Benque, 2005

Zachary Czaia

Central America. Belize. A village—Benque Viejo del Carmen, which translated means “the old bank of Carmen.” Old bank on which beats gently, gently, the Mopan River. By the Mopan I sat on stones, reading Dickens. My students leapt and laughed in the gently foaming tides.

*

In those days I was in love with love and wrote love letters to the manifestation. I wandered in a haze through those days of hundred degree heat and humidity with my face pressed to large glass bottles of Coca Cola which I would buy for a buck fifty Belizean from Delia at the corner store, along with her home-made polvarones cookies, which were hard, dry, and sweet and meant to be dunked in coffee for breakfast.

I ate them after dinner for dessert, my mouth stung and dry from all that sugar.

*

Polvo means “dust” in Spanish.

“Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return.” 

*

At the end of each day I would write in my notebook, epistle-style, to the girl who wasn’t my girl but who I wished was. I told her everything, a hundred wide-ruled pages of earnest 22-year old thoughts.

When you are in love with love and writing to the manifestation of that love, everything matters: the iguana you heard drop into the Mopan yesterday reading Tolstoy, the long-time volunteer’s motorcycle you rode back of, through the bush, the poem you tried and failed to pull off on the other side of the page. Everything.

And why lie? I wasn’t only in love with a manifestation, but a person, too. That person is now a nun.

*

Late fall that year we had a missionary priest come, a Mexican, Father Gaetan. Fat and jolly and always talking about spiritual warfare and the Eucharist. Tengo hambre, he would say. Tengo hambre por la eucaristia. The crowds came out for him, hung on his every word. I hung on his every word, too, his Spanish big and slow enough even for a gringo like me to grab hold of, wrap my arms round and ride into the darkening bush.

*

Milton says, He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem . . .

I want to be a true poem. The true poem of Benque Viejo del Carmen. I want my memories to father forth my manhood, whatever that is, true as it is, young as it is.

*

The first time I had to tell one of the third form boys I taught that he was out of line, my heart beat wildly in my chest. I felt I was play-acting, and I felt he knew that I felt I was play-acting and that he felt it, too, could read the wonder in my child-like face when I said, “You need to respect me.”

And the boys laughed at me when I told a group of them they needed to come with me, back to the classroom, though the school day was over. And though they laughed, they came. And in the humid room with the bush encroaching through the open windows and on the cracked cement stone floor, I demonstrated a push-up, ten push-ups, twenty push-ups, for the boys.

“Give me some time for the time you wasted,” I said, or something like it, acting what I’d heard from old coaches and teachers. The boys laughed, but they tried the push-ups anyway, and also sat against a wall as if there was a chair beneath them as I showed them to and sweated while I called out the time. Fifteen seconds. Thirty seconds. Done.

“Maestro, you were in the military?”
“No.”
It wasn’t easy after that, but it was better.

*

True poem. What kind of a poem was I in those days? Sentimental? Reckless? A piece of juvenilia?

*

I remember sitting in the back of another teacher’s truck, the gorgeous night whipping past in orange and purple dusk. Getting ready for the city lights of the Cayo District. Beer. A dance club.

*

Father Gaetan is saying a Mass at our school, where we have all of our all-school masses, outside, in our home basketball court. The girls fill the bleachers and the boys drag their hard, heavy wooden desks out into the middle of the court. The boys form rows with their desks, more or less straight.

We teachers are to perform crowd control during the mass, as usual, but we don’t need it today. Father Gaetan has their attention. He speaks of the Devil and of Jesus as he has been speaking of them all weekend, as if he is ready for their knocks at the door of his rectory later that night. Like him, they are both hungry for dinner.

At the end of the Mass, when the students are going up to receive Jesus in the communion wafers, I hear gasps behind me. A girl has fainted. A minute later, another. This is not so unusual: after all, it is a hundred degrees and humid. All that standing and sitting. I receive Jesus in the host, sit back down, try to pray.

*

Again, Milton: He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true Poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all that which is praiseworthy.

*

Delia’s nephew—or was it her son?—worked with her at the corner store. He was also a student at the high school. He was a gentle soft-spoken boy.

Benque was not an easy place to be a gentle, soft-spoken boy.

Maricon. If I heard boys say that word, I would stop them. “We don’t use that kind of language,” I would say.

