St Helena and the Triumph of the Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on the day that it is believed that St Helena discovered the remains of Christ’s cross in the Holy Land.

Wrap your head around that for a minute. Today, centuries ago, a woman, who happened to be the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor and who later was declared a saint, actually found the remains of the Cross on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified and died for our sins.

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

Ok, so some people are sure to argue that it mightn’t have been exactly September 14th when she found the cross . . . fine. Shoot. I’m sure some people will argue she didn’t find it at all. Whatever. For the record, I believe that she did find Jesus’ Cross in the ditch where his executioners threw it. I believe that that ditch is today in the chapel that bears her name in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it very well could have been September 14th.

The Chapel of St Helena lies in the bowels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, down a flight of stairs marked by crosses from hundreds of pilgrims over the centuries. In the corner is a small slab of marble, placed over the spot where it is believe St Helena found the Cross.

For a closer look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Chapel of St Helena, and to learn about how she managed to build one church over both the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, check out the final episode of The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, embedded at the end of this post. This beautiful video, produced by the Franciscan Media Center, also shows you the Chapel of St Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and explains how the finding of the Cross is celebrated on May 7th in the Holy Land. This video shows how, on September 14th, the relics of the Cross are shown to the congregation.

Now, let’s talk about how absolutely amazing this whole Feast is, shall we? And how very much we need it today, three days after the 13th anniversary of the horrific events in New York City one bright and sunny morning, and as any number of horrific and soul-sucking events are taking place, many of which are done, falsely of course, in the name of God.

I need to believe in the Triumph of the Cross. I bet my entire life on it. Don’t you?

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I think back to the Holy Land in 2011, when we were filming the Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, and were walking the dark streets of Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross). What do we say at the beginning of every station?

“We adore you, Oh Christ, and we praise you, because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.”

By Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

Fulton Sheen, in his amazing book Life of Christ, writes:

The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last. The scripture describes Him as “the Lamb slain as it were, from the beginning of the world.” He was slain in intention by the first sin and rebellion against God. It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth. His has been the only life in the world that was ever lived backward. As the flower in the crannied wall tells the poet of nature, and as the atom is the miniature of the solar system, so too, His birth tells the mystery of the gibbet. He went from the known to the known, from the reason of His coming manifested by His name “Jesus” or “Savior” to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, His death on the Cross.

A baby with the shadow of the Cross on his forehead. His whole life it was there—His destiny. His purpose. And the means of our redemption.

Heinrich Hoffmann’s haunting image, “Christ in Gethsemane” hangs in my bedroom, and I look at it every morning as I awake and every night before I go to sleep.

Christ in the Garden of GethsemaneHeinrich Hofmann, 1890

Heinrich Hoffmanns “Christ in Gethsemane”, my favorite image of Jesus in the Garden

As a child, the idea that Jesus would have been alone in the Garden, suffering so much that he sweat blood, haunted me. I would often tell God that, if I had been there, I would have stayed awake! Yesiree! Years later, I read that Jesus sweat blood because at that moment, the sins of all of mankind, from Adam until the end of the world were placed before him, so that He might choose to do the thing for which he came and redeem us all, or to give up. I later read somewhere that when He asked His Heavenly Father to take the cup from him, He was thinking about the lukewarm souls—the people who could have cared less about what He was about to suffer for them. But then, when I found out that I could be there with Him in the Garden, and pray for Him and console Him today! Even as I sit in my office looking out of my window! Well, prayer and Holy Hours took on a life for me.

The Triumph of the Cross took place some 2014 years ago, one day on a hill outside of the walls of Jerusalem. And it continues to take place every single moment of every day since. The Cross will always triumph, no matter what goes on around us.

That gives me strength. That gives me hope.

My parish recently replaced an image of Jesus Resurrected with a beautiful statue of Jesus, dead on the Cross. I know that there are some people who think the sight of Jesus dead on the Cross is depressing, and they find the Resurrection so much more hopeful. I’m not one of those people.

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New crucifix at my parish

I LOVE the Cross.

Why?

Well, for one thing, it’s my future. It’s your future, too. In fact, Jesus very clearly promised it to all of us, if we want to follow Him, that is.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” –Matthew 16:24-25

Sure, the implication is that Resurrection and happiness in Heaven will follow, but first comes the Cross, baby. Better get used to it.

