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I have been on a bit of a hobby horse about pre-Lent. And yes, I am still on it.

In reading over some older devotional materials (more on that in the next post) and thinking about this Sunday’s Mass readings, the problem (one of them) clicked into place in a very simple way.

Lent begins next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Which means tomorrow is the last Sunday before Lent begins. What are the Mass readings?

They are the readings of the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Gospel: Matthew 6, continuing our reading of the Sermon on the Mount which has been going on for a couple of weeks.

How about last year? The last Sunday before Lent began was the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time and the Gospel – calling of Peter, etc. from Luke. 

And before that? 2015 – 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Gospel – healing of a leper from Mark. 

Quinquagesima Sunday readings, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, everywhere in the Catholic world before the Second Vatican Council?

(Remember there were only two readings)

Corinthians 13:1-13 – ….but do not have love…

Gospel: Luke 18:31-43

At that time Jesus took unto Him the twelve and said to them: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man. For He shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and scourged and spit upon: and after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, and the third day He shall rise again.

And they understood none of these things, and this word was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.

Now it came to pass, when He drew nigh to Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the wayside, begging. And when he heard the multitude passing by, he asked what this meant. And they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying: Jesus,  son of David, have mercy on me. And they that went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. But he cried out much more: Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus standing, commanded him to be brought unto Him. And when he was come near, He asked him, saying: What wilt thou that I do to thee? But he said: Lord, that I may see. And Jesus said to him: Receive thy sight, thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he saw and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

 

"amy welborn"

So the entire Catholic world would hear these Scriptures , not just whatever happens to be the readings of that last Sunday of Ordinary Time, but these Scriptures (and Propers and prayers) specifically and organically evolved with the coming of Lent in view.

(Catholics who participate in the Extraordinary Form or the Anglican Ordinariate still experience this form of pre-Lent, and of course Eastern Rite Catholics have their own form as well, with set readings that don’t change from year to year.)

In that older post I highlight the work of scholar Dr. Lauren Pristas, who wrote an essay detailing the thought and politics that went into the elimination of pre-Lent in the Latin Rite. As I say there, the conclusion is essentially that it was too hard for us poor lay folk to keep it all straight and stay focused.

Unintended consequences, anyone? Not to speak of weirdly wrong thinking. Pistas entitled her essay “Parachuting into Lent” and that is exactly the effect, isn’t it?

The best-intentioned post-Conciliar reformers (in contrast to those who simply didn’t believe any of the stuff anymore) seemed to me to be operating from the assumption that the  Church’s life and practice as it had developed over time functioned as an obstacle to deeply authentic faith, and that what was needed was a loosening of all this so that Catholics would develop a more adult faith, rooted in free response rather than adherence to structures.

Well, you know how it is. You know how it is when, on one day out of a million you have a blank slate in front of you? No rigid walls hemming you in? No kids to pick up, you don’t have to work, no one’s throwing obligations and tasks at you? And you think, Wow…a whole day free. I’m going to get so much  done! 

And then it’s the end of the day, and you realize that maybe what you had thought were restrictions were really guides and maybe not so bad because you look back on your Day Without Walls and you wonder…wait, how many cat videos did I watch today? Do I even want to know?

Yeah. That.

Where’s my parachute?

 

 

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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— 1 —

Well, that’s done. Another book in the bag, manuscript sent in on deadline.

What’s next? With this book, the editors are looking at it and within the next couple of months will return the manuscript to me with suggested edits. Then I’ll return it to them, the publisher will produce galleys for me to take one more pass at, and then it will go to press. The goal was a pub date in the fall. It is an illustrated book, and I have no idea how that’s coming along. Once I get a cover and definite pub date, I will let you all know.

I have taken it easy the past couple days except for a flurry of cooking last night, which I recorded on Instagram Stories.  I haven’t cooked much since Christmas, but am back in the groove. Made minestrone, bread and my roasted tomatoes last night.

Work-wise, I have a little pamphlet due in a couple of weeks, and then an essay due on March 1.

— 2 —

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

I noted a spike this morning for clicks on this post – and I’m glad to see it, although I would have expected the spike next week and not this.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 12 is Septuagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

— 3—

Despite the work load, I did do some reading over the past month. I can’t focus on work in the evening anymore, so I might as well read.

