Dark Bird Is Home

Dark Bird Is Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

(warning: one curse word at the end)

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing good out there won’t be old

Oh sometimes the blues is just a passing bird

(“The Dreamer”)

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

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

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

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

St. Elizabeth of Portugal – Pray for Us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allegory in a Dream

The night after I drifted farther from the center of the purity path than I had in some time, I had this dream. It was strikingly vivid and full of minute detail in a way that dreams rarely are. I wrote it down for my own benefit, only to discover that it might serve as a good mediation for more people than myself. I hope it will.

I was on my way to a theater with some old friends, walking through a town that looked like 1940’s America, when I realized I had left my keys behind.  When I turned back to retrieve them, everything suddenly looked like an Irish countryside instead of that town. I decided to try to take a shortcut and went off the road. On my left, as I went through the moors, I saw through the mist an enormous ruin of an old gothic cathedral, with heavy, moss spotted stones and an open roof in most places, and a multitude of small rooms coming off the main body of the church at every level.

I walked to a side entrance and carefully pushed open the tall, damp, heavy wooden door. A few steps in, I heard voices and I saw lights coming from somewhere below me. I found myself at the back of the main church and saw the altar at the end of a long, uneven aisle, far away from me. I looked down, and saw a vast hole in the floor, opening to level upon descending level, as far as I could see, with a narrow but strong stone staircase winding in squares along the edges of every level. There was the sound of wedding bells, far off, and on each level I saw a medieval bride in procession, with a heavy cathedral train spread out in a great length behind her, bridesmaids in simple medieval dress attending either side of the train. Each bride had vibrant dark red hair, very curly and long, flowing down around her arms, and shrouded by a finely-wrought and impressively long lace veil that followed the length of her cathedral train. The veils framed each face on a sort of tall and wide headdress of white flowers and silver drippings that piled several inches above the forehead and off to the sides above the temples of each bride. I could see the expression on the face of the bride on the highest level, just a few feet beneath me; though her attendants had downcast, sober faces as they held the edges of her train, her eyes were lifted up as she smiled hugely and insipidly. But she was entrancingly beautiful nonetheless. She walked slowly and regally, taking each step deliberately (all the brides at all of the levels stepped in time with each other), but going in a continuous square around the level she was on, never rising higher. There was no staircase that led up; presumably she would continue walking where she was, not realizing, in her vapidity, that there was no way out.

Some of the brides below her, though, had found a staircase. Just as slowly and regally, they were ascending one level at a time. They were equally radiant, and all seemed something out of a dream, even within my dream. There was an ethereal, other-worldly quality to the whole picture that I saw through the floor, and it left me in wondering, confused amazement.

I decided to explore the rest of the cathedral ruins, thinking maybe I could find someone who would explain to me what I had just seen. I realized, to my consternation, that the door I had come in was gone, so I turned to my left, and through some dark rooms at the back of the church, I found another staircase, this time of heavy wood, leading up to another level. As I moved toward the staircase, I heard the sound of a child crying, and realized that a thin small boy with dark curly hair was sobbing in a little heap in the hidden underside of the staircase. I bent down to see if I could help him, and he reached his arms up around my neck so I could pick him up. He was wearing almost nothing, and his skin was dirty. I cradled him in my arms like a baby, supporting his head with my hand, and turned his face so I could make eye contact with him and try to calm him. All at once his subsiding cries turned to maniacal laughter, and his mouth widened into a demonic grin until it was almost the only thing on his face. His scrappy arms with sharp fingers began scratching at my face, gouging deep gashes across my cheeks and eyes and lips as I screamed in fright and pain, and tried to drop him and push him away. Hardly able to see, I ran up the stairs, but he clung to me and continued to scratch at my face, neck and shoulders, tearing slashes through my clothes as he cackled. I felt fat drops of blood splashing from my face to my chest, leaving large red spots all over my off-white linen peasant’s shirt.

