particular period making sure we understand how the characters are Impacted by These Important Events – after all, isn’t that why we’re reading it? To understand how History Impacts the Little People? Who Always Are In the Right Place at the Right Time?

Harlem Shuffle isn’t like that.  it’s an experience to be immersed in this world that is, indeed, ever changing and challenging, with characters living with the realities of historical oppressions and present-day bigotry, but have their lives as they’re living them positioned front and center, rather than functioning as Examples.

For it’s the way most of us live, isn’t it? It’s the way we remember, for the most part.

One of the many things Whitehead excels at is the creation of characters – based on my reading of a grand total of two of his novels, I’ll say male characters – who operate out of mostly good intentions, make a lot of good decisions, but just enough bad ones to keep you on the edge of your seat, looking through your fingers, hoping they’ll wise up before it’s too late.

But then you also understand, because given the circumstances, what else could they do?

Harlem Shuffle is full of great characters – more strong male than female, who do function as supporting figures in the tale, thick with the life of Harlem and New York City of this period. You’re right there, and you know it, and a big reason you know it is because Whitehead doesn’t, again, front the politics – he fronts people’s ordinary (and extraordinary) lives and experiences and interactions, and they’re aware, and they’re impacted, and they’re acting and reacting, but it’s all terrifically organic and unforced, effortlessly shifting between dialogue and observation, between the characters’ points of view and just a bit above and beyond.

And always, just fine, fine landscape descriptions that let you see what’s there – at every level.

Accompanying a copy who’s picking up his weekly payoffs:

That time, places Carney had never seen before were suddenly rendered visible, like caves uncovered by low tide, branching into dark purpose. They’d never not been there, offering a hidden route to the underworld. This tour with Munson on his rounds took Carney to places he saw every day, establishments on his doorstep, places he’d walked by ever since he was a kid, and exposed them as fronts. The doorways were entrances into different cities — no, different entrances into one vast, secret city. Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look.

Some blocks were untouched and it was the Harlem you recognized. Then you rounded the corner and two cars were overturned like fat beetles, a cigar-store Indian stood decapitated before a line of shattered front windows. The entrance of a firebombed grocery store gaped like a tunnel to the underworld. Sable Construction vans idled outside the addresses of their priority customers and dayworkers tossed drywall and fire-hose-soaked insulation into dumpsters. The sanitation department had done a bang-up job of cleaning up the sidewalk trash and debris, which made the stroll more unsettling, as if the ruined addresses had been shipped in from another, worse city.

Earlier.

Dorveille

In just a bit, I’m going to post on Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, but I thought I’d first pull this concept out for its own brief post.

One of the sections in Harlem Shuffle is called “Dorvay.”

Context: Our main character is Ray Carney, a youngish furniture store owner in Harlem in the early 1960’s. Here, we’re introduced to one of his habits, via his own recollection of his college days:

One day in October, while impressing the importance of scrupulous vigil over one’s accounts, Simonov recommended that they pick one time every day for bookkeeping and stick to it. “It doesn’t matter when you do it, but get it done.” His father, a textiles merchant back in the old country (Romania? Hungary?), preferred the dorvay, that midnight pasture, for squaring his accounts. “We’ve forgotten now, but until the advent of the lightbulb, it was common to sleep in two shifts,” Simonov said. “The first started soon after dusk, when the day’s labor was done —if there were no lights to see, what was the point of staying up? Then we woke around midnight for a few hours before the second phase of sleep, which lasted through the morning. This was the body’s natural rhythm, before Thomas Edison let us make our own schedule.”

The British called this wakeful interval the watch, Professor Simonov explained, and in France it went by dorvay. You went over your accounts, whatever they may be—reading, praying, lovemaking, attending to pressing work, or overdue leisure. It was a respite from the normal world and its demands, a hollow of private enterprise carved out of lost hours.