— 4 —

First up was Christmas Holiday by Maugham. I read it via one of the Gutenburg sites, violating my determination to Set A Good Example by sitting in the living room in the evening, Bartok softly playing, Reading Real Books  Oh, well.

Anyway, this was a very, very interesting book. A little too long, I think, and a bit clunky in tone and format, but cutting. It is a bit of a satire on between-the-wars Britons of a certain class, but more discursive and not as sharp as, say, Waugh. It reminded me a bit of Percy’s Lancelot, simply because a big chunk of it involves someone telling their life story to someone else, and also that the last sentence of the book defines the book and perhaps even redefines your experience of reading it.

It’s not a book I finish and say, “I wish I’d written this book,” but it is a book I finished and thought, “Hmmm…I wish I could write something with that effect.”

.

— 5 —.

Then was Submission by Houellebecq.  A friend had been after me for a while to read it – it was sitting on a display at the library, so there was my sign.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it made quite a stir when it was published in France in 2015 (the day, by the way, of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine) , it’s about, essentially, how Islam could take over France. The central character is a scholar, drifting, unconnected to family, non-religious, mostly unprincipled, still sexually active, but mostly in contexts where he has to pay for it. He is a scholar of the writer J.K. Huysmans, who is very important to Houellebecq – here’s a good article outlining the relationship. 

François’s fictional life trajectory mirrors Huysmans’s actual life: dismal living conditions, a tedious job situation, a serviceable imagination, a modicum of success, a proclivity for prostitutes, and, finally, a resigned acceptance of faith. And just as Huysmans put himself into des Esseintes, François is a self-caricature by Houellebecq—with a twist, or, rather, two: François is Houellebecq’s version of himself if he lived Huysmans’s life, in the year 2022.

Houellebecq and Huysmans have much in common, beginning with their ability to infuriate readers. “There’s a general furore!” Huysmans wrote when “À Rebours” was released. “I’ve trodden on everyone’s corns.” Houellebecq, for his part, has enraged, among others, feminists, Muslims, and the Prime Minister of France. There is more to these two writers than mere provocations, however. Huysmans wrote during the rise of laïcité (French secularism), in the Third Republic, when religion was excised from public life. Houellebecq says he is chronicling religion’s return to European politics today. They each have a twisted outlook on the sacred.

I found Submission an interesting and accurate read on social psychology and the current landscape. Yes, this is what so many of us are like now, this is the vacuum that’s been created, and yes, this is how, in some parts of Europe at least, Islam could fill that vacuum, and how post-post-Christians could give into it.

— 6 —

Now, I’m back to the Kindle (in my defense, I looked for this book yesterday at the library, but they didn’t have a copy) reading some Trollope: Miss McKenzieI’m liking it very much. It’s the usually thinking 19th century treatment of the bind that women found themselves in in relationship to property and independence during the period. This time, we have a woman in her mid-30’s who has spent her adult life so far caring, first for an invalid father, then an invalid brother. After their deaths, she’s inherited a comfortable income. So what should she do? And who will now be interested in this previously invisible woman?

It’s got some great social satire and spot-on skewering of the dynamic in religious groups, especially between charismatic leaders and their followers. I’ll write more when I’m finished with it.

— 7 —

As someone once famously said, and is oft repeated by me, “What a stupid time to be alive.”  It’s pretty crazy, and social media doesn’t do anything but make it stupider. If you follow news, you know the daily pattern:  8AM-2PM FREAKOUT OVER THE LATEST   followed by 2PM-Midnight – (much quieter) walkback/fact-checking/ – but with the walkbacks getting a fraction of the retweets and reposts than the Freakouts get.

There is not enough time in the day. Really, there isn’t. Add HumblePope to the mix, and Good Lord, what’s a wannabe political and religious commenter to do but make soup and read Trollope?

Well, here’s one contribution to non-stupidity – I first read this as a FB post put up by Professor George, and now it’s been turned into a First Things article on the immigration EO. Helpful. Take a look.  

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

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— 1 —

Well, we started with four…and now there are two.

Big trees in the yard, that is.

The two remaining are solid, though, so I’m not worried.

This one, though, was due. I admit that I knew it, too, and at least once a day, I pondered its form, which seem to lean just a bit more every day, and I thought, I really should call someone.

