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Posts Tagged ‘liturgy’

We are home today, back in Birmingham, the boys asleep this morning – the younger one able to sleep past 7 for the first time in a couple of weeks. Nothing much on tap this week, finally.

Yesterday at this time, we were in Charleston. We went to Mass at the Cathedral, where the music was beautiful – done, as Cathedral music should be (and as we experience here) as a model for the rest of the diocese, embodying the mind of the Church on matters liturgical.

There’s a short post up on Instagram with a bit I recorded. I don’t like how huge videos post on WordPress, and I can’t figure out how to resize them, so you’ll just have to go there.

What I particularly appreciated was the lack of accompaniment. Yes, there was organ for hymns, but the chanting was a capella, as this non-musician thinks it should be. I appreciate the organ, but especially with the propers and parts of the Mass, and especially when the congregation sings as well, there is something quite moving about the sound of nothing but human voices filling a church with chanted prayer. I like hearing the other human voices. When the organ’s going at anything less than a minimal level during chant, it’s all I hear – my own voice and the organ – and that’s not an experience of community. It’s almost more of a battle, in the end.

Anyway, go here for a snippet of Ave Verum Corpus. 

The homilist had good things to say, but….(you knew this was coming)

..he didn’t preach from the ambo. He strode down to floor level, right in front of the first pews, and paced back and forth there. I get it. I suppose. The desire to be closer? To us? I guess? But guess what…

No one could see you.

We were pretty close to the front – five or six pews back. He wasn’t that far away from us. The sound system is good, so he could be heard very well, but all we could see was a glimpse of him once in a while as he paced over to our side.

Now, you’re saying..hey…you’re an advocate of ad orientem and less clerical personality on offer during liturgical prayer. What’s this annoyance at not being able to see the homilist’s head during his homily?

Well, here’s how it functioned: very weirdly, the homilist’s posture, which was intended to make him more accessible, but actually made him more invisible, worked to elevate his person because yes, we normally do look at a homilist while he is preaching – that is our normal stance, so we’re having to strain and move around and make an effort to do something that is usually, in the course of liturgy, something we don’t even think about – which then allows us to focus on what’s being said, instead of the peculiarities and particularities of the one saying it.

This is convoluted, and really, all I’m saying is – there’s a reason the ambo (or pulpit) is elevated. It’s not a bad reason, either. And changing that up takes attention away from content. It’s distracting.

And it’s just something to think about that may or may not be related, but is also a Life Lesson: When we do something with the mindset, I want to make sure people know that I’m ______________ or I want people to know that I feel _______________ about them or I don’t want people to think that I think _____________…the consequent choices we make often unwittingly end up  reflecting that overriding concern, blinding us to what others really need from us, and shining the spotlight even more brightly on ourselves….

 

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Yes, this coming Thursday is and remains Ascension Thursday, American Latin Rite bishops notwithstanding.

(If you still want to get your Ascension Thursday on…try the Ordinariate or Eastern Catholic Churches – the latter’s cycle is tracking with the Latin Rite this year, so they will be celebrating Ascension on Thursday)

One of my favorite places on the internet is the blog (and Twitter feed) of Eleanor Parker, “A Clerk at Oxford.”  She’s an English medievalist who is constantly sharing fascinating nuggets related to her field. Here’s a post on Rogationtide – three days before Ascension Thursday:

In medieval England, Rogationtide – the three days preceding Ascension Day – was a period of fasting, prayer and processions around the countryside, invoking God’s blessing on the land and the crops of the future harvest.

She has a substantial citation from a 10th century Rogationtide homily, and explains:

The image of the sun comes from St Augustine (Ælfric says he will explain the Trinity swa swa se wisa Augustinus be ðære Halgan Þrynnysse trahtnode), but there’s an implicit relevance to the Rogationtide context: Ælfric talks about how the fruitfulness of the earth, the course of the year and the seasons illustrate the gap between divine knowledge and human perception, and of course that’s precisely the gap Rogationtide seeks to bridge by asking for God’s blessing on the earth. The nature of the sun is a good topic for a summer sermon, since if you are engaged in praying for a good harvest, the sun’s light and heat which make the crops grow are like God’s favour made visible. (Perhaps it was a sunny May day when Ælfric wrote this homily, and he imagined the congregation looking up at “the sun which shines above us”.) And if Rogation processions actively take God’s presence out into the world, consecrating the area beyond the church walls as sacred space, Ælfric’s emphasis on the omnipresence of God – permeating further even than the light of the sun – is a reminder to his congregation that by processing they are in a way participating in this spreading of God’s presence. Rogationtide processions follow the boundaries of the parish, reinforcing territorial markers, and encircling fields, woods, orchards, as blessed and sanctified space; but Ælfric tells us that God’s presence has no boundaries, for him ne wiðstent nan ðing, naðer ne stænen weall ne bryden wah; ‘nothing withstands him, neither stone walls nor broad barriers’.