In The Passion of the Christ, one of the thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus yells out to him, “Why do you embrace your cross, you fool?!”

We’re all called to embrace our crosses, whatever they may be. And the awesome thing about it is that the cross is not just a symbol of God’s love for us, but it is an embrace from God to us.

Early Christians would pray,

O cross, you are the glorious sign of our victory. Through your power may we share in the triumph of Christ Jesus.

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Crucifix from the Irish chapel at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

Let us continue those prayers ourselves, today and every day as we struggle through this pilgrimage of life. And when your eyes rest on a crucifix or a cross, remember this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

–John 3:16-17

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Diana von Glahn is the co-producer (along with husband, David), writer, editor, and host of The Faithful Traveler, a travel series on EWTN, that explores the art, architecture, history and doctrine behind Catholic churches, shrines and places of pilgrimage throughout the world. She is the author of The Mini Book of Saints. She blogs here twice a month, at SpiritualDirection.com, and on her own website, and can be found on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, and Google+. Her first series, The Faithful Traveler in the US: East Coast Shrines, and her second series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, can both be seen on EWTN (check listings) and on her website, where she also sells DVDs of both programs. She is organizing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April 2014, and will be journeying to Portugal this October to film her new series, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal.

Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, (re)visited.

In my previous post on Christopher Beha, I was excited to hear that he had a new novel out (Arts & Entertainments) but hadn’t yet read it. Having corrected the omission, I can confirm the novel’s affinity with some of Waugh’s earlier work. A Handful of Dust comes particularly to mind, concerned as both novels are with the pressures that tear down a dream of idyllic family happiness, including marital infidelity (though the infidelity in A&E is mainly fictional for the sake of the camera). Neither novel is entirely satire, since as the New York Times reviewer aptly pointed out, it’s all but impossible to satirize a culture that comes so completely pre-self-satirized as either the Bright Young Things or the Real Housewives. For A Handful of Dust, critic Gene Kellogg* suggests the term “apologue” rather than “satire” — in his use of the term, this is a story in which “the emotions aroused in the reader come not from sympathy for the characters but from assent to the statement made by the action.” This seems a fitting description for A&E as well; we’re meant to view its characters with a certain amount of detachment, not so much to feel deeply for their various absurd plights as to reflect on what the bare possibility of such plights means for our society. Yet sympathy for the characters is far from impossible here, either. Both Beha and Waugh succeed in humanizing a subculture that is often viewed as totally frivolous. The novels’ humor balances their darkness, and their awareness of that darkness keeps any frivolity from spiraling out of control.

More can and must be said, but I’ll leave the big themes to the big guns. The Millions review shouldn’t be missed, nor Beha’s own interview about the novel at Harper’s. Do note Beha’s remarks at the end about religion and realism, which resonate with the recent discussion amongst Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia about faith in fiction.

Attentive readers of the novel will also pick up on Beha’s sly, subtle yet thrilling shout-out to J.F. Powers in Moody’s late monologue, as Moody describes his transition from ex-seminarian to reality TV producer. We’ve already visited that “retreat house in Minnesota run by the Order of St. Clement” where Moody discovered his gift for getting people to reveal their inner lives on film. (The Clementines don’t exist; they were created by Powers for his novel Morte D’Urban, which itself wrestles with questions of appearance vs. reality, the ways in which personal integrity is compromised by striving for image, and to what degree the real self can truly survive its constant friction with the masks we present to others. Major, major intertextuality win here.)

 

* in his The Vital Tradition, which looks at the rise of the Catholic novel in France, England, and America over a period of roughly 200 years.

The Return of the Native

Dudleya pulverulenta, "Liveforever"

Dudleya pulverulenta, “Liveforever”

Sticky Monkey Flower, Fairy Lanterns, Chinese Houses. I’ve seen a few of these California wildflowers in the cool green hills above the Steven’s Creek reservoir. But there are other plants once native to San Jose that I haven’t seen yet: Pearly Everlasting, our native strawberry Fragaria californica, or the Liveforever, a ghostly succulent that likes to hang out on cliff faces.

California is green in the winter and gold in the summer. That always felt like the natural rhythm to me, felt like home. But I’ve learned that it’s a recent, drastic change: the hills used to boast living plants year-round. Only when Spanish cattle brought the seeds of European grasses did the bronze oaks acquire their pretty blond backdrop.