As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, still unable to fight off the demon, I saw a man walking calmly towards me and cried for help. He reached in with one hand and easily plucked the creature away. It screamed as it was tossed back down the stairs and disappeared around a dark corner. Gasping and trying to calm myself, wiping blood out of my eyes, I looked at the man who had saved me. He was wearing a light brown robe with a knotted white rope around his waist, had a trimmed, pointed beard and an unwearying but peaceful warrior’s look to his thin face and stature. He was taller than I, and yet his height came more from the aura of subtle indomitability than his physical form. He might have been St. Joseph, or one of the early founders of a monastic order. I asked him, as I regained my composure, what that thing had been, and what the brides below were doing, and what they meant.

He answered with a stern but not unkind economy, “That is one of the demons disfiguring you because you love your intended more than you love God. They will continue to torment you until you have learned to put your loves in the proper order. The brides below are caught in their circular procession, close to marriage and yet unable to marry, for the same reason. You cannot take shortcuts to find the key, and you cannot marry properly unless you love God more than anything else. You will not find a door out of this ruin until you have worked here for many years and learned to love.”

He turned away to resume his own work, explaining as I looked past him and saw a busy scene, all under the open daylight of the roofless cathedral, that he and the other saints, and other workers I saw, were all there to help me and people like me to learn to order our loves. Some of the industrious crowd I could see were like me, but had started some time ago and were on their ways to sainthood. There were large drafting desks with piles of notes of accounts that needed to be calculated, and there were also mountains of fine cloth to be washed and folded and sorted. In some ways the room looked like a sacristy; there were long, narrow drawers to hold vestments, and other wooden cupboards among the remaining labyrinth of stone rooms and crannies.

As I took my first step out of the corner, preparing to join in the tasks at hand, an enormous stone gargoyle, tall and thin, swung suddenly into my path and began to advance on me, towering over me, prepared to crush me. I determined he should not win, and that I would conquer him with my own strength, and crack him till he fell to pieces at my feet. I realized, after I took my first swing, that I had barely impacted him at all, and he began to grin with the same long, wide demonic leer of the savage child. He moved in closer and faster, and his shadow blocked out the light as I backed into the corner and tripped on my hem, stumbling away from him. All at once I realized I couldn’t defeat him on my own, and that he was moments away from crushing me. I raised my arms above my head to shield myself and cried out, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect me!” I heard a wild sound of stone being crushed, and felt debris rain down on my hair and hands, and then felt warm sunlight. I opened my eyes, and the gargoyle had vanished, leaving only some light gray dust and rubble on the floor.

I blinked, and saw the man who had plucked away the first demon. He looked over his shoulder from where he was busy at work, nodded curtly, and said, “Well done. Now begin your work. Clean that cupboard, and then those drawers, so we can put away the priest’s vestments.”

I opened the cupboard he had indicated and a small animal came out, the size of a raccoon, but not fitting a description of any animal I knew. It leapt at my face, screeching, determined to attack me, but I stabbed it swiftly with the sharpened end of my broom handle, and it disintegrated. I nonchalantly brushed away the dark cloud it had left hanging in the air and looked inquiringly back at my guide, who had calmly watched the whole episode. He gave another curt nod in answer to my implied question. “Yes. With each task given to you, a new demon will come from the dirt, some large and powerful, some more easily defeated. You must destroy each one, and so you will gain your freedom as you clean and prepare the dark spaces.”

As he finished speaking, I heard a trumpet sound from far away. Everyone in the room smiled radiantly as they paused their work, and looked expectantly at the stairs. I saw a bride ascending, and she was simply dressed. She no longer had a train, and her bright red hair was all loose and flowing, covered only by a white lace mantilla that fell to the floor, meeting the hem of her dress. Rather than the six or eight attendants I had expected to see, there was only one. She looked at the bride now, rather than at the floor, and she smiled serenely. And the bride, no longer grinning vacuously at the sky, smiled a private, shy smile as she looked at the ground and was a little embarrassed at the pleased attention of the joyous onlookers. She walked across the room with an unhurried surety in her step, and a door opened in the stone wall across from where I stood, surrounded by wheat stalks and golden light. It opened to a brightness I couldn’t see, and she and her attendant stepped up into it. I ran to follow them, to try to see where they had gone, but the door closed before I could reach it. It disappeared, and the stone wall grew back.