According to my Google-searching, maricon derives from the word, “marica,” meaning Australian magpie. The root word is “Maria.” So maricon means “little bird” or “little Mary.”

I don’t know if anyone told me that when I heard the word maricon I should translate that in my mind to the English word “faggot,” but that is what I did.

*

One day, one of my third form boys stopped me after class and said, “Maestro, when I was five years old, my uncle raped me.”

I remember when he told me what had happened we were sitting down on the steps of the school, near the teacher’s lounge. It was warm and full of sunshine as it often was. I remember saying, “that’s very hard,” and falling silent.

Radical evil entered this boy’s world at age five. At seventeen, he is called a little bird. And wants to fly away.

*

Jesus once said, “If you cause one of those little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you if you had a millstone tied around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Sin, for Jesus: something to fall into, like the sea.

*

In the teacher’s lounge after Father Gaetan’s all school Mass: there are girls, seven or eight of them, shouting and screaming and shaking. I move from girl to girl with the other volunteer teachers, the young gringos like me who have been called to serve, and try to hold down the shaking girls. I see a pair of eyes rolled back white. I hear a low voice come from out of a young girl’s mouth. I watch Father Gaetan move from girl to girl with his golden crucifix. He asks the shaking girls to kiss it. They will not. I cry. I say, Jesus, help us. Jesus, help me.

*

A day after the lounge, in the dark of my bedroom, I felt a fell spirit. I say I felt a fell spirit, and I know it was one, as personal as any letter from a beloved, and I knew it knew me, but not as a love knows but as fear knows, clutching, grasping, desperate, the hold I hope I never hold with, the hold that has lost its grasp of what is human.

*

That is all. That is the nub, the heart of things. I am nine years from that memory now, nine years from the teacher’s lounge in Benque Viejo del Carmen. Some day I will be ten years, some day fifteen, some day, God willing, a lifetime, and I will be old, with my old flesh and bones, wondering how I once held those girls and prayed Jesus, help us, and I will probably say those words again, as my own final cross comes into view. I see it from time to time now, that golden cross in Father Gaetan’s stubby fleshy hands. Now, I blow it a kiss from the distance. Then, up close, its sweat-stained metal will brush my face.

*

There is a good woman, flesh and bone, who I love and who loves me, who will read these words. She is why I write these words, brief testament to flesh and bone, to what is and what will be.

Some day I will be dead, as dead as any martyr or heretic, as dead as any willful human bereft of will, memory and desire. And then Benque will only be dust in my mouth, dust with other dust, mixing and mingling beneath my skull. And I will wait as others wait in the valley, to be remade, to dance in my fitful way with the other resurrected bodies. I will wait to be clothed again with flesh.

On the Strange Squid Near at Hand

“If trees were tall and grasses short, / As in some crazy tale”
—G. K. Chesterton, “By the Babe Unborn”

What parent has not both delighted and despaired at the never-ending inquiries of children? First come the “whats” of the small child who has barely learned to speak, a stage that can be endearing and exciting for adults. But even the parent who first swelled with pride at his child’s questions—taking them as a sure sign of great genius—may well find himself cursing under his breath by the time young Einstein has uttered his thousandth “What is that?” in a week. As a child, my wife inadvertently made a parody of herself—providing us with a perfect illustration of this developmental stage—when, after winning the “Most Inquisitive” award at her preschool graduation, she approached her mother and asked: “Mom, what’s ‘inquisitive’?”

Then come the dreaded “whys” of the adolescent: Why can’t I wear that skirt? Why do I need to learn chemistry? Why do I have to go to church? By this time, the formerly proud parent will wish he could only trade his great genius for any well-mannered moron who would just do as she’s told. Alas, no such trade is possible, and Dad—if Dad be of a philosophical bent—must resign himself to hope that behind the bite in these questions hide a daughter’s first probings into the mysteries of beauty, nature, and the transcendent. Then again, perhaps he does not hope in vain. As the transition from “whats” to “whys” suggests, when children grow so does the depth of their questions; the comparatively simple matter of naming and identifying objects sets the stage for wondering about reasons and purposes. As Joe Sachs puts it in his translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “[a]ll human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing.”

