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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

So much important stuff to talk about, so let’s chat about…a movie. Shall we?

My brain and energies are a bit fried at the moment from being at a church all morning where Son #5 had a run-through of the music for his debut accompanying Mass at this parish, when then turned into an organ-rep practice session which then turned into a piano-practice session (because they have a Steinway that he enjoys playing…).

So I need to expend some of my creative energy…

So?

What do you think?

Here are my Deep Thoughts:

  • YES
  • I’m very, very excited about this. I thought Breaking Bad ended perfectly, but neither have I been averse to seeing Jesse’s story continue. Like many others, I basically want to see Jesse find this, for real:
  • Or, as one wag on Reddit or something opined, when rumors of this project first started flying, something like “I’d be content to watch Jesse sitting on a beach with a Corona and a lady friend for two hours.”
  • Bottom line: I trust Vince Gilligan and team like I trust no other contemporary Big Creative Mind.  Gilligan, it seems to me has the self-confidence required to put his stories out there, but is also not a weird egomaniac – which means he doesn’t let his own stuff get in the way of the stories. Plus, he has a Catholic background which shows, not in angsty-ways (Scorsese, looking at you), but in healthy ways connecting his stories to deeply-felt tradition, even subtly. I’ve always said that Breaking Bad was essentially a series about Original Sin – it’s about what sin does to a person and how that impact spreads – cf. Genesis 1-11. And, per Gn. 3 – the root of that sin is  – always  – pride.
  • I’m optimistic that there’s going to be some intriguing BB – BCS crossover happening, laying groundwork for whatever’s coming with Better Call Saul in 2020.
  • So yes, I’m very glad to see this happening, and have purchased my tickets to see it in the theater in Atlanta!
  • I’m also just very, very curious about some things. I mean – the essence of great drama is conflict, and there has to be more to this story than Jesse running from the Law – if that’s what he’s going to be doing. There just has to be more. But…I keep thinking – with whom? Who’s left for him to conflict with at a deep level that has a lot of stakes?

So. Who’s still alive? Let’s see:

  • Skyler
  • Walt Jr.
  • Holly
  • Marie
  • Elliot and Gretchen
  • Skinny Pete
  • Badger
  • Saul
  • Francesca
  • Brock
  • Lydia (*maybe*)
  • Jesse’s parents/brother
  • Jane’s father (maybe – he attempted suicide, we’re never told the outcome)
  • Guy in the junkyard

And then there may be characters from the Better Call Saul universe who may be around:

  • Kim
  • Howard
  • Nacho
  • Lalo

Various other cartel people, I suppose, although the cartel had dropped out of the BB storyline by the end of the series.

All of this leaves me quite curious as to what this conflict and tension is going to be about. My partial theory, apart from any individuals who might pop up with a stake in the matter:

El Camino is a genius title. It’s a vehicle, of course – the vehicle Jesse escapes in. But it also means, of course the road. The way, the journey. We’re going to see, I’m assuming, Jesse’s road – somewhere. Where? Everything that we know about this character up to this point moves us to root for that journey being to a place of freedom and peace, for we’ve seen that Jesse has a conscience – he’s capable of seeing to the other side and reaching for another way.  But what does that mean?  Is this going to be about Jesse battling his dueling desires for revenge or reconciliation? But then, again – revenge against WHO? All the neo-Nazis are dead. Walter White is dead (and yes, I think he’s dead – and if he weren’t, he’d be in prison, so….)

I’m very intrigued about how this is going to play out. Not because I labor under the delusion that Jesse Pinkman is a real person, but more because I’m interested to see how a talented creative mind works with the themes he’s laid out so carefully – themes that are universal and true and humane – and also how it plays out creatively. I’m fascinated by the creative process, period. We see a piece of art and we think that it sprang fully-formed from the mind of the creator, but of course that’s not the way it is at all – and that’s what makes the creative process so terrifying. You set out to create something, and sure, what you create might be wonderful, but odds are the final product is quite different from your original vision.  The character of Jesse Pinkman was supposed to be killed off early on – but he lived, and as such, embodied this theme of sin and its impact in an important way – in the perversion of the teacher-student relationship that the Walt-Jesse duo became. For Walt could have actually helped this young man turn his life around. Think about it. Upon discovering what Jesse was up to, he could have done something to help – instead, he used the kid’s “skills” and position to his own advantage, feeding his own shame and pride and bringing Jesse right down with him.

I mean – it’s Walt that Jesse needs to either take revenge on or make peace with.

But Walter White is dead.

Right? 

 

Finally? My prediction? I think he’s going to turn himself in and his “I’m ready” is the answer to a question of if he was ready to go.

Fight me!

Oh, and here are the lyrics to the song accompanying the trailer. By Reuben and the Dark, it’s called “Black Water:”

Well I get high and I get low
Oh but that’s the way
These things go
I saw my face in the mirror
Though I know I’ve changed
Though I look
Much the same
I found grace in the black water bathe my soul
And tell my heart
I told you so
I like fate in the lion’s cage
And wait for my time to come
But I’m begging please
I need this so
More than you’ll ever know
Oh well, I get high and I get low
Oh, but that’s the way these things go
I saw my face in the mirror
And though I know I’ve changed
Though it looks
Much the same
I found grace in the black water bathe my soul
And tell my heart
I told you so

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The one in the middle?

EPSON MFP image

She’s 28 today. Today! 28! Whip-smart, an attorney passionately dedicated to the rights of the marginalized, married to a wonderful, kind, talented musician.

That’s who that baby is today!

The one holding her? He’s 37 now, an Emmy-winning video editor, making his way in a tough business, hopefully – hopefully  – at some point in the near future with the title “showrunner” in front of his name.

The one on the left? He’s 34, married to a lovely young woman, father of two – one of whom we know well, the other we’re super excited to meet in a couple of months – a brilliant guy and an awesomely talented writer, author of a few novels and amazingly perceptive film analyst. 

Three of the five, right there.

There is nothing like perspective. It’s why segregated, bifurcated, closed-off communities are so terrible and why  our most life-giving dwelling place, instead, is in communities where the old and the young, the new parents and the experienced ones all gather on the front porches and in the town plazas and piazzas and in the dining rooms on a Sunday afternoon – so that the frantic, frazzled, exhausted young parents can see and hear, again and again – it will be all right. Let me help you for a while. It will be fine. And of course, indeed, nothing will go at all as you’ve planned – 

– it will be better. 

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— 1 —

Blogging this past week – lots of saints, including Mary Magdalene (Monday), and a bit of travel – we went to central Georgia, to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville. Go here and here for that. 

And while in Spain, we found the answer to a Very Important Question. 

No travelling for a while. Not even a day trip right now. Lots and lots of stuff going on. Lots. 

Oh yes – these came. I guess they are available online  – definitely from Loyola – but also I have them here. Obviously. If you would like to order one or two – or other titles – please check out my bookstore!

img_20190720_144840

 — 2 —

When I was in college, there was a certain type of person – usually male – whose idea of a fun Saturday night was to gather with friends and do a group reading of the screenplay of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

Well, I seem to ….have produced one of those types of persons. Huh.

Except now with effortlessly-available recordings, the reading-aloud has fallen by the wayside. Sadly, I think. Consider  – the late 70’s was right before VCRs became easily available – I distinctly remember seeing my first VCR at a classmate’s house (dad was an MD)  during a high school graduation party – that would have been June 1978. So, yeah – if you wanted to relive a movie on demand in your apartment – you’d have to relive it.

So, yeah. I don’t have to play a Knight Why Says Nie. I just have to…listen to it every time I get in the car.