“She has finished her work,” said my guide, “As you shall.”

Pope Francis Book Club

Move over, Oprah, there’s a new Book Club in town!

At his last Wednesday audience (May 27th), Pope Francis invited every engaged couple in the world to read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Speaking of the book in an audience that reflected on the time of engagement, Francis exhorted:

It is necessary that young people should know it [The Betrothed], that they should read it. It is a masterpiece, which tells the story of an engaged couple that suffered so much pain; they travelled a path full of difficulties until they arrived in the end at marriage. Do not leave aside this masterpiece on engagement that Italian literature has in fact offered you. Go ahead, read it and you will see the beauty, the suffering, but also the fidelity of the engaged couple.”

“Necessary,” no less! That’s high praise. We might ask, why does this novel (perhaps the second best-known of all Italian literature) take pride of place for fiances? The answer is that the novel embodies Francis’ vision for marriage preparation in the Church: an extended time of hard work on love. Francis calls engagement “the time in which the two are called to work hard on love, a participated and shared work that goes in depth.”

But what would such “hard work on love” require? While his audience was no systematic treatise on marriage preparation, I see an overarching goal and two pegs in Francis’ plan for engaged couples. First to the goal. Francis sets for its goal the attainment of the conditions necessary for couples to fruitfully celebrate the marital sacrament, thereby receiving the grace of strengthened indissolubility. The work itself will be “hard work on love,” but as we said such a phrase needs content. Francis focuses in on one of the principle fonts of love: knowledge. Francis envisions a journey in two kinds of knowledge to pair with the flourishing of two kinds of love: (1) a “pedagogical journey” in the discovery of human knowledge of “man” or “woman” in and through coming to know intimately one’s fiance; and (2) a “spiritual journey,” of the couple coming to spiritual knowledge of God together into Scripture, into the sacramental life of the Church, and into the prayer characterizing the domestic church. Each journey in knowledge invites a further falling in love, a further appreciation of the true, good, and beautiful as more clearly visible in the beloved. At the same time, my own distortions of what is lovable become more apparent and beg for correction. Finally, such a journey will take time and conscious effort.

Each of these these points (human knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and conscious effort over time) deserves its own treatment, however brief. First, as to time and conscious effort, Pope Francis seems to mean for the betrothal period to be long enough to reasonably accomplish its pedagogical and spiritual goals at the level of knowing each other and knowing God. As to its duration, “The covenant of love between a man and woman, a covenant for life, is not improvised; it is not made from one  from one day to another. There is no express marriage: on must work on love, on must journey. The alliance of love of man and woman is learned and refined.” God’s six days of creation, as a work of love, “Created the conditions of an irrevocable, solid alliance destined to last.” An engagement “is a course that goes slowly ahead, but it is a course of maturation. The stages of the course must not be burnt. Maturation is done like this, step by step.” These and other passages suggest the extended time couples should devote to marriage preparation–time enough at least to read Scripture and The Engaged together.

As to knowledge of each other, we must remember that the lover can only love what is known in truth. Love follows knowledge. Increased knowledge of the beloved augments love, which in turn inspires the lover toward yet deeper knowledge. Stunningly, Francis openly takes to task any who would claim cohabitation apart from marriage as a fruitful means to gain such an important knowledge of the promised spouse. “Yes, many couples are together for a long time, perhaps also in intimacy, sometimes living together, but they don’t really know one another. It seems strange, but experience shows that it is so” (emph. mine). What does it take to know someone? Kudos to Francis, who tells the engaged that it is a sharing of the most important questions of life reflectively, and the most important experiences of prayer, spiritual reading, and works of mercy together.