Metaphor of Grass in California

by Charles Martin

The seeds of certain grasses that once grew
Over the graves of those who fell at Troy
Were brought to California in the hooves
Of Spanish cattle. Trodden into the soil,

They liked it well enough to germinate,
Awakening into another scene
Of conquest: blade fell upon flashing blade
Until the native grasses fled the field,

And the native flowers bowed to their dominion.
Small clumps of them fought on as they retreated
Toward isolated ledges of serpentine,
Repellent to their conquerors. . . .
In defeat,
They were like men who see their city taken,
And think of grass–how soon it will conceal
All of the scattered bodies of the slain;
As such men fall, these fell, but silently.

The only thing sadder than the defeat of the native grasses is the defeat of the native peoples, which this poem mourns without ever mentioning it directly, as if so much death is unsayable.  I fear that I may be trivializing it by bringing it up in a post that is basically about gardening, but when we garden with native plants, we are attempting to restore something that has been lost.  I can’t go back in time and undo tragedy, but I do have control over the barren backyard of the house I’m renting.  California is kind to foreign species, as long as you can water them–the long-fallow soil of my backyard has sent up geysers of green in the form of basil and tomatoes–but we all know that water here is running short.  Native plants don’t need to be watered in summer because they’ve survived here for ages without it.  In fact, a lot of these plants will die if you fertilize them and overwater them.  They are ascetics who are ruined by luxury.  For me, the lazy gardener, what could be better?

Low-water gardens, or xeriscapes, are becoming more popular now as Californians realize that, while lawns are nice for muggy Virginia or verdant England, we can’t really afford to dump huge amounts of water on a plant we can’t even eat.  That reservoir I mentioned earlier is turning into a mud puddle.  I see a lot of lavender in yards these days, and New Zealand flax and other plants from Mediterranean climates around the world, but not so many Californian species.  Ceanothus, yes, our western answer to lilac, a gamine in faded blue jeans to its perfumed Southern belle.  And manzanita, which forms blunt, dusty hedges down road medians everywhere.  What about pink-flowering currant, though?  Or California fuschia?  So many choices–and yet, a comforting restriction of choice.  I guess my interest in gardening with these plants follows my love of meter and rhyme in poetry: freedom within rules.  I don’t know where to start when faced with every plant in the nursery, or every word in the dictionary.

And yet, I am not a purist.  As much as I wish I could see the wild California of old, I am also nostalgic for Silicon Valley’s orchard days.  Neat, cultivated rows of apricot and plum and almond, blossoming from hill to hill–a man-made landscape, no question.  And how could I wish our famous vineyards out of existence?

So I’ve planted a Meyer lemon and an apricot in my sunny front yard, and I am scheming to make the backyard a colorful oasis of native plants..  An Island Tree Mallow is already multiplying its fuzzy leaves, and hopefully it will grow as high as the fence.  Island Mountain Mahogany and native currants will fill in the rest of the fence, and the shade of our one large tree will become mysterious with California bush anemone, ferns, and coral bells.  I want the ink-blue flowers and bracing scent of Cleveland sage, the “wiry heathpacks” of California buckwheat, and the rusty, desert sunset pink of yarrow.  I want to see bugs, birds and butterflies feasting on berries and nectar.  I want a garden that couldn’t grow anywhere else. dudleya_beargrass

“How Can They Meet Us Face To Face Till We Have Faces?”