Actually, this part of the script strikes me as a brilliant and spot-on parody of convoluted Scripture Speak:

And the Lord spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out! Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thou foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.'”

Image result for holy hand grenade monty python

— 3 —

Oh, let’s stay medieval. It’s been a while since I’ve driven you away with academic journal article summaries. Let’s correct that!

Here’s one about midwives. Very interesting – as midwives in many European countries were officially sanctioned, usually by the church. In some areas they were appointed by church authorities, and in others, they were elected by the women of an area. Their appointments meant that their work and livelihood was guaranteed by authority (aka – they would be paid) and that they had spiritual responsibilities, primarily to be be prepared to baptize if necessary.

The court’s specific expectations are not indicated, but scholars have done much to bring to light the services midwives provided for the church. For instance, Taglia describes midwives’ important role in ensuring the baptism of moribund infants, and Green notes that Thomas of Cantimpré believed curates must instruct midwives in the baptismal formula as a part of their general vocation to care for their parishioners’ souls. Broomhall presents evidence from sixteenth-century France of midwives acting as expert witnesses in ecclesiastical and secular cases of  infanticide, contested virginity, abortion, and sterility and assisting the church in lessening illegitimacy and child abandonment.40 Similarly, in Germany, midwives were expected to perform emergency baptisms and employed to verify pregnancy in prisoners and as expert witnesses in cases of alleged abortion, infanticide, and illegitimacy. In the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, midwives were likewise expected to aid the church in minimizing illegitimacy, abortions, and infanticide and were useful to the church in ensuring infant baptism, especially against Anabaptist resistance to the practice. Midwives were important defenders of orthodoxy in seventeenth-century England where they were involved in witchcraft trials more often as expert witnesses than as defendants.

-4–

By the same author, exploring the same sources on a slightly different subject. This is how one area of historical research works – you find a trove of evidence – in this case ecclesiastical court records from the Archdiocese of Paris from a certain era – and you simply examine the records in light of various topics. So, in the first article, it was regulations related to midwives. Here, she looks at what court records reveal about priests and sacramental stipends. 

One can easily cry “sophistry,” but really, this is just what life is really about. The cleric has to live – how is he to be paid for his work? In the middle ages, many clerics lived off benefices – moneys earned by church properties – but not all. And during this period, there seemed to have been a bit of a surfeit. One Archbishop of Paris attempted to strike a balance in his legislation:

In rituals surrounding birth and death, therefore, Poncher made a tripartite distinction among the types of money that should or should not change hands in relation to a sacrament. Firstly, priests could not receive money for the act of administering the sacrament itself. Secondly, priests could receive variable amounts of money as gifts of appreciation after the sacrament had been given. Thirdly, priests were entitled to receive predetermined payments for labor associated with the administration of sacraments, such as writing and sealing documents. By setting specific prices for priests’ labor, Poncher at-tempted to realize his dual goal of safeguarding a fair income for priests while protecting parishioners from chicanery in the form of being charged forbidden fees or inflated licit fees.

But still, there were problems that popped up and had to be dealt with:

This case shows that ecclesiastical licensing procedures might create a dilemma for priests. Priests were obligated to provide the sacraments to parishioners who needed them but were forbidden from administering the sacraments outside their parishes without permission, on pain of excommunication.  Should a priest lack either the time or the money to obtain a license, he could opt to perform the sacraments against church law and face the legal consequences. Should he, however, conform to church law and refuse to administer the sacraments without a license, he fell short of his spiritual duties and likewise could find himself cited by the archidiaconal court. While ecclesiastical regulations were intended to ensure the quality of sacerdotal work, they also had the potential to impede its availability.

A remarkable case heard on 16 April 1496 demonstrates what could happen when a priest attempted to resolve this dilemma. The defendant was Robert de Villenor, who was a clericus fabricus at the church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, meaning that he monitored the churchwarden’s storeroom there. He stood ac-cused of administering extreme unction to several sick parishioners even though he was not ordained a priest. Villenor admitted to having administered extreme unction to one parishioner because on the night of 9 April the curate, Pierre Picard, was summoned to the bedside of two parishioners at the same time. Both were dying of the plague, which, Villenor emphasized, was particularly virulent in Paris that year. Unable to attend to both parishioners, Picard instructed Villenor to administer extreme unction to one of the dying, named Pierre Noneau. Picard assured Villenor that there would be “no danger” in performing this rite because Picard would supply him with unconsecrated bread rather than the true Host. The priest told the court that he “did not believe he had done evil, but that he had done good, and if he had believed he was doing evil, he would not have gone” to the other parishioner, who is not named in the records. 69 The cleric Villenor complied with Picard’s orders and performed extreme unction for Noneau with an unconsecrated Host. Providentially, Noneau survived the night and Picard was able to administer true last rites the following day. Two days later, Noneau died in the appropriate spiritual state.

Villenor’s case demonstrates the difficulty of attending to a sudden need for supplemental sacerdotal labor. Picard was unable to attend both deathbeds and did not have access to an additional licensed practitioner. As much as he could, Picard attempted to fulfill his spiritual obligations. He delegated the task of ad-ministering extreme unction to the next most appropriate person to himself: a cleric who worked for the church but who was not a priest. Picard gave Villenor a proxy Host, enabling him to avoid profaning the sacrament. The register does not explain what motivated Picard to do this, but perhaps he hoped that perform-ing an ersatz rite of extreme unction would comfort the dying man and his family while exonerating him from the charge of failing to provide the rite at all. Know-ing, however, that this rite was salvifically insufficient, Picard would have un-avoidably revealed the ruse when he returned the next day to administer extreme unction with a genuine Host. Although the strategy was less than ideal, Picard and Villenor’s actions demonstrate their willingness to contravene ecclesiastical regulations concerning sacerdotal quality and ritual standardization to attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable spiritual needs of parishioners. Picard’s scheme did not enable him to escape the restrictions of ecclesiastical statutes, however, and Villenor took the fall. He was given a large fine of four gold ecus for having acted like a priest, having administered false sacraments, and having created a scandal.

–5 —

Are you bored yet? Well, sorry – go to Academia.edu or Jstor and find your own articles!

The point is – as I say repeatedly and all the time – history helps illumine the present – not only helping us see how we got here, but more importantly, to help us see that the present way is not the only way. Simply looking at these two articles about obscure matters in medieval French ecclesiastical records might shake up a reader’s sense of what Church organization looks like, what clerics do, how women have related to the Church through history and how clergy misconduct has been handled.

— 6 —

I was reading New York magazine – this profile of Lulu Wang, the director of a film called Farewell. These were the final paragraphs:

Wang isn’t religious either, but she is spiritual in the way that she believes the universe can converge in strange, magical ways if you’re paying attention. When she was little, her mother used to tell her a story about what kind of person she would be. While she was pregnant with her, shehad gone to see a blind psychic in a remote Chinese village. “He said, ‘You’ll have four children, and your first will be a daughter,’ ” Wang recalls. “And he said, ‘You are water, but you’re like a river. You have a lot of talent and you have a lot of gifts, but you can’t hold on to any of it. It flows. But your first child is your daughter. She’s also water, but she is the great ocean, and all of your gifts will flow into her.’

“My mother always told me that as I was growing up, so it gave me this certain expectation: On top of being an immigrant, what if I can’t be an ocean? That’s too much! But my mother is very matter-of-fact. She’s like, ‘This is what was said, and so this is your fate. This is your destiny.’ I said, ‘But what does he know? You never had four children.’ And she’s like, ‘Yes I did, because I had you and I have Anthony, and there were two in the middle while I was in China that I wasn’t allowed to keep.’ She was pregnant four times, and she had forced abortions because of the one-child policy.”