What is it that couples come to know at the human level during their engagement? Francis seems to think the engaged come to know “man” and “woman” in and through this man or this woman. An interesting claim. Francis seems to hope fiances will learn fundamental, universal truths about their complementarity–not so much the specific, unique idiosyncrasies of each partner. Again, a refreshing, though not novel approach. The resonances with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body cannot but fill the mind here. Just as Adam discovers woman as gift to him and thereby discovers himself as gift for Eve, so too do fiances discover in steps what it will mean to give and accept irrevocably oneself and the other as total, fruitful, faithful, free gift of love. Francis mentions 1 Cor 6:15-20, one of Paul’s injunctions against fornication, and bemoans culture’s refusal to take Paul seriously: “The strong symbols of the body hold the keys of the soul: we cannot treat the bonds of the flesh with heedlessness, without opening some lasting wound in the spirit (1 Cor 6:15-20). Certainly today’s culture and society have become rather indifferent to the delicacy and the seriousness of this passage.”

In the realm of spiritual, or divine knowledge, Francis sees three elements:  (1) “the Bible, to be rediscovered together, in a consious way”; (2) prayer, both liturgical and “domestic”; (3) and the Sacraments, especially confession. Francis mentions explicitly Jeremiah, Hosea as examples of God’s having betrothed himself to a faithless people, a people whose idolatry amounts to adultery, a people, however, whom God will journey with until they become his bride made spotless in the blood of Christ. , and 1 Cor 6:15-20. He calls this reading of the Scripture “essential.” How many marriage preparation programs require daily Scripture for the engaged? How many, furthermore, require confession? Francis doesn’t even mention Eucharist but rather confession. That emphasis is amazing in itself.

As Francis says, “Love itself demands this preparation, which makes possible a free, generous and sober decision to enter into a life-long covenant of love.” Couples who prepare will be able to “truly receive one another ‘with the grace of Christ'” through the “lovely celebration of Marriage in a different way, not in a worldly but in a Christian way!” Prepared couples are initiated into marriages of “surprise!–to the Surprise of spiritual gifts with which the Lord; through the Church, enriches the horizon of the new family.”

Let us return, now to where we began. Those who have read The Engaged will immediately see how this masterpiece weaves together the long-term, pedagogical, and spiritual journey into the graced knowledge and love envisioned by Francis in this audience. For those who have yet to read The Engaged, there’s no better time to join the Pope Francis Book Club!

I will leave you with a final thought-picture. For me, it is a great joy and encouragement that our Pope envisions a world where a priest could plausibly reply in the following way to couples seeking marriage in his parish: “God bless you, and congratulations! Go read The Engaged, by A. Manzoni, and we’ll meet in a month to talk about it.”

May God grant us this grace!



Dante, Milton, and the Birthing Tub

My wife’s most recent labor changed everything.

To the woman walking her dog down our street around noon a week ago, it was likely just another beautiful spring Saturday. As she passed our living-room window she may have been considering her to-do list, the sound of the birds, her heartburn, or any number of the mysteries of the universe. Chances are, however, her mind never wandered near the truth of the miraculous happenings just beyond the window and drapes 10 feet away. As she left our vantage, I wagered the timing ripe for a jest on just this fact. It was good for a laugh, a moment of levity generally appreciated by every woman I’ve witnessed deliver a child (a grand total of 1). What’s funnier still, is that I, who have only witnessed labor and never labored myself, would wager to write about labor and delivery.

To labor for and deliver a child unto the world, though, is no laughing matter. Such a feat requires the exertion and focus of running a marathon–without the fun of changing scenery or the thrill passing that racer right in front of you. No, laboring is like a marathon where the runner doesn’t set her own pace, and the finish line moves. What’s more, if you are in a hospital setting, it’s like trying to run a marathon while having needles poked in you, fluorescent lights on you, strangers talking about your “progress,” beepers beeping at you, and instead of wearing your favorite running-shorts, -shirt, and -shoes, you have to don a 1980s track suit and velcro New Balance shoes (the ones your Grandpa has). [Full disclosure, I own a pair of these.] Perhaps the most important difference between the marathon and the labor unto birth, though, is this: for the runner, the cramping, fatigue, nausea, thirst, and pain might overwhelm, and she might well decide to throw in the towel halfway through the course, ending her race with a sad but understandable failure. Not so for the laboring woman, though. Ironically, unlike the runner she cannot stop, yet “giving up” is among the more successful strategies she could employ. While no runner ever completed (let alone won) a marathon by giving up, many a birth story I’ve heard (or witnessed) hinge on just such a surrender, a giving up, an admission of impotence, a desperate petition to the Lord for respite. Common phrases include: “I can’t do this! I’m going to die! From now on, we’re adopting!” A whispered prayer, “Jesus, just one break here, Lord. Just one break.” An earnest request – “pray for me.” It seems common for a woman to find her road through labor to delivery shortened by a move found in no athlete’s playbook anywhere ever: surrender.

