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Earlier this month, the National Catholic Reporter ran a series of article on EWTN, written by Heidi Schlumpf. It made a blip, generated some commentary and then was gone, like almost everything else that’s written and published these days. Truth be told, despite being three lengthy articles long, there was nothing new in it, mostly because Schlumpf didn’t actually come down here to poke around and do research, but simply pulled from the public record, watched TV, collated things everyone already knows, and packaged it a la Catholic Left – which is decorated with pearls for the reader to clutch in horror as she reads, which of course happen to be the same pearls a writer from the Catholic Right would flourish with pride.

It was, in a way, typical 21st century “reporting” – which less to do with ideology, and more to do with the ease of accessing a certain level of information through the internet, a level which gives the impression of depth, but really isn’t. In other words – anyone with a computer and a keyboard could have written these stories from anywhere. 

A far more interesting story could be told from actually venturing down here to Scary Alabama, staying awhile, poking around, talking to employees and (probably more importantly) ex-employees and some of the hundred of Catholics living down here with connections of one sort or another to “the Network” as it’s referred to- or even reaching out across the country to people who’ve been involved with programming.

I’m not saying I “know anything” worth scooping on, because I don’t. I know a few people associated with EWTN, the chairman’s daughter was in my son’s high school graduating class, but honestly, I wouldn’t know the man if he crashed into me on the street. I just know that the history of EWTN is complex and more than a little fraught – because it’s a human organization, and that’s what human organizations are like. Fraught.

No, what I want to speak briefly to – besides the shallow reporting ironically enabled by the internet –  is the issue of what we miss when we’re blinkered by ideology. Just two points.

Far more interesting than the whole SCARY RIGHT WING angle of Mother Angelica’s development is how it reflects the bigger picture of American Catholicism, particularly that post-Vatican II trajectory. One small point that Schlumpf misses or ignores in her piece was that Mother Angelica was, at the beginning of her public ministry (so to speak), charismatic. I Image result for mother angelica mini booksdon’t know if she was personally involved in charismatic movements, but the first place I encountered her little pamphlets was via a guy I knew in college (this would be early 80’s) who was heavily into the charismatic movement – they were all passing around her pamphlets and other writings. They loved her. They were her first fan base. Many of the early adherents of her work were – and some still are – charismatic (there’s a regional charismatic conference here in town this weekend, and one of the main speakers is EWTN personality Johnette Benkovic Williams).  Even ten years ago, when we first moved here, one of the people we knew who worked at EWTN (but no longer does), was charismatic – but, this is what I’m talking about – was also involved in a newly formed Communion and Liberation group here – and had their new baby baptized in the Traditional (Extraordinary Form) Rite.

Complex, isn’t it?

Of course, to some, all of that (except the C &L part) is of a piece – all Right Wing or what have you. But of course, it’s not. It’s a big story, it’s the story, of an important part of American Catholicism that takes in the post-Vatican II world of the charismatic movement, the apologetics movement, the struggle for Catholic higher education, liturgy wars, unending scandal, power shifts between laity and the ordained, Y2K fears (yes), politics and money.

A lot of that story is reflected in EWTN’s story – not all of it – but much of it. And it’s complex and interesting. But you might have to do more than peer at a screen, read Guidestar reports and Arroyo’s book to figure it out.

The second point I wanted to bring up is related, yes, to someone I do know, but the reason I bring it up is not because I want to defend him – he requires no defending – but because it might help you develop your media-criticism skills.

For as we all know, contemporary media is mostly ideologically rooted and identified, and depends for its power on getting you – the consumer – to root for the good guys and against the bad guys and then keep coming back to the source for more fodder to energize your loyalty and contempt. To this end, hardly anyone has serious discussions rooted in reality any more and almost everyone seems to have given up trying, depending instead on simply on whatever supports your preferred narrative: labels, stereotypes, strawmen,dog-whistles and guilt-by association.

Schlumpf does this in her article with our bishop, Bishop Robert Baker. Here’s what she says about him:

Of course, the bishop with the closest relationship to EWTN is the one who oversees the diocese where the network’s headquarters are located. Bishop Robert Baker, who has headed the Birmingham diocese since 2007, serves on the network’s board of governors.

In 2009, Baker called Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at graduation “a travesty to the legacy of Catholic education,” and has called for politicians who support abortion to be denied Communion.

He has been a supporter of the Latin Mass; shortly after being assigned to Birmingham in 2007, he lifted the ban by previous Bishop David Foley on ad orientem Masses (in which the priest’s back is to the congregation). He requires chastity education for all Confirmation candidates and recommends Family Honor Inc., a chastity program using the controversial Theology of the Body view of human sexuality.

After the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August 2018, Baker attributed clergy sexual abuse to lust and a lack of chastity, especially the accusations of “predominately homosexual behavior and abuse.”

The diocese is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but another important date may be even more meaningful for the diocese — and EWTN. On June 4, Baker turned 75, the age at which bishops submit their resignations to the Holy See. There has not yet been news of its acceptance, but he told local news a replacement bishop would be expected in six months to a year.

Got it?

You know what to think now, right? Spoke against Obama-denied Communion-ad orientem-chastity-blamed gays. 

Because that’s what’s important – we signal you with certain specifics torn from context – and now you’ve made the connections and you know what box this person belongs in.

I’m going to broaden that picture in a moment, but I want to emphasize again – I’m not doing this because I am feeling defensive – I think it’s just a very useful example of how a picture can be painted and planted in your consciousness by presenting information selectively  – and to be aware that almost everything you read is characterized by the same process – and to trust nothing. That is to say, be cautious about deciding, “This Person is Like X because this article told me these bits of information.” Even – I have to say, in the social-media defined world – when This Person is telling you these bits of information about themselves. 

And this happens to be a useful way to make this point, because, well, I live here, and I know Bishop Baker. He’s the reason we’re down here – he brought my late husband down here to work – and he baptized my youngest. I don’t keep in close contact, but, as I said, I do live here and am fairly aware of what’s going on.

So that NCR-approved list above tells you what to think and what box Bishop Baker belongs in. Well how about this:

  • The harshest anti-immigrant bill ever passed by a state legislature was signed into law by the governor of Alabama on June 9. Soon after, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups, and four Alabama bishops filed lawsuits to prevent its enforcement. The bishops argued that sections of HB 56 that criminalize transporting or harboring an undocumented immigrant and prohibit any actions that “encourage or induce” undocumented immigrants to live in the state interfere with Alabama citizens’ First Amendment right to freely express their Christian faith, especially the performance of the sacraments and church ministries that serve the poor. The bishops were forceful in their condemnation of HB 56, calling it “the nation’s most merciless anti-immigration legislation.” …. The historic lawsuit filed by Archbishop Rodi, Bishop Robert Baker of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, Episcopal Bishop Henry Parsley, Jr., and Methodist Bishop William Willimon is the first time that a group of bishops have filed suit to stop an anti-immigrant law at the state level.

