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Life’s a journey

…or so they say.

We spent the day in Capitol Reef National Park – a very interesting place.

But this wasn’t the original plan.

The plan – up until this past Wednesday – was to leave late Wednesday, arrive in Grand Junction, Colorado at midnight, spend the night there, get the, er, rental car in the morning, do a scenic drive south, do Mesa Verde National Monument on Friday, then Monument Valley on Saturday and then the rest as we still have planned.

But late Wednesday morning, while M was taking the PSAT, that the Dallas-Grand Junction leg was cancelled (American Airlines, no surprise, considering they are right up second to Southwest this week as far as The Troubles). After much jiggering and thinking about the changed and shortened time span and talking with M about Mesa Verde – taking into consideration some closures there we’d just recently learned about – we decided to change up the first part of the trip, bring in Capitol Reef – which he said he’d wanted to see anyway, drop Mesa Verde and Monument Valley, and then just change the flights to go in and out of Salt Lake City.

(And it worked – I got a complete refund for the first flights – because they canceled – and the new flights were essentially the same price as the old ones.)

So…here we are in Capitol Reef. Beautiful, striking, fascinating. Fascinating for the geography of course, but also for the history, which is a combination of Native American presence, and beginning in the late 19the century, Mormons who took to a small valley amid the staggering rocks and created an oasis of orchards – Fruita.

Here’s a map of the park.

We stayed in the Fruita area. To go down to the other end – where the waterfold is visible – requires a good deal of driving on unpaved roads, which we did some of today for another purpose, but I wasn’t keen on doing, it seems to me, about 15 miles on such.

My photos aren’t great, because the structures really are vast. You can get better photos on the Internet.

An early start, up with the sheep, as you can see below.

Breakfast at the very good Chuckwagon Cafe. Then driving into the park, stopping at the visitor’s center, then down to the Fruita area, where the orchards still grow, and the popular destination is the Gifford House, which sells little pies, that apparently regularly sell out before noon. We grabbed a pumpkin and an apple to make sure we weren’t left out.

We first thought we’d do the Cassidy Arch Trail (yes, named after that Cassidy, who spent time outlawing and hiding out in the area. ) – but we stopped to take a look at remnants of some old uranium mines (you can see M peering into one in a photo below) – and in that time something like five cars passed us on the way to the trailhead, which, was, indeed by the time we reached it, full. So…let’s try another. What about the Capitol Gorge trail? Which takes you past the “Pioneer Register” – wall carvings by, yes, pioneers and up to see “tanks” – holes in the stones that regularly fill with water. That sounds good. Only, when we arrived, we found that the unpaved road to the trailhead was closed to vehicles (flooding damage), which would mean adding 2.5 miles back and forth to the trailhead if we walked it.

O…kay. What now? We returned to the visitor’s center where I asked a ranger for advice – where could we hike where the trailhead parking lots weren’t filled up? She made some suggestions, we talked about it, and finally decided to combine the Cohab Canyon Trail with the Hickman Bridge trail – taking one to the other and back again. Which we did! Not super easy, but not impossible either. It’s in the red square.

We took some side trails through a couple of slot canyons (the skies were cloudless!) and to one viewpoint. With “detours” – probably about 7.5 miles total. We probably started about 10 and finished by 3:30, at which point we made a couple of quick stops – to see the Petroglyph Wall then the Gooseneck viewpoint. Then back home for a quick clean-up, Mass with…what…6 other folks at the tiny St. Anthony of the Desert mission, then dinner at yet another Guy Fieri-made-us-famous joint – Curry Pizza! I don’t know if Fieri visited this one or the one in SLC – I haven’t watched it – but the fellow cooking and serving was definitely Indian, and the food was excellent: Samosas, red-chili wings and yes, Butter Chicken Pizza.

Now we have to decide what to do tomorrow on our way to…somewhere else!

View from the hotel. Sheep greeting us in the very chilly morning air.

Gifford House, uranium mines, beginning of the trail, slot canyon, view towards Fruita from above.

On the next trail – the Hickman Bridge trail. Second photo is the Capitol Dome, named for obvious reasons. The “Reef” part of the name comes from the characterization of the entire land formation as a “reef” because it, like an ocean reef, is an obstacle to human transport.

Chapel for Mass. Fieri-approved Indian Pizza.

So there’s an scene in the great series The Comeback which always, invariably comes to mind every time I travel. I wish there was a video online, but there doesn’t seem to be, so I’ll have to recap.

Our heroine, the cringey, deluded former sitcom star played by the amazing Lisa Kudrow, is headed to the upfronts in New York for her horrible new show in which she is degraded, not only daily, but hourly. She’s accompanied by Mickey, her faithful hairdresser and probably closest friend. She’s checking in at LAX and discovers, I think, that the network hasn’t paid for a ticket for Mickey. Or something like that. So sweet Mickey is standing there with Valerie, ready to accompany her to her big moment, her big comeback, and he has no ticket – and the absolutely fairest thing for Valerie to do would be to buy the ticket, and make it first class, with her. (I think that was the plot – I may be wrong in details).

You can see Valerie’s brain working in all of the marvelous subtleties of Kudrow’s face acting: her mouth, her eyes, her body language. All in something like three seconds, maybe less. No, she does not want to spend six thousand dollars on a ticket for Mickey, and probably can’t afford it, either, but there he is, expectant and excited – for her. What will she do?

Our Valerie – “Red” – as Micky calls her – waves her credit card, figuratively girds her loins and, resigned to it all, chirps, in her pained exuberance:

“Oh!” she says, “Let’s have a treat!”

Swear to God …..that’s me. Every. Single Trip.

I spend hours – planning and figuring out deals. Saving ten bucks here, twenty here.

And then, invariably- often right off – here’s a crisis or a crossroads or something. And in order to address the issue in a timely way, money is going to have to be spent.

“Oh,” I think – and sometimes say aloud, much to the confusion of those around me, “Let’s have a treat!”

I won’t go into the gory details, but that’s happened twice over the past two days. The first time, I took a risk and it resolved itself, because I ended up getting a refund – a big one – when I wasn’t sure I would at the time I requested it. So that came out absolutely even, for which I’m grateful.

The second time…well, it won’t come out even and while hopefully I’ll get a refund for part of it, I’m still going to end up paying far more for a rental car than I – but I repeat myself – spent so much time – working to find a good deal for.

Why?

Because after years of doing this under exactly these circumstances and with the same identifying documents, I hit the Nate Bergatze Situation: My legal name is Amelie, it’s what’s on my driver’s license and passport…and nothing else. Never, ever been a problem before, even doing a car rental with this same process (Hotwire). This time – it was. They refused to rent the car, saying I had to call Hotwire to get my name changed on the reservation (because luckily I have one credit card with Amelie on it – never giving that one up now) – but who has time for that. The counter agent that Hotwire should refund my prepaid $$ since the agency did not complete the rental – which she communicated to them. I’m trusting. Because since I assumed it would take hours to reach Hotwire, I asked if they had cars available, heard yes, channeled Valerie Cherish, waved that card and said,

Let’s have a treat!