We’re in the back of a car driving along the water in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the light scatters on the East River where it empties into the neck of the bay. “Who knows what we believe?” she says. “Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is it a prophecy? We don’t know.”

Oh. So maybe….?

— 7 —

Since Ordinary Time started back up, we’ve been hearing some salvation history from Genesis, and these days, Exodus, in our daily Mass readings. Today’s the giving of the Decalogue to Moses. Here’s a relevant entry from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. Get one! For your local Catholic parish or school! 

Coming next week…Ignatius Loyola, Alphonsus Liguori, and me in Living Faith. 

Also – check out my son’s novel!

And his film writing – posted almost daily – here.

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

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Continuing with my “reprint” of portions of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. (Part 1, Part 2)  This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some have asserted present Mary Magdalene as the special companion of Jesus and the leader of the real Christian movement, suppressed by the patriarchal Peter and his ilk.

In a way this is old news, for much of this moment seems to have passed beyond ten or so years ago when, thanks to The Da Vinci Code and other books, “Magdala Christianity” was all the rage in some quarters. It’s still around though. If you do a quick search, you’ll see some related events next week, and I’m sure there are more:

We welcome you to join us July 20, 21, and 22nd for our Online Mary Magdalene Sisterhood Retreat! …One of the Keeper’s of The Rose Code Lineage, Mary Magdalene’s Presence is re-emerging strongly on the planet during this time of pivotal shift through our consciousness and guiding us in remembering our Feminine Womb Power, Erotic Innocence, Sacred Relationship, Service, Rapture, and Devotion.

Women of Wisdom in conjunction with Movement For Peace will be part of the 3rd Annual Global Event called Awakening the Magdalene in a Powerful Global Prayer For Peace. This event is being coordinated with events being held in Spain, France and Scotland, where people will be engaged in the prayer for peace. Event is free and will include walking the labyrinth to experience the peace and spirit of Mary Magdalene, exposure to Yoga Nidra, Cranial Sacral Therapy, Art as Meditation, and more. 

And these gnostic writings are still widely misread, so it’s worth reviewing what they are – and aren’t.

Over the past twenty years, interest in Mary Magdalene has exploded. Books, websites, seminars, and celebrations of her feast day on July 22 have multiplied, as many in the West, particularly women, look to her for inspiration.

Ironically, though, much of this interest in this great Christian saint is being fueled by texts other than the Christian Scriptures. The popular websites devoted to Mary Magdalene refer to her as “The Woman Who Knew All” (www.magdalene.org). One of the more popular treatments of Mary Magdalene, The Woman with theAlabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, by Margaret Starbird, emphasizes Mary as “Bride 9781879181038_p0_v2_s118x184and Beloved” of Jesus. And, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, the mega-selling novel that has brought these depictions of Mary Magdalene to a mass audience. Brown’s novel brings it all together in one convenient package: Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, bore his child, and was the person he really wanted to lead his movement. This movement, of course, was about nothing the New Testament suggests it is, but was rather a wisdom movement dedicated to help humanity reunite the masculine and feminine principles of reality.

So in this context, Mary Magdalene was the “real” Holy Grail, since she was the vessel that carried Jesus’ child and his teaching. But she’s more: she’s a “goddess” — a mythical figure through whom the divine can be encountered.

It’s all very confusing. It’s also ironic, given the constant modern criticism that the claims of traditional Christianity are suspect because they can’t be “proven,” or because the texts upon which its claims are based are too ancient to be trusted. The modern devotion that so many seem to have to this figure of Mary is actually based, in part, on far less trustworthy sources and has no relation to the Mary we meet in Scripture.

So where does it start? Of course, much of this revisioning is rooted completely in the present, in a mishmash of conspiracy theories, false history, and wishful thinking that we will address in the last chapter. But the truth is that Mary Magdalene wouldn’t be the subject of interest from many of her contemporary fans outside traditional Christianity if it weren’t for some other ancient texts: the writings produced by Gnostic Christian heresies.

Secret Knowledge

Here’s the short version. From about the second through the fifth centuries, a movement that we now call “Gnosticism” was popular in many areas around the Mediterranean basin. “Gnosticism” is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means“knowledge.” Although there were various Gnostic teachers and movements over the centuries, most of them shared a few common characteristics, succinctly described by Father Richard Hogan in his book Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001):

“Gnostics claimed a special knowledge,a gnosis. Included in this special gnosis was an understanding that there was God Who created the spiritual world and a lesser anti-god who was responsible for the material (evil) world. Gnosticism represents a belief in dualism.There is a good and an evil. Evil is material and physical. Good is spiritual and divine.

“According to the Gnostics, a disaster at the beginning of the world had imprisoned a divine ‘spark’ in human beings, i.e., in the evil world of material Creation.This divine element had lost the memory of heaven, its true home. Salvation consisted in knowing that this ‘spark’ existed and liberating it from the human body.” (Hogan, p. 43)

The creation myths of Gnosticism that describe this imprisonment are quite complex and intricate. Just as intricate were the Gnostic visions of what salvation was about. The emphasis, naturally, was on knowledge, rather than faith, life, or love. The way to salvation involved knowing the truth about human origins and then knowing the way to progress, both in this life and the next, through the various layers of reality that were imprisoning that sacred spark.

Early Gnosticism, which predates Christianity, drew from many sources, including Platonic philosophy and Egyptian mythology. Christian Gnosticism used the Gospels 516ywedgjtl-_sx321_bo1204203200_and other Christian traditions, eliminating elements that were not consistent with Gnostic thinking. So, for example, Gnostic Christian teachers taught that Jesus was not really human — since the material world is evil. Valentinus, who lived around the year 150 in Rome, taught an extraordinarily complex story of Jesus being the product of the yearnings of Sophia — the personification of wisdom. Historian David Christie-Murray describes it in the following way:

“Christ,who brings the revelation of gnosis (self-consciousness), clothed himself with Jesus at baptism and saves all spiritual mankind through his resurrection,but had only a spiritual body. Men can now become aware of their spiritual selves through him and return to their heavenly origin. When every spiritual being has received gnosis and becomes aware of the divinity within himself, the world-process will end. Christ and Sophia, after waiting at the entrance of the Pleroma [the center of spir-itual, divine life] for spiritual Man, will enter the bridal chamber to achieve their union,followed by the Gnostics and their higher selves, their guardian angels.” (A History of Heresy[Oxford UniversityPress, 1989], p. 29)

This is just one example, but Gnostic Christianity is really simply a variation on this theme: Creation is evil. Jesus was not fully human. He did not suffer or die. Redemption cannot, of course, be achieved through such a means, for it involves the material body, which is sinful anyway. Salvation is not available to all, but only those with special knowledge. This way of thinking infiltrated many other systems of the time, including Christianity.

Those who tried to merge Gnostic thinking with Christianity produced writings, some of which survive, mostly in the context of quotations in the works of Christian writers arguing against them. In the late nineteenth century, some Gnostic Christian texts, not seen before, were discovered, and even more in the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of these texts caused a stir among some who believed that, more than giving an insight into a Christian heresy, these texts opened a world to what they believed could be the real story of Christianity that was concealed by orthodox Christian leaders.

Consequently, over the past century or so, these Gnostic texts have been rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some have taken their existence as proof that there was a whole other, and long-hidden, response to Jesus’ ministry, one with roots as ancient as those we see in the Gospels, and just as legitimate. The modern re-visioning of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride, as the special recipient of his wisdom, and as the foundress of an alternative mode of Christianity owes much to the fascination with these Gnostic writings.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — what we actually know of the history of early Christianity just can’t back up these exalted claims for Mary Magdalene or even of any substantive link between Jesus’ ministry and Gnostic Christianity and Gnostic writings.

