What the Fox Said

I think we’ve all had that moment where we read/listen/watch something and find that somehow, miraculously, there’s a line or image or melody that makes some mystery make sense with an all-but-audible though satisfying click of a puzzle piece locking into place. At the risk of constantly seeming to bounce off other bloggers’ topics (Michael Renner,* again…), I can’t help but write a few words about a scene from The Little Prince.

desert

If you’ve read the book you know the one. The prince, after landing in the desert, makes a few sociological observations, asks advice from a flower, fails to make friends with a series of echoes, has an embarrassing encounter with more flowers (a surprisingly common issue) and finishes a disturbing, fateful first conversation with a particular golden reptile before meeting a critter who’ll come to change his life.

Who are you?” asked the little prince and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

fox 2

I am a fox,” the fox said.

fox 3

fox 4

fox 5

At this point in the story, the prince is lonely and quite shaken from his time in the desert. He’s far from home, concerned about his baobabs, knows his best friend and companion (a now-infamous rose) lied to him, just climbed a rather tall series of mountains and is a tad bewildered by the nonsensical customs of human adults and so, with his wonderful and usual directness, replies “Come and play with me…I am so unhappy.”

And thus starts a kind of love.***

Over the course of their small time together, the fox apprentices the prince in the art of relationships. Friendship, to him, comes down to a matter of “taming” each other, a long and tenuous process where (out of a hundred thousand similar foxes) one fox becomes dear and (from a giant mass of lumbering, deadly humans) one small boy can take on the proportions of an entire world. Once tamed, the fox says, the formerly useless colour of wheat will remind him of the prince’s hair.

The process is a tedious one where the prince has to learn to sit closer and closer to the fox each day without saying anything (because words are a source of misunderstandings), show up at the same hour every afternoon and come to earn the right to know the fox as the one, best and only-only fox in the whole world. No other will ever be as remotely close to being so real.

* * *

Entering adulthood in the Canadian Catholic community is likely to give one some pretty particular expectations of what it means to make and be friends. Compared to the wider and postmodern-influenced youth culture, traits like vulnerability, community and relational depth are not only encouraged but fiercely guarded. It’s not uncommon for church youth groups to (successfully) make safe spaces for youth to share some pretty deep, dark stuff and for university student movements to build a culture of constant self-disclosure not just in terms of your spiritual life but the trickier, emotional one too. As opposed to the image of the cool, detached, twenty-something cultural consumer, the young Catholic (and North American Christians in general) is encouraged to engage him-or-herself with the world, to be vulnerable enough to risk getting hurt.

This was my world from the age of 15-23, a social reality tantalizing enough to make any sociologist salivate. A nation-wide circle of friends, a very real, sub-cultural community formed where even if you didn’t know a particular person in the next major town you could bet your devotion-of-the-month you knew someone who did. And when you did meet them, nobody would bat an eye when you asked them for their story, their conversion moment, their temptations, their touchier struggles and intimate details about their prayer life. For the most part, it just wasn’t an issue. If people are wary about how transparent Facebook makes our lives, it’s nothing compared to pop-Christian expectations of insta-vulnerability.

I can imagine it irked some people to find that vulnerability was expected of them, that it was part of the basis on which the great wheels of the sub-culture churned. But full disclosure: I loved it.

Brief tangent: for a number of reasons, I decided a few years ago that I was going to leave Canada and get some experience abroad. I’ve lived in a couple of different countries since then (usually in East Europe) and’ve spent the majority of my time in the former Soviet Union.

To make a long story short: making friends in Ukraine and Russia is a different ball game (without even referring to the present crisis). The rules and expectations are different, and you can only go so long surviving on the grace-period usually granted to foreigners who don’t know the ins and outs. Don’t get me wrong: in general, Eastern Slavs are incredibly friendly and will go out of their way to be hospitable with a strength that puts Western Christians to shame. Once their outer-wall comes down (which is often easier than it looks) there are unexpected, sometimes overwhelming amounts of warmth and effort coming from their end.

Which was wonderful and made me feel spoiled in more was than one. But as time went on and I, being well-trained in young Catholic ways of socialization, got down to the business of getting real, I found a very different response than expected. Rather than insta-openness about matters deep and vital, my friends were a little puzzled and, maybe, a tad offended by my assumptions that they would just unzip their aortas and let a relative newcomer peruse the intimacies of their heart.