If I don’t get that refund – most expensive rental car Ms. Cheap here has ever acquired but well….I’ll justify it, somehow…Life is short maybe? That’s what I usually fall back on.

By then it was mid-afternoon, and our only goal was to see a bit of Salt Lake City and then drive the 3+ hours to our weekend destination. I’d hoped to make a couple of stops along the way, but our time to do that shrank, thanks to Utah liquor laws.

Son had searched the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives database for local spots and found one that served a hamburger he’d thought he’d like – a Pastrami Burger, which he said was a standard of this part of the country (he’s studied up on hamburgers). We went to some lengths to find the place, spent ten minutes finding parking, and were stopped short by a sign out front warning that proper ID was required to enter. So, waving, not my credit card, but my license (with!the!wrong!name!), I entered and said….Er…no minors allowed?

Nope, she said, we’re a bar. But – she continued, very, very nicely and helpfully – they had a family-friendly outpost somewhat south of here and just a little, tiny bit out of our way.

So we were off.

Below are photos of the day –

The Temple Square stuff was under extensive renovation. I remarked on Instagram that the scaffolding around the Temple reminded me of being in Rome- pilgrims come to see major religious structures, only to find them surrounded by scaffolding. At least it wasn’t a huge advertising banner hanging from a tower advertising perfume.

I will say that I was surprised by the difference in appearance of the temple between reality and what they advertised in photos. You can see why they are cleaning and renovating – the photos give the impression that it is much whiter than it actually is.

So just a quick walk-around there, with an assurance (seen above) that “Temples Dot the Earth!)”

Up to the state capitol, then home – down to the amazing, gorgeous, Cathedral of the Madeleine. Really, along with St. Louis, possibly two of the most beautiful Catholic cathedrals in the country. An organist was practicing, so that was a lovely accompaniment.

I didn’t see the pamphlet guide to the Cathedral – I wasn’t really looking, being more focused on timing of getting to the restaurant and then driving 3+ hours, but I did see a young, hipster-looking couple walking slowly around the interior, studying a tri-fold guide produced by the Cathedral – so I won’t have to complain about this one, as I’ve done about so many others!

Remember – an open church with a guide to the meaning of the interior is ….wait for it….evangelization.

Some photos. No photos of our destination, because it was dark, and the sun is just now rising. I may add another when we’re all up and ready to head out, if I have time. If not, you’ll just have to check back!

Also – my rental car has plates of my home county back in Tennessee. Which is weird.

Related to one of today’s saints

From  The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols pertinent today, the feastday of St. Mary Margaret Alacoque:

EPSON MFP image
EPSON MFP image

Then, for tomorrow – yes, it’s Sunday, but it’s still October 18, so let’s have us some St. Luke – among the other evangelists, also from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols.

EPSON MFP image

7 Quick Takes

—1 —

Well, it’s the feastday of St. Teresa of Avila – so we’ll make her the focus of today.

I’ll mention, though, that if all goes well, you might see some interesting sights on Instagram over the next few days.

Who knows, though. We were foiled in our first attempt earlier in the week. We’ll see…

— 2 —

A couple of other notes first. From Pillar Catholic, a wonderful piece about a Catholic school focused on the learning disabled.

“I’m not sure whether there are other schools that embody all of the components of this school,” Archdiocese of New York superintendent of Catholic schools Michael Deegan says. “Is it worthy of replicating? Absolutely. Can it be replicated? Completely. What we’re really looking for are funding opportunities in the community and metropolitan area so we can duplicate it in other locations in the archdiocese.” 

The John Cardinal O’Connor School is not the only educational opportunity for children with disabilities in the Archdiocese of New York.

Of the archdiocese’s 171 Catholic schools, seven offer programs for kids with special education needs. The Alfred E. Smith Foundation and Cabrini Health Foundation help fund those programs, according to Deegan. He says the archdiocese is actively seeking funding opportunities to grow its special education offerings.

“We’re looking to secure other grants from other organizations to help us expand from seven to 14 to 21 in the near future,” Deegan says. “We want all children to have access to a Catholic education regardless of their learning challenges.”

— 3 —

Ann Engelhart has a new book!

The Light of Christmas Morning, from OSV.

Follow Ann on Instagram here!

— 4 —

Now, to Teresa:

2015 was the 500th anniversary of her birth.

We actually went to Spain that year – to Madrid. We didn’t go to Avila, choosing Segovia as our day trip from Madrid instead, but we did encounter Teresa in an exhibit  at the Biblioteca Nacional – the national library of SpainWe stumbled upon it – I had no idea it was happening until we walked by the library – so our time there was limited.  Nonetheless, even that short time gave us a chance to see manuscripts written in Teresa’s own hand. 

A manuscript of “The Way of Perfection” in Teresa’s own hand. Gulp.

— 5 –

Back in 2011, as part of his series of General Audience talks on great figures in the Church (beginning with the Apostles), B16  turned to Teresa.  It’s a wonderful introduction to her life.  After outlining her biography and achievements, he opens up the impact of her life and work:

In the first place St Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life and in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water.

……Secondly, St Teresa proposes a profound harmony with the great biblical figures and eager listening to the word of God. She feels above all closely in tune with the Bride in the Song of Songs and with the Apostle Paul, as well as with Christ in the Passion and with Jesus in the Eucharist. The Saint then stresses how essential prayer is. Praying, she says, “means being on terms of friendship with God frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us” (Vida 8, 5).

…..

Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorization by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.

…..

Another subject dear to the Saint is the centrality of Christ’s humanity. For Teresa, in fact, Christian life is the personal relationship with Jesus that culminates in union with him through grace, love and imitation. Hence the importance she attaches to meditation on the Passion and on the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in the Church for the life of every believer, and as the heart of the Liturgy. St Teresa lives out unconditional love for the Church: she shows a lively “sensus Ecclesiae”, in the face of the episodes of division and conflict in the Church of her time.

…..

Dear brothers and sisters, St Teresa of Jesus is a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time. In our society, which all too often lacks spiritual values, St Teresa teaches us to be unflagging witnesses of God, of his presence and of his action. She teaches us truly to feel this thirst for God that exists in the depths of our hearts, this desire to see God, to seek God, to be in conversation with him and to be his friends.

This is the friendship we all need that we must seek anew, day after day. May the example of this Saint, profoundly contemplative and effectively active, spur us too every day to dedicate the right time to prayer, to this openness to God, to this journey, in order to seek God, to see him, to discover his friendship and so to find true life; indeed many of us should truly say: “I am not alive, I am not truly alive because I do not live the essence of my life”.

Therefore time devoted to prayer is not time wasted, it is time in which the path of life unfolds, the path unfolds to learning from God an ardent love for him, for his Church, and practical charity for our brothers and sisters. Many thanks.