 

  • “Exactly. The life issues are a continuum and they go across the board. I think these issues are right now, to the pivotal bullet, and most important ones, [inaudible 00:24:04] this little hot-button issue, and that’s capital punishment. I have myself served as a priest, as a chaplain to Catholics on death row when I was a priest in Florida. Pope John Paul II had said while in the past the Catholic church did not take a strong position of opposition to capital punishment because it invoked it itself in the past, now he said we should move away from that, and he puts it in a continuum of the life issues, respect for human life. So I just throw that out for conversation. I know it’s a hot-button issue here in Alabama, and politically it’s one that’s not gone too far, but we as Catholics still talk about that to … And I have witnessed myself two executions, I had been with the inmates, and I’ve seen them face it…”

 

  • Through Bishop Baker’s efforts, the diocese has developed good, healthy ties with the moderate Baptist divinity school in town – Beeson, part of Samford University. They have co-sponsored some conferences, including, in 2016 , one on racism, called Black and White in America – How Deep the Divide? 

 

 

Holy Family’s president is a diocesan priest – former Anglican, married. Wait – but – how can I label that box? So confused!

 

  • Bishop Baker oversees a diocese that’s geographically large, spread-out and diverse, including many rural communities where Hispanic populations have exploded over the past few years, as well as cities with historic roots in older immigration groups and patterns (Italians, Greeks and Lebanese), and African-American Catholics. The ministries of the diocese reflect all of that. We have very “conservative” groups, we have the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in several places, we have charismatics, we have middle-of-the-road religious orders, we have sisters in full, traditional habit, we have sisters in no habits.

 

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End of Eucharistic Procession at this summer’s Eucharistic Congress. 

In 1983, Mother Elvira, a Sister of Charity, opened the first Comunità Cenacolo home in Italy. A decade later, Our Lady of Hope residence for men was established in St. Augustine, and there are now four U.S. homes — three in St. Augustine, Florida, and one in Hanceville, Alabama.

“Mother Elvira’s emphasis was on the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Mother as a source of healing,” said Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, the Church leader who has led the effort to bring Comunità Cenacolo to the United States, after witnessing the desperate struggles of drug addicts as a priest in St. Augustine.

“I have always felt the Catholic Church was weak in responding to the problem of drug addiction and could do more to use its [spiritual] strengths” to help people, Bishop Baker told the Register….“There is a value to counseling and psychotherapy,” he agreed, but the sacraments and prayer are also important for people dealing with addiction. After he was named the bishop of Birmingham, Bishop Baker helped found a Comunità Cenacolo home for men in Blountsville, close to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament established by Poor Clare Mother Mary Angelica, EWTN’s foundress, in Hanceville.

Reflecting Bishop Baker’s concern, the diocese is hosting this in a few weeks:

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I just want to especially point out that the NAC [the National Advisory Council to the USCCB] did strongly emphasize “cultivating an ever-deepening spirituality of chastity and virtue,” and I hope we can find ways to really articulate that further. Just a general observation: I notice the name Jesus Christ hasn’t been mentioned in the course of this. . . . It might not hurt to throw that in there somewhere. . . . Hopefully, somewhere, his name could be mentioned.

You’d think.

*****

Our information lives are completely characterized by this sort of incomplete information offered to signal, label, draw lines and define friends and enemies. Anyone who has a life offline knows how false this is. How absolutely false. How about this?  Don’t live in that world. Try the messy real world of blurred lines and surprising, real people instead.

 

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I attended Vanderbilt for my MA.   I was in the graduate school, but my classes were in Vanderbilt Divinity School. (Difference?  I was going for an MA in Church History, not an M.Div – a professional degree. So, Graduate School, not Div School). Most of my classmates were being educated for ministry in some Protestant denomination, mostly Methodist (Vanderbilt being an historically Methodist school) or Lutheran.

One afternoon, I was talking to a friend, a woman who was a Lutheran seminarian.  I cannot remember what seminar we were taking together, but the topic of our conversation was the paper for the course. What would we write about?  We ran over topics, we mused, we discussed.

And what struck me, and what sticks in my mind almost 30 years (!) later  – it’s so weird that I can remember even that we were standing in an office of some sort, talking –  was her end of the conversation. As I said, I don’t remember which class this was, but every possible paper topic she considered had, of course, Martin Luther at the center.  Luther’s views on……Whatever topic as seen through the prism of Luther’s thoughts….     Understanding X in the context of Luther’s writings on Galatians….

And I thought…

How boring.

How boring to have your Christianity defined by the perspective of one theologian who lived in one tiny corner of Christian history. 

(Sorry, Lutherans!)

I’ve thought of that often in the years since, as I’ve been grateful for the dynamic, if sometimes fraught diversity of Catholicism,which simply reflects the reality of what happens when the Word becomes Flesh.  In the Catholic context, it’s most clearly seen, of course, in religious orders, all of which have different – sometimes radically different – charisms and spiritual sensibilities, but co-exist in the awareness that the body as many parts: Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits, Cistercians, active orders of women and men….etc.

So it has been over the past few years that I have marveled at some people’s insistence that Pope Francis, in his priorities and public expressions, defines  – or is in the process of redefining Catholicism. What? Actually, that’s not supposed to be the way it is – Catholicism is supposed to define him, as is the case with all of us.  Five tips for happiness from Pope Francis. How can bishops and priests be more like Pope Francis? Following Pope Francis this Lent…..Want to live like Pope Francis?

In addition, as social media takes over the scene and everything, even spirituality, seems to be filtered through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like, we see the dominance of I guess what you could call inspirational influencers, people of all denominations and traditions who’ve grabbed these platforms in the name of “faith sharing” and “inspiring” but somehow managed to invariably place themselves – their daily lives, their past and present struggles and victories, their children, their adventures, their advice, their personal care regimes – all at the center of your feed. Constantly.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the particular charism and angle of a particular figure – of course! I certainly am!  A particular figure can help us draw closer to Jesus and the Church, certainly – that person can be our grandmother, our friend, a pastor, a friend, a writer or mystic, an activist or the Pope.  We can see something in that person that sparks us to take a closer look at Christ.