Skip ahead a few years, however, to when these adolescents reach the twelfth grade.  As a high school economics teacher, this is when I see many of them for the first time. I have often noticed with discouragement that by the time the students get to me, they have lost something of that urge to know. While they still ask questions, all too often they are of the purely rhetorical kind: the possibility of finding an answer does not even seem to be on the horizon. For example, the class may be discussing a text touching on ethics, politics, or economics, and eventually someone will inevitably ask: “Who’s to say?” As I like to point out to my students, this question could mean, “What makes for a reliable judge?” Taken this way, the question could move the discussion into deeper waters, but unfortunately it almost always means: there is no reliable judge.

At what would seem to be the opposite extreme, many of the other questions I get betray a desire to get from me a simple, clear cut answer that will require little further thinking and ensure an A on the test. At times, the class seems to me a balancing act between keeping the students from a jaded nihilism one second, and an unthinking acceptance of my oracular economic wisdom the next. This strange mixture of intellectual jadedness and naïveté should especially concern believers, for a young Christian who sets upon life in the modern world suffering from either affliction—or both, as is often the case—is unlikely to remain one for long. In the end, either extreme tends toward the same result: to cut off at the root the process of “stretching out” that, according to Aristotle, lies at the heart of our nature. How are educators to prevent such an outcome?

If human inquisitiveness is such an important part of who we are, it should be surprising—not to say distressing—to witness how much, in thought and practice, we’ve parceled out knowledge into countless independent fiefdoms. Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University, addressed the problem of academic fragmentation in “Higher Education in an Age of Specialized Knowledge,” his 2003 Jaroslav Pelikan Lecture for the Library of Congress. “Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, sub-disciplines and sub-sub-sub-disciplines, ‘even though . . . scholarship, learning and life have no such artificial boundaries’” he states, citing a 2002 report on higher education sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In the current climate, a student or scholar of theology considering mathematics, a natural scientist inquiring into political history, or, for that matter, a businessman pondering a work of art, will find it hard to be taken seriously—such interests will mostly be perceived as hobbies or distractions from his real work, irrelevant to the small branch of knowledge or practice that is his proper concern.

I speak from personal experience. A few years ago, I completed a master’s degree in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis. When people ask, I enjoy describing the program as a de-specialization; over four intense semesters, we studied some of the most influential works ever written in the areas of literature, politics, history, philosophy, theology and . . . math and science? People are used to lumping together the first set of disciplines under the broad title of the humanities, so it is not difficult for most to envision connections between them, but many find it hard to imagine how math and science could fit alongside the others into one coherent curriculum of graduate study. When I recently spoke with a friend about some of my classroom activities—dissecting a squid, for example—his puzzlement about my program only increased. He proceeded to ask a series of questions which boiled down to this: “I thought you were a literary sort; what does a dead squid have to do with anything?

What indeed. I confess that despite my enthusiasm for this class and the program as a whole, I could not then find a coherent way to answer. Am I, after all, just a hobbyist? Wasting my time? Failing to begin serious work in a particular field? A vague reference to “the unity of knowledge” will not do. As my inability to answer suggests, my friend’s question is a legitimate one. Knowing many facts (or even many ideas) about many things is not equivalent to having a grasp of the whole—of the universe of knowledge. Understanding connections is paramount, especially in our increasingly fragmented world.

Perhaps the first thing I should propose is that the question of the squid is not necessarily legitimate by nature; it may have arisen simply as a symptom of pathologies particular to contemporary academic culture. It may be a consequence, wholly or in part, of our own artifice as regards thought and practice about knowledge—of the current tendency within the Academy to fragment knowledge into “sub-sub-sub-disciplines,” as Gregorian teases, and the effect this process has had even upon popular culture. Note that the question would seem absurd to the child asking “what is it?” while he points to every other thing in sight, as it would to an Aristotle or a Leonardo. Of course, there are differences between forms of knowledge, but it is significant that the child whose curiosity has not yet been deadened desires to know simply, not to know linear algebra, or French military history, or late medieval painting. Still, none of this can brush aside the question. Calling it a symptom does not remove the difficulty. The question itself must be addressed.

Those who inquire about knowledge inquire also about learning, and it is with the latter that our search for an answer should begin. What sort of thing is learning, and what place or purpose does it occupy within the context of human life? Here, the monster of theory threatens to rear its head, but instead of dealing in abstractions, why not engage in the act of learning itself and consider what insight we might gain by staying close to the particular problem at hand? That problem, of course, is the squid.

