Biffed: or, The Strange Death of Evelyn Waugh upon the Thunder-Box

Greetings, Deep Down Things readers. As a new editor on the Dappled Things staff, I have given some thought about how to best introduce myself to our web readership. Should I talk about my favorite writers? Should I offer a spiritual reflection on the upcoming Holy Week? Should I make tasteless bathroom jokes? But why choose one when I could do all three?

Evelyn Waugh fills a sort of archetypal role in our collective memory of the last century’s Catholic literary movement. Starting his career as an overgrown enfant terrible of English letters, he blossomed into a choleric defender of western tradition and satirist of all things modern. As a Catholic, Waugh was faithful to a fault, however poorly he lived up to the Church’s moral ideals. In this collective memory, Flannery O’Connor fills the archetypal role of a desert prophet, Graham Greene is the prodigal son, J.R.R. Tolkien the tragic dreamer, and G.K. Chesterton the jolly prankster. One could easily carve a set of allegorical statues based on their likenesses for a cathedral. Waugh’s particular archetype is somewhat more contested.

His most popular novel Brideshead Revisited is oddly the least “Wauvian,” in part because it heralds the advent of a new novelistic spirit he was trying to embody, and also because its baroque prose style is something Waugh had never achieved before and never truly attempted again. His pre-Brideshead writing embodied the authorial archetype of the smirking cynic, his later novels that of the sentimental religionist. (I am speaking of perception more than reality, for Waugh never truly lost his cynicism.)

Evelyn’s brutal sense of humor dished out some unfortunate fates even to benign characters. From Tony Last’s Dickensian imprisonment in A Handful of Dust to Aimée Thanatogenos’ tail-wagging farewell in The Loved One, Waugh was kind to as few fictional characters as he was to his real-life friends. As we come up on the 49th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering Evelyn Waugh’s own bizarre end.

In the years leading up to his death, Waugh had become increasingly disenchanted with the management of the Catholic Church. One of the early modifications of the liturgical movement (which still moves regularly to this day) was the refashioning of the Holy Week liturgy by Pius XII in 1955. Papa Pacelli’s massive edits, described by Waugh as “obnoxious,” were publicized as an attempt at reviving the ancient liturgies of the Roman Rite. “The Church rejoices in the development of dogma,” Waugh complained, “why does it not also admit the development of liturgy?”

These were but the heralds of liturgy in the vernacular and other modifications to the Roman Missal which came long before the Novus Ordo Missae was to perform a clean sweep in 1969. Frequently reassured by high-ranking clerics like Cardinal Heenan that the chaotic liturgical changes were at an end, Waugh was repeatedly affirmed in his cynicism when these promises proved to be false. He confided to his friends in 1965 that he worried about temptations toward apostasy.

Combe Florey

All these things came to a head in 1966 when Holy Week terminated in Easter morning Mass on April the tenth. Waugh assisted at the locally celebrated Latin Mass–even then a dying liturgical specimen–and returned to his Combe Florey home. Many friends and family were gathered there: wife, children, grandchildren, and the local priest Fr. Caraman. Evelyn was reportedly in good humor, disappeared into the library sometime in the morning, and was never seen alive again.

He was found in the lavatory, a gash on his forehead, and (according to a rumor perpetuated by Graham Greene) with water in his lungs. Rumors of foul play never gained much traction, in spite of the doubtless dozens of people who would have been ready to perform the deed. Unless there was a massive conspiracy and coverup among the family to give their literary patriarch the what-ho, it seems that Waugh died from natural causes and the fall that ensued.

Death on the toilet immediately after attending a traditional Mass was a more fittingly ironic end than any of Waugh’s fans could hope to expect. One is reminded inevitably of the Thunder-box–the portable toilet carried about by the hapless Apthorpe in the first novel of the Sword of Honour trilogy–and its ignominious end by explosion with Apthorpe astride the thing:

Apthorpe removed his steel-helmet, recovered his cap, straightened his uniform, put up a hand to assure himself that his new stars were still in place. He looked once more on all that remained of his thunder-box; the mot juste, thought Guy.

He seemed too dazed for grief. Guy was at a loss for words of condolence. “Better come back to breakfast.”

They turned silently towards the house. Apthorpe walked unsteadily across the wet, patchy field with his eyes fixed before him. On the steps he paused once and looked back. There was more of high tragedy than of bitterness in the epitaph he spoke.

Biffed.”

Men at Arms, p. 214

For all his choleric intolerance of his fellow human persons, one still prefers to think of Waugh’s end as one of high tragedy rather than bitterness. With a pen whose sharp point constantly pricked those he blamed for the sorry state of the world, he might have been one of those who met his end with a mind weighed down with anger and despondency. Instead, the Easter liturgy had lifted him to good spirits, and the manner of his death doubtless brought a chuckle to his throat.

His last word, I would like to think, was “Biffed.”

Going to Canossa

In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II established an exception in the discipline of the Church regarding married men serving as priests. Although a priest is never free to marry, a man who is already married may, under certain conditions, be made a priest. Roughly speaking, the conditions are that a man has been born into a non-Catholic ecclesial tradition, had been ordained a pastor in the Anglican tradition, and converted to the Catholic faith. In the Church’s generosity and mercy, these men may be considered for ordination to the priesthood. This is, and will remain, an exception, for the celibate priesthood is a sign of the mystical reality of God and Man made one flesh. Priests are heroes who are quite literally grasping heaven and dragging it into the present day. To lose this in the name of cultural relevance, a misunderstanding of the joy of the celibate vocation, or misguided notions of equality would be a great disaster. In any event, I am glad that a small exception is made, for I fit it and am endeavoring to walk through that narrow door.

In order to be sure there are no lingering oddities from my prior theological education (Good luck. It would be safer to pry open Pandora’s Box), I am required to pass a general exam. I am currently in the midst of it, and to this end, I have been re-learning old lessons and studiously applying myself to new ones (readers of good will, please pray for me!).

This is all a terribly rambling prelude to beg prayers but also to mention that during my studies I have been reading about and contemplating the events leading up to a far more powerful man than I begging for a far greater mercy.

Canossa-gate It is a snowy day in the northern Italian town of Canossa. The Emperor on his knees begging forgiveness is surely serious, for he has also removed his shoes. For years now, he has followed the practice of lay investiture, the common feudal abuse of a monarch “investing” the bishops in his land as his subjects, often through the gift of a royal ring. Well, the ring is not so much a gift, actually, as it is an obligation. The jewelry is bought with the price of a vow of eternal loyalty to the State. The bishops have access to land and income and the Emperor demands his share. This is no sin, thinks the Emperor, after all this is how the medieval world goes round. Not a bad system, really, unless you happen to consider the Church to be of more import than the State. In the case of investing a bishop it erodes the freedom of the Church and subjects it to the State. The monarch wants his own chosen men holding the episcopal sees and is willing to usurp the Holy Father to make it so. Perhaps the Emperor is confused about he ended up kneeling in the snow for a crime he does not consider a crime at all.