The simplest way to put it is this: Gnostic Christian texts tell us a lot about Gnostic Christian heresies in the second through the fifth centuries. They tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, or the origins of Christianity in the first century.

So what follows is that these Gnostic texts tell us nothing substantive about the real Mary Magdalene, either, and that all those who use them in that way are engaging in, at best, misguided efforts, and, at worst, deceitful misuses of historical materials.

But it continues, nonetheless, and for a reason: this technique of suggesting that the Gnostic Christian texts reveal secret truths about early Christianity and who Jesus “really” was and what he “really” taught serves to undercut not only the New Testament but also the Church that produced it and is formed by it.

As I’ve done talk radio shows discussing this matter, I’ve heard it again and again: “All of these works were written so long after the events they describe — they’re all equally dependable and undependable. What version of Jesus you choose doesn’t matter, for there’s no way to know the truth, anyway.”

That’s just not true. Early Christianity was an enormously complex movement, about which we cannot claim to know everything.

But we do know — and any serious scholar will affirm — that Jesus did not teach Gnostic platitudes and did not marry Mary Magdalene, who then embarked on a life of teaching Gnostic platitudes of her own and emanating divine energy.

It just didn’t happen.

But because these Gnostic texts are so important in so many contemporary treatments of Mary Magdalene, we definitely need to look at them and understand what they’re really about.

Know Nothing

It’s somewhat challenging to describe Gnosticism because it wasn’t an organized movement, a religion, or even a homogeneous philosophical school. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the self-help movement of our day. For some reason, in the last part of the twentieth century, this notion of the importance of self-esteem took hold in our culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of life, including religion.Two hundred years ago, Christian thinkers and preachers of any denomination would have been appalled at the suggestion that a goal of Christian faith is to help the believer feel better about herself or help her overcome insecurities and self-doubts. On the contrary, despite their differences, Christians and Protestants alike would have described the goal of the Christian life as believing rightly and shaping your life in a way that meet’s God’s standards and spares one an eternity in hell.

Gnosticism was, of course, more complex and cosmic than this. But it’s a decent example to start with, for, like the self-esteem movement, Gnosticism wasn’t confined to groups that identified themselves explicitly as “Gnostic” and separate from other religions. It infiltrated and impacted almost everything it rubbed against, including Judaism and Christianity.

You can see the problems. Gnosticism wasn’t a minor movement. In most major cities of the Roman Empire during these centuries, Gnosticism and even Gnostic Christianity thrived. Most of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity comes from its Christian opponents, great theologians like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who all wrote against Valentinus, for exam-ple, and quoted copiously from his writings in doing so.

But independent copies of some Gnostic Christian texts do exist, and it’s these texts that form the basis of the modern, non-Christian devotion to Mary Magdalene.

Ancient Words

In the nineteenth century, several discoveries broadened scholarly comprehension, and eventually popular understanding, of Gnosticism. An ancient work of the Christian Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, lost for centuries, was discovered in 1842 in a Greek monastery. This work, of course, quoted many heretics, including Gnostics. More important to many was the rediscovery (in the British Museum) and then translation of Pistis Sophia (into English in 1896), a probably third-century work in which Mary Magdalene — and Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the way — figure prominently in dialogue with Christ. Snippets of other Gnostic texts existed, but the real revolution in this area came in 1945 with the discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Coptic texts, bound in leather, and dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, that included many Gnostic works (as well as a partial copy of Plato’s Republic). Hidden in jars and stored in caves, it is thought that the library belonged to a Gnostic Christian monastery.

The Nag Hammadi collection contains fifty texts in thirteen codices (a form of book), three of which — the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior — are of interest to those intrigued with Mary Magdalene. Other Gnostic texts believed to mention Mary Magdalene, and found outside the Nag Hammadi library, are the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. These texts emerged from different periods and reflect different strands of Gnosticism. All are discussions between Jesus and various other figures, mostly about the nature of the soul, the after-life, and the end of time. Let’s take a brief look at how each of them treats the figure called “Mary.”

Pistis Sophia (third century)

This work consists of extensive dialogues between Jesus, who has been on earth teaching for eleven years since the Crucifixion, and others, including women. Mary, his mother, takes an enormous role, and several times a “Mary,” not explicitly identified as either his mother or anyone else, including Mary of Magdala, is mentioned and praised for her understanding, and is even the subject of envy by other disciples.

The Gospel of Philip (third century)

This work is made up of dialogues and sayings of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. It mentions the Magdalene, “who was called his companion,” along with “Mary his mother and her sister,” as three who “always walked with the Lord.” The passage, quite provocative to some, ends with the sentence, “His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”

This work also contains the passage describing Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving,asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Jesus’ answer is obscure, but implies that she is more enlightened than they are. Those who see this kiss bestowed by Jesus as an expression of a unique companionate relationship are missing the point in a big way. In Gnosticism, the kiss is symbolic. As one scholar points out: “The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss” (Jorunn Jacob-sen Buckley, quoted in The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, by Katherine Ludwig Jansen [Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 27).

The Gospel of Thomas (third century)

This, the most well-known of all the Gnostic writings, is a collection of sayings, many of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, but with a heavy dose of the androgynous themes that contemporary readers find so appealing. A “Mary” is mentioned once (the other female character is a “Salome”), as Peter asks Jesus to make her leave. Jesus, in a passage that is not often quoted by modern fans of this gospel, says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gospel of Mary (third century)

This is another dialogue, this time beginning with Jesus but ending with a “Mary,” who is identified as the one Jesus loved “more than the rest of the women” and as the primary teacher, in a rather subtle competition, it seems, with Peter.

A ‘Few’ Problems

These, then, are the basic texts that modern devotees of Mary Magdalene use to support their case that she was an important leader of early Christianity, and probably in an intimate relation-ship with Jesus — but even if not, that her wisdom was esteemed by him above the other male disciples, and that there was friction between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. This friction, in the eyes of some, reflects a real, historical division in early Christianity between those who followed Mary as a teacher and those who followed Peter.

There are numerous problems with using these documents to support this view of Mary Magdalene. Let’s look at a few of them.

To begin with, this position assumes that the Gnostic texts reflect first-century events. The simple truth is, they do not. No scholars date any of the texts earlier than the second or third centuries. The view they present of Jesus, his teachings, and his ministry are radically different from what we read in the Gospels, which were all composed before the end of the first century. Scholars of all types consistently consider the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to be the starting point for studying the history of early Christianity. They may disagree on what the texts mean, but none would suggest, for example, that the Gospel of Mary is of equal value with the canonical Gospels in determining what the early Jesus movement was all about.

518hvfnbhsl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_No, the Gnostic texts “tell” us exactly what they should: namely, the ways that Gnostic Christian heretics took the basics of the Christian story and molded them to fit Gnostic thinking. Since some elements of Gnosticism were interested in questions of gender and androgyny, that concern is reflected in some texts, and in the roles played by female figures. They might reflect a greater role for women in some Gnostic sects, or they might even reflect a desire to demean the role of Peter, recognized as the chosen leader of orthodox Christianity.

But if you take the time to read these works yourself, you’ll see that they are radically different from the canonical Gospels in tone and content. (The Gnostic texts are not long, and all are available on the Internet. The Gospel of Mary, at least the fragment that we have today, is reproduced in full in Appendix B of this book.) The canonical Gospels, with all of their very human, flawed figures, are reflective of an attempt to present events accurately, through the prism of faith, certainly, but accurately nonetheless. The Gnostic writings are preachy, tendentious, obtuse, and . . . well . . . Gnostic in their concerns.