Perhaps you have never seen a squid other than in pictures or in a plate of fried calamari. If so, then the best description I can give is that it is a creature that, were you to encounter it in a science fiction novel, you would consider lacking in verisimilitude. Nature and life often play these tricks on artists: there are real skies and landscapes so perfect that if you saw them in a Thomas Kincaid painting you would find them ridiculous, and no novelist would ever get away with inventing a death like my grandfather’s—the way he passed away at the exact moment the priest finished administering the sacrament, laid his hands upon him and said “I leave you in the grace of God.” I say that the squid is this kind of creature: too strange to be real, except that it is.

The squid is classified as a cephalopod, and this title alone should give you an idea of its strangeness, for it means the creature’s feet are attached to its head. Just below its large dark eyes they start: ten tentacles, two longer than the rest, smooth on one side and covered with fleshy round suckers on the other. As if all this were not odd enough, it is not the creature’s anus but its mouth that you will find between its legs. And what a mouth it is! Instead of the fleshy opening one might expect is a dark beak—a beak such as one might find on an owl or some other bird of prey. Then above the eyes, underneath the smooth surface that an innocent onlooker might take for an extremely large forehead, are its gills, ink sac, digestive tract, as well as the counterparts to its heart. Had the creature dissected been a male, there also would we have found its penis. And yes, you read that right. It’s above its eyes. Under its “forehead,” which opens on one side around the head like a skirt. Now do you understand what I mean when I say it is too strange to be real?

So it can hardly be denied that the squid is an interesting animal. What then? What is the value of considering this animal, if any, beyond satisfying the particular interests of the biologist? Perhaps the first thing to note is that whether or not we see the point, as non-specialists, of studying the squid, we are inevitably drawn, upon observing it, to ask questions. “What is it? How does it live?” we wonder. “Why is it?” we may even be tempted to ask. But such questioning, inevitable as it is, is a complicated matter. We bring all sorts of assumptions into the asking, and even more into the act of investigating. When we attempt to understand a thing we are assuming much about its nature, our own, and that of the entire cosmos. Good questioners that we are, we must not leave our questioning itself unconsidered.

Because the end or purpose of an object or an activity must be some sort of good (real or perceived), as Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, it follows that in asking and investigating we are manifesting a belief that knowledge and understanding are somehow good for us. It follows, too, that if wonder and questioning come naturally to the healthy human being, then so does this belief. We may be conscious of it or not, but our actions declare that one way or another it must be present within us. Thus we bring to light a fundamental assumption about our own nature that we had previously ignored, or as Socrates might put it, we recollect something we already seemed to know about ourselves, but had forgotten. And all this because of a dead squid.

Digging a little deeper, we discover a second important assumption: the idea that things in the world have a particular way of being that can potentially be understood. This assumption becomes evident when we consider how deeply we abhor pointless tasks. We might feel less pity for Sisyphus eternally pushing his stone up the mountain if only there were some ultimate object to his labors, no matter how intense they may be. But it would be pointless to undertake a task whose end we judge to be truly, inherently impossible. Therefore, into our first inquiries about the world we bring the assumption that that world speaks our language and can share with us its secrets—if only we can persuade, press, or woo it into doing so. To state it differently, we begin our career as questioners with the assumption that the world functions rationally; that the active being of things is somehow analogous to the workings of our minds; that what is outside us is somehow commensurable with what is within, and therefore knowable.

This idea may or may not be correct—modern philosophers like Kant would certainly deny its truth—but the point here is only that it is present as a starting point to our questions, and that it was the dissection of a squid (of all things!) that gave us occasion for bringing it to light. In allowing us to unearth these assumptions or previously unconscious insights about ourselves and the world, a dead squid can be a doorway to wonder and self-knowledge. One might say the beginning of all philosophy is a dead squid. For, as Aristotle would put it,

by way of wondering people both now and at first began to philosophize, wondering first about the strange things near at hand, then going forward little by little in this way and coming to impasses about greater things, such as about the attributes of the moon and things pertaining to the sun and the stars and the coming into being of the whole.