Pope Gregory VII, in a previous life the fiery monk, Hildebrand, has brought the issue to a crisis when in the year 1076 he excommunicates Emperor Henry IV for appointing his own bishops and usurping the Church’s authority in the realm of Holy Orders. If the threat of eternal damnation isn’t enough to change Henry’s mind, the revolt of his nobles certainly is. The Empire begins slipping out of his hands.

Henry travels to Canossa where he intercepts the Pope on his way north. He waits shoeless and clad with hairshirt in the snow for three days, begging for reconciliation with the Church. Based on his later actions, we can guess that his unstated, primary motivation is to return to Germany with the blessing of the Church and reassert his power through violence. Perhaps he also wants forgiveness and eternal life, who knows? We know that he asks for the latter. We can also guess that Pope Gregory suspects the former, thus the waiting in the snow for three days.

Pope St GregoryIt seems to me that we misread these events if we consider them merely a matter of pride between two great men. Gregory is first of all a bishop in Christ’s Catholic Church. He is duty bound to absolve any penitent who requests it, for Our Lord always forgives with no conditions. Gregory stays inside and hopes that Henry will get cold and go away. He does not want to meet this man because to do so will be have his own faith wielded against him as a weapon. This is clear from what follows.

Eventually Gregory relents, absolves Henry of his sins, and restores him to full communion in the Body of Christ. Henry returns to Germany, regains control of the Empire and returns to his previous abuses. Eventually he turns on his confessor and appoints an anti-pope, attacks Rome, and Gregory VII flees into exile. The Pope of the Catholic Church dies outside of Rome. He is personally ruined (not without having made his own series of mistakes as well). As he lies on his deathbed, does he have any regrets about having absolved the Emperor years before?

What really interests me, and the reason I am rehearsing all of this, is the price of forgiveness. For Gregory VII, forgiving another is not free. It requires that he personally sacrifice on behalf of another. Most people do not consider priests to be formidable, they are thought of as gentle and weak and harmless. Henry does not take Gregory seriously. He knows that he can manipulate the compassion of the Church against him. But does it ever occur to anyone how much it costs a priest to hear a confession? The sheer weight of the sins of an entire parish thrust upon him? Many priests I know do not sit idly in the confessional while waiting for the next customer, or simply head over to the rectory to watch television afterwards. Many penitents are surprised at how light their penance is, perhaps they ought to know, not that the priest would tell them, that the priest shares the penance with them. While they wait in the confessional or before they turn the lights off in the sanctuary, they offer a bit of themselves in exchange for their parishioners.

GK Chesterton’s Father Brown explains his ability to solve murders. “You see,” says the priest, “It was I who killed those people.” He has virtually experienced every sin that man commits in the confessional. He knows sin. In “The Chief Mourner of Marne,” Father Brown encounters a group who wish to succor their friend, who has been in mourning ever since he killed a man in a duel. Ever since, he has been in voluntary confinement in his country castle. It is high time to put past sins aside and be merry, and his friends intend to help him do so. Father Brown has anticipated them, however, meets them at the gate of the castle, and advises them to leave.

“Trust a priest to have to do with a private occasion,” snarled Sir John Cockspur. “Don’t you know they live behind the scenes like rats behind a wainscot burrowing their way into everybody’s private rooms.”

The party accuses the priest of lacking charity for refusing to assist the pardoned man out of his depression. Suddenly, in a narrative shift, the truth is made known: Upon finding that their friend is not merely a mourner or the victor of a duel but a cold-blooded murderer, the attitude quickly shifts to condemnation. A lynching is proposed. Then the most damning condemnation comes in all its simple modesty, “There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.

“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions…You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”

“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it…We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”

The priest must forgive every single sin that is brought to him, even if the confessor is an Emperor who will leverage his forgiveness into personal revenge. Perhaps we ought to take priests very seriously, indeed. Their gentleness comes at a great, hidden cost.

Confession2This is the heroism of the imitation of Christ. Our Lord forgives the very men who kill him. St. Stephen the Protomartyr does the same. So many times I have pictured the scene at the Cross and felt contempt for those people who placed Our Lord there. As if their sins are any worse than mine. It pains me very much when I realize that my more commonplace, socially acceptable sins help pin him to his death. I may as well hold the nail in place while it is hammered in. Along with Father Brown, we may very well look to the Cross and say, “It was I who killed this man.”

Perhaps we do not take priests seriously because we do not take our sins seriously. Our forgiveness is offered to us freely, yes, but let us not forget that a man died that it might be so. Our Lord may be as innocent as a lamb, but he is not weak.

I will remove my shoes and walk to Canossa. May the frost seep into my bones and blood and freeze me from the inside out so that the hidden cost exacted by sin is exposed. Let us make our way to Canossa, bow low, and beg mercy, knowing full well that forgiveness comes only with great suffering. This is not a reason to avoid asking. Rather, it is a reminder that the God to whom we offer penitence is not to be rebelled against later when we feel pride again run like ice through our veins, that Our Lord suffers more than we could ever imagine and the forgiveness he offers is all the more a sign of his love. He will suffer again and again not only for the murderers but also for my simple, conventional sins. It is all the more reason to love him in return.

6 Things We Get Wrong About The Road Less Traveled

Ours is not a poetry-reading culture, but then again, it’s not like we’re total illiterates. There are still a few poems out there that just about everyone seems to have read, and “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost is probably the king among them. Its famous last lines–“I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference”–have entered so deeply into the popular culture that you can find them anywhere from coffee mugs to motivational posters. The poem is so popular that taking the road less traveled has almost become an imperative. And it’s no wonder, really. What poem has better captured the American spirit? As everyone knows, “The Road Less Traveled” is the anthem of the rugged individualist, of every rebel who has ever walked outside the mainstream. It is a celebration of the courage of making the difficult, unpopular choice, of eschewing convention and truly being an individual. Right?

Wrong.

The fact is that this may be one of the most misunderstood poems of all time. Here are 6 things that show you have probably been reading Frost wrong all along:

6. “The Road Less Traveled” doesn’t exist.
Poetry buffs among you probably picked up on this already. The truth is that while many people refer to Frost’s famous poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” the real name of the poem is “The Road Not Taken.” In other words, Frost titled the poem after the road he didn’t take, the road more traveled! This is a huge deal if we want to understand the poem correctly. But why would he name the poem after the lame, mainstream road?

hipster barista

5. The road “more” traveled is actually not very traveled at all.
The second stanza of the poem makes this very clear. Right after saying that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear,” he turns back around and states that “as for that [as for it wanting wear] the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” As if that weren’t clear enough, he adds in the third stanza, for good measure, that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, no one had been down either road that morning, and all it took for the road “less” traveled to become about as worn as the other was for one more person to go down it! The roads were nearly identical! Where on earth did we get the idea that the road he didn’t take was some sort of major highway? We’re talking about two road diverging in a yellow wood, after all.