— 6 —

Then, in 2012, Benedict sent a letter to the Bishop of Avila on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the beginning of Teresa’s reform. It’s really a wonderful letter:

By distancing herself from the Mitigated Rule in order to further a radical return to the primitive Rule, St Teresa de Jesús wished to encourage a form of life that would favour the personal encounter with the Lord, for which “we have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us. Nor need we feel strange in the presence of so kind a Guest” (Camino de perfección [the Way of Perfection] 28, 2). The Monastery of San José came into being precisely in order that all its daughters might have the best possible conditions for speaking to God and establishing a profound and intimate relationship with him.

….

Teresa of Avila’s example is a great help to us in this exciting task. We can say that in her time the Saint evangelized without mincing her words, with unfailing ardour, with methods foreign to inertia and with expressions haloed with light. Her example keeps all its freshness at the crossroads of our time. It is here that we feel the urgent need for the baptized to renew their hearts through personal prayer which, in accordance with the dictates of the Mystic of Avila, is also centred on contemplation of the Most Holy Humanity of Christ as the only way on which to find God’s glory (cf. Libro de la Vida, 22, 1; Las Moradas [Interior Castle] 6, 7). Thus they will be able to form authentic families which discover in the Gospel the fire of their hearths; lively and united Christian communities, cemented on Christ as their corner-stone and which thirst after a life of generous and brotherly service. It should also be hoped that ceaseless prayer will foster priority attention to the vocations ministry, emphasizing in particular the beauty of the consecrated life which, as a treasure of the Church and an outpouring of graces, must be duly accompanied in both its active and contemplative dimensions.

The power of Christ will likewise lead to the multiplication of projects to enable the People of God to recover its strength in the only possible way: by making room within us for the sentiments of the Lord Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5), seeking in every circumstance a radical experience of his Gospel. This means, first of all, allowing the Holy Spirit to make us friends of the Teacher and to conform us to him.

…..

Today, this most illustrious daughter of the Diocese of Avila invites us to this radicalism and faithfulness. Accepting her beautiful legacy at this moment in history, the Pope asks all the members of this particular Church, and especially youth, to take seriously the common vocation to holiness. Following in the footsteps of Teresa of Jesus, allow me to say to all who have their future before them: may you too, aspire to belong totally to Jesus, only to Jesus and always to Jesus. Do not be afraid to say to Our Lord, as she did, “I am yours; I was born for you, what do you want to do with me?” (Poem 2).

— 7 —

She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, and Loyola has a very readable excerpt here 

(If you would like to read a pdf version, click here.) 

All Saints is coming! Pick up a book!

Loyola books

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

Still talking about “eucharistic coherence” – that is, the questions the American bishops will supposedly be grappling with, a question focused on abortion-promoting Catholic president Biden, but with broader implications.

My themes are history and transparency, right?  Take a good look of the history of the reception of Communion and talk about it forthrightly.

A series of previous posts from early in the summer are linked below. Yesterday, I gave you a couple of more authoritative links – and let’s add Mediator Dei to that, and wrote a bit about the Church’s historical presumption that a spiritually engaged Catholic will, indeed, seek to receive Communion regularly and as frequently as possible.

The assumption being, of course, that “spiritually engaged” means deeply intentional, properly disposed, and in communion with the Body of Christ in belief and practice.

Not “I was baptized so it’s my right to receive Communion no matter what. Gimme.”

Today I want to detour just a bit and revisit history of the laity and Communion from another angle.

For the fact is, that through much of Catholic history, despite the exhortations of the spiritual masters and saints, laity were not expected to receive the Eucharist more than a couple of times a year. Even in areas where Mass was regularly available, the practices evolved that did, indeed, discourage or even prevent the laity from receiving: it was simply not distributed to the laity during Mass, or it was distributed afterwards, or sometimes even before – as I noted in this post about a classic sociological study of an early 20th century Quebecois community, St. Denis – I made a pdf of the chapters on the Mass, which some of you might find interesting. I know I always appreciate reading more objective descriptions of Catholic practice from outside observers.

So yes, there seemed to be a great distance between the spiritual assertions of the early Church fathers about the importance of receiving Communion as a part of the Eucharistic celebration and the practices that evolved over the centuries.

Hence, the emphasis of the liturgical movement on this very matter. Outside of the scholarly arena, the goals of the popular, lay-oriented liturgical movement of the 20th century were all about engaging the laity more deeply with liturgical action and encouraging the laity to receive Communion.

But again – this did not take the form of simply declaring, “All are welcome! Forget your neurosis and scrupulosity! Just come on up!”

Not at all.

As I’ve discussed here and in other place, the focus of this lay-centered corner of the 20th century Liturgical Movement was all about, first, education, and then, encouraging the laity to receive Communion more often – as the result of a deeper prayer life and more frequent Confession. Which then, it was hoped, would result in a more engaged, grace-filled laity that would, in turn, be more effective in bringing Christ into the world.

The difference between that and the current push to throw off purported “barriers” between the laity and Communion is profound, I think, is about more than “just” the Eucharist.

Here’s what everyone agrees:

The person who approaches the altar to receive the Eucharist should be “properly disposed” and “worthy.” This is deeply rooted in Scripture and Church practice. It just is.

The question is – what does it mean to be properly disposed and worthy? I unpacked that here, and I encourage you to read it.

Pulling together the historically-oriented discussions I’ve tried to have here, I’ll shorthand it this way:

It seems to me that the tension results in part from assuming that the best thing is to institutionalize the practices of the intentional Christian community of Acts in a modern Church whose practices, expectations and membership reflects 1500 years of unintentional Christian community.

Here’s another example:

In the 1960’s, Catholic authorities decided that the mandatory, year-round Friday abstinence obligation was a relic of a legalistic medieval past and not only could, but should be dispensed with. As I’ve noted before, though – to give them credit – they didn’t just ditch it. In most documents announcing and contextualizing this massive change, these same Church authorities wrote of the continued importance of observing Friday – the day of the Lord’s Passion and death – in a way that involved sacrifice. Done now, however, freely and intentionally, as intentional Christian disciples would, of course, do.

So what happened? What did we do?

We …ditched it and forgot about it.

A commentor on one of my blogs once offered a remembrance of how his parents and the friends in their Catholic neighborhood responded to the elimination of meatless Fridays – by throwing a huge steak cookout party, of course!

And so we enter into that fraught, difficult area of obligation and the freedom of the Christian, worked out in various ways over the centuries, always an matter of tension, both in terms of group practice and identity and, as we all know, our individual spiritual lives.

But the point is this: when you read the documents of the Second Vatican Council, you encounter, among other things, heady idealism about the world and human nature and trust that of course we are all going to be conducting our faith lives at the highest level.