At Christ. 

Just as is the case with religious orders, so it is with saints. As far as I’m concerned, children’s religious education could be totally designed around the lives and thoughts of the saints – you get it all – spiritual formation, history, theology, ecclesiology, liturgy. Boom.

So here are the major saints from this coming week’s calendar (beginning today) – a typical week, really, expressing the diversity of Christ’s Church and the generous way in which God’s grace permeates all of life, at every stage, in every walk of life and every type of person.  We have men and

EPSON MFP image

women, clergy, secular rulers, mystics, martyrs and a fisherman.

These saints  would certainly welcome you, advise you to the best of their ability, teach you, listen to you, pray with you and be glad that you were inspired by some element of their life and thinking, but would also be horrified to think that you might be defining your Christian faith by their particular spiritual path rather than that of Christ through His Church.  Because, you know, that’s humility. Real humility, which understands when stuff is becoming to much about yourself and your personal vision and in humility – backs off.

In most of these images, the gaze of the saints is certainly fixed, and in their example, they invite us to look, not at them, but with them.

"amy welborn"

July 20: Apolinnaris

July 21: Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church

July 22: Mary Magdalene

July 23: Bridget of Sweden

July 24: Charbel Maklhouf

July 25: James, Apostle

Come back every day this week for a bit more on each of these saints. 

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Clickbait. Sorry.

No, not me – this Amy:

Image result for veep the pledge abortion

Probably hardly any of you watch the HBO program Veep , but this plot point from this week’s episode has been nagging at me, so before I share thoughts on the Notre Dame fire, I’ll dash this one off.

Veep is the often funny  – although less so in the last two seasons – show featuring Julia Luis-Dreyfus as  power-desperate politician Selina Meyer and her mostly idiotic and equally craven entourage and sycophants. It’s very profane, and yes – everyone is terrible. 

It’s a show abouterrible, awful, despicable people exploiting us so they can run the country.

And it never pretends that they’re anything but that. I don’t think we’re even supposed to be conflicted about hating these people, as sometimes happens with television and film. They’re hilarious in their awfulness, but they’re still awful. I held back watching it for a while because I assumed it would be nothing but liberal/progressive entertainment types taking easy shots at Deplorables, but – I imagine because of its British roots and original showrunner – it hasn’t played that way at all.

However, I did think the show took a fairly precipitous dive in quality after the fourth season, when the original showrunner and creator of the British series (The Thick of It)  on which it was based  – Armando Iannucci –  departed. The insults and repartee got far more forced and it became almost unwatchable at times.

But here I was, along for the ride for this, the seventh and final season. Let’s check it out. Eh. Okay, with some welcome sharp satire of a Kamala Harris-type candidate and wealthy liberal donors calling the shots and making candidates dance (literally). That was good to see. But…

I’ll just cut to the chase.

In this week’s episode, one of the main characters – Amy Brookheimer, who has functioned in various capacities in Selina Meyer’s administrations and campaigns, has an abortion, and yes, it is played for satire and laughs.

She’s pregnant because of a one-night stand with a former lover and completely despicable human being Dan Egan, who’s also slept with Amy’s sister (and countless others). She waffled a bit about having the baby, but then, at the end of episode 2, she announced that she’d be having an abortion.

This week’s episode had, of course, several plot lines weaving in and out. This one was played as many abortion-related storylines are – that is, centered on suspense whether or not she’ll actually go through with it. I felt, in a way, that the way this one worked was a reflection of  and maybe even commentary on a similar plotline in Sex in the City in which one character sets out determined to have an abortion, the episode leads us to think she did – and we find out at the very end that she changed her mind and would be having the baby.

But not here. We have Amy entering the abortion clinic – clashing with (of course) caricatures of pro-life protesters in deeply profane ways, claiming yes, she’d even prayed about this, then she’s in the room with Dan who makes crass jokes about the vacuum aspiration machine on display (here’s a piece that lays out the dialogue, if you can stand it) – and then the other storylines take over and, of course, someone like me is sitting there hoping that she’d have changed her mind, but then – well, here’s our last scene of Amy in a hotel room, recovering, Dan with her, the two of them still making snappy jokes, naturally.

Yes, disappointing (I know…fiction) …and here are my takeaways.

  • What’s disappointing to me is not so much that this character had an abortion – she’s a fictional character, after all, and given who she is and who’s she’s been, an abortion fits, unfortunately.

No, what disappoints me – although not, I hasten to say, surprises me – are the explanations and justifications offered by those involved with the show. Not that they would treat abortion in this darkly “humorous” matter – I should remind you that in a previous episode, mass shootings were treated in a similar way – as welcome distractions from problems on the campaign trail and thoughts and prayers nothing but words. But  – no, it’s disappointing that, in their words, I pick up the typical attitude to abortion and “women’s choice” and so on – disappointing from human beings who have borne and raised children (actress Anna Chlumsky, who plays Amy, was actually pregnant during the shooting of a previous season). What am I saying? Is abortion exempt from dark, satirical humor? I don’t think so. Maybe. But it’s so very dark and so very horrible – you know, killing kids – that…maybe? For sure, be aware of the darkness as you go. And just maybe, despite their ideological rhetoric – they are?

  • For the fact, however, that those involved with the show discuss the matter the way they do indicate that deep within, they do understand that there is something at stake. In other words – removing an appendix or fixing a pinched nerve or knee replacement surgery aren’t subjects for dark, edgy humor – why? Because there’s not much at stake. It’s not just about social taboos. It’s dark and edgy because people know, whether they admit it or frame it so or not, what’s happening in an abortion – and that a human fetus is different than an appendix. Having an abortion impacts life – Life  – in a way that other “medical procedures” don’t. It wouldn’t be a subject for drama, “dark humor” or controversy if it weren’t. What does that tell us? Anything?

Finally, and despite the right-to-choose triumphalism of Veep personnel, considering the broader context of the abortion in the show’s plotlines and character development, I can’t help but wonder what the final impact on viewers will be. For consider this:

In that final scene, Amy gets a call from a character played by Patton Oswald, one involved in the presidential campaign of Jonah Ryan – it’s an offer to be Jonah’s campaign manager, which she accepts with ecstatic glee.

Image result for jonah ryan

But, let’s remember: Jonah Ryan is, like almost everyone else on Veep, terrible. Terrible and fairly stupid. Amy knows Jonah well and has spent years hating him. HatingBut now she’s leaping at the chance of managing the presidential campaign of a person who, if put in power, would be even more of a disaster for the country than almost any other candidate – and she knows it. But so what? She can put “campaign manager” on her resume. Because, as she chortles my schedule has been scraped clean! 