A few months ago, I was boring my friend to tears, telling him how I’d read my children Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a six-hour car ride. Saving me from my own encomium, he interrupted with a bold claim: “Narnia is great, but Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s best work, hands down!” Surely, he couldn’t be serious. Admitting I’d never read it, I promised soon to disprove him. Well, whether providence or the gods, or dumb luck were to blame, on the very next day my habitual stroll past the “discarded/free books” table at my University’s library brought me face-to-face with a ratty old codex, the cover worn beyond legibility and entirely torn from the book’s corpus. This book, literally, refused to be judged by its cover. You’ll have already guessed its title—I soon discovered its identity as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Not one to tempt the Lord, I vowed then and there to read it post haste.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore. Based on a myth found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses, this retelling gives the story of an irascible King’s three daughters: the eldest is a Frump-asaurus Rex; the middle a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; and the third a beauty so innocent and profound she is taken for a goddess by the townsfolk.C.S. Lewis takes the title of his reworked mythical novel from a question asked by the heroine (or villain?) near the book’s climax. The oldest daughter (Orual), cursed with an irredeemably ugly countenance, having suffered the loss of her sister (Psyche) at the hands of the gods, wishes more than anything to render publicly her charge against the gods. She claims the gods are guilty of stealing the greatest of human loves (namely her own love for Psyche). Still worse, the gods expect belief and obedience while refusing adequate positive evidence for that belief. Orual finally gets her chance in a vision wherein she journeys to a mountain containing the presence of the dead and those who would hear and answer her case against the gods. She blames the gods for not more directly (and sooner) revealing themselves and Psyche’s enchanted castle. Had they done so, Orual would not have lost Psyche to lifelong exilic wanderings. At the moment of her chance before the judgment seat, however, before the dead and the gods, she asks: “how can we meet them face to face till we have faces?” I think it is the central question Lewis’s masterful retelling. In the hopes of sparking some late summer reading and some interesting debate, allow me hazard an answer to Orual’s query.

The question is baffling in part because its terms are opaque. Who are they? What does “faces” mean? On the face of it (I couldn’t resist the pun), “they” are the gods, and “faces” cannot mean simply the anatomical face. It must mean the capacity or means to intentionally project one’s identity. Such a reading makes sense of the various uses of “face” in the text. Being a blog post, this composition excludes my making a complete case. Begging your charity, therefore, I will highlight a couple poignant moments in the effort to inspire your own reading of Lewis’s masterpiece. First, Orual (the eldest, ugly daughter) decides, upon becoming Queen, to wear always her veil. This decision to efface herself amounts to the construction of a new identity. She becomes “the faceless one.” She is the one who sees all faces, all emotions and thoughts born out on them, yet refuses to reveal her own. Her effort to remain faceless behind the veil, however, is betrayed one night when she must attempt to walk through town unrecognized. Her disguise of choice, however, is none other than her own countenance. In leaving the veil behind, she discovers that the blank, expressionless, one-way mirror of her veil had become her true face. Hers was the power to withhold the mystery of her identity; hers was the power to see and not be seen, to behold yet be unbeheld, to know while remaining unknown.

The beauty and irony of this discovery is its corollary—that Orual has been grasping at being everything she so hated about the gods; namely, their unwillingness to reveal freely their “faces.” Their local goddess (Ungit), whom she viscerally hates, is none other than a faceless monolith in a dark temple. Ultimately, she can take on any face her worshippers desire, any angle of her multifaceted surface becomes its own face for the one coming to sprinkle blood on her stoney skin. Furthermore, Orual cannot decide whether her sister Psyche is delusional when claiming she has been wed to “the god of the mountain,” who built her an invisible castle and visits her nightly but commands her never to gaze upon his countenance. Unable to believe this fantasy, Orual compels her sister to steal a glance at her lover by lamplight. As a consequence of this “enlightenment,” Psyche is cast into the darkness of a life of wandering exile. Demanding to see the god’s face, she is cast from the sight of all the living. At the moment of Psyche’s exile, this “god of the mountain” blasts Orual with the full glory of his own “face,” the beauty and brilliance of which burns a blackened imprint on her soul.

With these reflections I’ve barely scratched the surface of Lewis’s grand myth retold. I hope you bring yourself face-to-face with this novel over the next month. Let’s plumb the depths of Lewis’s imagination together!

Why We Should Watch and Vote for The Cosmopolitans

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American Men are easily pushed around by women. They love sad stories.

The Very Pretty American Girl believes that she is the girlfriend of a French writer, only to be kicked out as soon as he leaves to travel and sublets his apartment to someone else. But at least the upstairs closet he moves her into to wait for his return has a sink. This is Aubrey. Or is it Audrey? No, it is Aubrey. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” she is asked. “Sometimes.” She is from the South, where people “have roots.”

Jimmy The Hopeless Romantic spends a lot of time watching and listening. He considers any and all suggestions.

The Gold Coat Girl is a pretty blond. She considers our protagonists to be losers, from “Albuquerque” or somewhere like that. These are not the sort of men one travels to Paris to meet. So, does she date only Parisian men? Never.

