Hail, Mary, Queen of the Arts

Michael Crotteau, a guest contributor, has graciously offered this post on Mary, Queen of the Arts.

This past July, inside of a warm candle-lit grotto in my home parish, I consecrated myself to Jesus through Mary, the Mother of God. It has been, without a doubt, the greatest step that I have ever taken thus far in my faith journey, providing within me innumerable spiritual graces and a much stronger connection not only to Mary, but also to Christ and the entire Communion of the saints. However, had I been told just half a year before my consecration that I would call myself the servant of Mary, I would have laughed and passed the idea by without a second thought. This is due to the fact that I was once a Marian skeptic, but not in the sense that I doubted Church doctrine on Mary. I was concerned, however, that if too much emphasis was placed on Mary, then it would draw one’s attention away from God. Sadly, I believe that many Catholics today hold true to this belief, and place Mary as one devotion among many. After all, what Catholic doesn’t have a rosary dangling from his or her rear-view mirror or store one in a purse, pocket, backpack, or suitcase?

So what was it that so quickly snatched me from this very plain understanding of Mary and placed within me such a profound desire to be her servant? What was it that caused me to cease thinking of the Virgin Mary simply as St. Mary, and to begin a new life with the Mediatrix of all Grace as my spiritual mother?

During Lent last year, I came upon a book filled with historical representations of Mary through art. Some of the images I found no interest in, but there were several that mesmerized me and continue to do so. They caused me to reflect on who Mary truly was and is, not only for Christ, but for all of us. The following three images were specific depictions which greatly expanded my understanding of Mariology.

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OUR LADY OF MERCY, by Jean Mirailhet

It is easy to misinterpret this piece of art as material which supports the idea of Mary as a goddess, and thus not an authentic presentation of orthodox Mariology. However, we should ask what is really going on in this image before we assume that it is as sketchy as it may first appear. Mary stands still, waiting patiently with her arms spread out, opening her mantle so that all of the people in the image may come closer to her. She is much taller than all of them: royalty, priests, bishops, sisters, and laity. Mary’s eyes look out to the viewer, and she offers us an invitation to become closer to her as well. Needless to say, there are a lot of red flags at first glance.

Then we find something odd, very odd, which transforms the entire work of art. Notice the cincture around Mary. Strange… why is it placed that high and not around her waist? That is because there is someone very important hidden in this image, within the womb of Mary. Also, notice the place to where all the saints have locked their eyes: the womb of Mary. This image reflects Mary as the first Tabernacle of the New Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, where the saints have gathered round just to be in the presence of Christ. And now, we can accept Mary’s invitation, to be wrapped in her mantle so that we may become closer to her son.

Immaculate Conception Zurbaran

THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, by Francisco Zurbaran

While the first illustration presented Mary dressed eloquently in royal colors, here she is clothed in humble garments: a white gown and a blue cloak. Instead of people gathered around Mary, there are faces of small children, both underneath her feet and circling her head. These represent cherubs, which in both Jewish and Christian history have been used to symbolize not only the presence, but also the throne of God, his full glorification. It is odd that in this image they are presented as if they are the throne of Mary. However, it was Mary who was the earthly throne of God, before, during, and after her pregnancy with Christ. Her humanity, immaculately saved from the stain of original sin, was esteemed as “full of grace” in her meeting with the angel Gabriel. Furthermore, Mary was the first and the last person in Christ’s life, there at his birth and there at his death. In that sense, she is the frame of Christ. Just as the tabernacle is the sacred vessel which houses the mystery of God, so Mary is the sole person, the sacred vessel, whose life perfectly frames the mystery of God, so that she may bring his presence to all people.

In the image above, Mary’s hands are not spreading out her mantle, but are empty and facing upward. Her eyes do not look out to the viewer, but gaze above her. In this image, Mary is praying, and she is an exemplar for us on how to pray. She needs nothing in order to pray, and she holds onto nothing as she prays. All she does is recognize that she is God’s creation, “the handmade of the Lord,” and submits to his divine will, “according to your word.” It is a simple prayer, much like the clothes she wears. She prayed this prayer not only at the conception of our Lord, but also at every moment of her earthly life. We should do the same.