Moreover, by allowing us to engage in this activity, the strange, as-yet-unknown squid becomes an opportunity for self-realization, for in the process of introspection that our original “what is it?” initiates, we discover that the asking of such questions is essential to our being and identity. This is because we can recognize ourselves, know ourselves, and therefore be ourselves, precisely through and in this act. But we must not stop there. We must realize also that since questions are ordered toward answers, an openness to the possibility of knowing truth is an essentially humanizing stance.

Learning, then, has everything to do with being human, and cannot be atomized and fragmented lest we do the same to our very being. Thus the question of the squid is turned on its head: if a dead squid is pertinent to the act of being human, to what is it, from our perspective, not relevant? Because our excessive compartmentalization of knowledge is highly artificial, to ignore a small thing like a squid as a part of the whole can impair our vision of other particulars, and thus negatively affect an activity that is at the heart of who we are. Consider also that when educators focus exclusively on the idea of critical thinking, without emphasizing at the same time constructive thought that reaches toward answers, they effectively destroy their students’ hope even in the possibility of truth, undermining the entire process of “stretching out” that the search for it initiates. In other words, the current approach to learning can cripple our souls.

Consider again Aristotle—perhaps the father of all broad thinkers—and the way he drew upon knowledge of the arts and crafts to illuminate the workings of nature, politics, and ethics. Time and again throughout his Parts of Animals, Aristotle likens nature to a craftsman who endows his creations with every tool necessary to live their own particular kind of life. So used are we to this way of thinking—even within the context of evolutionary theory and the way nature selects for parts that provide an advantage to the organism—that we forget there is a metaphor involved, without which it may have been impossible to begin making sense of nature. The metaphor involves a creative leap, for throughout the Parts of Animals Aristotle insists, as a sort of premise or hypothesis, that nature does not work in vain. For him, the identity of a thing is inseparable from its activity: an eye that cannot see is not an eye except ambiguously, like a glass eye or a painted eye might be. Consequently, he is always inquiring after the functions of the different parts, assuming that each has a particular object and activity. It is not necessary that this be so, but approaching nature in this manner allows Aristotle to begin making sense of it, to begin understanding patterns and connections. Moreover, the analogy of art gives Aristotle a motivation for investigating nature:

If we study mere likenesses of [natural things] and take pleasure in so doing, because then we are contemplating the painter’s or carver’s Art which fashioned them, and yet fail to delight much more in studying the works of Nature themselves, though we have the ability to discern the actual causes—that would be a strange absurdity indeed.

The same approach allows Aristotle to gather much keen insight into a variety of particular subjects, much of which would have been lost had he subscribed to the popular notion of learning and knowledge that is dominant today.

Of course, we do not need and cannot have an expert’s knowledge of every possible subject. Rather, we need to cultivate the habit—which is to say, the virtue—of regarding knowledge as interconnected and making an effort to understand new ideas and information within the context of the whole. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that given the current patterns in schooling, most students who don’t plan on becoming veterinarians would ever see much value in dissecting a squid. We teach our students a range of subjects, assuming this will magically make them “well rounded,” but never give them the tools for bringing to the surface the questions that naturally arise in the course of their studies, and relating them not simply to a potential profession, but to their personal and even spiritual lives.

Current initiatives to bring coherence to our educational system, such as the Common Core Standards, are likely to exacerbate this problem rather than fix it, because they ultimately regard education merely as training. Perhaps the public school system can hope for little more, but private and faith-based schools, especially Catholic schools, could do much better by turning for their “common core” to the obvious alternatives: philosophy and theology. I do not mean merely adding classes in these disciplines to the course catalog, in which case they may become two more irrelevant electives, but rather ordering the entire curricula of our schools, as well as the school culture, towards the love and pursuit of truth. Instead of thinking of philosophy as an ancient ancestor from which the modern branches of learning evolved, we ought to think of it as the one sea into which flow the many streams of knowledge, each of them contributing its little part to our understanding the whole (and, in Christian schools, to our knowledge of God and his Creation). It is possible to teach math and chemistry—or economics, for that matter—in ways that explore the subjects fully and sincerely, while also pointing beyond them. I know because I’ve seen it done as a student, and because as much as possible I try to do it myself as a teacher. Economics, for example, is the social science that deals with making choices under conditions of scarcity. This definition involves the assumption that we choose what benefits us (in economic terms, we seek to “maximize our utility”), but how can we do that without exploring first what is actually good for us or for society, and thus reaching out to ethics and politics? If this model of education sounds utopian, look up “Great Hearts Academies,” talk to one of their graduates, or consider the work being done in many classical high schools and Great Books colleges throughout the country. As they prove, it is possible to educate young men and women who can tell the difference between a bumper sticker slogan and an actual thought, who can distinguish between science and scientism, who can see life and learning as one and the same.