I was confused and, well, a little hurt because I’d almost forgotten that, in the greater part of the world, intimacy has to be earned. It was dawning on me for a while but it wasn’t until re-reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece that I was reminded that, in the course of respecting the human person, sometimes I have to edge a little bit closer each day, speak quietly, come at the same hour in the afternoon and let myself be tamed.

* * *

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

* * *

And, well, because I can.

 

 

 

*I have to disagree here with Michael – he places The Little Prince as a Good Book to help prepare for the Great Books. I have to differ as this little text might qualify as a Great Book itself. Despite the brilliance of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, The Little Prince is hands-down more consistently awesome than The Brothers Karamazov.**

**It does help, though, that Prince is only about 100 pages to Karamazov‘s approximate 10,000.

***It’s gotta be said, though, that the prince doesn’t seem to have much of a need for relationships at all, flowers excepted. He leaves home and meets dozens of people without much of a thought to build any kind of long-term friendship with anyone (granted, accountants and drunkards may not be the most appealing demographic to pre-pubescent space travellers). Even when people start growing attached to him he seems confused and doesn’t understand why they don’t want him to leave. This, combined with the aforementioned directness, has led some people to wonder if the prince occupies a space on the autism spectrum. Either that or, well, he’s an alien.

 

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.

The Witness of Example: The Case for Canonizing Married Couples

Chester and Eileen Bellard picture by Nikki Barbre

Chester and Eileen Bellard
picture by Nikki Barbre

Three days from now–November 19, 2014–would have been my grandparents’ 70th wedding anniversary. They did not quite make it to that milestone. Both of them passed away this summer, he on July 28 and she on August 14, just seventeen days apart. Both were ninety years old, and they lived independently in their home together, against all odds and against all advice, until the stroke that took Paw Paw hit him six days before he died. Granny was admitted to the same hospital the next day. They died as they had lived: together.

It was, of course, a very difficult time for our family, but it also gave us cause to reflect on the beautiful witness of their life: sixty-nine and two-thirds years of a marriage so finely-honed, they made it seem effortless. Among the vast pile of stuff in their house, my mother found quite a few love letters. They are written, for the most part, on unlined white tablet paper and say things like, “To Eileen, I love you, Chester,” and sometimes, “This letter good for one trip to Las Vegas.” (They always won on the slot machines. Alas, I did not inherit that gene.) However, the most enduring testament to my grandparents’ love, I think, is the fact that all three of their children and all six of their grandchildren are married, and none has ever been divorced. A thousand other factors have contributed to that record, but I am confident I speak for all of us in saying that Granny and Paw Paw’s example certainly helped. We all grew up knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that such a marriage was possible, and we all wanted what we saw.

In fact, the children of parents in stable marriages are statistically far more likely to form stable marriages themselves. This is one of only many advantages studies have shown for the children of married vs. unmarried parents, but it is arguably the most important, because it is the one that breaks the cycle. If a child of divorced or unwed parents can find a way to live in sacred spousal union, then future generations of that family will be more likely to do the same.

In this time of history, when Holy Mother Church is seeking (some might say, desperately seeking) ways to pastor a world of blurred lines and broken homes, we know that we must help people overcome the educational, economic, and emotional struggles that often accompany non-traditional family structures. We know we must extend spiritual support to families of all configurations: a ministry so difficult, the bishops just held an Extraordinary Synod to try to figure out how to accomplish it. Still, it seems to me that we are overlooking one of the simplest and most effective things the Church could do to strengthen families, both in this generation and the next: we could leverage the power of example. The Church cannot wave a magic wand to bless every child with grandparents like mine, but it has the power to take the light of holy marriage out from under the bushel basket society has shoved on top of it, and show us saints.

The scriptures are filled with holy couples, husbands and wives who could not fulfill God’s plan except in communion with each other. Mary and Joseph are the pinnacle of such witnesses, but we also have Anne and Joachim, Ruth and Boaz, Tobit and Sarah, and on and on, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Yet, apart from these scriptural saints, the Church has never, in two thousand years, canonized a married couple together. Saints Isidore and Maria de la Cabeza were canonized separately, on the basis of individual miracles. A host of other married people have been recognized as saints, but without their spouses. (In fairness, not all of their spouses were saintly.) Yet surely, God did not cease to use marriage to work his will in human lives after the Biblical era. Surely, we can find couples to exemplify for this muddled generation the hope that marriage is as potent a path toward godliness now as it was when Zechariah’s child leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. We teach our children that a Christian has only one calling: to become a saint. How can we expect them to enter marriage as a means toward that goal if no marriages ever win the crown of sainthood?