Coronation of the Virgin - Velazquez

THE CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN, by Diego Velazquez

This image is quite different from the other two. While in the first two images, Mary was the primary figure within the work; here, she is one of several distinct persons. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated upon the heavenly throne and bestow a crown upon Mary’s head. This is to represent her heavenly coronation, which is easy for Catholics to hear and pass by without a complete understanding. Notice how close Mary is to God, as if one could not possibly get any closer. She is not placed at the same level with God, but she is respected by him as the highest of all creation, even higher than the cherubs of the holy throne of God. If God sees this reverence as proper, then without question we should be willing to give such a reverence to Mary as well.

I am drawn by how Mary so humbly accepts the crown, almost as if she is not even concerned about it, or at least does not appear to be. Rather, she looks down, with one hand upon her heart and the other facing downward. She looks down to earth, praying and asking that all the graces which she receives be passed down to all who look up to see God. This symbolizes the continuation of her earthly role, which she has never ceased to fulfill, the Mediatrix of all grace. She is truly deserving of this title, because all the graces known to man have been bestowed upon her, and she is more than willing to bestow them upon whoever seeks her aid. Why wouldn’t we honor her as Queen, for in doing so, our eyes are drawn to God, who chose her of all women to be his mother, theotokos.

Holy Mary, Queen of the Arts…Pray for us.

I’ll Have What She’s Having

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Villanelle for Eurydice

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

Though We Might Tarry
by Peter Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prepare Ye the Way

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

Is Jesus seducing me?

Is Jesus seducing me?

Oh, and that other famous one:

runkidsrun

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

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

I'm ready for my close up now.

The Lord is ready for His close-up now.

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

Welcome to Godspell.

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

Um, blasphemy?

I would argue not. Follow me here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

getup

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

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

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

And what dropouts they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

***Though not always the end.

****The key factor here.

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize

After careful consideration, our judges, Matthew Lickona and Arthur Powers, have selected the stories that will win the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. Look for the first and second place winners in the upcoming Easter issue of Dappled Things!

First Place:

“Ends of the Earth,” by Anthony Lusvardi, paints a fine portrait of a faith not so much tested or lost as exhausted. To use an image from the story, the way has been blocked by a great pile of mud and muck. The Methodist aid worker at center of the story is a stranger in a strange land, homesick and uncertain, doing right without any real hope of doing good. Stymied and stranded, he must engage with the place where he does not want to be, a world of poor Indians, a world rendered with compassion and without condescension. The author shows a good eye for detail, and earns his epiphanies.

Second Place:

“Polish is for Prayers,” by Gabrielle Pastorek, is the story of an aging Polish-American farmer, narrated by his nephew. The story gently unfolds, offering the reader continuously deeper insights into a strong, taciturn character and touching on the ways that men deal with loneliness and loss.

Honorable Mention:

“Bev Trimpy’s Dog,” by Ryan Rickrode

“The First Time I Died,” by Simon Sylvester

“The Order of All Small Things,” by Faydra Stratton

“Carney in Love,” by Christian Michener

The remembered mercy of broken things

This is a guest post by Thomas Springer.

Brett’s 1/2 –ton pickup, righteously dented and rusted per farm truck specifications, backed into our barn driveway on a winter Saturday with a special delivery. Attached to the rear hitch was an empty flat-bed trailer that was long enough to carry another entire pick-up if necessary.

“That’s a pretty big rig just to haul 50 lbs. of frozen meat in,” I hollered, over the phlegmy cough of the truck’s exhaust.

“It would be,” Brett said, “if this was my only stop. But I’m headed to Muncie (Indiana) for a load of hay after this. I found it on Craig’s List. There’s none around here because of the drought. They want $100 for a round bale if you can believe it.”

It was a custom delivery from Brett and Debbie Green’s M&M Beefalo farm in nearby Mendon. The packages we unloaded were frozen so hard that they clanked like porcelain dishes when we stacked them in the freezer.