Which, as I’ve written about before, is natural for such documents, but also, well, unrealistic. It’s long seemed to me that the genius of organically developing Catholic practice is that it takes into account human weakness and laziness. So for example, the much-maligned strict rubrics that a priest celebrating Mass in earlier eras were bound by, under pain of sin, even mortal sin. How restrictive! How retrograde! Let the Spirit flow!

Well, you don’t have to be a priest to understand the impact of habit and repetitiveness on any practice, especially religious practice. As we move through our lives, we lose our enthusiasm, we are beset by doubts, we go through dark nights, we get bored and what was at first a marvelous, miraculous gift of an experience evolves into a bothersome routine, and we just want to get it over with.

And you can well imagine, this can happen to a priest celebrating the Mass.

He may be experiencing all of that – but does he have the right to bring the congregation into it? Don’t the women, men and children gathering for Mass, bringing their own hopes and joys, have the right to a proper, elevated experience of worship, no matter what’s going on in the celebrant’s head?

Yes they do.

Hence the rubrics. Hence the sinfulness of violating them: it’s uncharitable, in the deepest sense, to deprive others of a full experience of worship just because you’re bored with it.

Which is a bit of a detour, isn’t it? The point, I suppose, was that in that tension between obligation and freedom, both play a part in our spiritual lives simply because we are not angels. And sound Church practice recognizes that, without condemning us either.

So, back we are to the reception of Communion.

I spent some time a couple of weeks ago reading two of the most iconic post-Vatican II popular catechetical works: the Dutch New Catechism and Christ Among Us, the latter being one of most commonly-found American catechisms both for adults and teens – it was our foundational catechism in high school (1978-82).

You can read them both via the Internet Archive.

I was particularly interested in their treatment of this issue, and what I found was, of course, the idealism of the Conciliar years: noting that yes, to approach Christ in the Sacrament called for one to be ready and worthy, but also characterizing that disposition in the most general way, coupled with the expectation that if one went to Mass, one should receive – that the active participation which a Catholic is called to involves receiving Communion.

Circling back – the assumption that the Early Church ideal was applicable to the present day. In a way, of course, that ignores context – the early Church’s exclusion of public sinners from even attendance at the Eucharistic celebration – and the impact of 1500 years of history.

This has been long and typically convoluted, and guess what, I’m not even done yet. This is why I work these notions out in this space – I can meander, and then later gather everything together in a more cohesive way. So thanks for putting up with it, at any rate.

So what’s the point?

So far it’s been:

The present day encouragement for all to receive Communion, simply because they are Catholic, desire to receive, and judge, themselves, that they should and can based on that desire is not consistent with Catholic practice from any point in its history.

Throughout that history, when Catholics have been encouraged to revisit their practices and receive the Eucharist more frequently and regularly, it has never been in the context of a concern that individuals not feel excluded from the table or feel like “sinners.”  It has always been exhorted in the context of a call for individuals to deepen their spiritual lives, turn away from sin and conform themselves more closely to Christ.

The call to receive the Eucharist more frequently, even at every Mass, has been presented with the hopeful trust that all Catholics could be as intentional and Spirit-filled as those early Christians sharing the bread and cup in Jerusalem – not that they already are.



Eucharistic Coherence 1: On being honest about Catholic tradition and practice

Eucharistic Coherence 2: On “reward for saints” v. “bread for sinners”

Eucharistic Coherence 3: On what it means to say one is “unworthy?”

Eucharistic Coherence 4: On what comes after, “O Lord, I am not worthy…”

Take and Eat

Tuesday

Oh, let’s digest.

Tuesday

Writing:  Lots and lots in this space. Why? Oh, who the heck knows.

On the Netflix Midnight Mass, here and here. On Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads here and here. On trans stuff here. Eucharistic coherence here. With more to come on that later today.

Reading: Well, Crossroads took a big chunk out of my life last week. Now I’m reading Greene’s Brighton Rock which, shockingly, I have never read before. It just might be the last major piece in the Greene fiction oeuvre for me.  Hope to finish it before our trip, at which point I’ll need to have a few more books loaded on the Ipad. What shall it be?

I was interviewed via email by a UK newspaper on Midnight Mass. I don’t know if my comments will make it in the piece, and I don’t’ know when the piece is supposed to be published, either. So there’s that.

Oh yes, and reading lots of books like this:

Cooking: Before College Guy went back from fall break, I made Chicken Parmesan. And that’s probably going to be it for the next couple of weeks – between leftovers and M being out and about and then the trip..no need for me to mess up the kitchen!

Also, participating in preparing fish sticks, salad, rolls and desert for a local women’s shelter, which I’m a small part of every couple of months.

Watching: Nothing after the two movies last week for me. Reading a 600-page novel tends to take some time.  M was excited about the return of one of his favorite cartoons anime series, Demon Slayer, though. Then he started watching (of course) Squid Games.  He also went to see the new James Bond movie and is currently – as I type this – watching Mad Max: Fury Road.

Tonight, we’ll watch something with iconic scenes from Monument Valley.

Hint, hint.

Teachable moment.

School: As I’ve told you before, literature is the only thing I’m “teaching” these days, and seriously, praise the Lord for that. Margery Kempe this week. Then maybe I’ll print out some Julian of Norwich to read on the road, or maybe not.

Listening: Well, I listened to Louis Prima while I was preparing the Chicken Parm – for some reason, when fixing intensely Italian or Italian-American dishes, I have a profound impulse to imagine myself in the thick of Big Night, so Prima it is.

Spending: Much money on regular and expected brake maintenance for my trusty Mazda 3 hatchback, but doing so filled me with such joy – my car isn’t warning me of dire consequences any longer! I love my car again! We will have great adventures together!

Traveling: Soon! Soon! Find me on the Gram and you’ll see!

Every day is Transday!

Seems so, doesn’t it?

Let’s do a quick roundup. I wrote most of this last week, so it already feels dated.

Just remember: you can get a good weekly roundup of bad and even good news related to the War on Women at the Graham Linehan site. It tends to be UK-heavy, but worth working through, if you’re interested.

First – why does this matter? Because material reality matters. And because children shouldn’t be experimented on. Is that enough?

I’ll begin with a link to a piece from the Telegraph by Conservative MP Miriam Cates. The link to the piece is here, but in case you can’t get through the paywall, head to Linehan’s site, where he’s reprinted the text. And if that has to be removed, try the Ovarit discussion.

But it hasn’t gone away, and when we have senior elected politicians making statements saying that those who deny males access to women’s spaces are “dinosaurs who want to hoard rights” (David Lammy MP), or that there shouldn’t be sex segregated facilities for women in schools and hospitals (Alex Sobel MP), I think we have to recognise that women are in danger. Again.

Because the fact is that, far from being hoarders of rights, women – and many men – have had to fight very hard for us to have any rights at all. And whilst we may be equal with men now by law – and that should be celebrated – there is still one area where we are very much unequal and probably always will be: the area of physical and sexual power.