The Cliché Ex-Pat has dated and been dumped by a French girl well over 15 times but he is easily identified the moment he sets foot in a café. One need only ask to speak to the American.

Fritz is “kind of scary” but turns out actually to be flighty and quite pleasant.

The Heartbreaker is at every party surrounded by beautiful girls. The Heartbreaker looks back and whispers to his companion as our protagonists murmur amongst themselves about his glamour, “See those guys? They are everywhere. Always with very pretty girls.” Aubrey doesn’t know it, but he considers her superb.

The Italiano has a bad reputation and invites drug dealers to Fritz’s party. He is not well regarded in Paris.

The Angel is taken to be a beautiful blonde Frenchwoman who, when asked in French where she is from, replies “Vancouver.” The naïve reply, “Ah, Vancouver, France?”

Who are the people underneath all the clever labels? What does it mean to be an urbane citizen of the world? These are the questions that director Whit Stillman would have us ponder in his new television show, The Cosmopolitans. The pilot is now streaming exclusively at Amazon for our consideration. If we like it well enough and make our preference known, the show will be picked up for more episodes.

The Cosmopolitans at first glance appears to be merely a show about upper class glitterati going to fancy parties and making witty conversation. Indeed, there is a veneer of whimsicality to the show, as with all of Stillman’s work to date. However, this is the whimsicality of The Great Gatsby, a frantic attempt to find the meaning of life, friendship, and happiness. It is amusing, but it is no lark.

Questions of identity pervade the story from start to finish. “I have visions of many things…” hums the opening song from the mostly-Motown soundtrack. The song appears later and reminds Hans The Cliché Ex-Pat of his lost love. To the same tune, Aubrey wanders the streets alone until randomly finding herself at a café as Hans and Jimmy encounter the Gold Coat Girl, Vicky:

“You haven’t gone back to…”

“no no no we live here, we’re Parisians!”

“You’re…Parisians?”

Living in Paris is difficult because when everyone leaves in the summer, a loneliness sets in that is akin to teenage angst, a loneliness that leaves a person with no distractions to avoid confronting the meaning and purpose of their lives. Hans explains that it is “The feeling of being hallowed out, a void inside that will never be filled.” How do you get out of a lonely patch? “They say all you need is one friend.” Are any of these people true friends? Or is it merely a fling? On a late Saturday night, a coy smile spreads across Aubrey’s face on the cab ride home from a party. Perhaps this is the beginning of something grand…

But only if we watch and vote!

Watch and take the survey here

 

Random lines of dialogue I found amusing:

“When you have a serious breakup it helps to put the Atlantic Ocean between you.” “What about the Pacific?” “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it.”

“Have you ever thought about getting a rabbit?” “No, but I will.”

“In Hal’s defense, the first 15 breakups or so were because he wasn’t as close as she wanted him to be.”

“I’ve been here 6 months.” “Oh, so you’re not Parisian. That takes time.”

“He breaks hearts? That’s terrible.” “It really just means Playboy.” “That’s not good either.”

”I couldn’t just plunge into some decadent affair.” “It doesn’t have to be decadent. You could go hiking.”

Bonus Whit Stillman from his movie Last Days of Disco!!!

Prizes, Prizes Everywhere!

Last year, Dappled Things debuted the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. It was a tremendous success, drawing about 400 entries from which a winner and nine honorable mentions were selected by a panel of independent judges. (If you have not yet read the winning story, Where Moth and Rust by Kristin Luehr, you should.)

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Jacques Maritain

Building on last year’s success, we are holding the fiction prize again and introducing a nonfiction equivalent, the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction. Maritain was an influential 20th century Thomist philosopher and Catholic convert whose work covered a wide range of topics, including metaphysics and epistemology, ethics and politics, and—significantly for us—literature and art. His book Art and Scholasticism has been a major influence in Dappled Things‘ own approach to aesthetics. This year the prize will be judged by James Matthew Wilson, who is author of The Violent and the Fallen, Some Permanent Things, and The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry, among other books, as well as a literature professor at Villanova University. Here’s what you need to know if you are interested in making a submission to either prize:

What are the prize amounts?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, the prizes are as follows:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $250

8 honorable mentions: publication in the journal and a one-year subscription.

 

For the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, the prizes are:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $300

3rd place: $200

What is the deadline for the fiction prize?