A beefalo is two-thirds cattle and one-third buffalo. It’s leaner than cattle, but with a wilder, more complex flavor. Brett feeds his animals hay, pasture grass, green corn stalks, some grain and even over-ripe watermelons when he can get them. But no growth hormones. They live a clean, happy life, until, as farmer/writer Joel Salatin says “they have one bad day at the end of it.”

“I hope this batch lasts you!” said Brett with a conspiratorial grin.

We usually buy a ¼ of a beefalo from him each fall, but this year we needed a second order. That’s because misfortune intervened — although that’s a secret heretofore known only to me, my wife, a few family members, and now, our cattleman.

It befell us on a Saturday evening in July, one of those lingering, saffron-twilight interludes that’s perfect for grilling burgers over hardwood coals in the backyard. As I fiddled with stick matches and kindling to start the fire, I asked Emily to retrieve two packages of 1/3 lb. patties from the freezer in the barn.

“Be sure to shut the freezer door tight!” I instructed. I said it in a shrill, fatherly tone, born of the time-tested expectation that such dictates often fall on deaf ears. Seconds later Emily sailed passed with packages in hand, ran them to the house and within a minute was back outside on her trampoline.

After a quick defrost in the microwave the meat was soon asizzle on the wood-fired grill. It’s an imprecise operation. There’s no control knob on an open fire, no steel burners to ensure an even distribution of heat and flame. So you’re forever flipping here and nudging there to center the meat between the too-hot spots and the too-cold spots. You know the patties are ready when the muddy brown “done” juice seeps out and dangles from the grill’s underside like a high-protein stalactite.

While campfire cooking in mid-summer makes for a lot of sweating and squatting, the eldest daughter’s imprimatur during dinner made it all worthwhile.

“Dad,” her eminence pronounced, “these are the best burgers.”

And so they are. Beefalo patties, even when cooked well-done as my wife insists hers be, retain a ruddy color and rich flavor. Garnish with pickles, garden lettuce and home-grown tomatoes and you’ve got a fast, slow-food that can — mirabile dictu! — make an American teen forego the Golden Arches.

Not until the next afternoon did I realize that this would be our last beefalo cookout of the summer and fall season.

I was mowing by the barn when an ominous thought came to mind: “Had I checked the freezer door last night?”

It’s an old freezer with a weak door seal that must be firmly closed. As I rushed in I could see from the 30 feet away that it was not. It had been left ajar for 24 hours. And the barn’s indoor thermometer read 92 degrees.

I instinctively shut the door tight as if doing so now would make any difference. Then I opened it slowly, with the wincing trepidation usually reserved for one who has, with a sickening crunch, just backed over a child’s favorite toy in the driveway.

“Son of a, son of a, son of a … arrgggghhh!”

It wasn’t just the packages of beefalo –about 25 lbs. — that were thawed and dripping a wretched pink fluid onto the floor. There were also five pounds of gorgeous steelhead and Chinook salmon filets, caught from a boat on Lake Michigan. We’d won the trip in a church raffle and it would not be repeated. There were 20 bags of strawberries, picked on my wife’s family farm, the promise of winter fruit smoothies to come (and now bound for the compost pile). There were venison steaks for which I’d traded six pounds of honey from our hives.

It was such a wasted blessing. In all, several hundred dollars’ worth of food had been reduced to an oozing heap of vacuum-sealed offal. Apart from the money, these were prized provisions of a sort that only our home place can provide. We’d caught the fish, picked the berries and harvested the honey that we’d used for barter. It was our hands and those of our friends that had done this: Brett and Debbie, Brian and John. Their care and handiwork was the food’s provenance.

The loss was beyond infuriating. And someone – I knew exactly who – would have to pay for it.
Picture a hot, dirty, angry father as he stomps to the house. Imagine his self-righteous fury about to be unleashed, channeled into a tongue-lashing about waste, irresponsibility and carelessness that a guilty child would not soon forget.

Then, as the magma of recrimination reached its eruption point, an unlikely thing happened.
Near the patio a memory came to mind of a 10-year-old boy on a Saturday morning in December, some 40 years ago. It was before catechism classes, outside the old Catholic school on South Main Street in Three Rivers. A large puddle on the playground had frozen into an ice rink that made a perfect place for the boy and his friends to go sliding.