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

The good news is, the road toward the canonization of couples is already half-paved. Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Therèse de Lisieux, have been beatified, along with Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini. It is a start, and a good one. One thing you and I can do to advance the vocation of marriage is to pray for the intercession of these holy men and women, and for their canonization. But we must also work to divest ourselves of the mentality that martyrdom, virginity, founding a religious order, and spiritual writing are the only paths to sainthood. We should acknowledge individual spouses blessed with holiness (Thomas More, Elizabeth Ann Seton), but we must not fail to see the Cross of Christ being lived within marriage itself[i], its grace efficacious for both husband and wife.

The crisis of vocations in our church is not limited to celibate vocations. The number of marriages celebrated in the church in 2013 was less than half the number in 1965. The two trends are not only linked by a societal turning-away from the faith; they are intrinsically linked in the life of the Spirit. “Whoever denigrates marriage also denigrates the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent.”[ii] Without vocations to holy marriage, we will continue to see a decline in vocations to priesthood and religious life because the two are halves of the same whole, both of them necessary for the health of the Body of Christ. Yet how will future generations know what a holy marriage is unless we show them? Documents and teachings are necessary and good, but they will never inspire human hearts the way that watching Granny and Paw Paw live their vows inspired mine.

Only God can award the crown of sainthood, and the Church should not lower the bar for canonization to create a “quick fix” of sainted couples. It is not necessary; if marriage is truly a sign of Christ’s love for His Church, then it cannot fail to produce miracles. We need only learn how to look for them. It is imperative that we demonstrate to the world that the ideal of Christian marriage is neither outmoded nor unattainable. If the Church shifts its focus from the abstract sanctity of the sacrament to the actual saintliness of real married lives, we might discover how much of the pastoral heavy lifting could be lightened by the strength of good examples. Not everyone has earthly grandparents like Chester and Eileen to emulate, but we can all become the spiritual children of Louis and Zélie, Luigi and Maria, and the countless others whose names we have yet to learn.

[i] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1615.

[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1620, quoting St. John Chrysostom

Three Poems for Brittany Maynard

Perhaps like me, you met the news of Brittany Maynard’s suicide today with the same shock, sadness, and guilt (yes guilt) that shook me when I heard this poor woman had killed herself. Like many thousands of others out there, our family had been praying for Brittany, and we hoped that God’s grace would soften her heart, fill it with joy for the dignity of her own life and the meaning of suffering revealed in Christ. I keep thinking I could have done more. She must have received thousands of letters daily (I should have sent one). If I had taken the time to write her, I might have sent along the three works of poetic genius below. I would have asked her to read them aloud and in order. No doubt she would have seen in them a movement from a celebration of death to a rage against death to a joyful confidence in the death’s own death.

The first poem, A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” lauds the athlete who dies (whether accidentally or not) before age outlives the quickly wilting garland of victory–a sign for the vigor of youth. The athlete is praised largely because he will never suffer the pain of being defeated, of being forgotten, of being a has-been. Housman captures the real, tangible fear the human soul has for the corruption of the body and the fickleness of fame. He captures as well the vain temptation to praise death as savior from these realities, for if the fame of the dead-in-youth lives on, it is but among shades who have mostly worn out their own. Shallow praise indeed to be adulated by the weakest of the weak, those whose only greedy wish is to have died as young as you. The poem at once creates an idol of physical health and popular renown while acting the lighthouse against their shoals.

The second, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” begs his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas, falling to the opposite side of the mean, does not foolishly praise death but foolishly overstates and dignifies its power by his too-impassioned resistance. “Wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” “grave men,” “and you” must do more than resist; all these rage. Perhaps were death a great injustice it may rightly demand rage, but it is on final count the fall’s just desert; the God of life patiently withholds it on account of his mercy yet only duly delivers when death arrives. Dylan illumines, though, the innate inclination to continue being what one is, as one is: a creature in the image and likeness of life, light, truth, goodness, and beauty itself (i.e., God). Dylan’s rage remembers the indelible dignity and value human life and the grave and disdainful, yet deserved disorder of death. Ultimately, though, Dylan’s rage serves an idol, the idol of temporal, material life, or if not that then the idol of man’s indomitable spirit. The poem displays a confidence but not yet the right kind.