Wait a second. This blog is supposedly about Catholic arts, literature, poetry, and theology. NOT sport psychology. Hang with me. We’re almost there. Bear with one more series of athletic tropes.

As an athlete, I knew the most important ingredient in victory was the “eye of the tiger,” wanting it more than the other guy, pushing harder, digging deeper, and all those typical metaphors. You get the picture. Well, as a husband and witness to 6 births, I have learned from my wife that some of the typical strengths of the athlete are the bane of labor and delivery. Chief among them, I found, was my favorite… “trying harder.” The laboring woman has little room, it seems, for “trying harder.” Relaxation, comfort, even the appearance of sleep, befit the laboring woman best. No adrenaline allowed! If there is work involved, it is the work of relaxing, of getting out of the body’s way, cooperating with the mystery of the labor of which the woman both is and is not the agent. She at once labors and receives labor. She simultaneously delivers the child and is delivered of the child. How strange, mysterious, and wondrously perplexing! I couldn’t let these paradoxes go.

The theologian in me had to find or give an account of this reality. Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bradley (in their many books) both offer strong analyses of labor and delivery suggesting and developing psychological and physiological accounts for the importance of surrender in labor, but they don’t satisfy the theologian, or any spiritually curious person. For example, Bradley describes labor has having three emotional signposts accompanying the three stages of labor: excitement, seriousness, and self-doubt. The woman tends to experience self-doubt during the final stage before pushing, namely, transition. Bradley notes that the coach (husband) should celebrate (inwardly) this sign, as bearing witness to the near end of labor. The husband must simply reassure his spouse with praise, expressions of her progress, and encouragement. Bradley does not, however, offer overmuch explanation for whether the self-doubt is instrumental toward or merely a sign of the near terminus of dilation in labor.

Some interesting theological work on labor and birth exists (e.g., the Episcopalian pastor Margaret Hammer’s Giving Birth), but it wasn’t until my wife described her own moment of abandonment and surrender during this last labor that I realized I was still barking up the wrong tree. The theological key to this puzzle, she told, me, is the birthing tub. Now, you are thinking I’m just crazy. Humor me for a few more sentences before checking your Snapchat feed. My wife loves to swim. She’s most comfortable in the water. She reported to me that the change happened for her, she was able to surrender in total abandon to the labor when she was sitting in the birthing tub, and she realized that she was not really in a birthing tub at all, but she was enveloped in the arms of the God who would bring her through this labor and delivery. She could relax through the contractions, rest when they abated, and cooperate with the grace of this passion, this redemptive gift of self in labor for the life of a child. Only by sitting in the arms of the Father could it be done. This had been her longest labor, and her turning point came with this realization of the Father’s grace in the birthing tub. What God wanted to do for her, in her, without her yet with her. It was mystical prayer. It was no longer acquired labor, but infused labor. It was an experience a person cannot demand but can only prepare for, and remove the obstacles to. The best labor is a gift, received when the toiling mother finally steps out of her own way and into the Lord of life’s way.

My wife’s image of the birthing tub as place of rest in the Father’s bosom, a place where “doing nothing” actually gets the most done reminded me of two other notable “water” scenes that splendidly juxtapose her own experience (thank God). They both deal with the fundamental theological reality behind labor and delivery: humility, gratitude, and mystery over-against pride and lust for power.

Consider the first literary exemplar: Dante’s description of hell’s very center in Canto 34 of the Inferno.

