Contemplation of Beauty

Go here to see Part I on the longing created by art

The question in my mind is not whether nostalgia exists in the works of artists such as The Tallest Man On Earth, but rather, what does nostalgia mean? It is both the belief that around the bend of the next gravel road there is a Garden of Eden and the willingness to trod such a path, the inborn compulsion to keep moving until we discover a resting place, a wound of desire that maims us and sends us limping off clutching a hole near the heart, a new Adam in search of his bride. Nostalgia aches for beauty but finds that the beloved is revealed only fleetingly and always retreats as if an unsolveable mystery. Like the dark bird, she disappears with a fell swoop and we are left only with memory and desire.

I’m just a dreamer but I’m hanging on
Though I am nothing big to offer
I watch the birds, how they dive in then gone
It’s like nothing in this world’s ever still

(“The Dreamer”)

The human soul is made to last forever, and yet all around is change and decay. How can we possibly ever be at home here? Don’t settle into a comfortable, unexamined life. It is not silly to feel unsettled or excited about possibility, to step on the car brakes in the hopes that the next small town diner will have the perfect maple sausage, or to challenge yourself in encounters with great art. It is not childish to long for your true home.

Often, nostalgia is dismissed as being secondary to the actual, adult business of life. As such, art is similarly dismissed as an “extra.” Some may appreciate art and some may not, go ahead and take it or leave it as you please but it really has no necessity of its own. This is an incorrect evaluation of the value of art. In fact, art is fundamental to who we are and nostalgia is the sign of the rational soul of a human being. Without it, what are we doing here? Where have our dreams gone? We may be more comfortable leaving the challenge aside and settling in to a steady diet of reality television, bland magazine-curated interior design, and top 40 pop hits, but we are certainly less human for doing so.

Art does not point to an imagined beauty or that which is merely in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it mediates and participates in a very real beauty; this beauty is eternal and living, fairly destroying those who encounter it. This is the true meaning of nostalgia.

In 2002, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk entitled “Contemplation of Beauty.” He begins with Plato, explaining,

Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.

Nostalgia drives us out of ourselves and sets us to the impossible task of grasping the world just beyond this one. We glimpse just enough of it through art that the search continues, and yet it is always veiled. This hurts. And yet, it is necessary!

st sebastian 2In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.

If Icarus flies too close to the sun and burns his wings, well, that is sometimes the price of dreaming. The pain is a sign of human greatness and, even more, of a great God who is all Beauty. Art creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better. It cannot give all of the answers, for who can explain God? But the encounter is nevertheless genuine. It is God-shaped, beyond words, soul-expanding, and once you experience it you are addicted. Whatever it is that we are longing for remains an enigma, inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is nuptial bliss itself.

Ratzinger cautions that, by praising nostalgia, we are not unhinging from reality and promoting a fantasy,

True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality…

The rationality he has in mind is not based on scientific deduction, but this does not mean that art and nostalgia aren’t reasonable. To limit ourselves to deductions is to limit ourselves to this earthly life, to material objects, and only admit as rational that which can be experimentally repeated. Such a limitation is unreasonable, our experience says as much, as does our ability to love, conjure universal concepts, and appreciate beauty.

to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

Benedict at St Peters

Pope Benedict XVI at the high altar in St. Peters

I agree that, if anything will rescue our nostalgia-impoverished society from empty functionality, it will be beauty. It does not make us irrational aesthetes to believe that beauty will save the world. It seems to me that there is a general doubt of truth and goodness afoot today. Truth is relative and goodness contingent, but beauty? Beauty is impossible to efface. Sure, there is lots of ugly art out there but most people seem to intuitively dislike it and, even if our aesthetic sensibilities are malformed, there is still the persistent belief that some things are beautiful and this is desirable.

Ratzinger reminisces on how this has affected him,

For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”

This love of beauty is the reason I have hope. Each virtue participates in all of the other virtues, so we know that the longing to seek out beauty eventually becomes a longing to seek out truth and goodness. Cardinal Ratzinger says, “This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.” In other words, nostalgia is the most rational activity in which we engage! Exposure to beauty inspires us not only in the realm of aesthetics but also to know truth and goodness. Compared to the challenge of art, any appeal to comfortable distraction is irrational.

 

Okay, there is too much to say and I am getting out of control. Tomorrow, Part III in which comedian Louis CK explains the problem with distraction and we finally discuss where it is towards which nostalgia directs us.

 In the meantime, enjoy this Bach Cantata; rumor has it this is one that Cardinal Ratzinger heard that night. It is okay to feel nostalgic while you do so.

Dark Bird Is Home

Dark Bird Is Home

Nostalgia, I am told, is very bad. Or at the very least it is quixotic. Young people are nostalgic because they don’t know any better, mature adults, on the other hand, accept life as it is with all its gritty realism. To an extent I accept this argument; it can certainly be problematic to long for a golden era that never actually existed, to tilt at windmills or take up residence on Sunset Boulevard. Nostalgia has a dark side when it is unhinged from reality.

"What are you rebelling against, again?" "You know, stuff."

“What are you rebelling against, again?” “You know, stuff.”

So why won’t nostalgia go away? Why do we return to it again and again as a form of artistic expression?

Recently, The Tallest Man On Earth, also known as musician Kristian Matsson, released his 4th album, Dark Bird Is Home. Like much of his work (and the work of other many other musical artists), it is overflowing with nostalgia.