Finally, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10),” finds the true mean between rage and praise, the rightful place of peace in the face of man’s foe defanged. Donne denounces death; it is impotent, the pawn of the vicious and of chance, readily imitable, and ultimately mortal itself. Death, once a wall, has become a door opened to those who share in Christ’s resurrection. Donne opens for us a horizon onto death that allows the Christian confidence to see it for its temporary necessity yet its enduring evil. Though Donne sees in death a door, he does not loose sight of death as the enemy it truly is. In this balance Donne navigates the narrow way between “Athlete Dying Young” and “Do Not Go Gentle.” Death is no friend, but it is not so great an enemy as deserving the full passion of rage. Death, it seems, deserves a defiant laugh (and a bit of a scold). Death is laughable not for its impotence to cause intense pain, suffering, and fear. No, death’s comedy is its error, its pride. Death dies in a moment while the eternal life the faithful already possess remains and reaches fullness in saecula saeculorum.

We need neither the foolish celebration nor the desperate raging against such an enemy. We need instead the peaceful confidence of sharing in the life of the one who once conquered and will definitively destroy death on the last day. Read with me now, and pray with me that Brittany’s soul opened onto a horizon of humble Christian confidence, even if only with her dying breath.

 

To An Athlete Dying Young  —  (by A. E. Housman)

 

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

 

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

 

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

 

Eyes that shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears.

 

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

 

So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lintel up

The still-defended challenge-cup.

 

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.

 


 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night —  (by Dylan Thomas)

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 


Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10) — (by John Donne)

 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.


 

 

 

Dappled Links

Since my post on native plants, I’ve delved deeper (ha) into gardening. I found a kindred spirit in this essay: Memory and Plants. Thomas Rainer’s blog takes garden talk to a more literary level than most: “But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally “it opens everything” may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees . . . . For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants.” I have been going back and reading his archives. Good stuff here, here, and here. I have been puzzled by my sudden interest in native plant gardening, but I realize it probably owes something to Hopkins and his adoration of inscape and “thisness,” for instance: “The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.”

From the TLS, Rediscovering Regina Derieva. A poet I’d never heard of, she was Russian, Jewish, and Catholic.

From Aeon, Freedom from Food. Much has been written about America’s tormented relationship with food, but this article, and the other articles I’ve read about Soylent, attract comments from a subculture that has reduced our food anxieties to their most Gnostic roots: “For me, it’s not the time taken, because I don’t take that much care about eating, only over doing it, it’s how disgusting eating is, considering the end result. It’s just awful to have to continue eating to sustain this body, which disintegrates in the end anyway. OK, that’s too negative, but I still find eating gross, and I over do it, substituting eating rather than addressing the things I need to address.” Most people won’t want to abandon food for a futuristic vitamin gruel, but most of us do harbor an unhealthy concept or two. Recently I’ve been battling the idea that no matter what I’m doing, I could be doing something more productive – if I’m blogging I could be doing the dishes, and if I’m doing the dishes I could be blogging. It’s pernicious and “wasting” time on planning and cooking some elaborate recipe helps me be rid of it.

A book trailer for Heather King’s new memoir. And here, more memories of her mother.

Saturday Links

Signs of the budding Catholic literary renaissance keep popping up. In the nine years since we started Dappled Things, it has been very exciting to see how quickly things seem to be picking up steam. The National Catholic Register just posted an article in which I’m quoted, discussing the growing number of literary prizes offered for Catholic literature. For those of you who are interested, we remind you that we are currently accepting submissions both to our fiction and nonfiction prizes, each paying multiple cash prizes of up to $500.

Meanwhile, Dana Gioia has organized what looks to be the kickoff conference for a new era of Catholic literature, titled the The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination. We’ve briefly mentioned this event before, but the more details we learn, the better it looks. The conference is drawing some of the most renowned authors in the United States, including Gioia himself as well as others such as Alice  McDermott, Ron Hansen, Julia Alvarez, Kevin Starr, and Tobias Wolff. The conference will be held at the University of Southern California and will include sessions ranging from “The Jesuit Imagination in Literature” to “Latino Catholic Writers.” Our own Meredith Wise and Joshua Hren will participate in various sessions, including one titled “Catholic Literati: The New Generation.” There will even be special sections for high school attendees, where students will get to workshop with writers like Hansen, Gioia, and McDermott. Mark your calendars.