It is quite a different approach from so much of what we see and hear today, isn’t it?

Old and Busted: Theological concepts and their Spirit-guided formation as Church doctrines are expressions of truth,  gateways to deeper understanding, and, as we look around us with an open mind, we recognize how the Stuff of Life, both external and internal, reflects this Truth.  Basically: Doctrine, in its limited way, reflects what is Real.

New Hotness:  Theological concepts and doctrines are the product of human effort that obscure truth and are obstacles to what is Real.  #Rigid

But guess what? When we listen to the stories of conversion, both classic and modern, the common thread we so often see is this:

A person has lived his or her life and, here and there, bumped up against the Gospel. He has been mildly interested, repelled, attracted – or a combination of all these and more.

But at some point, he realizes something: these teachings that may have seemed like curious or irritating words and phrases actually express a truth that he has experienced in his life. 

The doctrines and the reality of life match. 

The doctrines explain life. Finally, it all makes sense. 

Maybe not so old and busted.

There is still deep mystery – and as the homily Parker quotes indicates, this is not news. Humility demands that we understand the limits of human language and thinking in the light of the Divine.

This is not “rigidity.” It is an exciting, humble journey based on trust that when Jesus said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life…he meant it.

 

 

 

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The question of how to “recognize” mothers at a Mother’s Day Mass is a fraught one.

There is, of course, the view (mine) that everything that happens at Mass should relate only to the liturgical year. Stop doing all the other stupid things, thanks. As a community, we’re free to celebrate whatever in whatever way we choose outside of Mass, but when it comes to Very Special Mass in Honor of Very Special Groups of any sort – scouts, moms, dads, youth, ‘Muricans….I’m against it.

But of course, over the years, American sentimental pop culture creeps into the peripheries of liturgical observance, and quite often, here we are at Mass on the second Sunday of May, with the expectation that the Moms present must be honored.

I mean…I went to the trouble to go to Mass for the first time in four months to make her happy…you’d better honor her….

This is problematic, however, and it’s also one of those situations in which the celebrant often feels that he just can’t win. No matter what he does, someone will be angry with him, be hurt, or feel excluded.

Because behind the flowers and sentiment, Mother’s Day is very hard for a lot of people – perhaps it’s the most difficult holiday out there for people in pain.

So when Father invites all the moms present to stand for their blessing at the end of Mass and the congregation applauds….who is hurting?

  • Infertile couples
  • Post-abortive women
  • Post-miscarriage women
  • Women whose children have died
  • People who have been victims of abuse at the hands of their mothers
  • People with terrible mothers
  • Women have placed children for adoption
  • Women who are now and might never be biological or adoptive mothers

And then there are those of us who value our role as mothers, but who really think Mother’s Day is lame and would just really prefer that you TRY TO GET ALONG FOR ONE STUPID DAY instead of giving me some flowers and politely clapping at Mass.

So awkward.

Nope. Making Mothers stand up, be blessed and applauding them (the worst) at Mass is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. It’s not that people should expect to be sheltered from the consequences of their choices and all that life has handed them when the enter the church doorway. The Catholic way is the opposite of that – after all, the fundamental question every one of us carries is that of death, and every time we enter a Catholic church we are hit with that truth, sometimes more than life-sized. No, the question is more: Catholic life and tradition has a lot to say and do when it comes to parenthood – in ways, if you think about it, that aren’t sentimental and take into account the limitations of human parenthood and root us, no matter how messed-up our families are or how distant we feel from contemporary ideals of motherhood – in the parenthood of God. Live in that hope, share it, and be formed by that, not by commercially-driven American pop culture.

So here’s a good idea. It happened at my parish yesterday.

Because we’re not walled off from the broader culture. People enter into that sacred space carrying everything with them, and Christ seeks to redeem all of it.  So knowing that Mother’s Day permeates the culture, accepting it, but also accepting that motherhood and parenthood in general is far more complex than the greeting cards and commercials let on, and that people come bearing, not only motherhood-related joy, but motherhood-related pain as well – the Body of Christ embraces and takes it all in.