Professor Simonov returned to his lecture and his unique pronunciation of receivables. Carney wanted more on the nighttime flights. He spoke up in his classes but not Simonov’s—the old man was too imposing. A trip to the library was fruitless until another librarian overheard Carney pestering the reference desk and suggested the French word was spelled thusly: dorveille, from dormir, to sleep, and veiller, to be awake. Professor Simonov told the truth; the body had kept a different clock in olden times. Medieval scholars chronicled it; Dickens, Homer, and Cervantes made references. Carney hadn’t read Homer or Cervantes, but recalled Great Expectations (humble beginnings) and A Christmas Carol (rueful ghosts) with much fondness. Benjamin Franklin enthused over dorvay in his diaries, using the intermission to walk around the house naked and sketch inventions.

Learned gentlemen aside, Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them—dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work. An arena for thieving and scores, break-ins and hijacks, when the con man polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books. In-between things: night and day, rest and duty, the no-good and the up-and-up. Pick up a crowbar, you know the in-between is where all the shit goes down. He upheld the misspelling in his thoughts, in keeping with his loyalty to his mistakes.

In his school days, Carney was a young man alone, unencumbered by all but his ambition. He decided to heed the primitive call in his blood and slipped easily into two shifts of sleep. The lost art of dorvay. It recognized him and he, it. The dark hours were the canvas for coursework and haphazard self-improvement. Alley cats and gutter rats scrabbled outside, the pimp upstairs harangued his new recruit, and Carney drew up sample business plans, advertisements for improbable products, and furiously underlined Richmond’s Economic Concepts. No rent parties, no girlfriends to keep him up late just him jimmying his future. He put in nine good months advancing his cause: all A’s. Every morning Carney rose rested and energized, until his early-bird shift at Blumstein’s prohibited those nighttime jaunts and dorvay became a memento of those bygone days of solitary aspiration, before Elizabeth, before the store, the children.

Then three weeks ago he sacked out when he got home from work and was dead until one A.M. He woke alert, humming. His antenna capturing odd transmissions zipping above the rooftops. Elizabeth stirred in bed next to him and asked if something was wrong. Yes and no. He split for the living room, and the next night, too, when he woke, restlessly pacing until he figured out why he’d returned to dorvay. The banker, the offense. He turned the room down the hall into a second office for his second job of revenge. The elevated train clacking uptown and down his only company. He had been summoned to the old hours for a purpose.


Great stuff, and illuminating.

I don’t know about you, but when I was introduced to the monastic hours, it was in a context of strangeness: Look at these maybe heroic, but also a little crazy people.

And perhaps the specific shape and content of the monastic hours was less forgiving and more structured than that of those living outside the walls, in the village, on the farm, in the castle.

But how interesting, too, that the notion of being up and down around the clock, in the late hours of the night, was not invented or emerge out of the blue.

Even in their separation from the world, monastics still lived in it. Dorveille was, indeed, an embrace and sanctification of part of the shape of ordinary, daily life as lived in this world.

Letting grace, we might say, build on nature.

From a 2016 essay on dorveille:

It is sometimes noted that segmented sleep fits snugly within the Christian Liturgy of the Hours, which obligated the faithful to rise at dawn for Lauds and pray in the dead of night. This isn’t the whole story (pre- and non-­Christian cultures practiced biphasic sleep), but what is true is that dorveille was communal. Waking at 2 a.m. in 1550, you were not quite alone. Your husband or wife was up, too. Your neighbors were up, you might reasonably think, probably doing the same things you were. An invisible clamor of writing, drinking, lovemaking, fighting humanity enveloped you. That’s the part of segmented sleep I might never experience. I get the postmodern afterglow, the decay of a mass-­cultural behavior into an individual preference. I’ve gained another routine, when what I want is a sense of ritual.

A Sundry Church

It’s funny.

We are currently reading The Canterbury Tales in The Homeschool, and as I surveyed, scanned and perused it, I thought….

everyone in the Church should read this.