And so I did…at 12:30 am Wednesday morning.

I was sitting here (#nightowl) when the silence was broken by a strong and earth-shaking THUD.

I peeked in the boys’ rooms, even though it really had not sounded like someone had tumbled out of bed or knocked over a lamp in their sleep. All was well. So I peered out the window in the front door, and what a strange, disorienting feeling to see emptiness where you’ve been trained to see a hulking mass of branches twisting up to the sky.

I had never been too worried about it, because I was 99% sure that if and when it did fall, it was angled so it wouldn’t hit anything…and it didn’t. Just the driveway, which it blocked, fully and effectively.

(It was a calm night – no winds or rain. So why did it fall? I suppose because after over two months of drought, the rains had come. Quite a bit of rain over the past week, as a matter of fact. It was not in good shape anyway, and I suppose whatever was left of its roots just slipped out of that soaked earth.)

So the first thing to do was to text my carpool partner with the news and the hope that she could take everyone in the morning because I was blocked in. Second was to call the tree service that promised 24/7 reponse…to get a voicemail. It was fine. I didn’t want anyone to come out right at that moment, but I did want to be first in line for the morning…which I was.

By noon it was all gone and smoothed over.

— 2 —

It was an old, rotting, gnarly tree, but we have each commented that we miss it. It was the only climbable tree in the yard, and it was a home and resting place for all sorts of life.  It really did seem as if the birds that were around that afternoon were confused. It was full of bird-home holes, it had spaces for pools of water to collect which satiated birds and squirrels, and the hummingbirds used it as a Launchpad for dive-bombing the feeder.

— 3—

In case you missed it, I was in Living Faith earlier this week – on the 4th and 5th.  And, as I pointed out yesterday on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, you can get my Mary book free here.

Speaking of the Immaculate Conception, nothing like hearing a homily at your IC Mass that is in essence: 1) You know, no one even thought of this thing until the 12th century.  2) Smart people like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux were against it.  3) A Pope went ahead and made it dogmatic in 1854. Whatever, it’s a nice metaphor, guys, so feel free to believe..something.

Dude was old and has probably helped more people in his life than I would in ten lifetimes. But seriously.

— 4 —

Perhaps some of you remember the 1990’s PBS series, Wishbone. My older kids grew up with it, and I confess, I loved it. The conceit? A dog daydreams about being a character in various works of literature. It was kind of crazy, but it actually worked.

And believe it or not, the show actually dramatized a religious narrative in Viva, Wishbone! – which involved Our Lady of Guadalupe, in which our friend Wishbone portrays, yes, Juan Diego.

(Why do I bring this up? It’s his feast today)

Now, the story deviates. I just watched a bit of the climax, and the whole roses/tilma thing is not presented as the traditional narrative would have it. So you might not want to use it as a catechetical tool. But take a look on YouTube, and just remember a time – not so long ago – when even PBS portrayed religion as something other than the Opium of Particularly Stupid Bigots.

Access parts 2 & 3 via this link.

 

Also…St. Juan Diego in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Under “Saints are People Who See Beyond the Everyday.”

— 5 —.

Aside from Silence and other Endo and Endo-related work, this week I read A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. I think it was less than two bucks on Kindle or something for a couple of days, so I picked it up.  Levin was a screenwriter and author of several high-concept novels which contributed both new words to the language and almost folkloric images: The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby and the Somebody-Cloned-Hitler Boys from Brazil.

A Kiss Before Dying was his first novel, written in his mid-20’s. It’s been adapted for film twice: first in 1956, starring Robert Wagner, and then in 1991, starring Matt Dillon. The trailer for the ’56 version is just so…over the top. Or over the roof. What have you.

Anyway, the first 2/3 of the novel were good and fairly absorbing, with some twisty-elements that made you pause, go back and re-read. The twists weren’t so much with the plot itself, but with the narrative framework, which trips you up. But there’s none of that in the last third – just a more routine cat-and-mouse trajectory which I skimmed pretty quickly. Those twists, being formal, are impossible to convey on film – let’s put it this way: even though it’s not the same “twist” – the situation would be like trying to convey the twist at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on film in a way that hits you the same way it does while reading. I don’t think it can be done. So, as the risible 1956 trailer makes clear, without that interest, you don’t have a lot left.