Earlier that week, the boy had gotten his first pair of glasses and what a marvel they had been. For the first time in his life he could see, in fine detail, high branches of the tall trees that lined his street.

Such an expensive accoutrement must be protected, thought the boy. So with reasoning that could well be described as recklessly imbecilic, he removed the glasses … and stowed them carefully in his back pocket. It was, inevitably, just minutes before the long-legged, uncoordinated boy fell flat on his rear end. Thus did the new glasses shatter and their lens fragments cut painfully into his skinny buttocks.

My father was a barber and those glasses probably cost him a day’s worth of haircuts. On the way home, I feared his wrath. But it’s telling that my last memory of the event ends here. All I recall is that he didn’t explode. He lashed me neither with his hands nor his tongue. Did he sigh deeply and wonder how such an addle-brained son could have sprung from his loins? Perhaps — but he never let on that he did.

Anyway, by the time I reached the front porch I knew that I couldn’t tell Emily what had happened. I couldn’t lay this temporal loss, so inconsequential in the scheme of things, on the shoulders of a sensitive and usually conscientious 9 year-old girl. It would unjustly grieve her spirit. My father had stayed his hand, and in remembrance of that, I would stay mine.

His example of leniency was a fruit that took four decades to ripen.

Yet those of us who insist on thawing hamburger patties in a microwave oven aren’t inclined to wait long for anything. The head-long immediacy of modern life, the instant availability of all knowledge (even the proper spelling of availability, which the computer’s squiggly red underline now orders me to correct) precludes the long view. We live in a PayPal, overnight-shipping-from-anywhere culture. Instant gratification has been enshrined, even deified by our consumer-driven economy. By design, it’s a world that devalues and even derides patience, self-denial and self-control.

It’s instructive, then, to learn from those whose livelihood requires that they heed the seasonal limits that nature imposes on creation.

When Brett had mentioned “the drought” as the source of his hay shortage, I was at first surprised. The drought? Oh yes, the drought, from last summer. It was long since over for me and everyone else who doesn’t farm.

But when Brett says the “drought” he doesn’t qualify it with “last summer’s drought.” It’s still in the present tense for him. It’s as real as a barn full of bawling beefalo that need hay from somewhere if they’re to survive the winter. Brett will shoulder the drought’s burden until the spring rains, God willing, make his dormant pastures green again.

I told this to Nancy, who worked fall weekends at her family’s orchard and she understood completely. Last March weeks of record high temperatures in the 80s had made the fruit trees blossom far too early. Inevitably, when the weather corrected to seasonal norms, frosts came and destroyed nearly all the apple blossoms. Without blossoms there’s no fruit and the trees won’t bloom twice in a year.

But by fall? When customers came for their squash, pumpkins, garlands of onions, ears of dried Indian corn and, oh yes, bags of apples?

“We’re sorry,” Nance would say, “but there’s hardly any due to the hard frost last spring. We hope they’ll bounce back next year.”

Some customers were puzzled, others a bit put off.

“Well, yes,” they seemed to insinuate, “but we want our apples now.”

As if, through some digital chicanery, we could subvert natural law and produce pixelated Ida Reds on a virtual assembly line. Thankfully, we can’t. But next season, given the trees’ stored-up root energy, there could well be a bumper apple crop. Even should we forget last spring, we can count on nature to keep an accurate set of books.

Within these books – at least if you’re a tree — are pages ordered by a fixed, cellulosic memory of seasons past. It’s a record imprinted with concentric certainty upon their inner-most being. When I was a boy I used to wonder why people couldn’t be more like that. Wouldn’t it be crazy fun to lop off an arm or finger and count the growth rings? (To a curious boy, such thoughts are not morbid.)

While not anatomically true I may have been on to something. People and trees alike do bear within their circumference a lived history of plentiful growth, as well as indelible marks of injury and hardship.

In the haunting poem “Rings,” Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian poet, conveyed that sentiment about a load of old-growth trees that he saw chained to an Oregon logging truck. Even the smallest log, Bruchac observed, “has more than a hundred/scars around/the wrists of seasons.”