On a different note, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is finally getting some money of his own. Colombia, seems to have a knack for honoring writers in its currency. The country already features the poet Jose Asuncion Silva in one of its bills—including he full text of his poem “Nocturno”—as well as novelist Jorge Isaacs, author of Maria, the premier work of 19th century Colombian Romanticism. Now, the Colombian congress has just approved a law to feature the recently deceased Nobel Prize winning author in one of its future bills. Its about time someone devoted some money to the arts!

“Thank You for the Light” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the New Yorker.

While the New Yorker paywall is still down, you may want to check out “Thank You for the Light,” a previously unpublished short-short story of Fitzgerald’s. Though he wasn’t practicing for most of his career, the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald occasionally shows gleams and glimmers of his Catholic upbringing and early devotion. (The short story “Absolution” is one example, which has elements that are Catholic in sensibility if not in drift; there’s another about a young woman who faints during Eucharistic Adoration, though I can’t remember the title now. Daniel McInerny further unpacks the extent of Fitzgerald’s Catholicity here.)

While “Thank You for the Light” has a hint of the surreal and maybe of gentle miracle-story parody about it, it’s also strangely reverent. When Fitzgerald first submitted it to the New Yorker in 1936, the editors who rejected it are said to have called the story “absolutely out of the question . . . unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic.” For a certain type of reader, those words may function as a backhanded endorsement. I thought the piece would have been right at home in the pages of Dappled Things. If you read the story, do let us know what you think in the comments.

(photo: pre-Vatican II interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, MO, the setting of the second half of “Thank You for the Light”)

The George W. Hunt Prize

At the Washington Post today, emerging Catholic writers take note: the George W. Hunt Prize announced today will be offering $25,000 to “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.” The prize is co-sponsored by America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. To be eligible, writers must be working in the English language and be under 45 years of age. There’s no word on the Post article about when submissions will be accepted or how to submit, so watch for an update with details.

Source, Summit, Sempiterna

“You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”

This line from Eucharistic Prayer III leveled me just the other day at mass–so much so that I (perhaps inappropriately) leaned over to my 6-year old son and whispered, “did you just hear that? Imagine . . . every moment of every day there’s a mass going on somewhere. How awesome is that!?” It happened to be his feast day (feast of the archangels). I couldn’t help but look in awe at the ceiling of our University chapel, painted with seraphim and cherubim, and ringed with the communion of saints. The eternal praise of God on their lips. It stunned me to think that this liturgy at once stops, reverses, and accelerates time in its very performance. The moment of elevation makes present the Lord’s infant body raised by Mary from the manger for the adoring shepherds’ feasting eyes, the Lord’s paschal body raised by his own hands at the last supper, the Lord’s battered body raised by the Romans on the cross, the Lord’s lifeless body raised by the power of the Spirit from the tomb, the Lord’s blessed body raised to heaven 40 days later, the Lord’s mystical body the Church raised from the blood of the martyrs and raised from the graves on the last day. The strange realization hit me that, my wife, children, mother-in-law, and all the others cobbled together at this mystery and in this space praise the Trinity with all other faithful on earth now just as truly as we do with John who worshiped through the revelation given on Patmos, or even with the prophet Isaiah, who heard the sanctus sanctus sanctus with his own ears and tasted the burning, cleansing presence of the Lord God of Hosts on his lips! Yes, this moment, this host elevated unites me to all worship in spirit and truth that has come before, but even stranger is the thought that I am somehow present to all the masses yet to come.