So sure, that’s what I do. You play video games or watch HGTV. I read odd mid-century novels that strike my fancy and are free, or at least cheap.

— 6—

I don’t think I have mentioned this article in the Atlantic by Deb Fallows. It’s about our downtown Birmingham Public Library. I have written – or at least Instagrammed – about this building before. The murals are quite something, and unfortunately nothing that anyone would ever to decorate a public building with today. Fallows writes about the murals, but more importantly, the research department, which holds some treasures, including a jail log book with Martin Luther King Jr’s signature for that time he spent…in a Birmingham jail.

— 7 —

 

Speaking of such things, it was great to hear that the feds are giving a chunk of our downtown National Historic Monument designation (not quite National Park…but good anyway).  If you are ever here in town, it’s an area you should go visit – the 16th Street Baptist Church, Linn Park, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I’ve been to most of the Civil Rights-centered museums in the Southeast, and I’m not going to hesitate to say that I think that BCRI is the best. It’s a very good museum.  This article in our local alt-weekly tells the story of this area and how and why the new status was obtained.

“This is the place. This place is me,” Herbert Simms said, as he walked along the slick, leaf-covered sidewalk. He stopped and hunched over a puddle near a statue of a young boy being violently handled by a police officer and his dog. “They beat me here. That statue right there, for I all I know, that’s me too.” Simms, now 75, spoke quietly as he reflected on his role in this place, Kelly Ingram Park, and how it has shaped his life and the world he’s come to know.

He wondered why it took so long for this particular spot he’s known to be designated as a national historic monument. “This place is all of us…all of us. We changed the world here,” Simms said.

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

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— 1 —

It was a quiet Thanksgiving here. The boys were in Florida (as you read this, I’ll be on my way to get them), so it was just my studying-for-law-school-finals daughter and I.

— 2 —

I tried to get work done, but was only marginally successful, distracted as I was by a blog post in my head (which I birthed) as well as by the emergence of some ridiculous winter/early spring European airfares…some under $400…..

So, yes. Going to finally get to London….

— 3—

Thanksgiving morning, we headed just a mile or so down the road to the Jimmie Hale Mission, a local Christian ministry known for work with the homeless and those in recovery. You can read their history here.

The work this morning was simple and didn’t take long: delivery of Thanksgiving meals to the homebound. Our meals were destined for a senior public housing apartment building downtown – all but one found their proper recipients because that one lady, we learned after we’d knocked on her door for a few minutes, had recently died.

— 4 —

We returned home, daughter worked, I went to the park and walked a few miles to the tune of my favorite podcast, the BBC’s In Our Time. Today was an episode on the Baltic Crusades – interesting and depressing – and part of one on Justinian’s Code. It was a gorgeous day, with the temperature in the mid-70’s. Thankful.

— 5 —.

And no, I didn’t cook. No regrets!

Neither of us was interested in any kind of elaborate meal or buffet situation. While poking around online to see what might be open, I saw that a restaurant called Five just down the road was doing something interesting and worthwhile: they were serving a “Thanksgiving Feast” free of charge to anyone and everyone who came in. If you couldn’t pay, that’s fine, but if you wanted to offer a donation, all of the money collected would be going to the Firehouse Shelter – another local service for the homeless and otherwise distressed.

So we headed down there, and had just the right size meal, with no temptations to gorge or go crazy. There were definitely a few folks off the streets, setting down their bags of belongings or a skateboard on the floor beside them, settling into good, nourishing plates of hot food, alongside others who would be (we hope…) offering donations for the shelter.

A grand idea!

 

— 6 —

I can’t believe it was Thanksgiving two years ago we went to Germany to visit my daughter who was living there at the time. While there, I bought two lovely Advent candles, …..candles decorated and marked with numbers so that the candle burned the days away. Since I bought two, that means this year…none were left. So I looked online, and indeed found some fimg_20161124_181525.jpgor sale. None as charmingly decorated as those I’d purchased in Germany, but I like this one just fine:

— 7 —

And…here we are. Advent!

 Here is the devotional I wrote for Liguori this year. It is  too late to order them in bulk for your parish, but you can certainly order an individual copy – here (Amazon). 

Link to (Liguori site) English versiondaybreaks

Link to (Amazon site) Spanish version.