It goes without saying that this is not an easy task, especially when fragmentation within the Academy feeds into the more devastating divorce of learning from life. This rupture must be undone if a universe of knowledge is ever to be reconstituted from the countless, self-contained multiverses that Gregorian describes. Today, only niche schools and parts of the homeschooling movement have taken seriously the fight against fragmentation, but they cannot win it alone. Christians, especially those whose tradition emphasizes the unity between faith and reason—think, for example, of the tremendous effect the Catholic educational system could have—are in a unique position to lead the way towards a model of schooling that takes seriously the humanizing value of education. Moreover, in a world where a naïve fideism simply will not do, we need to educate a generation of Christians who can see through the flimsy thinking that supports many common objections to their faith—who are able to make careful distinctions and stretch themselves to understand the truths of reason and revelation as contiguous and coherent. In our cacophonous Internet Age, only those who can regard learning as an essential part of their humanity will be able to meet without despair the challenge of contextualizing the countless bits of information they encounter daily into a coherent picture. Those who care about the future of scholarship and education—not to mention human happiness—should find this a difficult but worthwhile effort. Because constant wonder about the strange squid near at hand is the duty of everyone who aims to be serious about the business of being human.

Naming Sin: Flannery O’Connor’s Mark on Bruce Springsteen

Damian J. Ference

Not so long ago Bruce Springsteen made a surprise visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland to take in an exhibit dedicated to his life’s work.1 The exhibit, which took up two entire floors of the museum, was filled with artifacts from Springsteen’s life, including guitars, clothing, hand-written lyrics, and walls of photographs. One of the photographs was of an eight year-old Springsteen, standing with hands folded in front of the high altar at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Freehold, New Jersey—Springsteen’s first communion picture. [Read more…]

Seek MySpace

John Murphy

I first heard about Facebook in my university’s computer lab. I was plugging away at a final paper for Nomadic Art of Eurasia when I happened to overhear a conversation between two girls sitting behind me. Actually, there was very little happenstance about it. You see, I’d harbored a mild crush on one of them since freshman year, but in typical wallflower fashion had never done more than cast moon-eyed looks across the classroom. [Read more…]

A Visit to the Tate

Bo Helmich

This spring, on the final afternoon of a sojourn in England, I wandered the banks of the Thames, coming at last to the Tate Britain, home to one of the largest collections of William Blake’s art. Was it irony or grace to find his work there, in the heart of the city whose sins and afflictions were so grievous in Blake’s time? Gone now are the infamous “dark satanic mills” of England’s early industrialization; gone (or at least hidden from sight) are the “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Prosperity has largely replaced poverty, and the streets no longer feel “charter’d”—controlled repressively by the English crown.

After two weeks of rain I had happened upon that rare English joy: a sun-washed afternoon—a magic time for strolling and browsing, for hopping on and off red buses more or less at random, for happily spending all eight kinds of coins that the Brits carry about in their pockets. On such a day it would have been a shame to go indoors were it not for the promise of great art, and the inspiring assurance one receives as a gift from the old masters. [Read more…]

Saving Berlin

K.E. Cybulski

The Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz is disconcertingly beautiful. Healthy maple trees frame the shining white façade of this almost century-old German villa as well as its lush gardens. A short walk down the road leads to the shore of the Wannsee itself, a lake bespeckled during the warmer seasons with sailboats and swimmers. Wannsee is lovely, which can be unsettling. How can such beauty grace a town with so ignominious a past? [Read more…]

A Private Matter

Katy Carl

“There’s a woman downstairs who wants to talk to Penny, but Penny isn’t here. Do you have time to sit down with her?”