So the contemporary thinkers who suggest that a strand of “Magdalene Christianity” was born from Mary’s early leadership that was eventually suppressed by those loyal to Peter are basing their conclusions on the most tenuous of threads: that these Gnostic writings, written some two hundred years after the fact by Gnostics, reflect an ancient, hidden relationship between Mary and Jesus.

Let’s take this one step further. Who’s to say that the “Mary” mentioned in all of these writings is, each and every time, Mary Magdalene?

After all, there are only a couple of incidents — in the Gospelof Philip and Pistis Sophia — in which the Magdalene is specifically mentioned. The much-vaunted Gospel of Mary speaks only of a “Mary,” does not specify the Magdalene, and gives no identifying clues to tie her into the historical figure of Mary Magdalene, despite modern editions tacking “Magdalene” on to the title. Even the Gospel of Philip, which has been held up by many as evidence of a “companion” relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is not as clear as it seems on who that Mary is. A close reading of the text indicates, a growing number of modern scholars suggest, that the female figure is a composite, mythical “Mary,” representing the feminine aspect of reality.

One of the features of some contemporary celebrations of Mary Magdalene is that the Gnostic writings indicate a tension between her and Peter and the other disciples, thereby implying a separate strand of “Magdalene Christianity.” Entire books have been written on this. That view, of course, is dependent on reading these Gnostic texts as if the Mary in conflict with the disciples is, in fact, Mary Magdalene. That’s by no means certain.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as being in conflict with the disciples. On a couple of other occasions, another Mary is described in the same way, and many assume this Mary is Mary Magdalene, although she is not explicitly identified in this way. However, some scholars — looking at the way this Mary is described, as “blessed among women” and “called blessed by all generations” — believe that a case could be made for identifying this Mary as Jesus’ mother. At the very least, it is not certain at all that she is Mary Magdalene, who does, in turn, play a prominent role in the dialogues in Book Two of the work.

Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:

In summary then, the Gnostic Mary’s identity is by no means a simple matter, nor is her identification with Mary of Magdala as certain as it is frequently asserted in modern scholarship. The particular spelling of the name Mary is in no way a reliable criterion distinguishing the two women, even though this is the most frequently advanced argument in favor of the Gnostic Mary’s identity with Mary of Magdala. If anything, the spellings Mariam and Mariamme appear to favor an identification with Mary of Nazareth, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament fail to resolve this problem, since they show both Marys to have equally been important figures in early Christian memory. Even the Magdalene’s role as apostola apostolorum in the fourth gospel does not tip the balance in her favor, since in early Christian Syria, where it seems most likely that the Gnostic Mary traditions first developed, it was believed that Christ first appeared to his mother, Mary of Nazareth, commissioning her with a revelation to deliver to his followers.

Moreover, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, there is significant evidence that early Christians occasionally imagined Mary of Nazareth in situations similar to those in which the Gnostic Mary is found: she converses with her risen son, expounds on the cosmic mysteries, and reveals her son’s secret teachings to the apostles, with whom she is occasionally seen to be in strife. Such is especially evident in the Pistis Sophia, a text whose interpretation has been tightly controlled by the last century’s interpretive dogmas. Both this text and the Gospel according to Philip make clear that the Gnostic Mary traditions do not have only a single Mary in view. Although many will no doubt continue to take refuge in the Gospel according to Philip’s description of Mary Magdalene as the Savior’s favorite, we should not forget that the New Testament identifies Mary of Nazareth as the ‘favored one,’ who has ‘found favor with God.’ (“Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition,” Journal of Early Christian Stud-ies, 9:4, pp. 588-589)

Why take so much time to unpack this? Because it’s terrifically important in getting Mary Magdalene right. Many contemporary activists have adopted Mary Magdalene as a representative of an alternative vision of Christianity, based partly on wishful thinking, partly on her role in the canonical Gospels, but confirmed, in their minds, by the evidence of these Gnostic writings. In them, they see traces of an ancient tension, an ancient movement within the followers of Jesus that held up Mary Magdalene as a wisdom teacher, as the one Jesus designated as his successor.

Their vision sounds plausible to those unfamiliar with the original texts, or even to those who only read them in translation, interpreting them according to the assumptions of the promoters of “Magdalene Christianity.” But ancient texts are usually not as simple to interpret as we think or would like to think.

A careful, objective reading shows, quite simply, first, that the figure of Mary of Nazareth played an unquestionably important role in some Gnostic texts. Why hasn’t she been chosen and celebrated by modern interpreters as the special chosen one of Jesus? Second, while Mary Magdalene does appear in these texts, most of the evidence for “Magdalene Christianity” is derived from the presence of a “Mary” who is, in fact, not clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, and is probably either a mythical composite female figure or Mary of Nazareth. Most importantly, though, all of the figures in these Gnostic writings really function on a level of symbol more than historical reality. Scripture scholar John P. Meir sums up the case quite well:

“I do not think that the . . . Nag Hammadi codices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT [New Testa-ment].What we see in these later documents is rather the reac-tion to or reworking of NT writings by . . . gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,Vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1991], p. 140)

As we will see throughout the rest of this book, Mary Magdalene is a great saint, and a woman worthy of our interest and honor. But there is simply no evidence that she was who her modern interpreters would like her to be. The Gnostic texts that they use to make the case tell us nothing about early Christianity in the first century, and the “hints” that some read in them, suggesting an ancient tradition being preserved about a leadership role for Mary Magdalene in competition with Peter, are by no means certainly about Mary Magdalene, and in some cases might even refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Further, if you read the documents yourself, you will see how ambiguous they really are, how easily they lend themselves to selective reading, and even how, in parts, the Gnostic writings contradict what their modern proponents would have them say.

In short, when dealing with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the Gnostics, don’t trust the interpreters. Go right to the source.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
  2. How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
  3. What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

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Welcome (many) new readers. Please check out my other posts on this topic (linked below) and stick around. I blog every day about…something. 

 

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.

I’m going to take a few minutes on this Friday afternoon and revisit some, er…gender-related issues.

Readers might recall I addressed them in my usual discursive, rambling way a few months back.

Intro post

The Feminine Genius of the Cowgirl in Red

But Look How Much I Gained

Peaked?

***

I’m revisiting today because news items related to these issues have been popping up in the news over the past week. I actually have been intending and hoping to revisit the matter for quite a while, but honestly – there’s so much out there and the pace of news is so crazy, that every time I’d think, “Okay, this is a good pausing place – I’ll write something about this – ” Something else would happen and blow out a whole other angle.

Kind of like with this current papacy. Oh, here. Things will calm down. Time to think and reflect and write. 

Hold my Mate. 

***

My main sources that I read for news on this issue are this SubReddit on Gender Critical Feminism and this board at Mumsnet, a British discussion board – and the links they both pass on. Both tend to the left, with the Reddit board, the radical left. Just know that before you dive in. If you dive into the Gender Critical Subreddit, maybe start with the “Peak Trans” board and scroll through a few hundred of those posts to hear how women (mostly) who were initially “live and let live” and “respect the pronouns, sure” got “peaked” – that is, pushed over the edge into seeing transgenderism as an essentially anti-woman movement and well, insane –  – by things like: guys “winning” women’s sporting events; parents insisting their two-year old sons are actually girls; the insistence of non-transitioned dudes who’ve decided they’re actually ladies pushing into women’s spaces, from restrooms to shelters to prisons to simply language; the notion that if you’re a biological female not into “girly” things…well…you must be a guy!