4. The speaker describes the road more traveled as beautiful.
Contrary to the popular reading of the poem, the speaker has no contempt for the road more traveled. At the beginning of the poem, he looks down it as far as he can, “[t]o where it bent in the undergrowth,” and then he states that he “took the other, as just as fair” (emphasis added). Fair–not as in just, but as in beautiful. Both roads are calling out to him.

3. The speaker hasn’t yet forgotten the road more traveled, and he knows he never will.
The final stanza of the poem plasy around with time in a very interesting way. “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” says the speaker, “Somewhere ages and ages hence.” While it is clear that the choice between the roads is already in the distant past (it has already “made all the difference”), the first two lines of the final stanza point to the distant future–a future in which the events of that day will make him sigh. Clearly, the speaker has not gotten over the road more traveled, and it doesn’t appear he ever will.

2. The poem is entirely suffused with ambiguity.
The most common interpretation of the final line of the poem is that taking the road less traveled ended up changing the speaker’s life for the better. That may be, but to casually assume that’s the case is to read into the poem something that simply isn’t there. All we know is that it “has made all the difference.” Was it a positive, or a negative difference? He doesn’t say. All we know from the poem is that it was an important difference. But then again, wouldn’t the same have been true of the other road? It would have been a different difference, if you will, but a difference no less. And if ambiguity is present in that final line–one so often read as straightforwardly celebratory–the rest of the poem is absolutely dripping with it. Take the sigh mentioned above. What kind of sigh is it? A sigh of nostalgia? Of regret? Of relief? Of satisfaction? A case could be made for any of those options. Then there’s the fact that the speaker says “long I stood,” when he is trying to decide between the roads. And even when he makes a decision, he can only muster the will to say that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim” (emphasis added), a statement he then further undermines in the lines discussed above stating that “as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” To top it off, he then tells us that he “kept the first for another day,” and then turns right back around and explains that returning to it is probably impossible after all (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”). This guy is clearly very conflicted about something.

1. The poem is about economics.
OK, I admit that sounds outrageous, but hear me out. As an economics teacher, I enjoy upending the students’ expectations–call it taking the road less traveled–by beginning every semester with Robert Frost. Before I’ve even introduced myself, I place a piece of paper with the familiar lines on every desk, and we begin: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” The students always think I’m trying to inspire them (I wouldn’t be so cruel as all that), but I’m actually just getting down to business, teaching them, in a way that I know will stick, the foundational concept of economics: opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is formally defined as “the next best alternative forgone when an economic decision is made.” The fact that it exists is the whole reason we have economics. Despite the convoluted definition, what it really means is simple: opportunity cost is the road not taken, it is what you must inescapably give up whenever you make a choice. Most people think economics is about money, but money is just a convenient tool for trading goods and services. The real cost of what you buy (or more generally, what you choose) is not the money it costs you, but what you could have used that money for instead. What economics is really about, in other words, is choice.

we're all individualsBut what sort of thing is choice, and what role does it play in our lives? This is the key to Frost’s poem, explaining the sighs, the ambiguities, the inner conflict. What Frost’s speaker is conflicted about is not his decision. Whatever its consequences, the tone of the last stanza does suggest that he stands by his choice. Rather, what the speaker is conflicted about is having to decide in the first place. There is, in the poem, a strong sense of sadness about the fact of human limitation (“I could not travel both / And be one traveler”), alongside a realization that it is precisely that limitation that gives meaning to our lives and makes us human (“And that has made all the difference.”). Instead of pushing some cliché about being an individual, “The Road Not Taken” is getting at something that is both universal and profoundly human: the fact that there is loss in every decision, that choosing means not choosing everything else.

In their typical dull way, economists call this “the problem of scarcity,” a classification that can easily make students yawn. It’s a pity, because what they are really standing before is one of the deepest paradoxes of human existence, the fact though we are limited beings, the entire universe is not large enough to contain our desires. In confronting the problem of scarcity, every economist stands with his graphs on the threshold of poetry–not to speak of philosophy and theology. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the problem of scarcity, translated into the language of Augustine’s Confessions, would have sounded something like this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

For today, however, Frost’s own translation is enough: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .”

 

A Playlist for the Stations of the Cross

2015-03-08 16.27.20In my role as a parish music director, one of my most important duties is to program music that draws the congregation more deeply into the mysteries of the Mass and the liturgical seasons. I always try to approach this with a sensibility that reflects God’s own beauty, “ever ancient, ever new,” present in all times, all seasons, all places and all peoples–although, of course, the resources are limited, and none of our musicians (including me) has any training outside of the Western musical tradition. Nevertheless, I try to let my choices reflect the depth and breadth of our great, transcendent God, always the same but always revealing new and brighter facets of Himself. I have tried to bring that same sensibility into this playlist, which I hope will accentuate and deepen your Lenten journey.

It is my hope that you will set aside a time to sit and meditate on all fourteen stations. The recordings total a little more than an hour. Feel free to close your eyes; the videos are only here to deliver the music.

 

The First Station – Jesus is Condemned to Death

The Road to Dark Gethsemane, lyrics by John Parker, music by Patti Drennan

A haunting portrayal of the crowds who left their Passover prayers to jeer at Jesus when He was arrested and condemned. The recording is the publisher’s demo (from Lorenz Music).

 

The Second Station – Jesus Carries His Cross

What Wondrous Love Is This, performed by Blue Highway

An a cappella bluegrass version

 

The Third Station – Jesus falls the first time

“Jesus fällt zum ersten Mal” by Franz Liszt, from Via Crucis

A brief snippet from Franz Liszt’s Way of the Cross that includes the traditional Stabat Mater.

 

The Fourth Station – Jesus meets his mother

Maria (sopra la Carpinese) by L’Arpeggiata, from the album Via Crucis

L’Arpeggiata’s Website (roughly translated) calls this album “a program of works evoking the Passion of Christ while keeping seventeenth century Italian and Corsican musical tradition alive.”

 

The Fifth Station – Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross

Simon din Cirene, composer unknown, sung in Romanian

A reflection on Simon of Cyrene’s enforced but nevertheless real sacrifice on behalf of Jesus.

 

The Sixth Station – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

“Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus,” Mvt. 3 by John Debney, from The Passion of the Christ Oratorio

The composer of the film score expanded his work into an oratorio.

 

The Seventh Station – Jesus falls the second time

Dies Irae, Gregorian chant

Because, when I contemplate Christ falling, I remember that he will rise up again to judge me for my sins that made Him stumble. (For the translation, click here.)