2016 Advent Devotional

Link to excerpts from Spanish version.

And an endorsement from Deacon Greg Kandra!

“This ravishing collection brings Advent and Christmas, literally, home. In brief essays that are by turns inspiring, surprising, and unexpectedly moving, Amy Welborn helps us see the coming of the Christ child in things we take for granted. This captivating little book is one to read, treasure, share, give—and read again!

But…do you want something…right now? Okay, how about this:

Here’s a digital version of the family Advent devotional I wrote for Creative Communications for the Parish. Only .99!

And don’t forget…Bambinelli Sunday. 

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

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Busy week. Let’s get started.

First off, Publisher’s Weekly carried a brief notice about the book I’m working on with Loyola – the exciting completion of the Loyola Kids trilogy! Well, at least the third book I’ll have "amy welborn"written under that brand. It’s simple – a collection of Bible stories, but with an angle that I hope will make them particularly helpful to Catholic children, parents, families and catechists. When I wrote the Loyola Kids Book of Saints sixteen years ago, I never thought it would still be selling as well as it does – usually one of the top two or three titles in children’s religious biography on Amazon, and really still unique in approach.

My deadline for this manuscript is early February, so I’ll be working to get that done over the next few months as well as on some smaller projects.

— 2 —

The past week has been busy, with an odd recurring theme of organization and information – or really, a lack of it.

High Point climbing gym is one of my youngest son’s favorite places. It’s a huge gym in downtown Chattanooga, notable for the outdoor climbing wall.

They’re building a branch here in Birmingham, and last weekend, they had an open house for their still-under construction facility. So we started there – it looks good, although not as large as the Chattanooga place and sadly, no outdoor climbing wall. It’s also a bit far from our house on road that is often marked by horrendous traffic, but I told my son that if got up early on Saturday mornings to go, I’d take him once in a while. He was all in. What have I done?

— 3 —

After a brief stop back at home, I headed out and up the hill behind our neighborhood to the Altamont School, which was hosting a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth. You’ll recall that he was born here in Birmingham, and it was from here that his mother moved the family after his father’s suicide. Percy attended a school that was the predecessor of Altamont, which explains the event. Unfortunately, it was barely advertised – I only knew about it because someone in my parish sent me an email saying, “Whenever I see something about Walker Percy, I think of you. Have you seen this?” No, I hadn’t. Neither had many other people, for the panel discussion part of the afternoon, which is what I attended, featured four people on stage and ten in the audience. Even with the Crimson Tide on the field at the time, that’s surprising. A few days later, I spoke with someone local who is a big Percy fan, well-connected into the local cultural scene and he was astounded that this event had occurred – he’d heard nothing about it.

Anyway, what I took away – besides marketing, people – was, first of all, how challenging it is for people to get a hold of Percy’s Catholicism, probably because hardly anyone understands Catholicism properly, not getting the fundamental point that a character who defines himself as a “Bad Catholic” is actually expressing a sort of ideal Catholicism. Secondly, I was struck again by the Percy Effect, best summarized on this occasion by the young academic on the panel who described his feeling upon first encountering Percy’s writings. “I was splayed open” – he said, and then filled with an urgent sense that Percy was onto something and that it was important, even essential, to follow and see where he led. The person I was talking to a few days later said that when he was in campus ministry he would often give The Last Gentlemen to students, and after reading three chapters, they would return to him wondering…was Walker Percy in my dorm room? How does he know?

Something I wrote about Percy for CWR a few months ago.

 — 4 —

Then it was back down the hill, fix dinner, and then my younger son and I headed out to the Alabama Theater to see Post Modern Jukebox. It was a good concert – even with a couple of dicey moments that I think went mostly over his head anyway. The talent level is amazing, which you know from watching the videos. Two of my favorites – Casey Abrams and Aubrey Logan– were both in the troupe for that performance, although a major, major disappointment was that Scot Bradlee himself was not. My 11-year old pianist son was quite let down by that – the pianist performing that night was excellent of course, but my son has really enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s stylings and style and was a little stunned that he wasn’t actually there – I wouldn’t say I was stunned, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing.

— 5 

Sunday morning – serve Mass at Casa Maria.