Take a listen at your own risk, because this tune will do a slow burn into your mind and never leave:

(warning: one curse word at the end)

Dark Bird ruminates on memories of childhood, wild nights racing in the streets of the town, lost loves, and empty fields outside of town. Matsson references endless dreams, shadows, and the fear that life is passing him by. The sound of the music reinforces the lyrical theme. This record sounds like it was made 50 years ago. Today, when production is dominated by auto-tune and slick, mp3-ready sounds, Dark Bird lets the instruments breathe. If you listen closely, you can even hear the sound of the guitar strings rattling before the instrument begins to resonate. Often, this sound is either cleaned up or eliminated by moving the microphone away from the instrument. It makes for a cleaner sound but a less human one. With Dark Bird, there is no question that you are hearing the artistic output of a real, actual human being. This in itself seems quaint and nostalgic.

Dark Bird Is Home is already a phrase that creates a certain response, evoking thoughts of nocturnal restlessness longing for a domestic paradise long past.

And suddenly the day gets you down
But this is not the end, no this is fine
Still a tower’s in the valley
Still winds down the stream
Still we’re in the light of day
With our ghosts within

Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of sheer anxiety? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. There is no “Why”, the day just happens to get you down. The past creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments, driving your car at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…

And there are many ways of sorrow
For just stepping out
Everyday a growlin’ storm
But they’re kind somehow
Fall in love but keep on falling
I held you for life
But letting go rope in hand
There’s just leaving now

Try as we might to make these memories permanent and forever inhabit halcyon days, life is a constant departure. We leave old friends and places and, even if we are to someday return, it is never the same (try walking around your old college campus sometime!). As Mattson opines in a song from an older album,

And nothing good out there won’t be old

Oh sometimes the blues is just a passing bird

(“The Dreamer”)

Everywhere we have spent time is now haunted, remaining only in the human capacity for memory. We have ghosts within.

This shows up in art specifically because artists create out of a sense of nostalgia, the belief that somehow, someway, their contribution will connect with a primal longing in mankind for a lasting resting place. If we are always on the move, leaving people and places behind, art is a way of standing still for an uncounted moment, not to stay in the past forever but to commemorate the preciousness of passing things. Of course, there are other marked moments when this occurs. For instance, I was recently talking to my five-year old son about his younger brother’s birthday. He was proud to tell me that he, unlike his brother, will never be three years old again. Suddenly, the day got me down. I mourn lost time and past experiences that will never again be possible. These moments, however, are random, they simply happen, whereas creating nostalgia is one of the very purposes of art.

At the very least, nostalgia is a creative cause. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talks about nostalgia as “anxiety”. He writes,

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit.

Dreams are shadowy, dark birds. They are present as a sign of possibility and longing, a searching grasp for a definite reality beyond this one, and yet they remain achingly frustrating because they are forever beyond our grasp. Kierkegaard refers to it as the “dizziness of freedom,” like looking into a great abyss and seeing endless possibility. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, we would not create, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.

This is why art exists, to express the possibility and greatness of the human being. We are made to live in a world beyond this one and we stretch out to discover it. Aristotle defines poetry as the language of what might be and what should be. It cannot help but proceed by analogy, by dreaming, and by nostalgia.

But if we don’t have a firm grasp of what might be or what should be, if we dream impossible fantasies, then there is danger in nostalgia. It can become the unhinged romanticism that compels Lord Byron to Greece and Sebastian Flyte to Morocco. It leads you and me to do unwise things, like move to New York City to languish because it seems a fairy tale in the movies, take flight on an endless series of adventures in an endless search for what we do not have, leave family and friends behind in misbegotten wanderlust, always restless, always searching for a reality that will in the end prove to be nonexistent. Nostalgia out-of-control seeks the impossible, diagnoses the wound but rips it open further like a writhing animal, launches a ceaseless barrage of questions but provides no answers. Nostalgia is a sign of lack and insofar as it creates desire is a good. It sets us off on a great pilgrimage to find our destiny, but how we go about the journey can result in so many sad mistakes.

That said, I will gladly wallow in nostalgia for a million years before I willingly listen to music that concentrates only on “the moment”, physical pleasure, and thoughtlessness. It is one of the roles of art to bring nostalgia and desire to the forefront, to gaze wide eyed at the mysteries of human existence, create suffering and inhabit it.

No this is not the end and no final tears
That will lead to show
I thought that this would last for a million years
But now I need to go

Mattson seems to understand that we cannot grasp too tightly to passing moments in search of false realities, to hold on to that which is never meant to last. Sometimes the blues is a passing bird. Understanding that our lives are delineated by loss, however, doesn’t mean we make peace with it, and with an exasperated curse word, The Tallest Man On Earth retreats from the microphone.

 

(I have a lot more to say on this topic, but this essay is becoming long. Begging your patience, I will continue soon with some more thoughts on art and nostalgia.

 In the meantime, I’ll be listening to this song while bicycling around the “gravel road/In Missouri light/Rolling to the way back when/Simple was alright”)

The Haunted Kirk

We are essences, the General thought, essences that flow like mercury. Each of us is a myriad of particles of energy, held temporarily in combination like purposes or forces we understand no better than did Lucretius.

While he is known mainly for his political writings, Russell Kirk ought to be known also as fiction writer. I have to think that his proclivity for writing ghost and occult stories is what has kept him from receiving recognition. Last month a friend lent me Ancestral Shadows, a collection of Kirk’s short stories. While not every piece was to my taste, I cannot deny that they are all well-written and contain some interesting ideas.

Kirk converted to the Catholic Kirk at the age of 45, but his interest in the uncanny predated that by many years. Sometimes his ghosts are those of damned vicars who are compelled by more just spirits to do a charitable work for their parishioners. Sometimes they are in competition with their own doppelgangers. Sometimes they do not realize they are dead, and are in the midst of an in-between state of purgation.