 

The Eighth Station – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

God Will Take Care of You, performed by Aretha Franklin

Because, even when my sin causes Jesus to stumble and die, He does not forget me or love me any less.

 

The Ninth Station – Jesus falls a third time

Eram quasi agnus innocens by Carlo Gesualdo

Behold, I was like an innocent lamb; I was led to the slaughter, and I knew it not. My enemies have conspired together against me, saying: Come, let us put poison into his bread, And let us cut him off out of the land of the living. All my enemies have thought evil things about me; They have spoken evil words against me, saying: Come, let us put poison into his bread, And let us cut him off out of the land of the living.

 

The Tenth Station – Jesus is stripped of his clothes

Station X from Le Chemin de la Croix by Marcel Dupré, performed by Mario Verdicchio

Composed by the late master organist of Saint-Sulpice

 

The Eleventh Station – Jesus is nailed to the cross

The Crucifixion by Samuel Barber, sung by Barbara Bonney

The text is from a 12th century manuscript called The Speckled Book

 

The Twelfth Station – Jesus dies on the cross

How Deep the Father’s Love For Us by Stuart Townsend, performed by Refuge

Refuge is my parish’s contemporary band. They recorded this at my request.

 

The Thirteenth Station – The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross

Ave Verum Corpus by W.A. Mozart

Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, who having truly suffered, was sacrificed on the cross for mankind, whose pierced side flowed with water and blood: May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet] in the trial of death.

 

The Fourteenth Station – Jesus is laid in the tomb

Were You There performed by Leontyne Price

I was there. I was Judas who betrayed Him, Peter who denied Him, Pilate who washed his hands of His blood. I was Simon who walked beside Him, Veronica who wiped His face, Mary who wept at His feet. I was the soldier who drove the nails–and I was there in His sacred heart, the treasure He kept before His eyes, knowing that it was for me He joyfully bore the wounds.

Were you there?

 

Be Kind. Have Courage. Watch Cinderella.

Cinderella2It’s been many long years since I last saw a movie on opening night, but somehow I managed to catch Cinderella on Friday, and I think I’m still dancing. Disney has taken the best parts of the old classic and improved upon it in exactly the ways it needed to be improved–by giving depth to the characters, articulating beautiful themes, and eliminating the heavy-handed sexism of the original cartoon.

Someone, please breed with my son!

Someone, please breed with my son!

And there is also the little matter of the costumes. Is it wrong that I wouldn’t mind being wicked, as long as I could have Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe?

Scarlett O'Hara meets Sunset Boulevard

Scarlett O’Hara meets Sunset Boulevard

Prince Charming has a name now (Kit – how un-royal), and more than three lines, and the courage to stand up to his father and say, in effect, “I will not be forced to marry a princess just for power. The girl I love is more than good enough to be our queen.” Cinderella is everything she was always supposed to be, only now her goodness is front and center. There is no subtlety here: Cinderella’s dying mother implores her to always, “Be kind. Have courage,” and this line is repeated regularly throughout the film. Cinderella allows herself to be made into a servant because she loves her family and her home; there is a sense here, rarely present in other versions, that she has a choice, and she chooses self-sacrifice. In fact, (spoiler alert!), her stepmother, having realized that Cinderella is the girl with the glass slipper, offers to allow her to go marry the prince as long as she (the stepmother) will be able to become the power-behind-the-throne. Cinderella gives up her chance at true love to spare the prince, and the kingdom, that fate.

Is there any doubt why Prince Kit loves her? I am willing to overlook the fact that his baby-blue eyes turned brown for one scene (could he not cry with the contacts in?!) because–for once –a star-struck lover actually means it when he says, “She is a pretty girl, but she is more than that.”

There is plenty of cartoonish buffoonery of the kind Walt Disney loved, most of it centered around the wicked stepsisters; it is a children’s movie, and a Disney movie, after all. However, this is one you can take your kids to see knowing that they will get their fill of cotton-candy princess glamour, but also a healthy serving of the kind of moral nourishment fairy tales have always been meant to supply.

I’ll Have What She’s Having

Every morning when I come into work, I chat with my coworkers, check my email, my other email, and then scroll down my news feed to see if I missed anything important. And yes—because I also happen to like baby pictures, kittens and puppies. And every day or couple of days, I try to share something on my own wall that will either make people laugh, or make them happy, or help them in some way.

There is one thing, with a very few exceptions, that I will not do. I will not post a status or a meme that is seriously socially, politically or religiously inflammatory. Sure, I share the goofy ‘murica memes, and on the anniversary of Roe V. Wade combat the historically dismal media coverage of pro-life work by standing on my corner soap box. But the majority of the time, I don’t get into anything about gay rights, abortion, religious debates or whatever the topic de jour might be. (Vaccinations, anyone?) And, lest you be concerned, this is not a renunciation of my earlier thesis on The Problem with Being Friendly. This is about context, circumstances, efficacy, and, at some level, personal sanity.

There have been a few times in history, in a few civilizations, where people liked a logical argument and could even be convinced by it. This is not one of those times. More perhaps than ever before, no doubt in a far progression from early 19th century humanism, individual feeling is the name of the game. I am not saying all intellectualism, all logic, is dead; merely that Facebook is not the forum in which they are natively found, nor is it the context in which their employ can generally be efficacious.

Facebook is not designed for reflection, for steady, methodical thinking. It isn’t built that way, nor is it used that way, even though some people seem to think it can be. The majority of users don’t log on to improve their thought processes, tighten their reasoning abilities, and deepen their understanding of greater Truth.

It is not home to treatises, or even news articles, or, ahem, thought-provoking blog posts. It’s a series of two-second commercials and millisecond snapshots. Sensational, attention-grabbing, comfortable or exciting—little firecrackers that burst, some of which cause a conflagration of emotional argument that inevitably leads to name-calling, anger, snark, general rudeness, sometimes obscenity, and a digging in of heels on both sides of the gulf. I’ve been astounded at the depths to which respectable, intelligent people I’ve known my whole life have sunk to in their online-selves.

This, then, is why I avoid remarking on posts from Friends that are discordant with my own beliefs and, dare I say it, are sometimes grossly illogical and morally depraved. And, for that matter, why I try to avoid posting controversial things myself. I know it won’t change minds and, if it effects any change at all, will most likely only cause their collective subconscious to associate negative emotions with my name and anything I believe in. And those subconscious emotional reactions. . . boy oh boy. Those are hard to take down.

But Ellen, these things really matter! We must debate them in a public forum! Our voices must be heard, and we cannot let “the others” drown us out! Yeah, I know. Of course they matter. So debate them when you are asked to do so, or write something intelligent when the occasion calls for it. Let your stance be known when touchy subjects come up in conversation or when sacred things are desecrated, but don’t be a pill about it, and don’t engage in a discussion that makes you, or, more importantly, all of the things you stand for, appear petty, trivial, emotional and able to be swatted away with a “hide” or “delete” button.