Remember how, just a few years ago, we had that “Everybody Reads” in which an entire community or state was encouraged to read a single book, and there would be discussions and events and such? And it would be unifying and revelatory?

As I read the Tales, I thought of that. And I thought – there is just something beautiful and real about what Chaucer is doing here, something that so many of us need to hear and reflect on.

And lo and behold, in my search for resources, I found this:

 If we are looking for a guide to our pilgrimage through these muddled times in a Church so clearly a mixture of saints and sinners, we should turn to another medieval poet: Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer may not save our lives, but he can entertain and humble us. And, in a time of scandal, polarization, and ideological isolation, he reminds us that the muddle and mixture of the Church is its strength. For Chaucer, the Church is ever the place of “Aprill with his shoures soote,” which inspires sinners and saints “to longen . . . to goon on pilgrimages.”  He is the great poetic ecclesiologist of a Church marked by sin and so repentance. He is a voice for our times because he can act as a guide to living together, confessing our sins, telling our tales, and sometimes laughing on our way through the vale of tears towards Jerusalem.

Yes!

I do appreciate his contrast of Chaucer with Dante – because, you know it’s the Year of Dante, and we should all be reading him. But….

And yet, I think it is to Chaucer we must turn. We do not live in the Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso (at least not yet); instead, we live on the way with each other. Dante so brilliantly gives us a vision of the places we do not yet inhabit. This provides us the inspiration to reconsider our lives in the face of the question: do we want to end up with God or without? What Dante does not give is the sense of the Christian life in via. We live here in the mixed-up spaces between finding and losing our way. The temptation of Dante is the temptation of the Donatists long ago—to try to separate the wheat from the chaff prior to God’s judgement. In this life, we never get to know who is wheat and who chaff and we must not pretend that we do. We should perhaps pause at Dante’s willingness to damn some and sanctify others. Is he providing an edifying discourse or the pleasures of imagining our enemies having their brains chewed on for eternity?

I’m going to share a few more passages from this piece, because Sweeney says it all far better than I can. Just know…I concur. The culture that social media and American, atomized ways of living has fostered has encouraged our desires to create ghettos, to excommunicate, to live in an ultimately deadly comfort zone, even in a church context. To sit around the table, sharing some wine or some mead or some tea and laughing, arguing and pondering over these tales of other divers pilgrims, part of this sundry company?

It might be just what we need.

More:

In contrast, Chaucer writes about the way to heaven and the company we keep on the way. Looking to the church on pilgrimage, he describes the “compaignye /of sondry folk, by aventure [sheer chance] yfalle /In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle.” Chaucer, the translator of Boethius, knew that this is “chance” only from a human perspective. From the divine perspective (a position we can never hold), the times and places and the difficult people in them are providentially provided for us.

At the origin, these sundry folks gather at the Taberd in Southwerk, a pub in a notoriously debauched neighborhood. They are sundry not only because various socio-economic classes are represented but because among them are a mixture of moderately moral, moderately immoral, and monstrously immoral individuals. They do not look holy, but they do look a lot like the Church. For Chaucer, we do not get to pick those who surround us. At the very least, we have very little say about the matter. We are thrown together in this life with noble knights, vain squires, venial friars, and pious plowmen. This is what it means to live in a human world and in a Christianity that is piebald—full of saintly sinners and sinful saints. If you do not believe Chaucer on this, trust Augustine. For Augustine, no one should “abandon the threshing-floor [the Church] before the time of winnowing, tired of putting up with sinners.” Life on this side of the eschaton is a tangle and we are not supposed to untangle it ourselves. We are too ignorant, too proud, too desirous of power to do the untangling. If we try to untangle this, we would be in danger of being “caught outside the threshing-floor and snapped up by birds before ever reaching the granary.”

…..