Yet, Kirk’s ghostly imagination was not originally formed along Catholic lines. He is not obsessed with saintly relics, guided tours of the afterlife, or burning apparitions of poor souls begging for novenas. Even his ideas of Purgatory are more general, and his dead souls are often as ignorant about their current state as the living. A scrupulous Catholic might be tempted to nitpick his fiction against the orthodox doctrines of the afterlife, but that would be to miss much of the pleasure of his chilling tales.

Why write ghost stories in an age of realism? “Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality,” he explains. “All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural… can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” He believed that the naturalistic bias in art was a product of an unbelieving age, and noted how materialists, even when confronted with clearly ghostly encounters, would dismiss them as mere hallucinations.

As a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly. But I do not ask the artist of the fantastic to turn didactic moralist; and I trust that he will not fall into the error that the shapes and voices half-glimpsed and half-heard are symbols merely. For the sake of his art, the teller of ghostly narrations ought never to enjoy the freedom from fear….

In an era of the decay of religious belief, can fiction of the supernatural or preternatural, with its roots in myth and transcendent perception, succeed in being anything better than playful or absurd? The lingering domination of yesteryear’s materialistic and mechanistic theories in natural science persuades most people that if they have encountered inexplicable phenomena–why, they must have been mistaken. How is it possible to perceive a revenant if there cannot possibly be revenants to perceive?

Many of these stories are claimed to be taken from Kirk’s own personal experiences and those of his wife. Mr. Kirk spent much time in Scotland around haunted castles, and the good Mrs. Kirk had some horrifying ghostly encounters of her own. It is not an offense against realistic fiction to feature ghosts and devils, for these are not unreal things. We avoid using them simply because we fear unbelievers (and half-believing Catholics) will scoff at them. We reduce them to allegorical figures or madcap elements of a magical realist style, but this is an injustice. Even Thomas Aquinas concurs that “according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men…. It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned.”

The reduction of these apparitions to mere hallucinations or magical realist symbols is just something comforting we tell ourselves so we can sleep better at night. Kirk knew better. He knew that sometimes a malign and hungry intelligence will stride across the great gulf between Hell and Earth to claim its prey, and that we must always be prepared to flee.

Who could possibly consider this trashy?

Who could possibly consider this trashy?

Dispatches from the Holy Land: Gethsemane

Guest series by Jason A. Baguia

In the garden of Gethsemane outside the walled old city of Jerusalem, stones speak. There, in the shade of an olive tree that a pope once planted, someone had used white stones to spell peace.

P1140871Peace. Shalom. Salaam. The word cries out to the men, women and children of the land, for even on days when Israel and Palestine spare the global news headlines, disquiet reigns within and between the states.

Kate, whom I happened to meet when I sat by the garden on one such day confirmed what I had begun to suspect. A spirit of discord has possessed many of the youngest kids in the Terra Sancta.

She had come over from Hamburg in Germany, and before that, from Ukraine, her home that she preferred to keep from the spotlight if conflict alone drew to it the world’s eyes and ears.

Passing through one of Jerusalem’s narrow, pilgrim-smoothened pavements, she walked into a group of boys at play. When they noticed her, they all motioned as if to kick her in the rear.

It did not really matter, she told me with a smile and hand wave. Oh, if only she did not share the story after I recounted to her how some of the boys chilled my own spine.

Before I found the Basilica of the Agony, I had been looking for Lion’s Gate that led to it. I turned here and there, climbed and descended steps using a hostel-issue map as best as I could. The old city can be a labyrinth, its streets a meandering course of sunlight shining down between roofs, shadows that huddles of houses tall or over passages cast and colors of everything from rosary beads, shirts to rugs sold in rows of shops.

Turning to a small alley, away from the sound of shopkeepers fishing for patrons and the smell of bread fresh from bakery ovens, I came upon a boy. He had black hair and dark, mischievous eyes. He would probably go to fourth grade in the fall.

He looked at me and aimed at my face a toy pistol.

I looked at him, smiled and kept walking. I kept walking and came across his playmates. They all toted toy guns. I kept walking till they all stood behind me, kept walking when I heard the click of a plastic trigger and felt one pellet ricochet off my left sleeve.

One boy shouted at the others. The first one? Did he stop his friends? Did he feel a touch of remorse over cold, violent play? I could only hope. I did not look back.

Summer shone at its peak over the gated Gethsemane and the basilica that loomed over it. Beneath the ancient olive trees, amid a gentle breeze, orange roses, purplish hollyhocks and pale corn binds danced.

I had been sitting on a bench, resting my back against the basilica’s outer wall, enjoying the lush churchyard view when Kate walked by with a camera. She took pictures of the garden.

“Excuse me. Would you please take my picture?” She asked when she noticed me.

I said “yes” and indulged her request, asking where she would like to appear in the frame. I took the shot, returned her camera and told her to check if she liked the photograph. She did.

By and by we asked each other for our names and places of origin. She came from the Ukraine. Did she come from Kiev? I asked. From Kharkiv, she replied. I smiled, embarrassed that I had not heard about Ukrainian locales apart from Kiev and Donetsk.

News of conflict in the latter region made Ukraine recognizable today, she said with a note of sadness in her voice. But as my encounter with the gun boys showed, no news at all, as she desired, does not necessarily mean good news. Journalistic silence merely masks the causes of conflict that persist between the bombast.

P1140889Who taught those children to aim guns at people’s heads? Their parents? Scenes of strife to which they grew accustomed? Did I even need to ask? The city of peace and of the Abrahamic faiths showed itself hostage to a cult of weaponry. Armed soldiers and cops guarded the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a streetcorner on a stretch of the Via Dolorosa and the Lion’s Gate.

When Kate left, I entered the Basilica of the Agony. Its facade, bearing an image of Jesus at prayer, faced the walls of the conflicted old city. I knew the words of the Lord’s petition. Father, take this cup of suffering from me, but let not my will, but yours be done. Who will teach the sons and daughters of the Holy Land this prayer for vulnerability?