Jim peered into the cubicle where I sat scrolling through e-mails and the morning news bulletins. Two weeks away from the end of my newspaper internship, I had grown fond of what our grizzled cop reporter termed “butt journalism”—- hooking up to the internet and telephone and letting the information come to you. Field interviews remained a thrill, but increasingly I liked a story you didn’t have to leave your chair to complete. [Read more…]

The Moral and Legal Obligations of Catholic Judges

Frank-Paul Sampino

On Thursday, August 26, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Richard C. Casey issued a ruling striking down the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Legally speaking, it was an unremarkable and entirely expected result. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in Stenberg v. Carhart that a similar Nebraska state ban was unconstitutional. But Judge Casey’s opinion attracted attention for different reasons – not least of which is that he is a devout Catholic. [Read more…]

The Dying Would Walk in Circles

Rachelle Rea

I grew up hearing over and over again the same few stories about her. She died young—those three words end every tale. She possessed a French beauty that the family says I inherited. Although the three black and white photographs that hang on our living room wall make me wonder about the latter, the former remains forever set in stone in a New York cemetery. Beneath that stone lies the first Rachelle, the great-grandmother I never knew, the one who lost the fight with tuberculosis.

I thought of her last summer, but not while in that New York cemetery. Instead, I sat in a bus ambling down a Costa Rican mountain road. I stared down at a building that sprawled across half the valley. Crumbling golden stone refused to gleam in a futile protest to the sunless day. Square gaps in the stone resembled a checkerboard and echoed of long-gone windows. I leaned past the friend beside me as we jolted over the road paved decades ago, my eyes straining for a better look out the window—my first glimpse of the sanatorium.

For years, I dreamed of going on my first mission trip, of exercising daring, of leaving home and tacking brave onto my identity. I never dreamed of going to a sanatorium. Yet that afternoon forever linked the two experiences, because after spending a week in a small village, my mission team packed up our bus, journeyed halfway down the mountain, and parked in that valley. We needed to travel two more hours to arrive at the capital city, but we decided to stop anyway. Surely we could find some fun in the abandoned edifice turned tourist
attraction. Surely.

I expected it to smell. I know that hospital scent, and I expected it to greet me when I climbed down from the bus. To my surprise, the century in which the sanatorium had remained closed had treated it well—only the scent of rain that descended from the clouds hung in the air.

We discovered the doctor’s house first. I zipped up my sweater as we approached the smaller building tucked beside the main one. Plopped at the foot of the mountain that kept back the sunrise and sped up the sunset, the three-story residence of the doctor who founded the sanatorium boasted one immediate draw: an exterior staircase of twisted black metal that appeared to lead to the roof. Three of us ventured to climb it. Three of us retraced our steps when we realized it led nowhere. I followed the others into the yawning doorway, but the plain walls and empty window casings failed to interest me. I wanted to see the roof.

Finally, I found the crumbling staircase that led me there. A gray sky stood as backdrop for the majesty of the mountain, as green and lush as July demands. Although the sanatorium’s valley boasted no trees, from the doctor’s roof, I saw towering trunks burdened with emerald branches. What a beautiful view for such an ugly place marked by death. What did the doctor believe when he founded this place—that the hope he could offer would outweigh the morbid statistics? Did he ever wonder if he would die here, too?

I failed to notice all my American friends leaving. Finally, the Costa Rican pastor who travelled with us called out to me in slow Spanish so I could understand—“Senorita, senorita”—and I broke free from my reverie. I spun, pouring the thought I couldn’t voice past our language divide into my smile. “Isn’t it glorious?”

By the answering grin he gave me, he got the message.

I laughed off the worried looks of the others when we rejoined the group just in time to follow the waving tour guide into the sanatorium. Immediately, I rued my empty sweater pockets. I had no pen or paper with which to capture the thoughts arching across my mind. For a nineteenth-century building, it loomed expansive on the inside, open, airy. Three of us could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the long hallway, though I eliminated that option because I held back, too busy observing to measure the width or even the distance of the hall.

My friends kept a better eye on me; when my sneakers snuck too close to the edge of the winding stairway that lacked banisters, the man at my side yanked me to safety with a warning look. I just grinned at him.