“The emperor of that despondent kingdom / so towered from the ice, up from midchest, / that I match better with a giant’s breadth / than giants match the measure of his arms; / … I marveled when I saw that, on his head, / he had three faces / Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out, / as broad as suited so immense a bird: / I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide. / They had no feathers, but were fashioned like / a bat’s; and he was agitating them, / so that three winds made their way out from him / and all Cocytus froze before those winds.”Inferno canto 34

Satan, a hairy, three-faced giant with six bat-wings grotesquely appended to his head, sits frozen in a lake congealed by the icy wind from his own furious wings, their endless beating stemming from the font of his own abysmal pride. Satan’s pride, we see with Virgil and Dante, bears the fruit of impotence. His labor brings naught but death. The harder he tries, the stiffer he lies in the ice of his own making. It is, moreover, his desire to be God that imprisons him and sends the wind of his error to chill the bones of any who behold his fate. The laboring woman, therefore, magnificently contrasts Lucifer. Her labor bears fruit best when it approaches the receptivity of the new Eve, the Immaculate One who said as no one had said before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The laboring woman is truly the subject of the labor, but subject of its activity as gift received rather than act consciously undertaken.

Consider the second: Milton’s musings on the great fallen angel in the first book of Paradise Lost.

“So strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence / Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs, / That with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to other and enrage’d might see / How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace and mercy / On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself / Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d” (Bk 1, lines 209–20). Satan here lies cast into a burning lake, the raging flames symbolizing the raging pride and rebellion of his own heart against the God he would not serve. He would rather “reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (bk 1, line 263).Satan Burning Lake

Satan’s hateful rebellion against God, full of passion for power, leads to his own impotence in Milton’s imagination as well. God abandons Satan to his vice, allows him to pile up burning coals upon his own head. The more he grabs for power, the more Truth and Power takes hold of and turns his evil to an opportunity for grace upon mankind. Fastforward to the present day, and we see our technocratic society faces the temptation to attempt mastery over every mystery of human life. Our passion for control, for power, to put creation at our service rather than serve the God who created extends even to the realm of a woman’s labor and delivery. The more women (and men) see birth as a procedure to technologically or psychologically or physically master, the more thrown down they will find themselves. Labor and delivery is not a puzzle to be mastered but a mystery to be received from the hand of a loving God. To be at the service of God in the labor rather than to reign over the labor is the challenge.

It seems to me, therefore, that the warm waters of my wife’s birthing tub could at any moment have been one of three things: the arms and bosom of the Father of life; the frozen lake or self-defeating pride; or the burning Sulphurous wave-pool of passionate rebellion against the God and the natural activity of labor that God created.

The suffering of labor and delivery, it seems, can serve a pedagogical, as well as redemptive function. The woman learns (and teaches her husband) that progress (whether moral or in labor) comes from cooperation in God’s activity, not as over-against my own activity, but as ennobling my own. “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain” (Ps 127:1). The woman is not the master of the labor, but she cooperates with the graced and natural mystery of laboring for and delivering the child. To labor is to learn and teach humility. As to its redemptive character, the woman’s labor can be joined to Lord’s suffering on the cross. A woman might offer her labor for the sake of her child’s soul, for any intention. I have heard firsthand miraculous effects of labor abandoned to God in union with the cross. Moreover, the practice of laboring in grace, praying with and through contractions, disposes the woman (and frankly anyone else witnessing such an event) to radically reconsider the meaning of any and all sufferings and what might be done with those sufferings.

I, for one, cannot but see anew the daily crosses of life from a different vantage, now that I’ve witnessed these six miraculous deliveries of my wife. Having been seen  from the birthing tub, the world can never be the same. Every cross is an opportunity to freeze in pride, to burn with passion for power, or to rest (though not without pain) in the bosom of the Father. Thank you, women who labor, for showing us the way.

Immaculate Mary, pray for us!

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.


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


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


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 one:


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.

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 commercial 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.


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 the average Christian because s/he feels His dignity’s at stake, forgetting the fact that Jesus’ very incarnation was already an 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, for example) Jesus realizes that there’s stuff that just goes way over our heads sometimes, and so 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 batch 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 commercial accomplishment – basically an example of the clowns facing the serious, business 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 able to understand. And come to love.

But halfway through the number, an awareness of the mission shines through. Jesus, taking a break from the subversive 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 some kind of 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 Creator of all things 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 new joy 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 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 melding 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 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 a 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