Alexander Pope, writing in 1732, had younger trees in mind (and certainly curious boys) when he composed this timeless proverb: “Just as the twig is bent so the tree’s inclined.”

The trick here is to bend with judicious care. In my experience, when maple saplings are bound too tight in the upright position the guy wires can leave harmful wounds of their own. One must loosen the wires as needed to accommodate new growth. It’s an apt reminder that all discipline should lead to freedom, not enslavement.

Finally, an image closer to home comes from Rachel Peden (1901-1975), an essayist and Indiana farm wife who wrote of rural life with a luminous sense of the ordinary. While raking her front yard, she compares the tree’s annual crop of leaves – meticulously grown from bud to leaf, then recklessly discarded as debris – with her own endless round of meals cooked, beds made, chickens fed and floors swept.

But the colored leaves now lying on the grass are not all. Inside the dark, rough trunk, the tree has added a new layer of live wood around its core … And something remains from a year of farm living, too … a layer of strength that will persist as a permanent record, long after the tedious household chores are raked up and carried out to the midden to disintegrate.

Peden strikes me as one who would understand the remembered mercy of broken things. A traditional farm is a place abundant with life and death, wonder and catastrophe. There must be times when even the strong can’t bear to hear the undiluted truth of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll save the freezer story for a time when my daughter’s old enough to see humor in it. Until then it’s a door to the past that will have to remain shut – and with more gusto than she managed the first time around.

Why I am (not) Charlie

I am not Charlie because, even though millions of supporters have taken to the blogosphere (and, occasionally, to the streets) and’ve begun using the catchphrase Je suis Charlie/I am Charlie to express their solidarity with the victims of the shooting that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week,* there’s still a lot that makes me uncomfortable about using those loaded words.

I am not Charlie because saying “I am Charlie” kinda not only sweeps the ridiculously complicated elements leading to the shootings under the proverbial rug, but it frames everything in a dangerously simplistic dichotomy of West-vs-Middle-East or free-speech-vs-oppression or European-social-systems-vs-struggling-minorities or liberals-vs-fanatics or whatever shape your weekly slice of us-vs-them takes. I am not Charlie because, in addition to publishing pictures of the Prophet, the magazine has regularly shovelled layers of uncritical shat at social groups and people they obviously haven’t taken the time to understand.** I am also not Charlie because, incidentally, I’m not a magazine named Charlie Hedbo and French is not my forte.

I am not Charlie because I did not employ workers who are now dead *** and more who are wounded.**** I am not Charlie because attacks on my person and whatever staff I have didn’t overshadow the four people who died at a nearbyish grocery store. I am not Charlie because nobody, especially four additional people in Zinder, Niger, happened to die for my latest issue this week.

I am not Charlie because I’d kinda like for people to give my religious beliefs a serious investigation before dismissing them***** and wonder if the God I try to worship demands that desire extend to try to understand a religious tradition that’s not my own – that, and I wonder if it might be humanizing/helpful/worthwhile to try respecting the dignity of a love people have for a historical figure that’s as deep or deeper than the love I try (and fail) to have for a carpenter from Galilee.

I am not Charlie because I’m undecided about where I stand between the fact that freedom of expression is something ridiculously vital and the fact that responsibilities come with each/every freedom. I can’t quite say if I’m Charlie or not because I dunno whether the fact that most of the post-Jan-7th twitter-sphere seemed to forget the mag’s constant stream of ridiculous vitriol is a bizarrely touching act of mercy or terrible lapse of intellectual integrity.******(*******)

I am not Charlie because I don’t stand (intellectually) with people who say #iamcharlie while having issues when other people use that self-same freedom of speech to talk about abortion or alternative marriages or Holocaust denial or dead Palestinian children or ISIL precepts or the Ku Klux Klan – either freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone (especially the apparently disgusting, backwards or generally dangerous) or you’re not really all that interested in it.

I am not Charlie because displays of solidarity disturb me when they demand so little of the people displaying them, especially when those people conveniently forget the fact that several people die in terrorist attacks every week – apparently they don’t deserve rallies of over two million people.