But if you’re interested at all, diving in is important. As I tried to say over and over back in February, it’s not just “right wingers” and social conservatives who are aghast at this. Old-school feminists, radical feminists and many lesbian activists are boiling about transgender activism. And, increasingly, clinicians.

***

So what are this week’s news items? Many, but these two are most likely to have hit your feeds:

  • This guy winning cheating to get gold medals in the women’s division of a weightlifting competition in the Pacific Games.
  • This just broke through various media blockades over the past day – the weird, perverse saga of the man in British Columbia, claiming a transgender identity, who has been trying to force – via discrimination charges – women to, er wax him.

This last case has been going on for a long time, but has been challenging to discuss publicly because the person at the center is lawsuit and banning-trigger happy – and TPTB at Twitter have been happy, for some reason, to accommodate him. There have been repercussions for people who have identified him in social media and the press. But this week, in a hearing, it was ruled that he could be publicly named and discussed, so here you go – read the distasteful tale of Jonathan Yaniv here and here.

This Twitter user was the only press in the hearing for most of the time, and posted her observations anonymously and avoiding specific names in order to skirt the wrath of this crew. 

And to balance out the radical feminist voices of the Gender Critical Subreddit, here’s Brendan O’Neil of Spiked, taking on the case today. Language alert! But hey! What are we talking about anyway?

There is a temptation to view Yaniv as simply an eccentric transactivist. But in truth this case is entirely in keeping with the cult of gender self-identification where one can now become a woman simply by declaring it. The logic of such a flight from reason, of creating a situation where anyone can be a woman regardless of how they were born or what bits they have, is that blokes will intrude on women’s spaces. There will be born males in female changing rooms; burly trans-women, who have benefited from the testosterone carnival that is male puberty, taking part in women’s sports; born males putting themselves forward for all-women shortlists in politics; and people actually saying ‘I am a woman and therefore you must wax my testicles’. Pure Newspeak. ‘Wax this woman’s testicles’ – can we hear ourselves?

This is the logic of gender self-ID. It’s the logic that has seen male rapists being sent to women’s prisons because they now self-ID as women. It is the logic that means a trans-woman who went through male puberty can now be winning gold medals in the women’s world cycling championships. It’s the logic that leads to people using actual phrases like ‘female penis’ without ever thinking to themselves, ‘What the hell am I talking about?’ The Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy, who has been central to drawing attention to the Yaniv case and to critiquing the cult of gender self-ID and its dire impact on women’s spaces, describes it well. In an interview on my podcast a few months ago she talked about how gender self-ID necessarily erases women-only spaces and also devastates the idea of womanhood itself. After all, if anyone can be a woman, then being a woman becomes a pretty meaningless, hollow affair.

The suggestion that these Canadian female waxers are ‘transphobes’ because they refused to wax a dick confirms the cynical, sinister nature of that term ‘transphobic’. It really is just a way to demonise and punish anyone who refuses to bow down to the ideology of genderfluidity.

 

So basically, folks – when you hear about legislation for “gender self-identification” – this is the consequence. Don’t fall for it.

****

I grabbed this quote from somewhere – one of those boards, probably – and I can’t track it, but I think it puts the matter in possibly the most succinct way possible, and while it’s harsh, I’m thinking: she’s not wrong. 

Trans is complete BS, and it is mainly men who find presenting as a woman to be erotic, and women who are reacting to a patriarchy and violence which makes them want to abandon their womanhood. This I believe is the true underlying reality of trans issues.

My own version is:

In the future – hopefully not the too distant future – people are going to look back at this transgender moment in the same way they look back at the lobotomy moment or the satanic-childcare-abuse – moment. They’re going be amazed and maybe a little embarrassed for humanity’s sake.

They’re going to see in this moment the culmination of the worst aspects of patriarchal, misogynist thinking, aided by technology and profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies: the moment in which the best women are men and women are better off by becoming men.

It’s also – although no one will probably see this, because we’ll be deep into Brave New World/1984 territory by then anyway – absolutely the consequences of a contraceptive, sterilizing,affluent culture.

When human beings are sterilized and approach sexuality as sterile beings in a sterile landscape, when procreation has no necessary connection to sexual activity and everyone has – relative to what human beings have had through most of history – loads of free time and money –  what does “sex” and “gender” become?

A costume to wear during the pleasure-seeking performative exercise called Life. 

****

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Part two: pathologizing normal pre-adolescent and adolescent bodily discomfort for financial gain, because parents are stupid and other people are frankly, perverts.

There’s a lot of disturbing aspects to the contemporary trans trends, but most disturbing to most normal people is the expansion of this obsession down to childhood. We have some mass Munchausen-By-Proxy-Gender-Style going on here, and a disturbing number of “medical” and mental health professionals on both sides of the Atlantic (this is a hot topic in England as well – read this) willing to be co-opted.

Simply put:

It is absolutely normal for girls and boys to be uncomfortable with and even horrified by the changes in their bodies, and to wish that it would just stop and go away. 

This is especially acute, I think, in a culture like ours which has become so oversexualized, in which an individual’s worth, particularly among young people, is judged by superficial standards of hotness and desireability, in which sexual activity has become transactional and recreational, in which the body and your use of your body and how you display your body has become the primary way in which you are and are valued in the world.

It’s out there, a young person sees this coming, and it’s frightening, especially, I’d say, for young women – who may well look at the expectations for appearance and performance in our sexualized, pornified culture and say…no thanks. I’d rather be a dude. Cut ’em off so maybe the creepy guys will stop staring at them. 

There is, thankfully, a little pushback happening – but not as much as there needs to be. I imagine we won’t see anything dramatic for ten years or so, when the malpractice suits start rolling in. And believe me, they’re going to be killer. For a primer, take a look at the Twitter feed of this NYU endocrinologist:

Another, related Twitter thread. 

 

Moving back further into childhood, I spent a lot of time writing before about how frankly bizarre it is, to a person who grew up to womanhood in the 60’s and 70’s – to see the crazy thinking on gender roles that characterizes this transgender moment. I can’t tell you the number of posts I have read from less-than-stereotypically-“feminine” women who look at this present moment with horror and say things like:

I hated wearing dresses when I was a girl – still don’t like them. I’ve always had short hair. I never really liked dolls, I loved playing outside, and always liked hanging out with boys more than girls – I know for a fact that if I were a kid today, people would be asking my parents if I was trans. 

The puzzling thing is – the truly illogical conundrum is – if gender roles are constructs, then how can you innately feel that you’re really the wrong gender deep inside and need to change your body to match? 

***

It’s called dysphoria. It’s about not feeling quite right. It’s about not feeling at home in your body or even in the world.

I am careful in speaking about mental illness, because it really is a challenge to understand and discuss. Who among us is “normal” or “whole?” Who relates to themselves and to the world with complete clarity? None of us. Not a one.

So I am not sure how to talk about this – what is not normal, what is clearly mental illness – without being required to define what normal is. You feel as if you are not a woman? Well, let me tell you what you should feel like.

Who can do that? I don’t think it’s possible. That was one of my points in those previous posts.

But clearly, body and gender dysphoria are forms of mental illness. They are rooted in various factors, they can present in different way for varying lengths of time, and healing, if it comes, is as varied as the individuals involved.

Now, honestly – once you accept that – this is a form of mental illness – much of the present moment clicks into place, especially if mental illness has ever played a part in your life:  the insistence of putting oneself and one’s felt needs in the center of every, single conversation and issue, the unblinkered focus on the self and trying to find a way to feel okay and then being affirmed, from every corner, in that okaynes. No matter how difficult it is to define “healthy” and “ill” we do know that healthy people, in general – don’t act this way. 