P1140894Inside, the stained glass turned the afternoon light into many purple shades. Three mosaics greeted me. The one on the central apse depicted Jesus at prayer on a slab of stone. The actual stone lay in front of the altar, enclosed in a metal crown ornamented here and there with figurines of birds and a chalice.

Two millennia have passed. The drama of pursuing peace continues here today. Many who chase concord repeat the error of Judas Iscariot and the Roman soldiers who came with him to the garden to seize the Prince of Peace.

“Am I a hardened criminal,” he had asked, “that you should come take me by force?” “Live by the sword and you perish by it.”

“Who do you look for?” He asked his would-be captors.
“Jesus, the Nazarene,” they said.

“I am he,” he replied. A second mosaic in the basilica captured this scene. The artist bathed the Christ in dazzling light. Those who came to arrest the Lord of hosts fell back when he identified himself.

The wielder of arms recoils when peace shows forth his face. His gaze indicts the heart. Why fight with your brothers for peace or secure serenity with arms when your war should be against your own flesh, the decadent world and the evil one? Peace comes with his own sword, ready to cut and strip away the decrepit, old selves of those who yearn to drink from the cup of life and fly.

P11408811But we are Peter, James and John. We shun vulnerability. We sleep, as the artist showed them in the mosaic, distant and deadened, though close enough, if awake, to see our prince sweat and bleed his prayer of self-surrender. Or we are Judas, the man on the left mosaic, drawing close to the Nazarene to kiss him. Our kisses seal our treachery to peace.

Nevertheless, we do not have to flee. John’s heart for his master and closeness to Mary eventually made him brave the way of sorrow until he stood with her at the foot of the cross.

The basilica at the foot of the Mount of Olives also goes by the name “Church of All Nations.” Catholics from several countries donated their resources for the church’s construction. The mosaic on its facade aptly points to Jesus as the mediator between all nations and our heavenly Father.

This is the way to peace, in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, standing, praying in the breach between heaven and earth that is the real dissension, letting down one’s guard and taking pains to gather and embrace everyone. The way calls for a modicum of trust, and in the city over which Jesus wept, when one stays long enough, the haze of tension sometimes dissipates to reveal spaces of hope. I saw them in the children who say “Hello. How may I help you?” and in vendors who uttered words of welcome to pilgrims and tourists without hectoring them into their shops.

Hours later, I needed to find my way out of the city and back to the hostel. At Saint Francis Street, a gentleman came up to me and asked, “What are you looking for?”

“The Jaffa Gate,” I said.

“I am going there,” he replied.

We walked together. He asked me where I came from. The Philippines, I said. I gave him my name. He introduced himself as David. David had an uncle who left and settled in my home country long before his birth. He never saw his uncle. He had been around the world, to Latin America, to the United States. He ran a grocery with his brother, got tired of the business, moved around some more and came back to Jerusalem.

We came to the gate. “Welcome to Palestine,” he said. “This is not Israel.” I did not argue.

A little boy came over and tried to tie a red string around my left wrist. David stopped him. The gesture apparently entailed that I give the boy money. I walked through the gate. In a niche in the wall, a woman dressed as an angel played the harp. The boy caught up with me and tried anew to give me the string.

“It is for school,” he said. “It is hard to go to school.”

I had no money to spare. I patted the boy on the head.

In the garden, Jesus once prayed for deceiful and sleeping friends. In that sanctuary named after the pressing of olives, even stones speak peace. What was a newcomer to divided Jerusalem, someone who knew little of the city apart from its mediatized strife to do? I gave my name and a handshake to a man who used to be a stranger, died inside over young boys who played death, offered a bittersweet smile to a girl from war-torn Ukraine, left a light touch on a boy who wanted to go to school. Perhaps, perhaps, for each visitor to drink the city, its glories and its woes is for him to take it one tiny step into the way of peace.


Jason A. Baguia is a mass communication instructor at University of the Philippines Cebu. He is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, media and globalization under the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus education program.

In Pursuit of Suffering

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

– Greg LeMond

Wind shear. Convection-induced air flow. Bow echo. As I sheltered in the barn of a friendly Wisconsin farmer, cycling shoes soaked through, skin sensitive from rain like nails driven sideways into my flesh, bicycle battered, I knew nothing of the science of weather. All I knew was that I had, perhaps, acted hastily in agreeing to a bicycle tour two-hundred and thirty miles through the heartland. It wasn’t all so traumatic, up to that point we had been traversing young, green corn along miles of unbroken pavement, steadily draining away calories and stopping only to silently pause in the interior of rural basilicas, have a cup of coffee, and eat as many eggs as possible. After that it was long steady climbs up and along the Mississippi River bluffs, following it north as it flowed in the other direction past fishing villages and summer cabins. Even here near its source the river is swollen with power, gathering up the rainfall of myriad lowly tributaries. This is all lovely. I, however, was not able to drift into a romantic reverie because I was busy hiding in a barn, lightning popping like gunshots across fields of bent over wheat.

As I stood there in the mud marshalling internal resources so as not to shiver to death, I took mental inventory of my past mistakes that had led me to such a moment. I had traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (by motor vehicle) and met a friend. He took me to a local parish where the priest offered a Mass that was intensely still, as if at the moment of consecration all the world spun about the axis of the altar. The next morning we awoke with the sun and hopped on our bicycles. Over the next two days we spun our way north La Crosse, Wisconsin, enduring mechanical failures to our machines, a destroyed derailleur and shattered rear wheel, respectively, muscle fatigue, hunger, and summer heat. This list doesn’t even include the full-on attack from mother nature. Even after she wore herself down, she continued glowering as we were turned away from a now-stilled riverside town, sapped of electrical energy, temporarily dazed and succumbed, fallen trees across her main street as if oaks, like elephants, travel to a graveyard to die with the herd. My mobile phone signal had been lost and an odd feeling of emptiness sets in as a result, but we set out to summit the next hill, bellys empty, set adrift in the hinterlands of a mighty river.