But Chaucer is also not frivolous. His tales are confessions, and his journey a penance. This is why he places the Parson’s tale last. The Parson—in contrast to too many priests—knew that “If gold ruste, what shal iren do?” and so “Cristes lore [teaching] and his apostles twelve /He taught, but first he folwed it hymselve.” It is the Parson who reveals that The Canterbury Tales are not just about a journey to Thomas á Beckett’s bones but a pilgrimage to the Kingdom. At the end, he promises to “telle a myrie tale in prose to knytte up al this feeste and make an ende.” What is his merry tale? It is a sermon on penance, confession, and Divine forgiveness. His is the merriest tale because it makes our sordid but comical tales a part of a true comedy. This pilgrimage is a journey in which we set aside our sins because “Oure sweete Lord God of hevene” wills “that no men will perish but we will come all to knowledge of him and to the blissful life.” Our sins may be a source of entertainment in the hands of a writer like Chaucer, but Chaucer knew that life is only a comedy because God will bring us to the Host’s banquet by wiping away these sins. We can laugh at our sins for “our sweet Lord Jesus Christ has graciously spared us from our follies” but these would not be follies “if he had not pitied human souls” for then “a sorry song, we must all sing.”  Our failings are follies because Christ graciously transforms what should be tragedies into comedies. What should be mourning, Christ turns into laughing.

What is needed from us is our confessions, our partaking of Communion, our waking to the summons of the Rooster, and our willingness to stick together with our neighbors on pilgrimage. We must confess our tales truly, never settle on the way, and travel with this sundry company so that we may join the “blisful compaignye that rejoysen hem everemo, everich of otheres joy.” Chaucer is the poet for a Pilgrim Church, marked by sin but also the expectation of rejoicing in Christ, rich in each other’s joy. Our shared goal may be like Dante’s Paradiso, but our shared journey is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We travel to paradise together as diverse folk; we will enter as a redeemed people. We go there as sundry; we get there as blissful. We journey as a pilgrim Church; we arrive as the heavenly Church. Although we are still sinners slowly becoming saints, both the sundry and blissful are ever one merry company. And a merry company we shall ever be from here to Canterbury.

Benedicimus domino!

From 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict on St. Matthew:

On the basis of these simple observations that result from the Gospel, we can advance a pair of thoughts.

The first is that Jesus welcomes into the group of his close friends a man who, according to the concepts in vogue in Israel at that time, was regarded as a public sinner.

Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.

amy-welbornThis is why the Gospels several times link “tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9: 10; Lk 15: 1), as well as “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Mt 21: 31).

Furthermore, they see publicans as an example of miserliness (cf. Mt 5: 46: they only like those who like them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “a chief tax collector, and rich” (Lk 19: 2), whereas popular opinion associated them with “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers” (Lk 18: 11).

A first fact strikes one based on these references: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Indeed, precisely while he is at table in the home of Matthew-Levi, in response to those who expressed shock at the fact that he associated with people who had so little to recommend them, he made the important statement: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2: 17).

The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God’s grace to the sinner!

Elsewhere, with the famous words of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus actually indicates an anonymous tax collector as an appreciated example of humble trust in divine mercy: while the Pharisee is boasting of his own moral perfection, the “tax collector… would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!'”.

And Jesus comments: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18: 13-14).

Thus, in the figure of Matthew, the Gospels present to us a true and proper paradox: those who seem to be the farthest from holiness can even become a model of the acceptance of God’s mercy and offer a glimpse of its marvellous effects in their own lives.

St John Chrysostom makes an important point in this regard: he notes that only in the account of certain calls is the work of those concerned mentioned. Peter, Andrew, James and John are called while they are fishing, while Matthew, while he is collecting tithes.

These are unimportant jobs, Chrysostom comments, “because there is nothing more despicable than the tax collector, and nothing more common than fishing” (In Matth. Hom.: PL 57, 363). Jesus’ call, therefore, also reaches people of a low social class while they go about their ordinary work.