Having an abortion so you can personally profit from helping someone you know to be terrible gain even more power?

Why yes, I can’t disagree…that’s….

Dark. 

 

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Today, we remember St. Francis of  Paola, an interesting saint. Here’s a good post from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert:

The immensely popular saint of Paola, Francis, born Francesco Martolilla, lived from 1416 to 1507. He was the founder of the Order of Minims (think here, “minimal” or “little” brothers) and was never ordained a priest. The name of the Order, Minims, refers to the members’ role as “the least of all the faithful,” as their founder expressed it. Humility was and is to be a hallmark of the Minims of Francis of Paola.

The Minim friars profess the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow of abstinence from meat and other animal products, which includes eggs, butter, cheese and milk. In addition to friars, who are either priests or brothers, Francis of Paola also founded monasteries of contemplative nuns and a third order for people living in the world. One of the most famous members of the third order was the great French bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales. Just above the Paola sanctuary is a monastery of Minim nuns, eight in number. I was able to join them for Mass one morning during my visit to Paola.

Francis of Paola was canonized in 1519 by Pope Leo X and his feast day is April 2nd, the date of his death. Francis of Paola is patron of Calabria, as well as of boatmen, mariners and naval officers. He is much loved and venerated throughout Italy, but most especially, of course, in his birthplace of Paola.

Already a devout Catholic, in his adolescence Francis spent some time with Franciscan friars, partly in fulfillment of a vow made by his parents when he was cured of an eye ailment as a baby. After his year-long Franciscan experience, he made a pilgrimage with his parents to Assisi, passing through Rome, Loreto and a few hermitages along the way. This experience convinced Francis to become a hermit himself, which he did on his father’s estate and eventually at a small grotto on the hillside above the town of Paola next to the Isca waterfall and river that flows down to the ocean.

After several years alone in the cave by the waterfall and stream, in 1435 disciples began to come asking to share in the life Francis was living, desiring to dedicate themselves to prayer, fasting, work and contemplation, like Brother Francis of Paola. Eventually Francis and his followers founded a religious Order of hermits, at first called the Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi, but later renamed the Order of Minims. The initials of the Order of Minims are O.M.

In 1483, when sixty-five years old, and with a reputation as a holy wonder-worker, Francis was called to the court of King Louis XI of France. The king was suffering from grave illness and hoped the holy hermit of Paola could bring about a cure. Instead, Francis was able to bring about the conversion of the king to a genuine Christian life. Francis of Paola remained in France for the next twenty-four years and died at Tours, on April 2nd, 1507, when he was ninety-one years old. He was buried in France. In 1562 the tomb of Francis of Paola was vandalized by Protestant Huguenots, who burned and scattered his bones. These were recovered by Catholic faithful and the relics distributed to various churches of Saint Francis of Paolo’s Order of Minims.

Now, one of the reasons I want to write about this St. Francis today is his connection with someone else very much on my mind right now – the great composer Franz Liszt.

Liszt being on my mind because the youngest son has been working on the piece Sposalizio for months and it’s my bones at this point. 

Liszt, of course, was a fascinating character who had deep and fraught ties to his Catholic faith.

Sposalizio, in fact, was inspired by a Raphael painting of the Wedding of the Virgin. 

Late in life, Liszt attempted to center his life more intentionally on faith (very complicated), moving to Rome and even taking minor orders. You can read about his spiritual journey here, in a piece by pianist Stephen HoughAlso, there is a great deal from a biography of Liszt available on Google Books here. He wrote a piano piece inspired by a legend of St. Francis of Paola:

amy_welborn3

 

More on Liszt’s religious works here.

 

Here’s a performance of the piece:

 

And for a change of pace and a scene that I, for one, can’t take my eyes off of – here’s a Finnish organist playing a organ transcription at St. Sulpice in Paris. The work of the Console Crew is fascinating, and given the fact that in playing in that space, all the audience can hear is the music and they don’t see anything, that Yamm! (or whatever) at 6.27 is entertaining:

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— 1 —

How about some good news? One of the very few good reasons to pay any attention to Instagram is the Humans of New York account. It never, ever fails to put life into perspective, sharing stories of strength and hope, as well as reminding us of the weight and burdens every soul we meet is carrying.

The past couple of weeks, the account has been posting stories from the Special Olympic World Games, being held in Abu Dhabi. Really, go check it out. 

 — 2 —

More good news:

What happens when you give a Franciscan $1 million?

He gives it away.

At least that’s what Brother Peter Tabichi, OFM, plans to do with the $1 million prize he won March 23, which came alongside the 2019 Global Teacher Prize, which he received at a conference Saturday in Dubai.

“This prize does not recognize me but recognizes this great continent’s young people. I am only here because of what my students have achieved. This prize gives them a chance. It tells the world that they can do anything,”  Tabichi said.

The brother is a science teacher at a school in rural Kenya.

— 3 —

On building a “thinking Church:”

Aquinas has extremely pertinent thoughts on how to understand the unity of learning, he then adds, offering an answer to young people trying to join the dots of what they know.

“We’ve gone into places like Harvard and MIT, and what we’ve seen is that people who are absolutely expert at, say, natural sciences or law, are deeply tantalised by the idea of having a deeper understanding of reality,” he says, describing how students and academics take part in annual conferences on cam puses and in nearby monasteries, where they learn about the Catholic intellectual tradition and begin to engage with it, changing spiritually as they do.

All told, he says, the institute reaches about 15,000 people in person, with a further million people around the world listening to the conferences online.

“I think Aquinas is a resource that we can tap into today, that allows us to speak directly to our contemporaries and to our contemporary questions,” he says, noting that “questions that we have in our own sceptical era about whether there’s any fixed knowledge or truth than can be obtained universally are issues he deals with in a direct way that are extremely compelling and very profound”.

Fr Thomas was in Dublin last month to speak at St Saviour’s Priory on the need for Catholic intellectuals and in UCD on the theme of when religious belief is irrational, and it’s striking that he believes the Scriptures are themselves very clear on religious irrationality.

“On the harmony of faith and reason and the question of irrational belief, the most severe critiques of religious irrationality are in the Bible itself, in that you’ll find them in the Old Testament prophets, who were the most severe critics of superstitious or irrational religion or morally disoriented religious practice,” he says. Noting how excoriating the prophets could be of superstition, idolatry, human sacrifice, hypocrites and those who fabricate God on their own terms, he says “they’re very severe on almost every front and they’re equal opportunity offenders – they go after everyone”.