There is an eddy and flow, a steady current that, if we consent to float upon, will be the end of us. Like a dead thing, flotsam, we shall be cast upon the wide expanse of sea. It is the pilgrim’s struggle to stand upright and thrash upstream with all his might. If my past is full of mistakes, they are all downriver, left behind on the pavement as so many drops of sweat from the brow. Most of my life is sound and fury and I cannot help but feel that I am wasting much of it, but those days in the saddle, the physical confrontation with nature and encountering the limits of the human body, these were not wasted.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine2We are now at the trail head to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and began the final ascent on foot. This hill feels the highest of all. Sheltered at the end of the tree-bowered path, a piazza and the Shrine herself are dressed in the finest local sandstone. Inside, an order of Franciscan friars oh so softly chant vespers in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

I would have crawled on my knees through broken glass to partake in this moment.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine3Above the tabernacle, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe serenely listens to the chant as it drifts heavenward in gentle undulation. Although she is surrounded by the stars of the southern constellations, she has eyes only for her Son, head bent and eyes gazing down upon him and joining our adoration. I sit quietly in the pew. The tumult of the world that has tossed me like driftwood into this holy place could not present a more sharply defined contrast. Our Lord places a burden upon us, but the yoke is light and all who come to him will have rest.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine

I have found that, as a pilgrim, the physical struggle, the hilariously deflating setbacks (I mean that word literally, I seriously almost lost my mind), and the mortification of the flesh my life is forever different. Now, we do not all need to imitate Eddie Merckx on Alpe D’Huez in order to be true pilgrims. Those who have endured long plane rides, expense, and tiredness on your way to Fatima or Lourdes or Rome certainly know what I am talking about. At some point, after all the hassle and pains of traveling you wonder if pilgrimage is worth it. Perhaps visiting Rome isn’t so important at all! The papal Mass is on television at home, after all! But, in spite of the effort in getting there, in the end those pieces of you that are left behind turn out not to have been so vital after all. They are so many impurities to be discarded.

In fact, I believe that the struggle to simply get there is a vital part of the pilgrimage itself. The struggle experienced is but a minor reminder of the true spiritual struggle of a pilgrim. Perhaps it is our belief that to be a follow of Christ is to become comfortably happy and blessed in this life. This is not what the faith teaches. Our Lord offers not relief from suffering; instead he joins us in it. Will it make us happier to take our place next to him in his torment, to strive for greatness? My answer is yes and no. It will make us happier in the sense that our faithfulness is pleasing to God, will be rewarded in heaven, and we will live a more fully human existence, and yet, the disordered desires we all experience tend to remain and cause constant, unceasing pain begging for fulfillment. Which one of us, in some area of another, does not have a vice that we seem to be powerless to eliminate from our lives? This we call sin, and resisting sin and its pleasures doesn’t always seem to make us happy.

Life is a pilgrimage, and it entails struggle both physical and spiritual. We do not join the battle so as to earn God’s love; he loves us all very much, just as we are. We are struggling to break free from the limitation of sin. For this, God does not offer a quick spiritual release. He offers a Cross. To each pilgrim he provides a resting place, a Good Friday death. It is Our Lord who is the first pilgrim; the moment Adam and Eve taste the fruit, he begins his humiliating journey to earth, emptying himself of divine prerogative. With the Incarnation, he has already placed himself on the Cross. He makes his way to earth and now a massive pilgrimage ensues: the shepherds travel to his side, the magi see the star in the sky and make haste, Mary gazes on him in wonder, and soon billions and billions of people from every nation have made their way to him.

A group of riders cycle past a sunflowers field during the 198.5-km (123.3 miles) 13th stage of the 102nd Tour de France cycling race from Muret to Rodez, France, July 17, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard - RTX1KOT3

Life is a pilgrimage, a journey to heaven. Treat each moment as precious, for every breath we take brings us closer to the very presence of God himself. Our pilgrimage is attended by blessing and happiness, but also by suffering. This is the mark of sin but even suffering has been redeemed at the Cross, and so it becomes a sign of our total death to self and new life with God. If the government chooses to persecute us, perhaps we ought to thank it for the opportunity to imitate Christ. Our pilgrimage will have been made more difficult but ultimately of more spiritual value.

Each time you step out of bed, consider to where it is you are heading. You are made for heaven. Live in such a way as to prepare for eternal life. Make your journey to the side of Christ and there take your place. All the world streams to him, a vast pilgrimage to the holy mountain of the Lord.

It is odd, on the return trip from the Shrine everything was much easier. The gentle sway of my body over the frame of my machine, the poetic hum of the chain spinning, chasing the setting sun we fairly flew home.

The Paradox of Summer

heatThere is a joke people used to tell here in South Louisiana. An old Cajun named Boudreaux dies and goes to hell. When he gets there, the devil greets him and says, “So, is it hot enough for you down here?”

Boudreaux answers, “Quite pleasant, actually. Reminds me of sittin’ on my front porch in July.”

The devil goes, cranks up the thermostat, and asks again, “Is it hot enough for you down here?”

Boudreaux laughs. “This ain’t no worse than fishin’ in my pirogue on the bayou.”

The devil, beginning to get rattled, cranks the thermostat up one more time. As the brimstones begin to boil, he asks, “Hot enough for you down here now, Boudreaux?”