Another reflection prompted by the Gospel narrative is that Matthew responds instantly to Jesus’ call: “he rose and followed him”. The brevity of the sentence clearly highlights Matthew’s readiness in responding to the call. For him it meant leaving everything, especially what guaranteed him a reliable source of income, even if it was often unfair and dishonourable. Evidently, Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not permit him to pursue activities of which God disapproved.

The application to the present day is easy to see: it is not permissible today either to be attached to things that are incompatible with the following of Jesus, as is the case with riches dishonestly achieved.

Remember that all of Benedict’s General Audience talks on the apostles, including this one, are available in book form. 

Here’s the study guide I wrote – it’s out of print, the rights revert to me – so feel free to use if you like. An idea for a free parish study group – use the talks from the Vatican website, and then this study guide – there you go!

And from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols – the symbols of the evangelists:

EPSON MFP image

Contented with stories

What is the cost of lies?

It’s not that we’ll mistake them for
the truth. The real danger is that
if we hear enough lies, then we no
longer recognize the truth at all.
What can we do then? What else is
left but to abandon even the hope of
truth, and content ourselves
instead… with stories.

In these stories, it doesn’t matter
who the heroes are. All we want to
know is: who is to blame?

Kid #5 and I have been watching the HBO/BBC 5-episode series Chernobyl (at his request). I’m “enjoying” it (as much as one can enjoy a series about near-global disaster, official deceit, and human suffering) – it’s well-constructed and the Soviet 80’s vibe is fascinating, and you also have five hours of Emily Watson looking extremely concerned and Jared Harris (Lane!) being thoughtfully frazzled and throwing back vodka shots.

Widely praised, with some critics – most instructive to me was this, from the New Yorker – on what the series got wrong about the Soviet system. The series’ focus is about lies, secrecy and authority, but this writer says it doesn’t go far enough and creates a “truth-teller against the establishment” narrative in a system where that was largely impossible.

The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

(See, in another context, Fargo, season 3.)

Be that as it may.

The point is the rise of narrative over any sense of objective truth. There are deep roots of this, aside from human beings’ self-protective defense mechanisms. And you see it all over the place. And you see it, especially these days, when we are all overwhelmed by information. Who can dig through all the data available to us and determine truth on our own? Who has time? Who has the skills and understanding? Much easier to develop and narrative and stick to it.

It’s much easier to get people on your side by developing an emotionally-appealing narrative and push it, unrelentingly, and then vilify those who dare to question and dig.

As series creator Craig Mazin said: “The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”

This self-protective narrative construction can happen anywhere – in personal conversations, on social media, in institutions.

It’s fairly simple to identify, more challenging to combat. How to identify?

If the response to your question or inquiry is to call you a name, characterize you according to some identifier or alliance, or, more seriously, seek to expel you from whatever form of civilization is at stake – there you go.

And of course, social media, especially Twitter, lends itself to this tendency quite effortlessly and perhaps purposefully.

Even on Catholic Twitter (should I even say “even?” No reason to…) – the narrative-shaping, manufacturing of consent, caricatures and excommunications are constant – and as McLuhan says, there’s that media shaping the message again, because when you have 280 characters, who has time to present a case?

Slapping on labels – that is, creating the story – then pointing and laughing at whoever we’ve declared is to blame is much, much easier.

Walking Together

I have been reading and thinking about the preparatory documents for the synod on the synod on the synod (wait….was that right?) and will be writing a bit about it at some point. But I want to toss something out there for folks to think about, inspired by Pope Francis’ words today to a gathering in Rome. He spoke to them about the synod on the synod – oh, forget it – on synodality – and what this is all about, and it’s a useful jumping off point. Succinct, if you’ve not yet dipped into these waters.

The great concerns that course through the surface of these documents are inclusion and listening. If you’ve been paying attention to Pope Francis over the years, this will be no surprise. No one should feel left out. God loves everyone, and the Church must be a witness to this in word, action and structure.