In pondering how this might be so, a short story by Evelyn Waugh flashed into my mind. Waugh’s “Out of Depth” masterfully illustrates the constancy yet transcendence of the liturgy. The liturgy as sticking-point is increasingly necessary amidst a throwaway culture, facebook feeds a speedreader can’t keep up with, memes that die in a day, and videos that go viral and are forgotten in five minutes (#unmemorable). Waugh tells the tale of Rip, a wealthy, well-connected, and shallow Englishman who finds himself, drunk, dazed, and (at the hands of a magician) deported from his own age and into the London of 500 years to come. A mental haze hovers over Rip as he wanders through the formerly familiar alien landscape. Taken prisoner by the white savages, Rip attempts to wake himself from what he believes is a dream. Communication with the natives of this new “Lunnon” proves a near impossibility, despite the linguistic similarities. The African “bosses,” who come and take Rip from the village, bring him to a learned man, whose thick accent baffles the attempt to communicate to Rip by reading Shakespeare. This moment strikes particularly strong chord. The plain language of English does not transcend time; even the seemingly timeless classic of Shakespeare seems of little use to bridge the intellectual, emotional, psychic gap for Rip. Something else, however, will do just that. Rather than paraphrase the moment of insight, let me allow Waugh to speak for himself:

         “And then later–how much later he could not tell–something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-build church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.

‘Ite, missa est.’ “

In Waugh’s imagination, even 500 years from now, when African Dominicans will be re-evangelizing the savage British Isles, the one immutable rock that weathers any storm, the one ever-glowing beacon that cuts through the haze of confusion and the vanity of time is the Lord’s sacrifice made once for all–the source, the summit, the sempiterna, the Eucharist.

The Apocalypse According to Doctor Who

Dr Who

The Doctor Who Christmas Special was recently made available via online streaming to those of us who do not have access to the BBC on our televisions. I’ve been thinking about it for a month now and cannot stop.  The episode, entitled “The Time of the Doctor” marks the transition from Matt Smith’s Doctor to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

The goodbye scene is… well, let’s just say that because I already knew it was coming I was able to adequately prepare my emotions:

I may have cried a little

 

Oh my, when the bowtie hits the floor…

Doctor Who has a densely packed mythology that underlies the events leading up to the regeneration (the Doctor occasionally regenerates and is subsequently played by a new actor. This is the secret to keeping a show going for decade after decade after decade…). It would be well nigh impossible to unpack all of the background, but there are abundant theological themes throughout for us to muse upon. I have always thought that we ought to “read” Doctor Who in the same way we might read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This is to say, not as a straightforward retelling of another story with silly characters and magic but rather as a fairy tale that is implicitly Catholic-shaped simply because it assumes the presence of a greater reality of beauty and goodness. Now, I have no idea if the writers of Doctor Who are even the tiniest bit religious, but they certainly have created a world in which virtues and destiny and good and evil have meaning. Their stories are highly mythopoetic and dense with symbol.

Edith Stein writes in Science of the Cross,

“every genuine work of art is a symbol…that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning , which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.”

A world in which everything means something is a world that is highly charged with the Divine presence. Nothing is merely a true to life “adult” recounting of grim facts. No gritty, dour, post-modern drama, here. This is why science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific are so wonderful; it hasn’t given up telling stories. The Doctor may or may not be a Christ figure (I think probably not), but his actions always have resounding significance. He is very old and very wise, a true hero, journeying through a noble world in which nature is shot through with grace. Our lives are lived with precisely the same significance. Each day is a heroic journey, and at our best we make of ourselves a gift for those we love. All of our actions have eternal significance.

The Christmas special finds the Doctor, appropriately enough, in a town called Christmas where snow is always on the ground and the truth is always told. All of the ancient enemies of the Doctor and his species the Time Lords have gathered here in response to a mysterious question beamed out to all time and space. It is a question: Tell us your name, doctor…who? The enquirers turn out to be the long lost Time Lords, speaking through a crack to another universe. To answer and speak his name, forbidden to all, unlocks the door to allow the Time Lords back to their rightful place in this universe, but for the new world to come on the one we have now must die. To answer doctor who? brings on apocalypse as The Silence, Daleks, Cyber Men, and Weeping Angels are all eager for a final battle to push back the new world and destroy the Time Lords forever. Under these circumstances, the Doctor is and must remain unknowable. The question remains unanswered.

These guys are super scary and violent. Really.

The Doctor has seen all of this before, this planet with the town called Christmas. He has journeyed here many years in the future and stood at the foot of his grave. This is where he dies for the last time. No more regenerations. It is predestined.