For all sorts of biological reasons, men can choose to exert sexual power over women with abhorrent results. Every woman knows what the threat of that feels like, and many, sadly, have experienced much worse than just threat.

It is this inequality that demands that women be protected when we are most vulnerable – in the privacy of changing facilities, in the indignity of a hospital ward, in the vulnerability of a prison estate, or when fleeing domestic abuse. 

To suggest that women who want to be protected in these most vulnerable of areas are somehow bigots or transphobes is to completely deny the truth of the situation. Women’s sex-based rights are protected by law, and that includes the right to single-sex spaces where these are necessary to preserve our safety and dignity.

In a tolerant and liberal society, adults should be able to live how they choose within the law, free from discrimination and abuse. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t believe that trans people – just like everyone else – should be treated with respect, compassion and dignity. 

But this is not the limit of what is being demanded by campaigners, who are pressing for trans people to be treated in every respect as if they were the opposite sex, even if they have yet to go through any form of hormonal or surgical gender reassignment.

It’s not profound, but it’s succinct, and fantastic to see it in the Telegraph.

Last Monday, Abigail Shrier ran an interview with two males-presenting-as-women medical professionals. Shrier, the author of Irreversible Damage – a book examining the preteen and teen female-to-male craze, recorded both as saying they had doubts as to whether it was a good idea to give gender questioning and non-conforming children puberty blockers.

Oh rhilly?

You can read the piece here. Bowers, by the way, was the main doctor involved in the Jazz Jennings surgeries.

Shrier summarizes in another post a few days later:

For the first time in the U.S., top gender medical providers collectively acknowledged four facts: early puberty blockade can lead to significant surgical complication and also permanent sexual dysfunction; peer and social media influence do seem to play a role in encouraging the current, unprecedented spike in transgender identification by teen girls; and the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) – of which both Bowers Anderson are board members – has been excluding doctors who question current medical protocols to its detriment.

There’s much speculation online about why these two have come out in this way at this point. They are not, of course, questioning their bread-and-butter of actually enabling the transitioning of young people – just saying, well, maybe not the blockers? And maybe not affirmative care so much?

Some suspect that these practitioners and others sense a change coming in public attitude, and maybe even are receiving more and more questions and concerns from patients and former patients – as in, why did my neophallus fall off? And why is this wound between my legs not healing? And maybe even I am still very miserable – you didn’t help, and I’m thinking you might have even hurt me.

So, it’s CYA time.

Then this hit the Twitters and Tik Toks last week: A trans (MTF) person at a Texas Sonic trying very hard to get misgendered and raise bloody hell about it. It’s…not working, with an unintentionally comedic mic drop, to boot.

Clearly, narcissism and/or mental illness at work here. I don’t have a good single link, but just look it up. You might be entertained.

Then, of course – Dave Chappelle. Not my style of comic, but in his new Netflix special, let’s just say ….awareness was raised, as he made the very-easy-to-understand analogy between these issues and blackface, and then as millions probably headed to the internet to look up What’s a TERF?

Related, a Netflix employee went on the Twitter, Super Concerned and Distressed that his employer had produced such intolerance. His, er, personal progress was noted by Linehan.

So on 12/17/20, the fellow had posted this:

And then three days later – three days – “Hi. I’m a girl.”

You know that’s all it takes to be female, right? Toss on a dress and tilt that head.

I must read too much Brit-based material, because all I can think when I see garbage like this is…bollocks.

Also: absolutely not a fetish, right? Not. At. All.

Finally, the inestimable Titania McGrath sums it up for us:

Why do bigots find gender identity so confusing?

It simply means the immutable yet fluid feeling that one is male or female or neither or both based on conceptions of masculinity and femininity that are innate but also social constructs that don’t exist.

This really isn’t hard.

First step in dealing with all of this?

Don’t be gaslit.

Especially by kind-hearted Christian folk. Don’t. Be. Gaslit.

It’s not an “identity.” Depending on the person, it’s tragic mental illness, it’s an quite understandable, but still misguided rebellion against a deeply misogynistic, pornified culture or it’s a gross and stupid fetish.

Don’t. Be. Gaslit.

Take and eat

I was going to begin this post with the “Nobody” meme and me offering *even more* thoughts on “eucharistic coherence” which not a single soul has requested, but then it struck me with great force that the “Nobody” meme actually makes zero sense, and it bothered me so much that I went down a rabbit trail wondering if anyone else felt that way, got affirmed, and there goes my tension-breaking joke.

So.

Way back in June, when it became clear that the American bishops were going to have to be dealing with this issue, I wrote a few posts on “eucharistic coherence.” In order not to interrupt the extremely smooth flow of this post, I’ll link them at the end.

As that gathering comes every nearer, I thought I’d toss a bit more food for thought out into the scrum, because that initial burst was by no means complete.

Here’s my basic point, articulated in those older posts and reiterated right here: The conversation about this needs to be much, much more transparent and forthright about history and much less about teams, points and winning.

Because as it stands – that’s pretty much where it stands. And it’s insulting.

And yes,  it seems to me that transparency and honesty starts with history.

Surprised? Probably not. Because that’s the theme of this space, isn’t it? Study history and you’ll be smarter, you’ll make better decisions, and you’ll lessen your risk of being driven mad by the present.

It’s really quite important here. We have (wait for it) two thousand years’ worth of grappling with this question to help us. Further, we have two thousand years’ worth of practice and tradition with which our current practice must, in every sense possible, be consistent.

It won’t be identical, because times change. But it must be consistent.

And because we are Catholic, rooted in both Scripture and Tradition, present practice cannot be discussed and determined based only on what a few people confidently assure us the “Spirit” is moving us towards in the present moment, and you know if you don’t buy what they’re selling, well, you’re pretty rigid, aren’t you?

So let’s start with some background. If you’re really interested, and I presume if you’ve read this far, you might be.

I’m going to give you a couple of links, and then I’m going to follow up much later today with some thoughts based on those links.

So first, the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J.’s 1955 paper from Theological Studies, “Historical Antecedents of St. Pius X’s Decree on Frequent Communion.” It’s a pdf, and while it may sound boring – well, Hardon was an excellent, clear writer, and I promise you, if you are not familiar with the history of this issue, you will learn a lot.

And then that decree itself.

Here’s the short version – with more thoughts, as I said, coming in the next post.

Frequent reception of Communion has almost always been the goal of the Church, in its broadest sense, since the beginning.

In the Early Church, the assumption was that if one was in attendance at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, one ate. This is clear from the writings of the Fathers.

However, this wasn’t because “everyone was welcome at the table.” 

Because, you know, everyone wasn’t.

It was because the assumption was if you were present, you were intentional about it and committed to the Body of Christ in every way. To use later terminology – if you even showed up, it was a sign that you were “properly disposed.”

Anyone else, who might have separated himself from that table….he just….wasn’t there.  He was, literally, ex-communicated, doing public penance, not permitted to gather with the rest of the community. Because he’d removed himself from it by his actions or beliefs.