In the afternoon, we went to a big local state park – Oak Mountain State Park – for an advertised “reptile program.” Here’s what was advertised – come see reptiles from noon to three. Really not much more than that. We arrived at the interpretive center at 1:30 to an room empty but for refreshments. The program would be across the road in the other building, at would start at 2.

Which it did, to a full room, and with lots of interesting animals and expert educational offerings. But it was far more formal than advertised and did go on. So instead of the drop-in and see and chat about animals at your leisure during a time frame experience I thought we were getting, we sat in chairs for 90 minutes – including thirty minutes past the advertised ending time. Yes, snakes, lizards and tortoises are well worth our time – why do you think we were there? – but there was certainly a big difference between advertising and reality. Do people not even read their own copy and think about how it matches their plans?

amy_welborn5

6–

Back to school on Monday, and then Tuesday night, Birmingham – in the form of Rev. Peter Leithert’s Theopolis Institute – welcomed Joseph Bottum to town.

I had met Jody years ago at an informal event First Things organized for me on a visit to New York. He was here from his South Dakota home to speak on “The Novel as Protestant Art” –  the article upon which his talk is based is here. It was a good talk with interesting engagement from the audience. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed that kind of in-person adult intellectual engagement, and what made it even better was that Avondale Brewery, where it was held, is about two minutes from my house. Always a plus.

amy_welborn2

We won’t have that level of activity this weekend. What’s on tap? One kid gone Friday and much of Saturday at a robotics competition, the other serving a Saturday retreat Mass and having a make-up piano lesson (his teacher was on a short recital tour earlier in the week and had to reschedule). A family Halloween party Saturday night – almost forgot about that! – and then..it looks like Sunday is going to be what I hate most – Finish The Project Day – around here. One has an Archimedes project, the other on The Scarlet Letter.

"amy welborn"

Have a Happy Halloween, Slash.

— 7 —

Oh, I did do a bit of television watching, aside from Rectify. I have been poking around for a show to binge on – I missed the Stranger Things fad. By the time it had cycled through from New Hotness to Old and Almost Busted, I lost interest. But then I started hearing about this Australian show called Glitch just come to Netflix, so I thought I’d try it out.

And I did, and I watched the whole thing, sort of hating myself by hour four. Not exactly hating, but knowing by that point that this was going to be a Lost kind of experience in which an initial intriguing hook ends up taking you for a fairly contrived ride. And Lost was a lot better than Glitch.

The conceit is that several people have risen from the dead, crawling out of their graves in the cemetery in a small Australian town. Those first scenes are quite arresting, and a couple of the story lines are affecting, but the writing is formulaic and stiff, serious questions are glossed over and really, it all comes down to the fact that the reaction of a widower to his once dead, now-standing-in-front-of-him wife is not much more intense than if she had surprised him by arriving  home early from work. It’s clear by the end that this event has not been caused – as the devout Catholic among the resuscitated exclaims – by any miracle – but by pharmaceutical hijinks of one sort or another, and there’s a major twist at the end of the series that makes the, er, dead affect of one of the non-risen characters finally understandable – and so that’s where this first season ends. So yes, I kept watching for that dumb reason we all do – just to see what happens – but I’m not proud, especially in light of the intelligent, nuanced experience of Rectify a couple of nights later. I should have spent those six hours reading a book instead. Walker Percy, probably.

“Yes. Death is winning, life is losing.”
“Ah, you mean the wars and the crime and violence and so on?”
“Not only that. I mean the living too.”
“The living? Do you mean the living are dead?”
“Yes.”
“How can that be, Father? How can the living be dead?”
“I mean their souls, of course.”
“You mean their souls are dead,” says Max with the liveliest sympathy.
“Yes,” says Father Smith tonelessly. “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

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Rectify returned last night.

For those of you who don’t know, Rectify is a television series seen on Sundance TV that’s “about” a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for a murder he may or may not have committed.

The point is not really that particular mystery. The point is the impact the incarceration and the re-entry has had on this character, Daniel, and his family. Rectify is about human connection and how we do or don’t live with ambiguity and change. The acting is magnificent, the pace is meditative.

I like Rectify for a lot of reasons. I appreciate the southern setting. It’s filmed in Georgia, in a town a bit southwest of Atlanta, and a couple of the actors have Birmingham connections. I once saw and chatted with actor Michael O’Neil, who plays the corrupt senator in the series, in the Whole Foods here in town. The accents are good – even though two of the leads are Australian!