The centering of this message and the almost palpable anxiety that frames it interests me a great deal, historically. I have spent a lot of time pondering the before-and-after situations, the framing and the straw men arguments. There’s a lot to unpack, and it’s not just about Church – it’s about culture, too.

But I won’t do that here. Much. I’ll just share, as a bare beginning, what flashed through my head just now as I read this article. First, the Pope’s words:

The first stage of the process (October 2021 – April 2022) is the one concerning the individual diocesan Churches. “That is why I am here, as your bishop, to share, because it is very important that the Diocese of Rome commits itself with conviction to this journey”, said the Pope.

He explained that “synodality expresses the nature of the Church, its form, its style, its mission”. The word “synod”, in fact, contains everything we need to understand: “walking together”.

Referring to the book of Acts as “the first and most import ‘manual’ of ecclesiology”, the Pope noted that it recounts the story of a road that starts in Jerusalem and after a long journey ends in Rome. This road, he said, tells the story in which the Word of God and the people who turn their attention and faith to that Word walk together. “Everyone is a protagonist,” said the Pope, “no one can be considered a mere extra”. At times it may be necessary to leave, to change direction, to overcome convictions that hold us back and prevent us from moving and walking together.

I was immediately reminded of this, from – regular readers will sigh, oh, this again – from a 7th-grade religion textbook published mid-century – published in 1935 by MacMillan, part of The Christ Life Series in Religion.  Authors are the famed liturgist Dom Virgil Michel OSB, another Benedictine, and Dominican sisters.

It’s from the introduction to the section on Lent-Pentecost, preparing the – twelve-year oldfor the spiritual journey ahead.

Perhaps you’ll see why the Pope’s words brought these words to mind.

On the eve of Septuagesima, with Vespers, the solemn evening prayer of the Church, all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, bidding farewell to the Alleluia, suggestive of the joys of the Christmas Period, turn their steps toward the mountainous paths which lead to Easter. Thousands and thousands of people upon the stage of life are adjusting themselves to their roles in this drama—this drama which is real life. Old men are there and old women, youths and maidens, and even little children. From all parts of the world they come and from all walks of life—kings and queens, merchants and laborers, teachers and students, bankers and beggars, religious of all orders, cardinals, bishops, and parish priests, and leading them all the Vicar of Christ on earth. All are quietly taking their places, for all are actors in the sublime mystery drama of our redemption.

We, too, have our own parts to play in this living drama. And there is no rehearsal. We begin now, on Septuagesima, following as faithfully as we can the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us particularly in the Mass and the sacraments.

I will point out, too, that this drama which is real life is not an individualistic effort about one’s own salvation. As the rest of the catechesis makes clear, it is about taking on the mind and heart of Christ, which forms one for a life of sacrificial love – caritas.

So what is this about? Obviously the traditional Catholic sensibility has always been, well, universal – aware of one’s ties to others, of one’s responsibility to live out the greatest commandment. That yes, where ever you are, you are, indeed, journeying together with all the baptized, all over the world.

So what’s the reason for this emphasis in this moment?

I have two basic thoughts, currently thrashing about in my head. Might was well lay them out here.

First is related to how the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, together with cultural and social currents, actually worked to diminish Catholics’ sense of solidarity and understanding of “journeying together.”

The temptation to division and individualism is always present, but when you toss in innumerable other factors, ranging from an elevation of individual political rights over the common good, the centering of individual experience in the determination of truth and authenticity, the collapse of traditional, less socially divided communities, and, in the Catholic context, the elevation of individual experience and local cultural factors over the universally-accessible objective and transcendent, and then throw in decades of intra-Church fighting, ideological positioning, category-establishing and head scratching – well, it seems, you have a recipe for atomization. Fullproof.

Secondly, the possibility that this isn’t only about deepening a sense of global solidarity and journeying together. It’s about, as usual, intra-church political issues and doctrinal …. elasticity.

"Charlotte Was Both"
"Charlotte Was Both"

More to come.

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