–4–

A pastor reflects on new life in his parish:

The other day a priest who had served 10 years ago at Star of the Sea remarked on the parish’s “amazing revival”. Mass attendance has been growing annually at 12 per cent, and income has more than doubled. We’ve planted flowers and shrubs, installed new lighting, restored the marble sanctuary and flung the doors wide open to the city. The parish school begins an Integrated Classical Curriculum (consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric) this autumn, and parishioners are caring for the homeless and advocating for the elderly and unborn.

Mother Teresa famously said, however, that “we are called not to success but to fidelity”. Success and fidelity are essentially different categories, motivated as they are by different ends. While not demanding success, the Lord does expect the fruit of fidelity. His first command, to “be fruitful”, has never been abrogated, and “every branch that does not bear fruit will be cut off” (John 15:2). Christ promises 30, 60 and a hundredfold fruit to those who faithfully sow his Word. There is a way of measuring the revival of a parish, but it is not “success”. It is fruitfulness.

–5 —

Eve Tushnet on some reading on medieval Eucharistic piety:

Alongside the Crucifixion, the Eucharist–and specifically the Real Presence, the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ–was one of the aspects of Catholicism which first drew me to the faith. I could tell you that it was because the Catholic doctrine seemed most responsive to the Gospels; I wrote a paper, back when I was the only atheist in my History of Christian Doctrine section, arguing that Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, when you consider His insistence in the face of horrified disbelief in John 6:52 – 57, wasn’t simply a metaphor like “I am the vine.” But I have to admit that I loved (and love!) the doctrine of the Real Presence largely because it’s visceral, bizarre, bloody-minded. It seems like the kind of overturning, catastrophic, violent thing the God of Exodus and Good Friday would do–the kind of awful thing our world and our actions would require of Love. It is hardcore.

When I was sick with stress and unsure if I’d really go through with baptism and confirmation, Eucharistic Adoration steadied me and got me through it. I’ve found Adoration deeply consoling, especially because you don’t have to worry about whether you’re able to receive Communion. Nothing’s required of you except your presence. There’s nothing you have to pray or do–just be there. The Mass is the corporate prayer of the Church but there are times when you want an intimacy, a bridal chamber for yourself and Christ, without dealing with your neighbor or your place in the community. Venturing into extreme anecdata, I’ve written a bit about the atttraction the Eucharist holds for those on the margins of the Church due to poverty or stigmatized sexuality.

So I picked up Miri Rubin’s study Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture with great interest this Lent. I’ve gnawed through this tome 20pp at a time and found a great deal to love in it, despite some disagreements with her framing of the issues. Rubin delves deep into all kinds of records and evidence–not only theology and hagiography but wills, church financial records, the annotations and marginal illustrations in prayerbooks; parody, superstition, miracle tales, and more. I loved her willingness to seek out everybody’s responses to the Eucharist, not just the “official” ones. I loved her attention to the ways that people use even our most meaningful cultural touchstones–no, actually, especially our most meaningful cultural touchstones–for a variety of all-too-human purposes, economic and political and emotional. One of Rubin’s theses is that the Eucharist grew steadily in cultural presence, and Eucharistic piety rose to a fever pitch, throughout the second half of the Middle Ages–but that this piety called forth responses, criticisms, heresies. Every doctrine gives people a vocabulary with which to articulate their resistance to it, or to the people who promote it.

— 6 —

Writing thing:

“Christ-Haunted George Saunders” from First Things:

Unwittingly, Saunders offers up a crucial question that Catholic art—in implicit imitation of the practice of penance—would do well to evoke: “This hurts, yes . . . but what is hurt?” In the gospel story, the cross darkens the disciples with these same grotesque questions; through the bloody wounds of Christ, the queries continue to pierce, pulsing past even the divine comedy of the resurrection.

Despite his pluralistic syncretism, then, Saunders’s life and works remain Christ-haunted. Which other living writer of such stature speaks reverently of the Latin Mass and the traditional Catholic practice of “offering it up”? As Saunders demonstrates, it is worth watching out for writers of repute who, even if they might not be able to recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience, are marked by their inherited, cultural Catholicity.

And Movie/Writer Son on:

Au Revoir des Enfants 

The priests and teachers of the school have taken in three Jewish boys in an effort to hide them from the authorities. Julien has trouble connecting with people easily partially because he’s so terrified that an errant word on his part, or on the part of another boy, could give away not only himself but the two others.

There’s a great moment in the latter half of the movie that highlights the difference in how Julien and Jean approach the world. All of the boys in the school have been sent out as two separate team to find a treasure. Julien gets separated from his team but finds the treasure on his own. Alone with night approaching, he looks around and finds Jean nearby.

Julien Quentin: I found the treasure. All by myself.
Jean Bonnett: Are there wolves in these woods?

Julien’s mind is on play. Jean’s is on the danger that surrounds him at all times.

— 7 —

Laetare Sunday is coming:

From Pope Benedict XVI in 2007:

Only a few more remarks: the Gospel helps us understand who God truly is. He is the Merciful Father who in Jesus loves us beyond all measure.

The errors we commit, even if they are serious, do not corrode the fidelity of his love. In the Sacrament of Confession we can always start out afresh in life. He welcomes us, he restores to us our dignity as his children.

Let us therefore rediscover this sacrament of forgiveness that makes joy well up in a heart reborn to true life.

Furthermore, this parable helps us to understand who the human being is: he is not a “monad”, an isolated being who lives only for himself and must have life for himself alone.

On the contrary, we live with others, we were created together with others and only in being with others, in giving ourselves to others, do we find life.

The human being is a creature in whom God has impressed his own image, a creature who is attracted to the horizon of his Grace, but he is also a frail creature exposed to evil but also capable of good. And lastly, the human being is a free person.

We must understand what freedom is and what is only the appearance of freedom.

Freedom, we can say, is a springboard from which to dive into the infinite sea of divine goodness, but it can also become a tilted plane on which to slide towards the abyss of sin and evil and thus also to lose freedom and our dignity.

Dear friends, we are in the Season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter. In this Season of Lent, the Church helps us to make this interior journey and invites us to conversion, which always, even before being an important effort to change our behaviour, is an opportunity to decide to get up and set out again, to abandon sin and to choose to return to God.

Let us – this is the imperative of Lent – make this journey of inner liberation together.

Every time, such as today, that we participate in the Eucharist, the source and school of love, we become capable of living this love, of proclaiming it and witnessing to it with our life.