So, quite simply, at the end of Mass as we were standing for the final blessing, the celebrant mentioned that it was Mother’s Day (it hadn’t been mentioned before this), and said that as such, it was an appropriate day to pray for our mothers, living and deceased, and to ask our Blessed Mother for her intercession for them and for us. Hail Mary…

Done.

And done in a way that, just in its focus, implicitly acknowledges and respects the diversity of experiences of motherhood that will be present in any congregation, and, without sentiment or awkward overreach, does that Catholic thing, rooted in tradition  – offers the whole mess up, in trust.

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I had forgotten to post the appropriate pages from our favorite vintage 7th grade Catholic textbook, part of the Christ-Life Series in Religion …so here they are. The first about the season in general, the second about this past Sunday (before it became Divine Mercy Sunday, of course).

What I like about these – and why I share them with you – is that they challenge the assumption that before Vatican II, Catholicism offered nothing but legalistic rules-based externals to its adherents, particularly the young. Obviously not so

I also appreciate the assumption of maturity and spiritual responsibility. Remember, this is a 7th grade textbook, which means it was for twelve and thirteen-year olds at most. A child reading this was encouraged to think of him or herself, not as a customer to be placated or attracted, but as a member of the Body of Christ – a full member who can experience deep joy, peace and has a mission.

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From my favorite old-school 7th grade catechism, With Mother Church. 

EPSON MFP image

From B16 in 2007

It is a moving experience each year on Palm Sunday as we go up the mountain with Jesus, towards the Temple, accompanying him on his ascent. On this day, throughout the world and across the centuries, young people and people of every age acclaim him, crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But what are we really doing when we join this procession as part of the throng which went up with Jesus to Jerusalem and hailed him as King of Israel? Is this anything more than a ritual, a quaint custom? Does it have anything to do with the reality of our life and our world? To answer this, we must first be clear about what Jesus himself wished to do and actually did. After Peter’s confession of faith in Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of the Holy Land, Jesus set out as a pilgrim towards Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He was journeying towards the Temple in the Holy City, towards that place which for Israel ensured in a particular way God’s closeness to his people. He was making his way towards the common feast of Passover, the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the sign of its hope of definitive liberation. He knew that what awaited him was a new Passover and that he himself would take the place of the sacrificial lambs by offering himself on the cross. He knew that in the mysterious gifts of bread and wine he would give himself for ever to his own, and that he would open to them the door to a new path of liberation, to fellowship with the living God. He was making his way to the heights of the Cross, to the moment of self-giving love. The ultimate goal of his pilgrimage was the heights of God himself; to those heights he wanted to lift every human being.

Our procession today is meant, then, to be an image of something deeper, to reflect the fact that, together with Jesus, we are setting out on pilgrimage along the high road that leads to the living God. This is the ascent that matters. This is the journey which Jesus invites us to make. But how can we keep pace with this ascent? Isn’t it beyond our ability? Certainly, it is beyond our own possibilities. From the beginning men and women have been filled – and this is as true today as ever – with a desire to “be like God”, to attain the heights of God by their own powers. All the inventions of the human spirit are ultimately an effort to gain wings so as to rise to the heights of Being and to become independent, completely free, as God is free. Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth. And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful. With the increase of our abilities there has been an increase not only of good. Our possibilities for evil have increased and appear like menacing storms above history. Our limitations have also remained: we need but think of the disasters which have caused so much suffering for humanity in recent months.

The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields. First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down – towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God’s love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards. Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force; everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God, which makes us authentic, elevates us and grants us true freedom.

Following the Liturgy of the Word, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer where the Lord comes into our midst, the Church invites us to lift up our hearts: “Sursum corda!” In the language of the Bible and the thinking of the Fathers, the heart is the centre of man, where understanding, will and feeling, body and soul, all come together. The centre where spirit becomes body and body becomes spirit, where will, feeling and understanding become one in the knowledge and love of God. This is the “heart” which must be lifted up. But to repeat: of ourselves, we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. We cannot do it. The very pride of thinking that we are able to do it on our own drags us down and estranges us from God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross. He descended to the depths of our human existence in order to draw us up to himself, to the living God. He humbled himself, as today’s second reading says. Only in this way could our pride be vanquished: God’s humility is the extreme form of his love, and this humble love draws us upwards.

Seems appropriate that this will be my reading for the week:

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Well…we made it.