Then:

Enter mass conversions, infant baptism as the norm, Catholicism as a social, cultural and political framework for European communities, private confession and the Sunday obligation – and you have a rather different crowd around the table, don’t you?

Maybe not so intentional anymore.

But, as Hardon – and Pius – note, through the centuries, Catholics still had been exhorted, even as popular piety and theological trends discouraged them – to approach the altar and receive Communion. The Jansenists were the major force against this (thoroughly treated in both documents), and the battle has been waged ever since, despite the condemnation of Jansenism as, yes, a heresy.

But here’s the thing – and this is what I’m going to begin with next time.

This is very, very important to remember – along with those changing circumstances I noted above.

When Pius X and so many others encouraged – enthusiastically, consistently – encouraged regular, frequent reception of Communion, they did so rooted in certain assumptions about who they were addressing and what the spiritual journey was all about.

Maybe flipping it around to the issue of infrequent Communion will help clarify.

What you see in spiritual writers throughout Catholic history, is, yes, a condemnation of consciously infrequent Communion.

Why?

Was it because they wanted everyone to feel welcome?

Was it because they were concerned that all feel a part of the Church, that no one feel excluded or on the margins?

No.

It’s mostly because staying away from the Eucharist was interpreted as a sign of spiritual sloth. Spiritual coolness. A lack of piety and devotion.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example:

In the early Church members of both sexes received Communion daily as soon as they were old enough. But soon devotion began to cool, and Communion became weekly. Then after a considerable interval of time, as devotion became still more cool, Communion was received on only three of the principal feasts of the year… . And finally, because of our weakness and indifference, we have ended with once a year. You would think we are Christian only in name, to see us so calmly accepting the condition to which the greater part of mankind has come.

(What an interesting conversation that would be: to hash out, without rancor or name-calling how, in one era, the masses staying away from the Eucharist was seen by some as a sign of spiritual indifference, and then in another, how regular reception of the Eucharist by the masses is seen by some…as a sign of spiritual indifference. )

So, as St. Ignatius and others imply, if you didn’t receive Communion, that possibly meant you weren’t spending the energy preparing yourself to receive Communion – you weren’t striving to put away sin, you were attached to the flesh, and in general, conforming your life to Christ wasn’t your priority.

At root, staying away from Communion, while sometimes laudatory and an indication of spiritual self-awareness, could also be an indication that the person didn’t want to change or be more deeply conformed to Christ, akin to catechumens in the early Church delaying and delaying baptism because they didn’t want to give up their worldly positions and privileges.

Do you get it?

The assumption was that if a person is receiving the Eucharist, they were intentional about it. That they were aware of what it meant to be part of this Body of Christ – what those who belong believe and how they act in the world – and were actively trying to live in that way. The Eucharist was not about confirming Catholic identity, being invited to the party, or having a sign that God was with you in a vague sense, accepting you just as you are, you gorgeous thing.  

To receive the Eucharist was an act of devotion – but it wasn’t a static devotion. It was part of a serious relationship between Christ and the believer, the believer stepping forward to be fed because this is life now: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

So again – take a look at Hardon’s paper. There’s a lot of food for thought there.


Eucharistic Coherence 1: On being honest about Catholic tradition and practice

Eucharistic Coherence 2: On “reward for saints” v. “bread for sinners”

Eucharistic Coherence 3: On what it means to say one is “unworthy?”

Eucharistic Coherence 4: On what comes after, “O Lord, I am not worthy…”

Crossroads (2)

I don’t even know if I would have read Crossroads were it not for the setting. I’m not a reflexive Franzen reader, but as soon as I got a hint of the landscape: 1970’s Christian youth group – well, I was in.

There are differences, of course. I’m (ahem) a bit younger than the focal youth cohort in the Crossroads group – I was 11 in 1971. I was (am) also Catholic, not mainstream midwestern Protestant. But, folks, this still rings true:

The air was blue with tobacco smoke, the walls and the ceiling vaults covered with hand-painted quotations from e.e. cummings, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, even Jesus, and with more inscrutable, unattributed lines, such as Why guess? Get the facts. DEATH KIILLS….

Crossroads didn’t look religious – there was nary a Bible in sight and whole evenings went by without reference to Jesus – but here again Tanner had been right: simply by trying to speak honestly, surrendering to emotion, supporting other people in their honesty and emotion, she experienced her first glimmerings of spirituality. She could feel herself vindicating Clem’s long-standing faith in her as a person of substance.

Were you there? I was, sort of, if not in exact detail – we had more Jesus, less Dylan and far less smoke (in religious activities at least – there was still an approved smoking area for seniors at my Catholic high school in 1978, something my kids just cannot believe – and I barely can either) – but at least in let-it-hang-loose-God-in-the-casual- spirit, yes.

So what we have here is a youth group – Crossroads – in a Congregational (UCC) church. Russ, our hapless central character, is the associate pastor, and he’s been supplanted in popularity by Rick Ambrose, the very with-it youth minister.

More plot detail here.

Franzen does a fantastic job with this, partly, I’m sure, because he lived it in a way, as he’s described in autobiographical essays.

What I particularly appreciated seeing – even though Franzen is not as scabrous as I would be (am) about the whole scene – is a frank assessment of the matter of emotional manipulation.

Ambrose took him back into the smoke-filled room and interrupted regular programming for one of the plenary Confrontations that were at the heart of Crossroads praxis. The issues at hand were alcohol use, respect for one’s peers, and self-respect. Kids Perry barely knew addressed him as if they knew him very well….The thing went on and on and on. Although in some respects Perry had never experienced anything more horrible, he was also thrilled by the quantity and intensity of attention he was getting, as a sophomore and a newcomer, just for having drunk some gin. When he broke down in tears, weeping with shame, authentically, the group responded in a kind of ecstasy of supportiveness, advisers praising him for his courage, girls crawling over to hug him and stroke his hair. It was a crash course in the fundamental economy of Crossroads: public displays of emotion purchased overwhelming approval.

Later:

While Laura Dobrinsky, now seated at the church’s baby grand piano, belted out a Carole King song, he returned to the crowd and maneuvered through it, stopping for a hug from a Crossroads girl who’d confessed to being awed by his vocabulary, and a hug from a girl who’d challenged him to be more emotionally open, and a hug from a girl with whom he’d improvised a skit about the hazards of dishonesty, to much approbration, and a hug from a girl who’d vouchsafed to him, in a dyad, that she’d gotten her first period before she turned eleven, and then a thumbs-up from the boy who’d helped him with the concert posters, and a friendly nod from no less an eminence than Ike Isner, whose face he’d once palpated, while blindfolded, in a trust exercise, and whose blind fingers had then palpated his own face. None of these people could see inside his cranium, all had been fooled into applauding his emotional candor and collectively propelling him, with a kind of gently pulsing group action, like macroscopic cilia, in the direction of belonging to the Crossroads inner circle. The hugs in particular were still pleasant, but the edge of the crater was creeping up on him again, now taking the form of a classic depressive question: What was the point? The inner circle had no actual power. It was merely the goal of an abstract game.