Nevertheless, we need to decide to walk towards Jesus as the Prodigal Son did, returning inwardly and outwardly to his father.

At the same time, we must abandon the selfish attitude of the older son who was sure of himself, quick to condemn others and closed in his heart to understanding, acceptance and forgiveness of his brother, and who forgot that he too was in need of forgiveness.

And you know this:

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Well, that was quite the weekend on the Internets, wasn’t it?

When the Covington Catholic photo flashed across one of my feeds, I freely admit that my first reaction was, “Expel him!” accompanied by several tweets/posts that mercifully existed only in my head.

And then…as it does…a fuller picture started emerging. As it does.

I won’t rehash the whole thing. I wasn’t really intending to add to the verbiage, either, but here I am. If you want to know where I stand on the sequence of events, check out Robby Soave’s piece at Reason. He captures most of my sense of it. I’ve watched other videos out there of the moment, which make one thing very clear to me: that initial narrative of “Boys in MAGA hats surround and taunt Native American protester” is false.

And you might want to stop and pause there. For despite all the other “lessons” and penumbras of meaning being spun, that is where this thing took off: from an image of a kid looking at a protester, which, we were told captured a moment in which these students surrounded a protester, mocked him and one boy, in particular, stood and stared him down, smirking.

But is that what happened? I don’t think so – and this is from watching several videos a couple of times.

What seems to have happened is that group was assembled on the steps, waiting for their bus. There had been this Black Hebrew Israelite group nearby for a while, demonstrating, taunting and filming, and then Nathan Phillips approaches with his group, drumming, chanting and filming, and he heads right into this group of boys who were, it seems doing school chants to both pass the time and distract from the first other group. Phillips walks right into the group – for whatever reason. There’s a video out there of the moments right before the encounter captured in the photos, as well as the encounter itself, and it is nothing like those initial headlines indicated. The student at the center of the controversy is just sort of standing around with the dozens of others, laughing and waiting – and then Phillips stands in front of him, drumming. The student clearly doesn’t really know what to do.  In the most widely-disseminated images, his resting face seems to some like a smirk – but when you look at videos from the other side – there’s one in which he turns and tells one of his classmates arguing with an activist to cool it – he just looks sort of uncomfortable.

So the bottom line is: the initial narrative was inaccurate.

No matter what you make of the students wearing MAGA hats at any time, but particularly representing a Catholic school at the March for Life, their whooping, a few of them tomahawk-chopping – some might have been mocking, some might have been mindless, some might have been unrelated to anything specific, the nature of private education, particularly single-sex private education, masculinity, Smirks Through History, Georgetown Prep, whatever  – none of that matters. It could be that the culture at this school is problematic – the culture at most secondary schools is problematic for one reason or another, and wealthy private schools are usually the worst.

But does that matter in this really very specific moment? Sorry, it just doesn’t. Because the reason these students were condemned, threatened and doxxed was because, it was said – they swarmed and victimized Nathan Phillips. At that moment. And that didn’t happen. Watch the videos. You may not like their behavior.  I get it. I personally still get triggered being around more than, say, three high schoolers at any one time.

You know, we live in times in which we’re not supposed to be all binary and stuff, so, sure,  let’s not be binary. It is just not the case that the only two possible scenarios here are: 1) Privileged White Boys Re-Victimized the Marginalized or 2) Precious Angels are Rowdy but, you know, Angelic. 

It could be just a weird situation that happened one day in one small corner of the world.

You start there. You try to get that right. 

Here’s another video that picks up after Philips picked this particular MAGA-hatted teen to drum in front of. I actually think this is one of the more illustrative videos out there (we’ll see if it’s still there by the time you read this – it might well have been memory-holed by YouTube). And it reinforces my position of “weird situation that happened for a few minutes, people drifted away, so why are we all talking about it?” 

Basically, Philips is in the kid’s face for several minutes, drumming and chanting – who knows why – and everyone around them is either watching, slightly confused, or filming, except for one activist with Philips (his grandson, I think) who is loudly and profanely arguing with a student. At some point the bulk of the kids start chanting something, but it’s clearly their school chant, and they’re not even looking at the drummer. And then, most of them drift away, to the bus, I’m assuming.

We could say a lot about this – about the impact of the crazy fast news cycle, ideology and perception and the sewer that is social media, but I’ll let others carry that load.

I want to highlight two reactions.

First, Fr. James Martin. Who, very early on, went to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with his hot take:

I am as disgusted by the contemptuous laughter of the mass of students as I am moved by the quiet dignity of the solitary man who continues to chant. Those students could learn much from this elder, if they had chosen to. Or if they choose to.

 

24 hours later, Fr. Martin published some more thoughts, beginning:

Regarding the controversy over Covington High School: I will be happy to apologize for condemning the actions of the students if it turns out that they were acting as good and moral Christians. The last thing I want is to see Catholic schools and Catholic students held in disrepute.

And I’ve certainly been wrong before.

..and ending with a call to attend to this teachable moment:

 

Another essential lesson, which transcends whatever happened in Washington this weekend: an understanding of the appalling treatment that Native Americans have endured in our country. That lesson needs to be learned regardless of what you think of Covington High School.

This Teachable Moment can offer us, if we are open, lessons about dialogue, encounter and reconciliation during this coming week, which is, believe it or not, Catholic Schools Week.

Of course, Catholic Schools week is not this coming week. But I digress.

There’s no sense in any of this that Fr. Martin has watched the videos of this encounter. One is under no obligation to engage with this issue at all, much less spend time with the videos or the testimonies, unless, of course, one has decided to issue opinions. Then you should probably try to be informed. And when you’re trying to be informed, you don’t have to depend on, as Fr. Martin, does, musing about different “narratives” that have “emerged.” You just sort of go to the tape, watch it, and take a stand. And maybe watching all of that still leads you to think that the kids behaved disrespectfully. Sure. But base it what’s actually out there, rather than sighing about the Mysteries of All Those Darn Narratives.

Gosh!

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My point is that Fr. Martin entered the fray right away, characterized the encounter in a way that is now widely disputed and says, well, he’ll apologize if  the boys were acting as “good and moral Christians.”  – not – if my characterization of the incident was incorrect. 

Ah.

And of course, one might wonder if part of the dialoguing Teachable Moment he wants to facilitate might touch on journalistic ethics, social media ethics and critical thinking skills.