An amazingly smooth, albeit miserable trip.

How does that work, anyway?

Everything goes well, there is not a single glitch, it is an amazing thing to cross the Atlantic in seven hours at any point in life, but especially when you are reading a book about the travels of a woman who took six weeks to do the crossing, and so you are very grateful and in awe of it all, but still…

…it’s miserable, in its way.

The smooth parts?

We flew out of Atlanta (why? Cheap fare – $400/apiece – plus, the last time, we flew international in and out of Birmingham, we almost missed the Atlanta-Birmingham flight at the end because of customs delays, and it’s pretty agonizing to be delayed in that way when you’re just a two hour drive away from home….) and had TSA PreCheck, and slid through security like butter. There was no one in line. Walked right up, tossed the bags on the belt, no shoes to be removed, no laptops to be taken out, and boom, we were through.

All flights were on time. No inexplicable prison sentences on the tarmac. Very good.

"amy welborn"

The transatlantic flight began in Philadelphia, which I had dreaded because Philly, unique among major airports, I think, has no rapid transit between terminals, and my main memory of flying international out of Philly involved waiting for buses. Usually rain was part of the picture, too.  But not this time! Well, the rain was, but no bus. Just some walking between two connected terminals, which was fantastic.

The British Airways flight was not quite as posh as previous experiences. There’s a bit of cost-cutting there, it seems to me. The plane was older, the seatback entertainment system took a long time to start working and they didn’t offer as many little knick-knacks as we’d had on previous flights – toothbrush, cunning little tube of toothpaste, etc. Not that I cared, since the wine was still free, but it did seem to be a more US-type of flying experience than European this time.

The flight wasn’t full up, but it wasn’t empty either. Lots of children, all well-behaved, including one family with five kids…all boys but for the one little girl.  #ShePersisted.

I don’t think I slept. I started to watch a little bit of Jackie, then found myself both wondering why it had been made and thinking that if I kept watching it, I had no chance of sleep at all.  Which I didn’t anyway, as it turns out. The boys did, a bit, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t. It was one of those experiences in which when the flight takes off I’m thinking well, this is more comfortable than I thought. I’m pretty tired right now. I think I’ll easily be able to go to sleep!  And then four hours later, it’s …I’M GOING TO DIE IF I CAN’T STRETCH OUT…I AM NEVER TRAVELING MORE THAN TWO TIME ZONES AWAY AGAIN. I AM NOW BEING PUNISHED FOR BEING AN PRIVILEGED FAUX CHRISTIAN AND I DESERVE IT.

So, the zombies arrived at Heathrow around 7 AM. Immigration took about fifteen minutes to go through. There was an interesting side area – not completely cut-off, but clearly marked off by line-marking ropes aIMG_20170326_075855nd attended by a security employee, in which were guided several definitely Middle-Eastern looking folks, including one entire family.
We took the Heathrow Express into town – if we were a party of three adults, getting a car might make some economic sense, but given it was a Sunday morning (therefore off-peak) and I was the only one who had to pay, it cost 15 pounds to get into the city in fifteen minutes…

The train took us to Paddington, from which point we took a cab to our apartment, which is in Fitzrovia. The driver IMG_20170326_082835definitely took a bit of a scenic route…that’s the advantage of having a maps app on which you are following along as you ride in the back seat. I didn’t argue with him, though…but I think there is no doubt he added about five minutes to the route.

Traveling to Europe from the US, the big worry is always the First Day. Flights arrive in the morning, you’ve probably not slept, but if you’re not going to be totally messed up, you have to stay up, forge through and reset your body clock. Stay! Awake

Well….

 

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It is really not a trashy area – refuse is from a renovation of a nextdoor restaurant.

We were very lucky this time, in that our apartment owner was very, very generous, and let us check in at 9am – and yes, that’s how long it took us to get from Heathrow into town. We landed a little bit after 7, and were there waiting at the apartment by 8:45. Not much time at all.  I don’t know what we would have done if we couldn’t have done this, for we were all exhausted. I had thought about going to Mass in the morning, but just looking at the boys after the owner had oriented us, I thought…it’s 9am. This is stupid. There will be Sunday evening Masses. Let’s go to sleep.  In beds.  For I knew that even with a 3 to 4 hour naps, everyone would still be tired at the normal bedtime, and it would be fine.