And, in the meantime, realize that most people who are even vaguely acquainted with you know where you stand on The Big Issues. So be a kind person! Be a reasonable person. Be loving and gentle. Do not give anyone an excuse to associate hatred and arrogance with Truth. Let their subconscious associate you, and everything you believe in, everything you stand for, with a nobility of spirit, a strength of character, and a sweetness of temperament that does not mock, insult, or scorn. Facebook squabbles are undignified and belittling for all parties concerned. Lost creatures searching for peace will not dock at a vitriolic port. Be unyielding in your principles, and let prudence and love be foremost among them.

A Villanelle for Eurydice

Students from Ave Maria University have produced an issue of their school’s literary journal dedicated to translations of and homages to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As a Classics major, I love to see students carrying on the tradition of cutting their artistic teeth on those tough old Romans! This villanelle caught my fancy:

Though We Might Tarry
by Peter Atkinson

All things are bound to you, though we might tarry,
Yet I must seek my wife despite my fears,
For she’s too young to ride on Charon’s ferry.

Her soul was dragged below by cruel decree,
As Fates in serpent form did steal her years;
Though all must fall to you, we try to tarry.

I did not come in hopes of gaining glory,
To bind hound’s throats or spy on realm austere.
I seek my wife. She rode on Charon’s ferry.

I tried to endure my loss–but memory
And Love did make me leave the upper spheres.
Though all be bound your way, we long to tarry.

This Love, our god above, in the old story
Once knew you too–do you his pleas still hear?
Eurydice’s too young for Charon’s ferry.

Till she is old and her full life does carry,
Abstain your hand, or bring our deaths to bear.
All things are bound to you, though we might tarry
Yet she’s too young to leave on Charon’s ferry.

Prepare Ye the Way

There’s a long, motley history of portraying Jesus on the stage and screen. The obvious first place to start is The Passion’s now-iconic portrayal courtesy of Jim Caviezal – a film we’ve definitely mentioned once or twice here already on Deep Down Things. Other notables include Willem Dafoe’s tortured, human Jesus from The Last Temptation of Christ,* the Quebecois revisionist-metaphor from Jesus of Montreal, the bizarrely-moving (and unibrowed) Italian masterpiece Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, the guy** from the almost-as-long-as-every-Lord-of-the-Rings-movie-combined Jesus of Nazareth, and a relatively shorter flick starring an actor from one incarnation of Law & Order or other.

Is Jesus seducing me?

Is Jesus seducing me?

Oh, and that other famous one:

runkidsrun

When speaking of the stage most people immediately think of Jesus Christ Superstar, but there was another Broadway-grade classic released that year that’s put more butts into the seats of amateur and high-school auditoriums than the Phantom, Elphaba or ABBA combined. Rather than the meticulously-crafted and staged productions of George Bernard Shaw or Andrew Lloyd Webber, two productions of this play are rarely ever the same. Its scenes (and, at times, songs) are shuffled, re-imagined, tinkered with, omitted, repeated, re-done as vaudeville, puppet-show, extraterrestrial extravaganza, after-school special, postmodern mime-dance, inner-city drama or flower-power parade. The beginning,*** however, is usually the same: the audience settles into its seats and waits for the lights to dim, but they don’t. A shofar (traditional Jewish horn) starts to bark but then subsides into a long, drawn-out moan – but the sound doesn’t come from the stage.

From somewhere unexpected (often the audience entrance) marches a prophet in bright, clashing colours and circus-leader regalia. He blows the shofar again before taking another step or two towards the front, crying “PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!” This very quickly becomes the chorus of the first number and, from all points of the room (maybe from the stage, back doors or the audience itself) a group of eight other cast members emerge – they find bright, colourful rags and accessories either on the floor or from the prophet’s magic box-cart and soon form a set of scraggy figures with a closer resemblance to hippies than regular churchgoers. Some throw away their ties, hats or designer shoes. One or two start jumping like they’ve only just discovered their legs. Each, in turn, has a unique mark painted on their faces by the prophet – within the surrounding, neon-shaded chaos, the tenderness as he holds each face for the brush is heart-stopping. But this isn’t Jesus: it’s John (the Baptist). Jesus infiltrates the group quietly, from the wings, and but soon dances with as much abandon as the others. When the eight to-be disciples vanish in as many directions as they came, the audience may be a tad shocked to find Jesus wearing nothing but gaudy face-paint (a heart, in the middle of his forehead), a giant ‘fro and a loose pair of plain, yellow boxer shorts – these are soon to be replaced, in the next number, by striped pants, suspenders and a Superman t-shirt.

I'm ready for my close up now.

The Lord is ready for His close-up now.

Cue the front row of earnest, respectable matriarchs (waiting in all likelihood for another glimpse of a treasured grandkid) jointly putting down their disposable cameras, pulling sidelong glances at each other and mouthing a unified What. The. Crap.

Welcome to Godspell.

After the initial shock dies down, a kind of structure emerges. Generally, Jesus takes the role of ringleader (with the assistance of the oft-epaulleted John) to His rag-tag collective of naïve flower children. The stage is either stark (just a table and one or two benches) or positively spilling with gaudy tie-dye. The colours are calibrated somewhere between aggravating neon and “oh-sweet-Kansas-my-retinas-are-scalding.” A series of sketches proceed elaborating familiar parables, lessons and stories – all eventually cumulating in a crucifixion of sorts, often on a chain-link, mysteriously electrified fence.

Um, blasphemy?

I would argue not. Follow me here.

The obvious place to start is that clown getup, which is Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to critics of the musical. The creators of the play have stressed again and again that Jesus isn’t portrayed as a clown in order to mock anyone, but as an expression of Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s ideas published in The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. While it’s ridiculously hard to get hold of the essay in print form, the general impression I get is that there’s a link drawn from the old (culturally) Catholic practice of the feast of fools, where there’d be a festival in which social roles were inverted to give dynamic meaning to that whole “first will be last” sentiment. From what I hear, eventual excesses during the annual carnival led to its ultimately being abandoned. There’s also the stated link between the whole “foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of men” train of thought, which contrasts the colourful, delicate world that this Jesus occupies with His disciples with the self-serious rat-race of worldly gain. There’s also an appeal (expanded on below) to the link between seriousness and silliness which, to the writers, has a sniff of the divine.

While all this is cool (and an incredibly fertile field for reflection), I have another reason for being won over by Godspell‘s apparent naïveté: I think it’s the best portrayal of Christ humanity’s ever come up with.

The traditional go-to performances (Caviezal, Powell) focus on bringing a level of compassion, humanity, sympathy and majesty into the physical person of Christ, lending an air of awe and inspiration to the proceedings. You know exactly who Jesus is and who He isn’t – which adds up to a comforting, if predictable, expression of the God-man. But this is no tame lion here – and Godspell‘s Jesus, when done right,**** makes a gloriously flawed, ambitious attempt to embrace the largeness of God, particularly in respect to His relationship with humanity.