Anyway, let’s move to Catholic apologist Mark Shea, who began his Facebook post (now deleted) on the matter with:

The MAGA goons were threatening confrontation with a small clutch of black protestors. (sic) As is done in his tradition, Phillips intervened with a drum and a chant to draw fire to himself. It was an act of peacemaking. The goons then mobbed and mocked him and he did not respond in kind. This was classic non-violence. The attempt to paint this as “elderly man with drum terrorizes 70 innocent athletic douchebags” is a narrative only the Right Wing Lie Machine would have the gall to promote

So, to repeat, Catholic apologist Mark Shea characterized the students from Covington Catholic High School as “MAGA goons” and “athletic douchebags.”

Image result for what gif mad men

 

Sunday evening, Mark has published a piece at Patheos apologizing a bit – although his Facebook and Twitter posts calling these teenagers “MAGA goons” are still up.  He has now embraced the narrative that Phillips was a peacemaker, so there’s that. (I repeat – look at this video and see if it would strike you, if you were there as “Oh, this fellow is trying to bring peace into this situation as he drums in my face and his grandson yells at my classmate.”   He also says,

I disliked the “Crucify Them!” response because I think punishment should be ordered toward redemption, not destruction.

But….MAGA goons…athletic douchebags.

New Evangelization, I guess. *Shrugs.*

Shea also talks alot about the incident without being terribly specific about his takeaway from what he saw on the matter on which he’s opining, using another writer’s sequence of events.

Which, of course, is a defining characteristic of contemporary online rhetoric: to vaguely describe a situation, group people into categories, declare their motivations – but without many specific citations because 1) you don’t have time because you know something else is going to come down the pike for commentary in the next hour or so and 2) you know that your readers are going to be satisfied with the non-specific narrative you offer because they don’t have time to source it either, and are also busy waiting for the next thing.

****

Bottom line takeaways:

  • If you are going to comment on this moment, comment on the moment. Watch the evidence that’s out there closely, then link the words and ideas in your commentary to pieces of evidence.
  • Don’t bother with commenters who can’t be bothered to do that and who prefer to build narratives out of ideology, straw men and caricature.
  • Maybe think about the impact instant communication and social media has on our perception of events and their importance. Consider this:

What happened in your neighborhood over the weekend? Do you even know your neighbors? Your community?

It’s like that joke you see during election year:

Me yesterday: Has no idea who my city council representative is

Me today: Tweets three times on the shifts from red to blue in California’s 33rd electoral district.

Or, in church terms – being an expert on the scandals in the Archdiocese of Whatever, while never engaging with one’s own local church.

Social Media and the internet puts us in touch with the world and tempts us to believe that we can impact the world with just a click – and that if we can know about it and if we can influence it, we must. 

And yes, yes, good comes out of it.

But is it really that much good? Is it worth it? Is it really better?

Remember that the foundation of all sin is pride. Right there. Pride. So, maybe before I post a Hot Take, I should think – why am I doing this? If the reasons come down to nothing more than virtue signalling or a sense that *I* have “followers” who are super interested in my life or my opinion and I owe them a hot take – or I have to keep my profile nice and high by entering into this fray – pride. 

It might be worth it to consider, in moments like this, the “power” of all this as a temptation. A temptation to put our energies into conflicts and issues that are none of our concern and that we really can’t do anything about – so we’ll ignore the people right around us whom we might actually be able to be in deeper communion with and help. 

The time one spends on a screen evaluating the look on the face of a kid I don’t even know, will never meet, doing something I’d never have heard about if not for people following other people with cameras – what could I have been doing with that time that involved people on my street, in my neighborhood, or in my own community? Heck – my family? 

Could it be that there’s a force that is seeking to discourage us from deep communion with others by deluding us with a promise of false power and false connection  – and mostly false power – so that we’ll spend all of our time and energy chasing that with nothing left for real-life encounters – the kind that really change the world?

 

 

 

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I’ll start with the easy stuff and work my way up (or down)

Watching: I ended up watching most of Mission Impossible: Fallout with Son #2 on MondaySunday evening. Yes, he has school on Monday, but he did some good work (more below on that) this afternoon, so he merited a treat. He and brother had seen it this past summer, but he spied it at Redbox and decided he’d like to watch it again.

I hadn’t seen it with them, but I walked into the room when the Paris part started, and since it was, well, Paris, I was interested, and ended up watching the rest of the whole gripping, silly thing. Very well done with entertaining supporting characters and (it should go without saying) fantastic action.

And now someone who’s exempt from most of his exams and only has to go into school on Wednesday for Calculus is in there watching The Princess Bride. 

(Exam exemption? Best incentive ever.)

Listening: My youngest, playing the postlude at Vespers at the Cathedral Sunday evening. His teacher asked him to turn pages for him at the pre-Vespers organ concert and then do the postlude. If you to my Instagram page, you can hear an excerpt – it’s the last image in this post. 

I’ll stick this in here, because it also involved listening: it was a busy weekend at the Cathedral of St. Paul here in Birmingham. It began very early Saturday morning with a Rorate Mass

The Rorate Caeli Mass is a traditional Advent devotion wherein the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Advent is offered just before dawn. In many instances families and individuals travel an hour or more, rising and arriving very early for this stunningly beautiful Mass. The interplay of light and darkness speak to the meaning of Advent and the coming of the Light of the world.

The Mass takes its title, Rorate Caeli, from the first words of the Introit, which are from Isaiah 45:8:

“Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant justum, aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.”

“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Saviour.”

The Rorate Mass is lit only by candlelight. Because it is a votive Mass in Mary’s honor, white vestments are worn instead of Advent violet. In the dimly lit setting, priests and faithful prepare to honor the Light of the world, Who is soon to be born, and offer praise to God for the gift of Our Lady. As the Mass proceeds and sunrise approaches, the church becomes progressively brighter, illumined by the sun as our Faith is illumined by Christ.

As was indicated on the Cathedral’s Facebook page, they planned for 100 attendees. There were at least 200 present. I took some photos, but far better are those taken by Mary Dillard of the diocesan One Voice and Ryan Penny from the choir loft (more on the Cathedral’s Facebook page.)

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What a lovely, deeply meaningful tradition. One more profound way to enter into the spirit of waiting and expectation, of journeying from darkness to light: by joining the God-created natural rhythm of a day in the life to the spirituality reality at hand and making space for one to inform the other.

You begin in the dark..

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…and walk out into the light.

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More on our rector’s blog here. 

Then, Sunday morning, some Bambinelli Sunday coming your way:

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The Pope’s not the only one with a balcony!

And then, Vespers:

 

 

Wonderful listening in that pre-Vespers concert there. We’re very grateful for the music here at the Cathedral. Read more about it here. 