(And they went to sleep around 11 tonight…so I think it worked)

We awoke around 1, shook the sleep off, cleaned ourselves off, and set out for a little bit of an orientation. I didn’t have a plan, except I’d seen Mass was at 5:30 at the Cathedral, so I thought we would shoot for that. We just wanted to get out, walk around, and meet London. So we did! I’ll list the route in bullet points…

  • First, stroll over to British Museum. I thought we might pop in for a moment, but the line for security was pretty long. We have all week, and are planning to go a couple of times…no hurry.
  • Not far from the museum, we noticed street cleaners hard at work, and thought it very odd for a Sunday. They were cleaning lots of grass and such from the streets. What was this? "amy welborn"We walked a half a block and saw – dozens of folks in Edwardian dress, waiting to board buses – obviously movie or television scenes had been filmed. For some reason, my camera was weird at that moment, and all my shots were very blurry, but you can get a sense here. I did a little research, and I’m guessing what it might have been at work was a new television version of Howard’s End.
  • By then, everyone was hungry, so we just grabbed a couple of paninis here. It was basically the first place we saw that wasn’t a McDonald’s, Starbucks or pub. It was okay. It was food.
  • Then to Covent Garden, which sent me into boring discourses about My Fair Lady. We watched a street performer."amy welborn"

 

  • Saw a"amy welborn" very long line for an ice cream place. When I returned back to the apartment, I saw that the gimmick was soft-serve ice cream presented on cotton candy clouds. I told the boys and their response: Gross. 

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  • Wandered to Trafalgar Square, watched some street performers, saw chalk art, peaked in St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
  • Then down Whitehall, saw the back of Parliament, took a look
    at the Thames. By then it was 4:30, so I thought we should start over to the Cathedral.
  • Arrived at the Cathedral about 5, took a look around at all the side chapels while an organ recital was wrapping up. One gets a very good, clear sense of what it means to "amy welborn"

 

be an English Catholic from the design and décor of the Cathedral – the side chapels are all dedicated to saints important to the spread of the Faith in the British Isles, as well as the English Martyrs.

  • The church was almost full for Mass, and the usual very Catholic crew. Lots of Asians, older and younger people, children. The music was mostly chant, with a couple of hymns, all led by a cantor and organ. The priest chanted much of his part. The only jarring musical element was the ridiculously loud organ accompaniment to the peoples’ chant responses. The priest didn’t have to be accompanied, so the effect was::

Priest:  (melodic, but not very strong chant and unaccompanied)  The Lord be with you

ORGAN BLAST

People:  And….(nothing more heard as it is all sucked into the Organ Vortex)

I am not a fan of organ accompanying chant except in the most subtle way, and this was just crazy and quite jarring…and would not lead anyone to think of chant as prayer, as it jolted and banged about the Cathedral.

  • Caught the Tube at Victoria back home. I should have purchased an Oyster Card this morning, but I didn’t, thinking I surely could this evening…and if it were just me, I could have, but having two children/youths complicates things and necessitates assistance, which was not available at 7pm on a Sunday evening. So we just paid full-fare, but it was a quick trip back and worth it.
  • Quick grocery stop for second Kinder Egg purchase of the day (for those unfamiliar with the Kinder Egg saga, this is a candy which is illegal ….illegal in the United States, and even considered contraband. If you get caught bringing it in, it will be img_20170326_150818.jpgconfiscated. Because it has a toy in it. It’s not as if the toy is actually embedded in the chocolate. There’s a chocolate shell, then a kind of hard to open plastic egg which holds the toy. Anyone who chokes on it…would probably have choked on other things first before they ever met a Kinder Egg. Anyway, for some people, getting Kinder Eggs is a highlight of travel outside the US…for some people…)…and some other supplies.
  • Back to the apartment. Various attempts were made to watch the Gators online, all unsuccessful, so that challenge was abandoned (as it turns out….allIMG_20170326_203152 for the best) and we went out to find food. We settled on a popular chicken chain – Nando’s – at it was very good. Excellent wings!
  • On the way back, I was stopped by a Chinese couple looking for their hotel. They had a printout from Booking.com, but couldn’t locate the place, even though they were on the right street. I showed them my phone and asked if they had a maps app, and I admit I was surprised that they didn’t. So I got it up on mine, and it turns out they were only a couple of blocks away, so we accompanied them (maybe not a faux Christian after all! Redemption?)  to the hotel and everyone wished each other a happy stay in London.

Tomorrow…the plan is the Tower, but we’ll see!

More photos on Instagram…and don’t forget to look at Instagram Stories for some different photos and short videos. 

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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