In such conditions, his only victory is to keep the villagers of Christmas safe. And this he does for hundreds of years, steadfastly refusing to say his name out loud but also steadfastly refusing to abandon these innocent people to the monsters at the edge of town, drawn in by the mysterious question like moths to a flame. The Doctor forestalls the apocalypse, but experiences a long, slow apocalypse of another sort. This one is personal, and he knows that it only ends with his own death. Is this a picture of a sacrificial Christ figure? A tragic hero? A simple, confused man unsure how to make a big decision? Perhaps all of these, but I would say that he is most clearly a saint. A sometimes flawed yet entirely virtuous martyr for the good of those he loves.

In the end, a miracle is granted. It is occasioned by life energy (or whatever the fancy, sci fi name of the sparkly blue stuff is) being sent through the crack from the other Time Lords. This is most certainly a graced moment, a pure gift from those who love him. Without it his regeneration will not take place and the last Time Lord will have fulfilled his predestined death, the way of all creatures. With renewed energy, though, instead of the final end there is a regeneration. The viewer never has it spelled out, but obviously the future that the Doctor had seen is not so set in stone. His grave will not be here after all.

However, this regeneration is not cheap grace. There is most certainly still a death. The transition from one face to another is not a mere change in appearance, a new face on the same essential personality. The old Doctor is gone. He dies and undergoes the transfiguration of the grave and new life.

“Goodbye, Raggedy Man,” bids a vision of his faithful friend. Indeed, goodbye. We are all breath on a mirror and we fade away so quickly. We have but a short time to become saints. In this life is much that is difficult and suffering and goodbyes. The heroic journey must always end in a death, and yet, grace is lingering, drifting along through a crack in the universe waiting for us to inhale.

 

On motherhood, art, and dying to self.

Of all the advice people love to give to young mothers, some of the most prolific is on how to be patient with small children, certainly a necessary skill. Yet the state of mind required for happiness at home with small children isn’t really patience, as such. It’s a kind of flow that transcends patience: an attentiveness to and delight in minutiae that others don’t seem to notice. It’s something like the state of mind required for watching the film Into Great Silence—or for living in a monastery. It is a Theresian “little way” of detachment from goals of one’s own, as the time when those goals might have been achieved slips irretrievably away. It is the patience of the surfer of the waves of boredom, as described by David Foster Wallace:

“Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”[1]

Thank God that the bliss lies on the other side, as experience has shown me that it does. And thank God this sort of endurance test is also required of writers, or I would never have encountered it before embarking on motherhood. Women with little or no such previous experience must also fight their way through boredom’s waves, and I think from hearing some of their stories that an unprepared person tends to fare worse when first plunked down inside five rooms with a tiny being whose need-based behaviors can’t be disciplined, scheduled, or predicted, and who depends entirely on her body for nourishment. Even for the experienced, the brain goes begging. When not well supplied with its own nourishment, it can wander into some dark and dry deserts.

While I am gone from what most people consider high-pressure environments, still the habit of internalized pressure is not gone from me. (“Wherever you go, there you are,” right?) I’m impatient for success, in heaven and on earth, and I do not know whether success will come. Not knowing scares me, but more and more the experience of meeting the daily tasks and accepting the daily gifts is peeling away this fear, baring me ribbon by ribbon to the air like the potato I am. It is stripping off not the desire for excellence, but the desire for validation.

I will know this deceitful desire is gone when I can accept my limitations in the way described by Caryll Houselander, when I can

stop striving to reach a goal that means becoming something the world admires, but which is not really worthwhile, [and] instead . . . realize the things that really do contribute to our happiness. . . . the things that satisfy our deeper instincts: to be at home, to make things with our hands, to have time to see and wonder at the beauty of the earth, to love and to be loved. . . . To work for real human happiness implies unworldliness, the kind of unworldliness that is usually a characteristic of artists, who—in spite of glaring faults—prefer to be poor, so that they may be able to make things of real beauty as they conceive it, rather than to suit themselves to the tastes and standards of the world.[2]

As a mother and an artist, I am grateful for the space and peace to pursue these deeper instincts daily. One minute motherhood will seem like the limiting condition on art; the next it will appear as the only hope for preserving the bliss on the flip side of boredom that is art’s necessary prerequisite. I would never have had the opportunity to rediscover this characteristic bliss of childhood and preserve it into adulthood, if not for my creaturehood as a woman and my re-creation as a mother. At times this cycle is breaking me completely, but only in order to rebuild me. There is reason to be grateful for this.