I am not Charlie because it wasn’t my blood on the ground on January 7th, 2015. I am not Charlie because I don’t draw pornographic images of the Trinity. I am not Charlie because I myself don’t know to what extent I’ll defend freedom of expression. I am not Charlie because I hope, one day, to be able to say something of substance about Islam. I’m not Charlie because I can’t draw very well.

I am not Charlie because I am willing to compromise. I am not Charlie because that desire to compromise extends to folks labelled “terrorist” or “fanatic.” I am not Charlie because my values have never given me cause to run for my life. I am not Charlie because I’ve never died for what I believe in.

I am not Charlie because I wasn’t stupid enough to publish something under threat.

I am not Charlie because I am not brave enough.

 

 —

 

*The magazine was satirical and published some pretty offensive stuff in general, and was one of the few publications that didn’t back down from printing pictures of Muhammad. Which, according to some interpretations of Islamic precepts, is a rather large no-no occasionally accompanied by death sentence.

**Not that I take the time to be properly informed. Nope. Guilty there. I don’t even know if it is possible for most people to be as informed as we ought/beg them to be.

***Frédéric Boisseau
Georges Wolinski
Franck Brinsolaro
Elsa Cayat
Stéphane Charbonnier
Philippe Honoré
Bernard Verlhac
Jean Cabut
Michel Renaud
Mustapha Ourrad
Bernard Maris
Ahmed Merabet, a police officer killed at the scene

****Simon Fieschi
Philippe Lan
Fabrice Nicolino
Laurent Sourisseau
Various policemen

*****While I’ve never read the magazine itself and so don’t know how substantial the articles are, the cover images at times have been beyond gratuitous.

******I mean that genuinely – I’m disturbed but actually kinda moved too.

*******Although, when I think about it, all the best mercies are usually a lapse in something.

 

 

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.

“You’re not my Godfather!”

Tucking in my three-year-old Godson the other night, I reminded him of the fact that I am his Godfather. His immediate, passionate response at once brought me to laughter and convicted me.

“You’re not my Godfather! (long pause) Jesus is my God-Father!”

Let the reader understand, my statement had incredibly upset, even angered this child. I imagined a miniature Caiphas rending his clothes at my seemingly grave blasphemy. In his mind, I had called myself God. He couldn’t abide the outrage. Little does he know the humor behind his ironic misunderstanding and conflation of the term Godfather with the common prayer phrase “Father-God.” At the same time, the gap in his understanding exists from my own inept God-parenting. I have not given him a good enough category for what “Godfather” means.

Why mention this anecdote? The story is instructive when considering my own relationship to God. Consider…My higher viewpoint and greater knowledge made my Godson’s ignorant rejection humorous and endearing. His rejection kindled the desire to reach out to him more and better. I wonder if, in God’s providence our own rejections and foibles are as humorous for their being so ill-informed and weak. I was not threatened by my Godson’s rejection, in part because of the near inevitability of his eventually understanding the distinction between “Godfather” and “Father-God.” When it comes to God, however, our returns are by no means inevitable, yet God remains unthreatened by our passionate rejections, pitying my ignorance and patiently giving me (and other poor sinners) every opportunity to return to his kingdom. God’s patience is all the more incredible in light of the fact that my own rejection of God stems from sin rather than ignorance. While my Godson decried me due to a lack of knowledge, whenever I sin I reject God from a lack of love that amounts to contempt.

The whole episode reminded me, furthermore, of the second part of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisisted. Waugh aptly titles part two, “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” (a reference to one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories [1911, The Innocence of Father Brown]). For those who haven’t read Brideshead, I will say that it tells the story of the Flyte (Marchmain) family, including multiple members’ flight from and eventual return to God and his Church. At the end of part one, Cordelia’s dialogue with Charles Ryder suggests the higher viewpoint from which to see the wanderings  and spurning many of the characters offer to God:

"They've  closed  the  chapel at  Brideshead,  Bridey  and the  Bishop;
Mummy's  requiem was  the  last  mass said there. After  she  was buried the
priest came  in -- I was there alone. I don't think he saw me--and took  out
the altar stone and  put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with
the holy  oil on them and threw the  ash outside; he emptied the holy  water
stoup and  blew out the lamp in the  sanctuary and left  the tabernacle open
and empty, as though from  now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose
none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.  I stayed there
till he  was  gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn't  any  chapel  there any
more, just an oddly decorated room. I  can't  tell you  what  it felt  like.
You've never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?"