Boudreaux wipes his brow and says, “Brings back memories. It’s just like bein’ out in the cane fields in the summertime.”

The devil, determined to make Boudreaux suffer, decides to turn the thermostat down as far as it will go. Icicles begin to form. A snow flurry turns into a squall, and soon all of hell looks like the North Pole. The devil returns to Boudreaux and cannot believe his eyes when he finds the old Cajun dancing and singing for joy. “Aren’t you cold, Boudreaux? What are you dancing for?”

Mais cher,” returns Boudreaux, “I got to dance. The Saints just won the Superbowl!”

That joke became outdated in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints actually won the Superbowl (and I’m pretty sure hell froze over.) Unfortunately, Boudreaux’s sentiments about the temperature in Louisiana remain quite current. Joseph McDonough recently waxed eloquent on this blog about summer as a symbol of paradise, “as all the poets agree.” He and the poets are certainly correct. However, where I’m from, summer is the season of heatstroke, hurricanes, and disease-bearing mosquitoes. “Paradise” is the opposite of the word that comes to mind.mosquito

The problem with symbols is that they are often contranyms. Summer symbolizes heaven, but it also prefigures hell; the color red shows love but also hate; life itself represents both an unquestioned good and an inescapable drudgery through evil. No wonder so many people find literature, with its reliance on symbols, confusing. No wonder the orderly, empirical world of science and mathematics has gained such a hold on our modern intellectual life. Two plus two always equals four, but summer equals paradise equals damnation? Yikes.

Yet it was Albert Einstein who said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales are little more than a distillation of confusing, multi-layered symbols. Why is this the work of true intelligence? Because the real work of being human is not to pursue the advancement of science for its own sake; the work of being human is to pursue the advancement of humanity. Orson Scott Card said, “We care about moral issues, nobility, decency, happiness, goodness—the issues that matter in the real world, but which can only be addressed, in their purity, in fiction.” (I would add: and poetry.) Literature is the laboratory of the moral life, where truth can often only be expressed in paradox. Only by giving do we receive; only by loving can we know what it means to be loved. Christians take this paradoxical logic to its most extreme conclusion–only by dying can we truly live.

The work of literature is to dare an honest gaze at the experience of being human, to explore our common morality or lack thereof. It would be dishonest if it did not deal in paradox. A symbol that could be directly equated with paradise but not with hell would fail to capture the truth of our human nature; we are creatures formed in the image and likeness of God who are nevertheless fallen, sinful beings. We ourselves are a paradox, and so is our world. Summer will always be warm days of relaxation soured by sunburn and storms. Winter will always be icy and barren, but brought to life by fire and friends. The trick is to be like Boudreaux: defy the devil, and find joy in them both.

Where Is All the Fiction-Inspired Art?

It is a curious phenomenon that so few of our works of fiction inspire great, or even mediocre, works of visual art. Once it was the case that the usual matter for visual artists was the popular stories of the time and of antiquity: Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, and many others provided seemingly endless fodder for painters, sculptors, potters, illustrators, and makers of decorative items. The popular romances of the middle ages—at times their version of our trashy novels—added reasonably to the mix, as well.

One can hardly imagine an illustrator itching to depict all the thrilling scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus bravely shooting a sick dog?), The Great Gatsby (an allegorical figure rowing a boat?), Of Mice and Men (Lennie crushing small animals?), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield getting punched by a pimp?), or Catch-22 (perhaps a montage of the same event over and over?). Of the popular modern novels, only a few standouts like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm could provide especially interesting visual imagery, but even those wouldn’t spawn much more than a few interesting scenes (mostly involving pigs).

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

This is the downside of the psychological novel, as great as it is. The inner drama of the soul does not easily translate into a visual form without a medium of outward action. A great film actor could show this simply with his face, and a great sculptor or painter could do the same with his figure, but that sort of artistic greatness is rare. It is much better in the larger scope of things to have material that even merely “good” artists can clearly depict.

In a sense, the more it has become itself, the more the novel has drifted away from the other arts into isolation. One cannot imagine a great novel like Conrad’s Nostromo making a great stage play, for instance. Only an experimental artist would write a cycle of ballads about Mrs. Dalloway. The madness of Finnegans Wake would not even inspire a mind-blowing film dream sequence. The novel has become too subtle to successfully pollinate the other arts.

Nothing to see here.

Nothing to see here.

There are exceptions. Notably, the fantastic fiction of John Tolkien has inspired visual artists for decades. My parents collected the annual Tolkien wall calendars, all of which displayed twelve paintings or drawings in an impressively large reproduction. While the quality varied from year to year depending on the artist, most left a lasting impact on myself and countless other Tolkien fans. Some renditions of scenes from The Silmarillion were even more memorable than the published stories.

As a child, I often felt the tragedy of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth more tangibly through his illustrators than through his books. Likewise, I fell in love with Greek and Norse myths more through their artistic portrayals than through the often roughly-constructed stories. I became familiar with the Divine Comedy through Gustave Doré’s woodcuts long before I read the poem. And what child hasn’t flipped through his copy of the Chronicles of Narnia looking for all of Pauline Baynes’ drawings?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

At the risk of becoming a heresy-hunting blogger, I have to wonder if there isn’t something rather Manichean about this problem. The separation of soul and body, of mind and flesh, is a perennial error we cannot seem to be rid of. The extremes of the psychological novel have something Cartesian about them, being all about internal thought and emotion, and very little about outward action. The less the characters of a story act, the less any visual artist has to work with. One cannot easily paint Hamlet’s internal distress, but any five-year old can draw Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.