So yeah, that’s what’s going to happen. If you’ve ever been part of a group – a class, a workplace, a family, a neighborhood – where there’s someone who’s struggling with mental illness, quite often, those struggles tend to dominate everyone’s lives and every gathering, don’t they?

Understand that, and the pieces of that puzzle – how has the issue of such a tiny, tiny minority come to dominate the culture, and so quickly and why do they act like this? – click right into place.

They’re not well.

***

Finally, to close up this tedious Wall of Text with some philosophizing.

For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Add to my list above: an affluent, sterile, leisure-oriented, performative culture – a material one stripped of the transcendent, with no road but an earthly one and no destination but a grave.

And being taught from the beginning of your life on this earth that fulfillment and happiness are not only possible, but expected. That a great deal of this happiness and fulfillment lies in just who you are and the wonderfulness that you are and being accepting of the marvelous being that you are.

But what if you’re not feeling it? What if you’ve had horrendous experiences in life that have made, it seems, a sense of self – much less a contented, whole self – challenging? What if what’s inside doesn’t match what your family, your community or even the big world tells you is correct and normal?

Raised in a material, appearance, emotion and achievement-oriented culture – despair for the dis-oriented might seem to lie just on the other side of every door, around every corner.

But consider another way – formed to value this life and who you are, but also understanding that, because of weighty mystery, you – along with everyone else on earth – is broken, sees through a glass darkly – including yourself – and that as hard as it is, it is also okay, because this is not your home. 

Oh, the suffering remains, and strangeness. But one just might be spared the perceived need to fix oneself right here and right now and make what’s outside “match” what’s inside.

And the older you get, the more true you see this is.

I turned – unbelievably – 59 this week. A few weeks ago, on our way back from Spain, I spent time with my friend Ann Englehart, who also turned 59 this summer. Over great Greek food in Astoria, I looked at her and asked the question that had been weighing on me:

“Do you feel fifty-freaking-nine years old?”

“NO!” she exclaimed, clearly relieved to hear someone else say it.

What does it even mean? we wondered, articulating the same thoughts aloud. What does it mean to be “almost sixty” – but to feel no older than, say forty, and to wonder – was I ever even 45 or 52? I just seem to have leapt from still almost youngish adulthood to AARP discounts without blinking. My appearance is changing, and I look at women two decades older than I and I know – God willing I make it that far – that there will be a day when I, too, will be unrecognizable to my younger self.

It’s very, very weird. It’s challenging. I completely understand why people – especially those in the public eye – get work done to stave off the sagging and the wrinkles. It’s so strange when what you look like on the outside doesn’t match what you feel on the inside. It’s disorienting. You might even say it’s dysphoric, if that’s a word. Centered in those feelings, living as though this were the only reality and all that matters, the temptation to use all the technology at one’s disposal to fix it – to make it all match up – might be very strong.

But understanding that disassociation and sense of dislocation in another way, as an invitation. An invitation, a hint to listen to the heart that seeks and yearns for wholeness and unity, to understand that while it’s not perfectly possible on this earth, the yearning for it is a hint that somewhere, it does exists, and it waits – and the hard, puzzling journey we’re on does not, in fact end where the world tells us.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.

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Back from Spain, still recovering – as in, my body’s still on Europe time, awakening at img_20190616_174550about 4-5 am every morning. Which is a good thing! Every time this happens, I think, “This is definitely a lifestyle I should embrace.” And then a week later, there I am back in the old cycle of finally hitting the sack at about 1 am.

Because I’m lazy and unimaginative and have another writing assignment due today (Friday), I’m going to take the super easy way out of this and post information about where we stayed in Spain and why. This is part of how I begin to systematically blog the trip.

Previously:

Overview

Driving in Spain

— 1 —

But first!

 

 

 — 2 —

Oh, one more thing:

The only thing I regret about going to Spain at this point in time is that because of the trip, I missed the Eucharistic Congress held in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Birmingham. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful event, the climax of which was a Eucharistic procession through the streets of the city, thousands of participants strong. Thousands! In Birmingham, Alabama!

For more, you can check out the Facebook pages of either the Cathedral of St. Paul or the Diocese.

 

Image may contain: 13 people, people standing and crowd

— 3 —

Now for some more practicalities of the trip to Spain: where we stayed.

First was the big chunk – two weeks – in Seville. I’d be hosting my son, his wife and son, so we needed a place big enough for all of us – and I found it!

I rented this via Homeaway/VRBO. You can read my review on the site. And while I really understand and even in some ways sympathize with views against the mass-marketing of vacation rentals through this agency and especially AirBnB (more on that at the end of this post), I mean – what can you say? Four bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths for less than I’d pay for a chain hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama.

And having a washing machine meant that we, at least, could travel with one very small suitcase apiece.

(No dryer – dryers are not common in southern Europe. The apartment had a clothesline reachable from the kitchen window, hanging over a courtyard.)

-4–

Caceres: This hotel – family room, with three single beds. 

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This is part of the Corpus Christi procession in Caceres, but the building in the middle on the corner, between the two restaurants, is our hotel. The family room was basically in the attic – the only window was in the roof. But it was fine!

 

Guadalupe: This lovely little hotel. This was perhaps my favorite of the hotels, and not just because they welcome you with a small bottle of wine. It was tidy and neat, with a sweet balcony – just the kind of place I’d stay in all the time if I were traveling by myself, and perhaps with just one other kid. It was so inexpensive – E30/night for a double room – that I was able to get two rooms.

 

First things first;view from the balcony; view of  the balcony from the street to the rear of the hotel. 

–5 —

For Toledo, we went corporate with an AC/Marriott hotel. Here’s the reason – parking. Not being familiar at all with Toledo, and knowing only “Medieval city on a hill painted by El Greco,” I couldn’t imagine that I’d be able to find a hotel with parking in the city itself, and had no concept of the geography of parking garages. This Marriott sits about a kilometer away from the city – it’s not a bad walk at all  – except, as I keep telling you, in 100-degree heat. Fortunately, it’s right on a bus line as well, a bus that shot right into the city and ended up at the main plaza.

In retrospect, and having walked around the city and observed the layout – I’d make a different decision about that today. I wouldn’t be afraid to take a car into the city, if a hotel indicated it had parking.

Anyway, the hotel was fine – a good breakfast, although the boys’ hopes of a waffle-maker, since you know, it’s an American chain – were not met. It was the typical Spanish breakfast with pastries, thick-cut bread for toast, cold cuts, cheese, cereals, yogurt, fruit and tortilla – a Spanish tortilla, remember, is a potato-and-egg baked concoction.

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Hotels in Spain do provide butter, but in cafes – at least in southern and central Spain – one puts olive oil, not butter, on toast. Cafes and bakeries that serve breakfast provide bottles of olive oil on the counter and on tables for breakfast toast. If you think about it, it makes sense. Butter wouldn’t be something that had developed in traditional cuisine in a climate like this. 

— 6 —

Over in Lucca, we went with AirBnB. There were no hotel rooms available by the time I got to planning this part of the trip which was, I hasten to add, not last minute. I mean – six weeks? That’s not at all last minute in my book. There weren’t even many apartments available – the Lucca Music Festival was going on, with a Friday concert by a 90’s band called Take That, which I might have heard of? Probably not. But a lot of women in their mid-30’s were there for it.  And then Saturday night, the reason for our jump over, was the supposedly (as advertised) “Last Concert” of Ennio Morricone – the great film score composer. I’ll write more on it later, but just know that I have a musician son who’s a yuge fan of the Leone Spaghetti Westerns and has Morricone’s scores on repeat, constantly. (Morricone wrote hundreds of other scores, including for The Mission.) 