As we passed room after room, the fictional potential I had sought to assign to the nebulous doctor cemented into something more solid. These rooms were not just rooms, these once were places where patients, people, coughed and wheezed and weakened. My fingers reached out to rotted-away doorframes. Someone once grasped this wood to steady themselves. I leaned my face over the planks of a room I wasn’t to enter lest I fall through the rotten wood. Someone once walked on that forbidden floor.

A writer could spend days in such a place. A writer whose great-grandmother came to Ellis Island from France in 1911, married an Irish steelworker, raised two boys to toddlerhood, succumbed to tuberculosis, and never knew her inkhearted namesake could spend years in such a place. I studied each scrap of yellow wallpaper left behind by the patients and each streak of graffiti left by less-respectful visitors—all of it rang with secrets and stories lost in time. I only half-listened to the translations our team leader gave of the tour guide’s speeches. I cared little for what he could tell me of the history of the place. I wanted to know the history of the people, but still they felt fictional, nebulous.

While we walked, the clouds parted. In the center of the sanatorium, the hallway broke in half to reveal, open to the sunlight, a round slab of stone with a faded design in the middle. Sunshine wafted over us as I heard the translation of what the tour guide said then. “The dying would walk in circles. Right here. For hours.”

I shuffled out and stayed to the side. No one ventured into the center of the circle. I squinted in the sun to see the tour guide’s face, to confirm he told the truth. His bearded frown bore an honest sadness. The tuberculosis patients who came here, he said, the ones still well enough to leave their beds, would come out to this open space where the sun shone down on their white gowns and pale faces. And they would walk in circles.
I could see them. Faces lifted to the sunlight that the mountain tried to block out, thin clothing clinging to emaciated forms, shaky breathing becoming a chorus. They came from all over the world to get well in this place where the air supposedly imbues weak lungs with strength. Some did—some came, got well, went home, and lived lives. But many more—many, many more—came, got worse, never left, and died.

I noticed a difference in the long walk down the hall in the second half of the sanatorium. The wallpaper, the graffiti, the holes in the floor looked much the same, but the potential that piqued the storyteller in me on the doctor’s balcony hardened into a longing for a time machine. Whereas at first, I marveled at what I could make up, now I wanted to travel back in time and gather the stories scattered in the rain-tinged air of this place like so many scraps of wallpaper on the wind. The fiction no longer outshone the devastatingly real.

They walked in circles in the only place they could feel the sunlight. They must have known that the walk stretched out in front of them, futile, in vain. No amount of walking could get them out, but they didn’t care. They walked anyways. They kept walking even though footstep after footstep only took them around the same old circle. Even on the threshold of death. There seems something so very human about clinging to the last vestiges of life, about straggling into a sunlit circle.

To leave, to step from the sanatorium into the courtyard, we had to duck down steep stairs and traverse a dark tunnel. I refused to go until someone turned around and took my hand. Cowardly, I know. I wonder, what kind of courage must the first Rachelle have possessed, as she watched herself waste away before either of her boys turned five, as she prepared herself to say goodbye? I caved to cowardice when it came to getting out of the sanatorium through a dark tunnel. They clung to courage when it came to never getting out and facing the darkness we all must face.

Maybe, I thought, brave is not so much leaving home for the unknown. Maybe brave is realizing that we must—and our reaction after we realize that truth.

I want to die walking, too.

Degrees of Cool Part II (or, post-Christian)

Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy beliefs in things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.

Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.

Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*

And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.

japan

Remember this guy?

An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking “gollum, gollum” in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.

Because we're not.

Because we’re not.

When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.

The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was sometimes overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

While real anarchism was always felt a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of the original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue Chestertonian eye-rolling. But the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.

“Whoa….you know…man?”

Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**

hipster-mustache-brigade1

Postmoderns, meet your destiny.

So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of finding meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may kinda-sorta be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****

One one hand, we can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a Post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. We can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. We can groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.

Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.

Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful as personally experienced in Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (uuuggh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.

*

*Interestingly enough, though, in almost every single popular movie about Aboriginal populations (or their obvious stand-ins), they are almost always saved by a white man.

**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***

***That was a total lie****

****After finishing, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster

*****There are two ways this can go, though – non-threatening doesn’t just have to be interpreted as “humbled,” but “compromised” too. There is no justification for substituting the visceral experience of faith for something watered down, just for the sake of being “non-threatening.” That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion – which was, in the first place, part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?

******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.

 

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.