Visually attractive art is a kind of gateway into a great book, attracting readers a novelist might not otherwise have. Someone who has never heard of Orlando Furioso might search out a copy after flipping through Doré’s set of illustrations. The cover art for novels that are popular (or required reading for school) are usually dull or so abstract that a non-fan can’t get even a moderate understanding of the story inside. Stephen King’s novels unfortunately make for better cover art than Harper Lee’s, despite his inferior talent.

If there is some happy medium–or exalted golden mean–between schlock pulp fiction and high psychological prose, it seems that few have found it. There is a natural tendency for any community to become more insular over time, and the high-art novelist community is no exception. But with book sales still on a steady decline in spite of the occasional Harry Potter-esque shot in the arm, perhaps an increased consideration of cross-medium artistic pollination is in order.

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong? (source)

The Denver Publishing Institute

I’m sure I’m not alone in the Dappled Things community in having been told way too many times that my Liberal Arts degree was useless. And not only was it merely Liberal Arts! It was an English degree. Oh frivolity of frivolities! How will you ever got a job like that?

Six years after the fact, I’m proud to say I’ve been gainfully and steadily employed because of that English degree, first as a teacher, and now as an editor. So don’t let the haters getcha down! But also. . .

If you find yourself a little stuck, or, maybe even if you don’t, start thinking about developing that “useless” degree with some practical application coursework. I like my current job! I really do. But it’s not exactly the kind of editing I had in mind. BOOKS. That’s what I had in mind. So, I decided to up my ante.

untitled

I applied to the Denver Publishing Institute (DPI), and, after some nail-biting (wait-listed?! NObody wait-lists ME!) I’m lucky enough to be attending it now. In a four-week intensive program, they’re teaching me as much as they possibly can about the book publishing world, from the work of a literary agent to an acquisitions editor to the breakdown of publishing houses to marketing and beyond. (And no, they are not paying me to write this post. Scout’s honor.) They’re giving me real in-progress manuscripts to work on, evaluate, learn from and write reports on (which, actually, I should be doing right now. . .). The lecturers are some fantastic people with wild stories, excellent advice, and hard-earned wisdom, like the head of Young Adult publishing at Penguin (who refers to Louis L’Amour as “Louis.” NBD.), the head of Princeton University Press, and a young woman who has quickly risen through the ranks to run Scribner’s.

There are two other comparable programs in the country, at NYU, and at Columbia University. DPI isn’t cheap, but those two are hideously expensive. Name brand and what-not, I suppose. Also, the other programs spend time teaching magazine, journal and (last I checked) digital publishing. Really cool stuff! But not what I wanted.

So, if you would like to be a book editor (or literary agent or publicist or independent literary guru) and you find yourself at loose ends, might I suggest you look into this program. One of the great advantages to it, on top of all the nuts and bolts of the publishing world it will teach you, is that it connects you with an incredible network of people, many of whom have been highly successful in the publishing world, know it backwards and forwards, and have a great respect for DPI and the young men and women who have gone through the program.

Also, the campus is beautiful, complete with a mountain backdrop, collegiate gothic architecture, and ducklings in the lily pad pond. Can’t beat that.

ducklings

I am not a Beach Person

I am not a beach person, and I prefer to take my long walks along rocky coastlines or in the mountains, where I am free from the distractions of beach towels, beach umbrellas, beach volleyball, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun worshippers. If I go to the beach, it will be in late winter or early spring, perhaps in Florida, perhaps in the south of France, where I will fly kites or gather pebbles from the sand and collect foreign coins. But although I am not, as I say, a beach person, I think I know what the beach means. If the ocean is the primordial chaos, the beach is our earthly paradise. It is a Garden of Eden, and an angel stands over it with a burning sword. Dante thought of heaven, and he saw a mystic rose with the company of saints enthroned upon the petals, illuminated by the light of God. When we think of paradise we see palm trees and sand and the company of tourists enthroned upon beach chairs, illuminated by the tropical sun.

I suppose we’re no longer encouraged to think of heaven in anything but earthly terms, and that is why the first explorers of the South Sea islands believed that they had stumbled upon an earthly paradise, and projected upon its inhabitants the corresponding state of primeval innocence. Who was more surprised: the islanders to find out that they were innocent, or the explorers to find out that they were not? Even Dante placed the terrestrial paradise in the southern ocean, but he understood well enough to know that it could be found only by winning to the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. Are we wrong to think that the beach is a symbol of paradise? No, but we forget that it is only a symbol of paradise, and to enter paradise itself may call for devotion, purity of heart, and a clarity of mind not always found among beachgoers.

If you disbelieve in Heaven because you cannot imagine it, or because you can imagine only an eternity of clouds, harps, and music, and are not thereby filled with longing for the courts of the house of our God, then you might be listening to the wrong music. There is a story that St. Augustine, trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, was reproved by the example of a boy trying to empty the sea with a shell. And there was once a king of England who placed his throne upon the seashore to show his flatterers that he was not the master of the tides. The beach is not the least of the places where wisdom may be found, if you know where to look.

Pity the peoples of the South Pacific islands, not because they have been misunderstood, but because they themselves know nothing of autumn and of winter, of the remarkable evergreens that never change their color, of the remarkable maple trees that do, of the snowfall whiter than the finest sand and the sea that freezes over. Untaught by the discipline of the seasons, they do not know that the blazing noondays and swift sunsets of their perpetual summer are not an eternal and universal possession but a gift that others dearly buy and slowly earn. Pity the islanders, for they have had their reward. Pity the beachgoers, for they have theirs. Pity the Australians, and all who must celebrate Christmas in the summer, and who miss the symbolic interruption of summer in winter, of day into night, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness that comprehendeth it not.