But let’s go back to the structure a little bit.

I lied a bit earlier – not every production starts with John’s clarion call: there’s an introduction (oft jettisoned) where the cast members playing the eight disciples double up on roles as various philosophers and religious leaders. There’s a nice cross-section of history here: Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Buckminster Fuller are represented – all have a solo, singing their vision of humanity’s place in the world before vying all together for attention in the “Tower of Babble” sequence. The horn puts a stop to everything – they take off their overcoats, robes, monocles and gloves, letting their faces be painted by the approaching messenger of grace. In some productions, the song is omitted and everyone is instead dressed as representatives of various social strata.

Once everyone’s collected and baptized, the fun starts. And it’s a lot of fun. Plot is secondary here – Godspell isn’t here to re-tell the story of Christ (that’s Superstar’s angle), but instead to focus on the transmitting of wisdom from Jesus to His followers. Each scene is a little vignette where Jesus is trying to teach the group about the Kingdom of God, usually in the form of a parable, game, puppet show, dance or whatever He can use to reach His simple, often forgetful disciples. No Jesus has ever been as patient or as gentle as in Godspell, where He’s constantly correcting, cajoling and joking his way into the hearts of His friends.

So much depends on the director here, because each scene can be played either as the tender attempt of a God desperately trying to communicate with creation, or as an episode of “hey, isn’t tie-dye Jesus simply hilarious today?” Everything veers so very close to farce. Which brings us back to the ‘scandal of the clown’ – isn’t it demeaning for Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, to be portrayed as a clown? To answer a question with another question: is it demeaning to think that Jesus, the purported Beginning and the End of all things, would take the form of a human?

Here we come to the crux of it: people are offended by Jesus-as-clown precisely because it’s seen as taking a swipe at the dignity of God. They see the traditional, Powell-Caviezel portrayal of Jesus as better able to convey the status, wisdom and gravity of the Word Made Flesh – but, really, what’s the difference between rabbi and clown when compared to the difference between God and human? We seem to think that people, when dressed in flowing robes and garbed with a decent-sized beard (or, I dunno, some really long wig), somehow smack of dignity.

getup

News flash: if doctrines like the Trinity are true, then in comparison we are nothing. Nothing. To even imagine that God taking the form of a human be anything in the ballpark of dignified is ridiculous beyond belief. They say that the Logos was emptied in order to be incarnated, stripped of who knows how many handy divine faculties. Imagine being asked to get rid of all five senses, your capacity for abstract thought as well as most of your body mass in order to save the souls of wayward, ungrateful amoeba. Yeah, it’s shocking – and we’ve forgotten the shock.***** Seeing God as a clown scandalizes us because we feel His dignity’s at stake, forgetting the fact that Jesus’ very incarnation was an already atomic-grade scandal suffered willingly just to give us a chance to get back with the program.

Or maybe seeing clown-Jesus having to explain things again and again to his flower-power followers is hard to watch because it’s our story. Take a look at the bespectacled, ridiculous, flaky collective on stage – they barely know how to tie their own shoes. They speak without thinking, commit without knowing the cost. They can’t tell the difference between a Wonderbra and an interesting hat. They are us.

No other portrayal of Christ comes closer to embodying the reality of who we are as people, because every respectable Jesus flick forgets that we’re pretty damn far from being respectable creatures. Anyone with a healthy sense of concupiscence and capacity for emotional honesty can tell you that – but our society’s cogs are oiled with the assumption that we are indeed respectable, dignified, important people. Too important, even, to watch the antics of the clown-God fiercely trying to open the Kingdom of Heaven to a cabal of dropouts.

And what dropouts they are.

For example, after the opening few parables, Robin******* is the first of the disciples to really get what He’s going for here. Her response, the surprisingly popular Billboard hit “Day by Day,” can be played as sincere or utterly, catastrophically lame. The cheesy lyrics, the outdated tune – these are all she’s got to declare her loyalty to Jesus. And the Logos accepts it without looking back.

Over the course of the first act, most of the disciples have their own solo where they, sometimes quite intimately, try to express to Jesus just what exactly they’re feeling and the degree to which they’re on board with His whole mission thing. Each song takes on the form of a different genre and style from Broadway’s (and popular music, generally) extended run – and when you have a Broadway play, the stage represents the universe and Broadway history is the history of the world. Everything is being drawn in, baptized and brought into contact with I Am.

But the even among the flower-children there is confusion. When presented with a difficult piece of dogma (how to rejoice in suffering) Jesus realizes that there’s stuff that just goes way over our heads sometimes, and so he tries to console with a tap-dance number (“All For the Best”) that, silly as it is, is an attempt to bring peace to these people in a language that they themselves understand. They’re not as apt to contemplate mystery and paradox, but they know how to dance – and just as God came to the Jews as a Jew, here God speaks to hippies through a musical number. And they get it, in the limited way they’re able – which obviously is far from being complete, but who among us can process the infinite? The number is also notable for being the moment where “John” begins shifting into “Judas,” who (though Jesus’ biggest supporter and wingman from the start) gets disillusioned and impatient with both Christ and His followers. Judas has no time for dancing or paradox – he wants a revolution and he wants it now. Or something like that. To be honest, I don’t even know what he wants but that’s okay – the important thing is that Judas in the one who says to himself “wow, this is lame – I am way better than all of this.” And that is his downfall.

The musical continues through lighter songs like the dopey Lamar’s “All Good Gifts” and Joanne’s Motown rendition of “Bless the Lord,” but this problematic, melancholic strain pops up from time to time – like in the campy Sonya’s slinky number “Turn Back, Oh Man.” Actually, this one can easily be seen as a little microcosm of the musical as a whole:

Wow. Okay, yeah, so on the surface it’s pretty ridiculous: you’ve got a silly, would-be disciple playing the sexed-up lounge singer and dragging Jesus along for the ride. But its redemptive qualities (and that of Godspell) are out in spades – and, as always, it’s all shrouded in paradox.

The first thing that smacks you in the face is the contrast between the lyrics and what’s happening on the screen – the song is basically a call to repentance, but here’s Sonya shimmying around an aging mansion, purring the lines as she’s opening the curtains and whipping the covers off some antiquated furniture sets. The average person in the 70’s would be forgiven for thinking these two sentiments are opposite: isn’t ‘throwing back the blinds’ a symbol of opening yourself to radically new experiences, ones that fly in the face of repentance? And then through the whole scene, Sonya and the rest of the cast are traipsing like can-can dancers after a rather strong set of fruity cocktails.