     "Never."

     "Well, if you had you'd know what the Jews  felt  about  their  temple.
Quomodo  sedet  sola civitas .  . . it's a beautiful chant.  You ought to go
once, just to hear it."

     "Still trying to convert me, Cordelia?"

     "Oh, no. That's all over, too. D'you know what Papa said when he became
a Catholic? Mummy told me once. He  said  to  her: 'You have brought back my
family to the faith of their ancestors.' Pompous,  you know. It takes people
different ways.  Anyhow, the family haven't  been very  constant, have they?
There's him  gone and Sebastian gone  and Julia gone. But God won't let them
go for long, you know. I wonder if you  remember the story Mummy read us the
evening Sebastian first  got  drunk -- I mean the  bad evening. Father Brown
said something  like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an  unseen hook and an
invisible line  which is long enough to  let him wander to  the ends of  the
world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'"

Each of the wayward Flytes feels God’s twitch upon the thread, quiet, almost imperceptible to any outside observer. For each of these family members, God’s gentle twitch came as an experience of great loss. For Cordelia, it’s the loss of the Eucharist from her home’s chapel; For Julia, it was sudden loss (at her brother’s strong word) of the ability to silence any longer her muted conscience ; for Sebastian, God’s twitch was the unjust loss of a poor soul whom he had learned to care for in time of need; and for the family patriarch, the twitch came at the loss of his battle with the flesh, realized in the humility of inevitably-approaching death. In their raging, their railing, their rejection of God, the Lord’s patient providence saw the ever-present opportunity for grace. Especially interesting is the twitch God makes upon the thread of the agnostic, Charles Ryder. With no conscience, no beloved, and no paralyzing fear of death, God twitches his soul by the loss of beauty and the loss of culture he sees in the destruction of the art and structure of Brideshead mansion and estate at the hands of the military. In their effort to protect the nation, they have, for Ryder, killed her soul to make room for a new generation of vacuous men without experience of transcendent beauty. The moment of conversion then requires a moment of loss, because only in the loss of our idol (be it rebellious pride, inconstancy, confidence in the power of the flesh, or aesthetic culture), do we discover that God is our portion. He is the truth, goodness, and beauty each of us seeks.

Returning our wanderings, then, to where this blog started…Here, then, is my confidence as a parent, as a Godparent. There’s nothing I can do to make sure my children and Godchildren reign with the Lord in his coming Kingdom (pray God they do), but I must remember my role is to attest to and witness to the invisible line between their soul and their maker, between my soul and my maker, to invite them to be watchful and sensitive for God’s gentle twitch. Sever not the line, Lord, and twitch us back to Thyself, as deep cries out to deep.

 

A Christmas Carol

Madonna and Child - Titian

Madonna and Child – Our Lady gazes lovingly upon her babe. Painted by Titian, c1508

Every year at Christmas, GK Chesterton gave the world a gift. Without fail, like a Christmas miracle, he would produce a brilliant essay or poem. I would love to share them all with you right away, but let us pace ourselves, yes? The following is the poem “A Christmas Carol,” first published in the year 1900.

Upon reading it, I am reminded that all of my own joy finds its source in the virtue of love. First, it is found in the love of Our Blessed Mother upon whose breast I too would gladly rest my head. Second, it is given by the love generated from a contemplative gaze upon Our Lord. All of creation stops and looks upon him, darkness is made bright and all of the lesser stars pale in his glorious light. It is in the looking upon him and being seen by him that all of our happiness is to be secured. As the great Feast of the Nativity approaches, take a moment to direct your gaze upon the Christ Child. Happy Christmas!

 

A Christmas Carol

GK Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,

His hair was like a light.

(O weary, weary were the world,

But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,

His hair was like a star.

(O stern and cunning are the kings,

But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,

His hair was like a fire.

(O weary, weary is the world,

But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,

His hair was like a crown.

And all the flowers looked up at Him,

And all the stars looked down.

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 Rennier,* 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.