It’s a profoundly spiritual piece, with more than a hint of Flannery O’Connor.

If you want to catch up, the first three seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ve written about it a few times before – the last time here, I believe.

So let’s get back to this first episode of this fourth and last season of Rectify.

When the third season ended, Daniel Holden was leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia for Nashville. He had been convicted of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, but released from Death Row on an evidential technicality. He had confessed to the crime rtfy_401_jld_0415_-0142-rtat the time, but we have seen in flashbacks over the course of the series that this confession was almost coerced and that there are certainly others who might have committed the crime. But what we see of and hear from Daniel in the present has never been enough to lead us to conclude on his guilt in one direction or another.  In fact, our general impression has been that he is not sure himself.

In any case, for various reasons, after a few months out of prison, Daniel has admitted to the murder and, as part of the plea, has been exiled from his hometown and the state and is taking up residence at a halfway house in Nashville, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the fourth season, which seems to be taking place a few months after the end of the last.

This first episode focuses solely on Daniel up in Nashville. We don’t see anyone from Paulie, and we have no idea what’s going on down there. The question is – how is Daniel adapting? The answer: he is walking and talking, but as if he is still in his death row cell that has shrunk, encased him and which he wears like a cloak.

At least in Paulie, he had his family, and as fraught and awkward as his relationships with them were, at least he had some degree of familiarity. Here in the halfway house and at his warehouse job, he functions, but he doesn’t interact. He just doesn’t know how, and in Aden Young’s performance – in his eyes, body language and strangled voice – we perceive that struggle and honestly, it makes us a little afraid.

Alan Sipenwall has reviewed the first two episodes of this season here, and I can’t add to that except to share a bit of last night’s episode that struck me on a spiritual level.

Near the end of the episode, Daniel returns to the halfway house, and is pulled into conversation with one of the counselors. One of the core events of the episodes has been that Daniel’s roommate tested positive for drug use and left the house in the middle of the night. This initially seems like a tangential event that has nothing to do with Daniel.

But doesn’t it?

Daniel was his roommate. Daniel even saw him leave and did nothing, said nothing. There have been no fireworks or drama about this, but as the episode builds, the central question emerges:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, yes, you are. “New Canaan” is the name of the halfway house and here, in this community of hope and new beginnings, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

But this is not something Daniel knows a bit about, not because he wants to be cruel, but because almost two decades of isolation have malformed his soul.

This comes out in a cathartic conversation with the counselor, in dialogue that might seem a bit overwritten from Daniel’s perspective at first, but does make sense when you consider it as the fruit of twenty years of introspection and reading. It is not surprising that he would talk this way about his own existence and the stripping of his soul.

But even this is not what I want to focus on. For the core of Daniel’s dilemma comes down to this:

He doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know anymore if he killed Hannah or not. That uncertainty, that unknowing about the past, makes living in the present impossible.

Here’s what this made me think about last night, then:

Do any of us know the impact of our actions/ Do we have any clue to the reality of our own sins? Is there even any way for us to grasp every sin of omission and commission, what we have done and what we have failed to do? How the words I spoke in the grocery store yesterday helped or hurt and what they led to in someone else’s life a minute or an hour or ultimately a week down the road?

How tangled and mysterious is human history, activity and experience.

This is not to diminish the impact of sin. It is not to say there is no space for justice or requirement for restitution or judgment.

It is simply a recognition that there is only so much we can do for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we can’t even begin to count the ways. God must do the rest. All of our efforts to make sense of our impact on others fall short not only because they are weak and limited but also because we don’t know what to do. We do not know how to pray as we ought, Paul says, and not just because human words are limited, but because we can’t comprehend the scope of our lives and our impact, for good and for ill, on others. We don’t know what we should be asking forgiveness for, not all of it, not really.

How can we rectify when our sins are either so great or so unknown to us?

So how do we live? In continued isolation, separating ourselves from others because we are afraid, we feel unworthy of them in our guilt, real or imagined, or we feel superior to them in our innocence, real or imagined?

Or do we do what we can, hand the rest over, and edge from the door to the side chair to the place waiting for us at the table with the other sinners in the house that is half way?

Rectify season 4

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