I have written about this a lot, in essays, blog posts and fiction, and it probably informs my current cynicism more than I can say, and definitely shapes my suspicion of any religious leader or influencer who centers emotion and personal experience as gauges of spiritual authenticity.

How much of the time what hit you as an amazing spiritual experience when you were fifteen – you look back and think – wow – covering the clocks, depriving us of sleep, leading us on walks blindfolded – manipulation much?

But we cried! So much!

From Crossroads:

“I liked the intensity. Not everyone does. There were people who got fucked up by it.”

“Like who?”

“Like Brenda Maser. She had a nervous breakdown on the spring retreat.”

“She had a freakout,” Tanner said, “because Glen Kiel dumped her for Marcie Ackerman the day before the retreat.”

Laura asked Becky if she could imagine someone bawling for twenty hours straight. “It started with a screaming exercise,” she said. “You scream and then you stop, except that Brenda didn’t. I was in Ambrose’s car with her on the drive home. You could hug her, you could leave her alone, it didn’t matter. We ended up just sitting there listening to her cry. Kind of wanting to strangle her to make it stop. We got to her house , and Ambrose took her inside and handed her off to her parents. Like, here’s your daughter there seems to be a problem, uh, we don’t know anything else about it.”

That’s a great element of Crossroads. I suspect, though, that Rick Ambrose is a little more nefarious than we’re told in this first volume of the promised trilogy, and that More Shall Be Revealed.

It wouldn’t surprise me, would be par for the course and the most realistic road to take, to tell the truth.

It’s a period and a scene – even as it extend to the present – that isn’t written about as much as it should be, for all the impact it’s had.

Also quite good is the way Franzen gradually circles around the tension between Ambrose and Russ. It’s not exactly a Rashomon approach, but the way that the onion skins are pulled back is quite fine – we think it’s obviously Russ’s fault – oh, but maybe it’s Rick? Well, maybe they’re both – huh.

So yes, Franzen’s exploration of this moment in time – when youth culture was starting to dominate church life and spiritual authenticity defined by emotion and relationship – is excellent and still timely.

But of course, Crossroads isn’t just a youth group. It’s a point in a person’s life in which they’ve got decisions to make and roads to choose. Which – as outlined in the last post – is where all of our main characters find themselves at the moment we meet them.

And they find themselves at these crossroads as either people of faith or people who have been shaped by people of faith and religious institutions.

Now, as I started to think about this post, I will admit to you that the first comment that popped into my head was rude:

Maybe the novel would be more interesting if Franzen had picked a less boring religion for his characters’ dark nights.

I mean – mid-century Congregationalism might not beget the most intense struggles. Even Marion, Russ’s wife, compares the pastor’s sermons to Rod McKuen poems.

That said, Franzen presents some interesting interior faith tensions – although some, like Russ’s – don’t seem as intense as they should be, given what he’s considering (adultery with a parishioner) and given what’s at stake (marriage, family, church, soul, etc.).

As this reviewer notes:

 Franzen is not interested, here, in why bad things happen to good people. He is interested in why people perceive themselves as good or bad, often despite ample evidence to the contrary, and why people who are at least intermittently trying to be good do terrible things.

…Franzen is not Dickens, which I mean here as a compliment; he does not do moral pageantry, doling out impossible quantities of virtue to some characters while withholding it entirely from others. Instead, in “Crossroads,” the desire to be good is broadly shared but alarmingly ephemeral, dissolving with equal ease in the face of forces as potent as addiction (for Perry), as insidious as self-pity (for Russ), and as trivial as a traffic jam (for Marion). Yet it is also strangely persistent, readily rekindled by an encounter with another person, an experience of the ineffable, or the banked heat of some mysterious inner fire. This combination of fragility and tenacity renders the old-fashioned question of virtue interesting again, by rendering it suspenseful. Like real people, the characters in the book go to therapy every week and attend worship services every weekend because their will to be good is in constant need of renewal, which is to say that it is in constant jeopardy.

And that’s the question every character deals with – they do something bad, recognize it, sense the impulse to change and do good instead – but then grapple with a couple of strange truths: they wouldn’t be at the point of encountering the Good unless they’d said yes to the Bad – and that the Good might actually bring them closer to that other Bad Thing they are desiring.

It’s knowing and true.

I just think – per the last post – that the power of it is diluted by Franzen’s chosen structure and the length of these setpieces.

A final point, and an important one:  remarkably enough, on the way, several characters have serious and unironic spiritual encounters. I emphasize the “unironic,” because honestly, I kept expecting the irony to burst through, it never did, and this is something else in a culture in which the most acceptable depictions of Christian faith in art are, indeed, ironic and dismissive, convinced that those fairy tales are only for the ignorant and the bigoted.

But not here:

When the next evil wave welled up in her head she peered down and saw beneath it, not a bottomless blackness, but a kind of golden light. The wave was transparent, the evil insubstantial. The golden light was the real, substantial thing…..Goodness was the best thing in the universe, and she was capable of moving toward it…With a sob more like a paroxysm, an ecstasy, she opened her eyes to the cross above the altar.

Christ had died for her sins.

And could she do it? Could she cast aside the evil in her, cast aside her vanity and her fear of other people’s opinions, and humble herself before the Lord? This had always seemed impossible to her, an onerous expectation with no upside. Only now did she understand that it could bring her deeper into the golden light….She ran up to the cross, dropped to her knees on the altar carpeting, closed her eyes again, and put her hands together prayerfully….

Oh, I have quibbles. I think that there could have been a little more theological contextualization – no, not an in-depth excavation of mid-century Protestantism with footnotes pointing to Barth and Niebuhr – but honestly, in a 600-page book, you can spare a page or two for a wry look at what, besides his personal experiences, formed the raised-Mennonite Russ in the anodyne, undernourished faith that he struggling with – not very valiantly – there on Christmas Eve.

I also have questions about how Russ’s four children came to be in the varied spiritual places they’re resting in when we meet them. We have some sense, but the life of a PK – Preacher’s Kid – is intense and strange, with expectations abounding and faith journeys being all bound up in family dynamics. It enters the picture, but I think that in most families with Professionally Religious parents, it’s stronger and more fraught than Franzen gives us here.

But all that aside, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary novel that’s weaving faith into the lives of its characters, and giving them plenty of space to contradict themselves and muse over the quandaries, just as we do here, outside the pages:

Ever since that revelation, and beginning with the sharing of her inheritance, she’d endeavored to be a good Christian, but the paradox of doing good was that she felt even prouder of herself. It was as if, although the terms had changed, she was still pursuing superiority……

Crossroads (1)

Well, I did it. I read it – in, what, three days? Most of it on Saturday.