So, yeah – no hotel rooms in a probably already tight market. I am honestly trying to avoid using AirBnB – I don’t like their Wokeness and while I had a good experience with them last year during the Japan trip and their response to the sudden changes in Japanese law, I don’t really trust them and am suspicious of the business model. But – well, you know? Here I was, so off to the AirBnB site I went.

I rented this apartment – which was in a great location (probably everywhere in Lucca is a great location) and run by very nice people. The only problem was it was SO HOT, even though I could tell the apartment was probably usually very comfortable with its thick stone walls – this heat was too much for it. We didn’t spend tons of time there, and we did what we could to keep it cool, but late Friday afternoon, we were walking by a store, saw a small box fan for sale in the window – and welp – the apartment owners now have a fan for the next guests. No regrets. J said that night was the best sleep he’d had the whole trip.

— 7 —

And Bilbao? Also corporate – a Holiday Inn Express. It was five minutes from the airport where I’d be returning the car and flying out of. It worked out great – the night crew at reception was composed of two lovely young women who both accepted new guests and tended bar.

And when you can get a glass of good local wine for E1.80?

You’ve got my vote….for…something.

***

I don’t know where I ultimately come down on the hotel v. vacation rental issue. I absolutely see how the latter has been exploited. It’s no longer just you renting out your dead parents’ charming apartment in the city while you come in from your more modern suburban digs to give the key to the tourists and tell them about your favorite restaurants. It’s people buying up blocks of apartments – and whole buildings – and turning them into what amount to hotels without having to pay the same taxes and meet the same regulations as hoteliers. We stayed in an apartment in Barcelona ten years ago, well before AirBnB exploded, but I could already see it happening then. We stayed in a fantastic art nouveau apartment there, but as I recall from the listing, essentially the whole building was rented out as vacation stays. What happens to neighborhoods and communities at that point?

Also, if I lived in an apartment in close proximity to a bunch of now-vacation rentals, I don’t know how I’d feel about that. Probably…not happy.

 

 

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First, business: The Absence of War is now available on Kindle again. I had pulled it because I entered in a competition which, not surprisingly, I did not win, so here it is again for you – lending is enabled, so if you like it, you can pass it on. And while you’re at it, check out Son #2’s new book, coming in a week or so: Crystal Embers.  Preview here. 

All right, now for travel things. Monday, we traveled from Caceres to Guadalupe, the site of the famed Royal Monastery of Guadalupe. History:

There is a legend of the origins of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend says that St. Luke was the person who created the statue in the first century AD. When he died in Asia Minor, he was buried with the statue. In the 4th century, his remains were transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century. In 590 Gregorio Magno was elected Pope and he had a devotion to this Virgin and exhibited the statue in his chapel. One day the Pope was having a solemn procession with the Virgin in Rome and asked the Virgin to intercede to stop an epidemic in the city. An angel appeared to the Pope and the epidemic stopped.

Pope Gregorio Magno sent the statue to Seville to St. Leandro, who was the archbishop of the city, through his brother Isidoro, who was in Rome. During the boat trip, a sudden storm overtook the boat, but Isidoro prayed to the Virgin and the storm stopped suddenly. The Virgin was enthroned in Seville in the principal church at that time until the Moorish invasion in 714. Many priests in Seville fled the city during the invasion and went north with the statue of the Virgin and other reliquaries of the saints. They hid the statue near the river in Guadalupe.

At the end of the 13th century, a cow herder called Gil Cordero had a vision from the Virgin Mary beside the river. She indicated to him where her statue could be found. She told him to tell the priests where the statue was and for them to build a church in that place. The priests of Caceres then build a hermitage in that place and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pilgrimages started to the hermitage and later in 1389 the monks of the Order of St. Jeronimo arrived and took over the hermitage. Many of the Spanish kings, especially the Catholic Kings, favored the monastery and many additions were made to it and many treasures were given to it too. The Catholic Kings made a pilgrimage to the monastery after their conquest of Granada.

The statue of the Virgin has been examined by experts several times. The statue was carved in cedar and polychromed at the end of the 12th century. Its style is Romanesque and today her image looks black, from the passage of time. The Virgin is seated and has the Child Jesus in her arms. The image measures 59 cm. Today the Virgin is venerated and on Sept.8 there is a celebration on her feast day. After Santiago de Compostela, the number of pilgrimages to Guadalupe is the most numerous in Spain.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus brought two Indians named Cristobal and Pedro to the monastery to have them baptized, when he met the Catholic Kings here. This was the first baptism of Indians from America. They returned to Mexico and many hermitages and churches in the Americas were dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Columbus named one of the islands he discovered Guadalupe, after the Virgin. Today there is a great devotion to this Virgin in all of the Americas and around the world, especially in Mexico.

Images of the baptism are everywhere and the font that was used is the center of a fountain in front of the monastery.

I was a little surprised by how the monastery was situated. The place has a mini-Lourdes-like vibe, not surprising, if you read the note above about its long-time popularity as a pilgrimage site. So it’s not exactly a peaceful place, with the monastery being literally right up against the little town – the steps a couple hundred feet from the plaza-side cafes. It’s kind of strange, but because the town structures around the monastery retain their medieval look (except, you know, for the Mahou ads and such), it fits.

There are two aspects to visiting the monastery complex: Visiting the monastery itself, which requires participation in a tour, and then visiting the basilica, which is of course, open. The tours just kind of…happen, it seems to me. Enough people gather, and they start a tour. So, thinking that we might do this tour on Tuesday, we showed up Monday around 4:30, having checked in our cute little hostel (2 rooms for $70 total), and people were sitting around in the gathering area, so..you know…why not?

The tour is in Spanish, and takes you in the cloister, adjoining rooms which have been made into museum rooms of choir books and religious artifacts, the magnificent sacristy which features paintings by Zubaran, and then the upper…chapel, I guess. A layman takes you through most of the tour, and then in that upper chapel, a Franciscan takes over. We were, I gathered, about to see Guadalupe herself. He talked for a while, then opened another door – there was a panel with all sorts of painted images on it which he turned…and there she was! He lead a Hail Mary in front of it, then offered us a disk attached to the statue with a rope for us to venerate. Most in the group did, some held back. There was a pregnant woman in the group to whom he gave the privilege of turning the statue back the other way. (When you go in the basilica, the statue is up high from your vantage point – so where you’ve been on the tour is up behind it.)

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At one point one of my sons asked me, “What is he saying?” of the lay tour guide and I quickly explained that he was telling us we were in the former refectory and this is where the tables where and up there was the niche in which the reader stood during meals. He stared at me and said, “But you don’t speak Spanish.” “But I speak Catholic,” I said – and continued explaining that if I know the context of the speech and if I’m familiar with the topic, I can follow the general gist of what someone is saying in French, Spanish or Italian. Context is everything, though. So here, once I picked up the word for refectory, I was set.

The tour was a little rushed, but I guess you could also say it was efficient, right? The basilica was…a basilica. There was not much distinctive about it, so I’m glad we got all that done when we arrived – the advantages of the late-living Spanish lifestyle!

No photos were allowed in the monastery, but you can easily find images of that online.

Monday evening, we wandered, took in views, and prepped for the next stage. Tuesday morning, we got up and I thought we might do some walks around Guadalupe, but as we drove out, I couldn’t figure out stopping points or parking places or trail beginnings, so we just sped on. It would be an hour and a half to the next stop, so might as well….

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