I am not a summer person, but I think I know what summer means. Summer is a reward in proportion to what we have earned. Summer is also a symbol of heaven, as all the poets agree, and heaven too is a reward in proportion to our capacity to enjoy it. I spent several of the past few summers in graduate school. I won’t say that graduate school is heaven, but when I recall the hours of reading Dante in the classroom, eavesdropping on a rehearsal of a Bach aria in the great hall, glimpsing the rings of Saturn from the observatory telescope, or demonstrating geometrical propositions on the blackboard, I’m inclined to compare it favorably with the beach. I know that school is not nearly so popular as the beach, probably because it takes more practice to enjoy it. But I also suspect that school has a higher graduation rate. The rules are clear for both: you take out what you carry in. But you can always find something new: a shell, a metaphor, a message in a bottle. Keep looking.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal – Pray for Us!

July 4th – America’s birthday and the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. A perfect pairing?

St. Elizabeth of Portugal (relative of St. Elizabeth of Hungary) was married at the age of 12 by proxy to King Dinis of Portugal. Despite praising his wife in word (he was a poet of some renown), King Dinis betrayed his wife in deed (he was an adulterer of some renown, too). Adding insult to injury, King Dinis asked his wife to raise these children of adultery in their house, as she would her own.

Her heroic response should not surprise, nor should the result of her generosity. Ultimately, her own legitimate son, Afonse, sought violently to overthrow his own father the king, for fear of his older half-brothers’ acceding to the throne before him. Unable to bear the impending slaughter between her husband and son, she endeavored to broker peace between the two. Though innocent of rumors that she had incited her son’s rebellion, Queen Elizabeth found herself exiled to a house-arrest at her husband’s hand. Despite the injustice, she remained faithful to her husband, breaking her exile only for the purpose of attempting to mediate peace between King Dinis and his son Afonse, who remained at strife until King Dinis’s deathbed, whereat Dinis charged Afonse to care for Elizabeth in his own place.

For her part, Elizabeth took up widowed life as a Franciscan Tertiary, building Churches, hospitals, caring for the sick (especially lepers), and praying intensely.

What, then, has Elizabeth of Portugal to do with America? Two points stand out. First, she offers an example of patient suffering, prudent and daring peacemaking, and prioritizing the good over the convenient. She served the good of her King and husband, despite accusations of subterfuge and a unjust exile. Second, she serves as a prophetic witness for Catholics attempting to contribute to the civic project of the American democracy. Like Elizabeth, American Catholics might find themselves exiled for their own best efforts at participating in America’s governance. A peek at the most recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex “marriage” gives a hint: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure” (emphasis mine). This sentence attempts to assuage the fear of many that religious groups will not be free to teach their position on same-sex marriage and argue for it publicly. No doubt such protections will continue, but more interesting is what does not appear in this sentence: the word “practice.” Religious practice might not be protected, though it’s “teaching” will. Tragically, the Church might soon be erroneously compared to truly evil institutions or persons. Consider this: as far as SCOTUS is concerned, the Catholic Church is like an institution that refuses to recognize interracial marriage, or a restaurant that refuses to serve minorities. We, the Catholic Church, could be maligned as an institution that continues to fight for a “dead issue”; we can be lambasted as being on the “wrong side” of history as far as the Supreme Court is concerned. Therefore, Catholics’ right to speech is protected, but not their right to practice, which is (in the eyes of the SCOTUS majority) manifestly unconstitutional. It would seem, terrifyingly and unjustly, in light of Obergefell et al., vs. Hodges, et al., that the Catholic Church could be likened to that backward-minded, pitiful owner of a diner who still pines for the days of Jim Crow Laws. He can attempt to argue for segregation, to “teach” segregation, but he’d be arrested (thankfully) for actually segregating his diner. Any comparison in truth between the Catholic Church and such a racist diner owner is an abomination; race has nothing to do with whether a person can order lunch, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. Likewise, race has nothing to do with whether a person is capable of marrying, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. The distinction the Catholic Church and the racist is invisible to SCOTUS because the court chooses an understanding of marriage along personal, intimate, romantic lines rather than biologically reproductive lines. The link between procreation and marriage (let alone the link between sexual intimacy and procreation) is entirely absent from the SCOTUS decision. One can hardly be surprised, therefore, at the Court’s decision as well as the possible consequences to come. Like St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the Church has been betrayed by one who ought to have protected her. Like St. Elizabeth, the Catholic Church will be asked to welcome and tend to the fruit of this betrayal as well. In all likelihood, the Catholic Church, as St. Elizabeth, will find herself innocent and exiled.

I imagine that, in the near future, if pastors are to be considered valid solemnizers of marriage contracts, they are going to be required to solemnize any legal marriage (including those between persons of the same sex). Refusing to do so might just result in their loss of status as solemnizer for all such contracts. Long-story short, all Catholic clergy may eventually be disqualified from solemnizing marriage contracts, since they practice discrimination on the grounds of orientation or sex. In this case, Catholics whose marriages are “solemnized” by a priest will need to see the justice of the peace (or Elvis) to make their marriage contract valid. It seems the stage is being set to defend the teaching, that is, the speech of religious persons (so long as they are safely in church buildings full of like-minded persons), but not any practice of religion that may be construed as having public or civic impact or visibility. Catholics, like St. Elizabeth, for all they contribute to the common good of their nation, may soon suffer exile to a house arrest of the sanctuary for mass and the parish hall for donuts.

The truth of the Church’s contribution to the common good will, like St. Elizabeth’s be vindicated one day. At his deathbed, King Dinis knew his wife’s true worth, and witnessed to it publicly, repenting of his sin against her. Let us pray the Church’s value in her defense of marriage and religious liberty need not await such dire circumstances for its recognition. Let us pray that, as St. Elizabeth, we may boldly break from our house-arrest and ride to the battle front to speak the perennial truth for the love of God and the love of our neighbor in God.