I’m going to agree with the rest of the world in saying that The Corrections hasn’t lost its position as Franzen’s best. Not even close.

Crossroads isn’t terrible, but to tell the truth, I spent a lot of time as I was reading wondering, why was this written now?

Which is not a good sign.

I went back and found my review of his 2010 novel Freedom…and I had similar thoughts about that one.

A plot summary (spoiler free!) from the America review of Crossroads.  

The story opens in New Prospect, a fictional Chicago suburb much like the one in which Franzen was born. It is two days before Christmas 1971, and the novel follows the fates of the Hildebrandt family, each on a quest for ill-conceived self-fulfillment.

The patriarch of the family is Russ, a local pastor at First Reformed Church who longs to regain his edge—and in the process to sleep with his congregation’s most eligible divorcee. His frustrated wife, Marion, wants either to lose some weight or her crippling need for self-control. The children aren’t doing any better: Their son Perry becomes convinced of his own damnation, daughter Becky is trying to get dreamy folk-rocker Tanner to break up with his girlfriend, and the college student Clem declines the student draft deferment because he believes it has made him as weak as his father.

The family’s frustrations and fears are deeply interwoven. Marion sees signs of her own youthful downfall in Perry’s increasingly drugged-out behavior. Clem’s unsettling attachment to his sister Becky colors his every decision, and her rejection of him leads ultimately to a rejection of her family. Russ still fumes over being kicked out of First Reformed Church’s youth group, Crossroads, an event that caused all his children to despise him in their own particular ways and has led to a years-long silent feud with the church’s youth pastor. Secrets are revealed, mistakes made and recouped; profound moments give way to base desires; and vice versa.

So we have this family tale, but also a tale of faith set in a particular historical moment.

Here’s an interview with Franzen in which he talks a bit about his purpose.

I think I’ll take a couple of posts to write about this novel. First, I’ll just skip through what I did and didn’t like about it, and then in the next post, I’ll take a closer look at the faith aspect.

As I mentioned before, I tend to like my fiction with more bite and humor than Franzen has to offer. There is gentle satire here and there are amusing moments and conversations, but they are rare. With Franzen, you get a lot of character excavation via dialogue and remembrance, and it’s generally pretty sincere and always very….complete.

So yes, this book is almost 600 pages long, although it does read fairly quickly. And who knows – could Franzen have accomplished what he was after at a shorter length? No idea. But I will say that his structure and the length does make the book a little hard to follow at times, in this respect:

First, know that about 2/3 of the book takes place during about a 24-hour period, on December 23, 1971. We’re brought into these character’s lives one at a time, as each has certain experiences or encounters and does a lot of remembering of the past during that experience. It does alert us to the richness and depth of individual experience, but it also can have the effect of driving what the character was originally about deep into the memory hole after a couple dozen pages of background. Okay…got it..what was she doing in the first place, again?

But, of course, that could just be my problem (although did see it mentioned in at least one review.)

The structure that worked beautifully for Franzen before feels herky-jerky in Crossroads, with each shift in perspective stalling the book’s momentum. 

I’m also not a fan of Franzen’s portrayal of most women here. First, one of his female characters is described not solely, but extensively, in terms of her weight, with which both she and her husband are dissatisfied – she weighs…144 pounds.  I mean – Franzen, maybe you should move out of California. Unless Marion’s four feet tall….that’s not “fat.” And even then.

The same character has had extensive mental health issues in the past – an important thematic point, as it ties generations together – but something about the whole scenario struck me as wrong and slightly misogynist. I’m not sure why – for Marion’s therapist does, indeed, note this and wonder why Marion blames her mother, her sister and herself for all of her problems and never the men who have actually caused her great harm. So perhaps I’m wrong to clock this. But still – the “crazy, supersexed, smart-as-a-whip wildcat” is just as tiresome a stereotype to me as the manic magic pixie girl. Same thing, slightly different vibe.

Okay, here’s what I did like:

Various observations and turns of phrase. Descriptions that can be poetic and absolutely on the nose. Affecting accounts of religious faith. Painfully accurate recounting of the dynamics of churches, both among members and among staff.

And passages like this, descriptive and poignant:

Perry had run up the stairs. Huffing, with poisoned heart, she followed him to the third-floor storage room. No guilty secrets were buried here. She’d arrived at her uncle Jimmy’s with only one suitcase, and before she married Russ she’d burned her diaries in Jimmy’s fireplace, destroying the last evidence of the person she’d been. The oldest relics now were from Indiana – a crib and a high chair last used by Judson, an old movie projector, a cedar chest of blankets and linens not worth keeping, a wardrobe of fashions unlikely to return, a mildewed army-surplus tent that Russ had wrongly imagined the family might camp in. It was all just sadness.

And most of all, a knowing and patient of family dynamics – Franzen’s expertise – exploring why we do what we do, and how much of it is not much more than reactive stubbornness and a conviction that in order to be who I want to be in the world, I first have to demonstrate, by any means possible, no matter how foolish or harmful, that I am definitely not them.

We’ve seen that work out in his accounts of our attempt to correct the mistakes of our forbearers, to find freedom from their constraints, and here – to make choices that we hope are good, but we know for sure are fraught. At a crossroads. Of course.

From that Vulture review – this would be my conclusion, as well:

It is demonstrably possible for a novelist to write about dreary characters without producing dreary text, but too many of the Hildebrandt family are boring in exactly the same way: stubborn, narrow, flummoxed, risk averse. Where are their minds? With the exception of Marion and Perry — the designated lunatics — it is an impalpable family. Those sections are revelatory, combustible, and funny, and when I rounded onto them I could hardly stop myself from fist-pumping and yelping, “Franzen’s back, baby!” And then Russ or his loins or one of his other two children would plod around, with their turnips and their long johns and their self-pity, and my resting heart rate would reinstate itself.

I will say this, though – circling back to my review of Freedom back in the day. Something, at least, has changed:

Franzen’s theme in both of his novels is, essentially, that there’s no use.  One generation’s attempts to “correct” the previous one are not only misguided but damaging.  The “freedom” our restless selves seek, our necks craning for a better view of the greenery on the other side, is equally self-deceptive, for in the end we end up right where we began.

It’s interesting because it’s a rather conservative message, isn’t it? And I don’t mean “conservative” politically, I just mean – conservative, as in staying put, in not straining for change.  It’s also tinged with a bit of hopelessness as we just race in our circles chasing illusions, pointlessly trying to fix our unfixable lives.

What renders this ultimately uninteresting to me is that the characters aren’t butting up against anything more than themselves and each other.  What I said about The Corrections applies here – big book, small story. Both novels feature idealists, but they are idealists whose causes are irrelevant, interchangeable.  There’s no transcendent, even incipient or glinting at the edges, nothing greater out there. 

Now. Considering that Crossroads is, in great part, about faith and religion, perhaps we finally have that bigger picture at work?

Let’s see….

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