But paying attention to the lyrics helps us realize what’s really going on here: “Earth might be fair / And all men glad and wise / Age after age their tragic empires rise / Built while they dream / And in that dreaming weep / Would man but wake / from out his haunted sleep.” It’s a critique of the things that humanity builds for itself without God, no matter whether they’re empires, skyscrapers, sexual conquests or megacities. Which might then lead the audience to think that Sonya’s dance is all just one prank, an ironic sendup of loungey sexiness and secular accomplishment – basically an example of the clowns facing the serious, secular world and treating it all as if it were the big joke, one that only the holy fools are in on. Their jesting, in this case, is a way of deflating the hot-air balloon of modern self-seriousness: a joyous humility cracking the edges of a stoic pride.

Though it’s still even bigger than that, because there’s no sense of us-vs-them in the piece (or in the musical in general) – there’s no case of ironic superiority, no feeling of one-upmanship that all too often comes with intelligent satire. These guys are literally just fooling around – they’re not trying to accomplish anything except trying to make Jesus laugh, to thank Him for everything He’s teaching them. They don’t know how to play except in the ways the world’s taught them, and Sonya (through whatever past experience she has) can only honour her Saviour through faux-sexy shimmying. She’s not trying to be anything except herself, and she doesn’t take what she’s doing seriously – they all know it’s a joke, a kind of offering acceptable to a Jesus who see’s through the world’s facade of “respectability” and comes to them in a form they’re all able to understand.

But halfway through the number, an awareness of the mission shines through. Jesus, taking a break from the instructive merriment, goes over to the window and sings half to himself, drawing a little heart in the condensation: “Earth shall be fair / And all her people one / Nor till that hour shall / God’s whole will be done / Now, even now / Once more from Earth to Sky / Peals forth in joy / Man’s old, undaunted cry / Earth shall be fair / And all her people one.” Jesus engages fully in what it means to be human among humans but never abandons His goals – this is a God who keeps silliness and seriousness in each hand, who knows that joy and determination are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. This God is large – He contains multitudes.

“C’mere Jesus, I got somthin’ to show ya!” Sonya calls a moment later, pulling them all into a grand cake-walk through the mansion that celebrates joy, humility, the call to salvation and a devotion to mission – in one small scene, the musical blows up a number of our misconceptions of what it means to be a Christian and broadens our sense of God’s willingness to come down, get His hands dirty and meet us on our level.

And this sense of double-ness, the presence of joy and heaviness together, continues through most of the second act. On a social level things are also changing, because the honeymoon period is wearing off and the clan starts breaking down. In one of the film version’s fantastic innovations, there is a robo-pharasee that pops up to challenge this upstart rabbi and His teachings – but when all the components are pulled apart, it’s revealed that the robot’s operators were his close friends the entire time. Ouch.

He goes off by Himself to recoup after the exhausting encounter, because through it all even Jesus’ patience is tried. Here He is, God, walking as a clown among clowns in order to help them come to know the Father and as soon as He turns His back they all start pulling their crap again (sound familiar?). But how they react to Jesus anger and exhaustion leads to the film version’s******** most moving moment: a song that shows the cast’s repentance AND the final straw of Judas, who decides to betray Him. Everything is working double-time, and each joy now comes with a small ache:

From there it just gets heavier – there’s just one more jolly number before we’re into the passion narrative. The musical combines the temptations in the desert with Gethsemane, with the rest of the cast forming the collective, malicious, semi-dancing Tempter. When, once the temptations are over, the cast returns to being sleepy disciples, there’s a delicious piece of ambiguity: was that just a piece of stage-magic or were the disciples aware of what they were doing the whole time? The capacity of each cast member for wide-eyed naïveté and sinister plotting is an apt and disturbing metaphor for all Christians everywhere. And the nature of the play allows each directer to choose what aspect to emphasize.

In the end, after another moving song, Jesus is dragged by Judas to the chain-link fence (ominously present through the whole play) where He and (depending on the production) the rest of the cast are electrified during the final number. Jesus, though, is the only one who dies and is taken down some time later by the meek cast, touching him as if unsure if they’re even allowed anymore. They carry Him in their arms through the audience to one of the doors, singing a slow “Long Live God” before it melds into a mournful “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” (now ironic for obvious reasons).

But after Jesus is slipped around a corner, the “Prepare Ye the Way’s” start gathering in volume and energy until everyone is running back to the stage, grabbing each other, grabbing anything for support, grabbing John/Judas’s old pack of stage makeup and darting out to decorate the faces of willing audience members. They’ve come through the passion and out the other side, finally ready to begin the imperfect process of sharing what the God-man shared with them. Even though the focus is now clearly on what the disciples are doing after His death, in some productions even Jesus Himself returns for the proceedings – His ‘fro and makeup: bouncy and ridiculous as ever. Through the confusion, games, mysteries, dances, death and resurrection He irrevocably remains a clown, just as Jesus irrevocably remains a human.

For the metaphor to work the way it should, we have to do a couple of things. Obviously we have to be open to radically different artistic expressions of Christ, but we’ve also gotta be ready to eat a heavy-duty slice of apple pie – because embracing Jesus the clown means embracing the fact that His slow, clumsy disciples are none other than you and I. The musical invites us to come to the grips with the fact that, really, all we’ve ever had to give was two measly pennies. And we give them with the face of a child taking him/herself way too seriously – which can only ever provoke laughter in the child’s parents. And we don’t like being laughed at – we are, after all, respectable, important people with important things to do. We don’t always have the time to learn, to laugh, to make mistakes, to be loved as we are.

The implications of Godspell, when taken on its own terms, are ridiculous and powerful – as are the implications of the gospel. At the opening and close of the show they sing “prepare ye the way” and Christ comes, determined, unstoppable, his ‘fro swaying, his mascaraed eyes laughing, forgiving, ready to save the clowns we haven’t realized we’ve become. This is humbling stuff, and we will generally go to great lengths to avoid being humbled. Actually, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid thinking about all sorts of things. But as Oscar Wilde put it (like a boss): “if you must tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.”

*

*Spoiler: said last temptation was the devil offering to let Him off of the cross, after which the film proceeds to show an alternative history in which Jesus gets down, finds some land, marries one of the non-virginal Marys and decides to work towards something resembling personal, human happiness. The film ends with the revelation that this is actually just a fantasy of Our Lord on the cross who, fully knowing the opportunity for human fulfilment, decides to reject it anyways and die. A whole other article could be devoted not just to this kind of artistic exploration of Christ, but to the near-violent proportions of the backlash coming from specific representatives of the American church.

**Robert Powell provides the lead, whose face now has the honour of being slapped across cheap devotional souvenirs the world over.

***Though not always the end.

****The key factor here.

*****We’ve maybe gotten a little too used to “Jesus is my Homeboy” or “Buddy Christ”****** and, as a result, maybe might have started taking the presence of something like God for granted.