Reading: I had written quite a bit on this earlier today, but it somehow did not get saved during a computer restart. That’ll show me. I am going to try to recreate this in fifteen minutes, no more, and then move on with life.

Late last week I read Andre Dubus III’s Gone So LongDubus is a widely admired writer in his own right, but is also known as the son of Andre Dubus, fiction writer (mostly short stories) and essayist and Catholic. Dubus died in 1999, and I wrote a piece on him for, I believe, OSV. You can read it here. I often refer to Dubus’ story “A Father’s Story” and his essays in Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Moveable Chair are fine pieces of spiritual reflection.

Not that Dubus was a saint. Nor would he ever claim to be. He left Dubus III’s mother when his son was ten, and the son examined the subsequent struggles in his memoir Townie. Father and son came to a reconciliation of sorts before the father’s death. This past fall, America ran an interview with Dubus which offers insight.

FF: Your father was a devout Catholic. How did he live his faith day to day? Did he read the Bible, religious books, say the rosary?

AD: Because I did not live with my father after the age of 10, I can only answer this question from that kind of distance. I do believe, however, that for years my father kept a copy of the New Testament beside his bed that he read from, though I’m pretty certain he read far more of the fiction stacked there. As I said above, until my father was run over and then spent the last 12 and a half years of his life in a wheelchair, he tried to attend Mass seven mornings a week. After he was crippled, he would have various lay people come by his house to administer Communion. I know, too, that my father said the rosary daily, something I don’t know how to do and know little about…

 …I’m no authority on forgiveness, but I do believe that my father, who was very young when he became a husband and a father, in his early 20s, did the best that he knew how to do at the time, which, of course, is not the same as doing the best he could do. This is true for all of us, though, isn’t it? And that’s where the potential for growth comes in. None of us are exempt from screwing up. I believe strongly, and I have a hunch my father would agree with me on this, that in his 62 years on the planet, my father put the very best part of himself into his writing. Everything else, including his wife and children, came after that. A close second I would add. But after that.

This way of being led to a masterful body of work, led to the kind of art that can change lives, art that will continue to live on for years and years. But there were costs to this. To him. To us, his six children (and ex-wives). On some level, I think my father knew he wouldn’t have a very long life, and he needed to get to that desk. Well, I’m grateful that he did just that.

Gone So Long is a novel about a shattered family: what happened, why, the life-long consequences and the possibility and question of reconciliation and forgiveness.

It’s told from three perspectives: Daniel, the father, 60-ish in the present day, Susan, the now adult daughter, and Lois, Susan’s grandmother who raised her after the loss of her daughter, Susan’s mother and Daniel’s wife Linda when Susan was three years old.

It is not really a secret what happened to Linda and that Daniel was responsible, but because the details are doled out only gradually over the course of the novel, to just lay it all out here would be spoilerish – and part of the building tension in the novel lies in the shadows around that foundational incident in the past, as well as the contemporary question of how this damage is playing out in the present and whether or not healing is possible.

It’s a serious, painful read so is it proper to say that I “enjoyed” reading it? Doesn’t seem right. But it was an interesting, engaging world to be involved in for a few hours over a few days: the shabby beach amusement park setting of the character’s early lives, the Florida of the present and more recent past, including – and this was surprising – those days in 1990 when the University of Florida campus was terrorized by serial killer Danny Rolling – interesting because I was living in Gainesville at the time.

Dubus is known for his deeply empathetic excavation of character, and that’s in evidence here. You get to know almost every character well, which means seeing their choices from their perspective and, if not agreeing with them, understanding them. This happens, though, because Dubus takes a great deal of time and space to explore these characters – and perhaps it’s just a bit too much. I felt the book was a little longer than it needed to be, with points being made several times in several different ways.

I have a couple of other critiques.

First, there’s an exception to the nuanced characterization: it’s Bobby, Susan’s jazz musicologist husband. If we had a photograph, he just might have a halo hovering over his head. In reflection, it seems to me that Bobby functions as an authorial substitute: he clearly seems to be that compassionate, all-understanding creator and manager of this little universe we’re living in. Even the quote he has painted on his wall from his favorite jazz musician about his fellow musicians expresses this:

I don’t want them to follow me. I want them to follow themself, but to be with me. 

While I found some of the other characters irritating in their bad choices, Bobby was irritating in his magnanimous perfection.

And then, this. Two points as introduction:

  1. Look, a character is a character created by a writer. That writer has the right to do whatever they want and create whatever they would like – what these people do in their fictional universe is up to the author, and that’s that.
  2. It’s absolutely true that the way we live out our sexuality and relationships are linked, in mysterious ways, to family dynamics and history. That’s not news. It’s absolutely true, and as we grow and come to understand ourselves, we see this. It can be a key to unpacking and unlearning destructive behaviors.

But I think it’s also true that explaining the impact of damaging family histories by drawing a line from that to sexual behavior is…kind of the easiest choice a creator can make to explain that history. I thought about this a lot (to pivot rather wildly) during Mad Men, which was a show I really liked a lot, but which also got tiresome in the way that the only way characters expressed tension in interpersonal dynamics was through falling into bed (or more often..on to a desk or office couch..). Okay, I would think – it’s quick and easy, and shorthand in a way, but honestly, there’s a lot more that happens in human life when people are uneasy or torn or broken – beyond sex.

What I’m getting at here is that Susan, deeply traumatized and torn from her parents for terrible reasons and raised in a less than optimal home, always yearning and wondering, acts out that pain through sexual promiscuity. Which would not be unheard of, of course – as one searches, vainly, for warmth and connection and love, to do so in a string of short-term relationships – it’s the story of modern life, isn’t it?

But something about this storyline irritated me, and I think it’s because of St. Bobby. If Susan had been dealing with all of this without a Perfect Older Man managing things, if she’d found inner strength and a way to deal with the unimaginable strangeness of her situation more on her own terms, I probably wouldn’t have reacted as negatively as I did.

In the end, I experienced Susan’s story as an expression – to use a popular critical term – of the male gaze at work – not, as it’s usually understood, in an objectifying sense, but in a paternalistic one.

Which perhaps makes sense in this world, since a father’s massive failure and sin is at the core  of her pain. But in the end, I suppose I was dissatisfied and irritated because I wanted Susan to find what she needed without being rescued, in part, by a saintly middle-aged man.

Writing: Still working on the manuscript due in January.

I’m in the Catholic World Report “Best Books I Read in 2018.” 

 

 

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