******Though He is indeed homeboy and buddy, among other, rather intenser things.

*******All the character’s names (except Jesus and John/Judas) are the same as the actor playing them – a moving detail.

********The stage version has “By My Side” sung by the woman caught in adultery, which certainly adds a tenderness not present in the film. All the same, though, I’m still partial to the film’s take on it.

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Change Your Clocks, Not Your Garments

It is a strange bargain we strike with ourselves this time of year, as if time and light were really interchangeable, as if either were truly measurable. But somehow it seems to work. What is an hour of sleep to the luxury of later sunsets, of lengthening evenings that hasten the equinox? What is spring break but a dream of summer, anyway?

It is a false dream, surely. Here in New England snow still blankets the ground and the wind blows cold from Canada. The month of March is mud-time and flood-time. And we are only paying ourselves back for the hour we grasped too greedily in fall. But there is still hope. Perhaps the true light is on its way.

 

Report on the Catholic Literary Imagination Conference

(The photo of a young Flannery O’Connor was found at Southern Literary Trail.)

Two weeks ago a large group of writers met in Los Angeles for a conference titled “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination.” We Catholic writers are usually pretty isolated—I had never been in the same room with any of the other Dappled Things editors before. Most of our business is conducted by email, phone, or Google Hangout. And there I was, chatting over a tessellated spread of books with Joshua Hren, our managing editor!

My journey began on Thursday with my husband coming home early from work. Sean and I spent an hour packing up the car with a folding crib, jars of baby food, a white noise machine, and everything else we thought a 9 month-old baby might require in a strange land. It’s about six hours from San Jose to Los Angeles, and even though we figured that little James would sleep most of the way, we had never taken him so far from home. He did sleep, fitfully, and by the time we stumbled into our hotel room around two in the morning he was wired. Grinning and panting like an energetic puppy, he bounced up and down in the portable crib while his parents stared in pained amazement. Somehow we all managed to sleep.

The hub of the conference was a large, airy tent that had been set up in a courtyard next to the Catholic Center at USC. Here we could make our first decision of the day: whether to greet a celebrated novelist or snag a cup of coffee first. (I may have gone for the coffee.) The walls of the pavilion were lined with journals and presses displaying their wares. Joshua Hren was representing Wiseblood Books and Dappled Things, and I am proud to report that his table was always surrounded with conversation and laughter. I got to meet Angela Cybulski, Matthew and Deirdre Lickona, and Joseph O’Brien, and we talked about everything from the controversial criticism of Yvor Winters to the terrifying stillness of the Mojave desert.

After lunch Tobias Wolff read his short story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” This was a great reading which brought out the story’s funny jabs at academia, making the ending even more shocking. Later, in the evening, Ron Hansen read the opening of Mariette in Ecstasy. Beautiful contemplative fragments of description, like a “slab of bread dough” that “rolls as slowly as a white pig.” Shades of Hopkins’ nature journals, or Into Great Silence. The next day I thought of Mariette when D. J. Waldie talked about his fragmented novel of southern California suburbia, Holy Land. That book has been praised for revealing the unlikely Hopkinsian grandeur of suburban L.A., and it seems to me that this feat is both the vocation of every writer and something characteristically Catholic.

I was a bit nervous because my own panel was coming up, but it turned out just fine. I got to meet Mary Ann Miller, whose anthology St. Peter’s B-List was reviewed in Dappled Things, and Bill Baer, who created a journal I love, The Formalist. It turned out that all three of us wanted to talk poetry, and Bill’s talk on how he founded The Formalist made it easy for me to segue into my own thoughts on metrical poetry and our advocacy of it at Dappled Things. I did try to stir the pot a bit by warning against formal poetry that is too Augustan and rational—I prefer the weirdness of Hopkins and Yeats and Eliot. Mary Ann’s exploration of Catholic literary anthologies had me wanting a bunch of new books, and we had a lot of fun talking afterward.

Day 2: Sean and I ate breakfast with Earnest McBride, son of the civil rights activist of the same name, and he told us harrowing tales of his time as a Freedom Rider. He was at the conference as a journalist, and after playing with James and telling us his life story he headed for the Jesuit Literary Imagination panel.

I went to hear James Matthew Wilson, Paul Mariani, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talking about being a Catholic poet in the 21st century. James said many things that resonated with me, for instance: “It is no easy thing to write a devotional poem, to figure out how I might write a genuinely devotional poem that does not retreat from the world to the chapel, one that comprehends the world only because it has already seen the truth of the cross.” I, for one, have a planned sonnet sequence that I’ve barely started for this reason. He went on to explore why the Inferno is more popular than the Paradiso and to ask why we have a resistance to “poetry conceived in supernatural joy.” Paul Mariani’s lovely reading and explication of “The Windhover” and of John Berryman’s poems seemed to offer an antidote to such resistance, and Angela reminded us of how the “efficacy” of words in the sacraments has given Catholic poets an awe of the power of words even outside of Mass, confession, weddings.

Next, Barbara Nicolosi moderated a panel about being a Catholic writer in California. I was excited for this one, since Heather King, Carol Zapeta-Whelan (“Neighbors,” from the last issue), and D.J. Waldie would be there. A lot of love and reverence for L.A. and Fresno, cities that often get snubbed. The Spanish heritage of California came up a lot. And there was a lively discussion of being a writer in the shadow of Hollywood, how you tell people in L.A. you’re a writer and they say “What show?” (Incidentally, James Franco is working on a film version of D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land.)

After a reading by six of Greg Wolfe’s students, there was Mass, the gospel and homily being read by Ron Hansen, who as you may know is an ordained deacon. Finally, we ended with a poetry reading by Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, and Angela O’Donnell. One poem of Angela’s sent that shiver and stinging of tears that I haven’t felt from a poem for some time:

St. Vincent

“The best way to know God is to love many things.”—Vincent Van Gogh

What Vincent loved of sky he told the crows.
He taught them blue and the long note of want,
the rut and whorl of time that comes and goes,
God’s face in the field, drawn and gaunt.
What Vincent loved of earth he told the trees.
Their branches writhed like flames when they heard
how every leaf and bole at last is seized
and falls like olive stones and evening birds.
What Vincent loved of salt he told the sea:
the play and savor of the friends of Christ,
their sails taut, each mast a wood-crossed T,
the empty boats afloat on waves of light.
What Vincent loved of fire he told the fire,
then placed his wounded hand upon the pyre.

By the end of the conference I felt much more connected to my fellow Catholic writers and to the literary life in general. It’s fun to snark about literary conferences (I love Kay Ryan’s “I Go to AWP” with all the love my grinchy, introverted heart can handle), but this one was intimate, based more on our common love of Christ and Hopkins and O’Connor than on striking poses. I mean, I tried to be cool, but it’s hard when you have a nursing infant around.

Would go again.