You can submit your story until November 28, 2014.

What is the deadline for the nonfiction prize?

Since all nonfiction submissions will be eligible for the prize (the winner will be selected from among all the essays published in Dappled Things during a given year), then submissions for the prize are accepted year-round. To participate in the current prize, your piece should appear at the latest in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2015 edition, which means you would have to make a submission by June 2015. The issues could all be filled before then, however, so don’t delay. We publish about two to three essays per issue, and all published essays will be finalists for the prize. The earlier you submit, the likelier the chances your essay will appear among a given year’s finalists.

What kind of submissions are you looking for?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, please review the submission guidelines by clicking here. If you have a story to submit that doesn’t fit those guidelines, please consider making a submission under the general fiction category.

With regards to the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, we are not limiting submissions to a particular theme (this being in keeping with Maritain’s own broad interests), other than what would fit within the context of a Catholic cultural and literary journal. In other words, please follow our nonfiction submission guidelines and look at the nonfiction pieces that appear in our previous issues. Book reviews and interviews are not eligible for the prize, but all other forms of nonfiction are.

When will winners be announced?

Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction will be announced in February 2015. Winners of the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction will be announced in December 2015 (with the finalists being announced as each issue is published, starting with the Christmas 2014 edition).

Is there a reading fee?

No. However, given the costs imposed on us by the huge number of entries last year, we are instituting a nominal $2 processing fee for the fiction prize to help us run it as efficiently as possible. Think of it as the equivalent of paying for postage if submissions were being accepted through the mail . There will be no processing fee for the nonfiction prize this year.

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Make your submissions soon! Further information will be posted on the Contests page as well as Submittable. We look forward to reading your entries during the coming year.

4 Things I Learned about Life Without a Computer

I am told that putting articles in list form is click-bait in the internet news age. What is it about computers that has changed the way we think? They have their quite obvious advantages, but a recent experience taught me a few lessons about how mine has affected the way I process information and spend my time.

About four months ago my computer broke. I don’t know exactly how it happened, only that one minute everything was great and the next there was a sudden spark accompanied by the smell of smoke as some vital piece of circuitry consumed itself. It was bound to happen, I suppose. The computer was ancient by any reasonable standard.

My computer. Before it broke.

My computer. Before it broke.

It was so old that it was running a version of Windows four generations out of date, no longer capable of being upgraded. It served me just fine, though, and allowed me to read the news, compulsively curate my Amazon.com wishlist, watch movies, and type odd little blog posts. So, even though it had lived a long and happy life, I was quite sad when it gave up the ghost.

After a proper grieving period, the obvious next step would have been to purchase a new computer. I would have been happy to do so, the only problem being that my wife and I currently have five children and they spend all of our money on food and clothing. My wife, ever so intelligent, assures me that food and clothing for our beloved offspring is at least slightly more important than my ability to think up and post clever hashtags online. So for a while, at least, there will be no replacement. Don’t cry for me. It has been difficult but I have learned a few valuable lessons during my time away from my precious electronics.

  1. That important thing can wait until later. The first emotion I felt when I realized that the hard drive was fried was the terror of the Abyss. I was sinking fast. My hands became clammy, my heart rate fluttered, and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety suddenly became very real. Essentially, I went into full blown withdrawal. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was (and probably am) addicted. Mind you, this whole time, I still had a smart phone safely tucked in my jacket pocket that was capable of achieving what people even 20 years ago would consider well nigh miraculous. I even still knew I had a computer at the office. It wasn’t enough. I needed that computer humming away in its familiar spot.

I am lost without my precious ability to download mp3s of dj mashups to a desktop computing device

 

The pain slowly eased and, after a few weeks I realized that maybe it is possible to survive without unfettered access to a computer after all! The work email, the comments on social media, reading the new, online version of Dappled Things (!), those can all wait until I get to the office in the morning. Or better yet, I can actually personally interact with people at work instead of emailing, I can have coffee with a friend instead of maintaining a superficial, online relationship, and I can read Dappled Things in the print version while lounging in the backyard under the shade of an oak tree. It isn’t that I don’t need a computer or am somehow transcendent over a system in which everybody else is hopelessly mired. It is simply the realization that there are other options. When life slows down, a more human pace is achieved.

  1. My social life did not implode without social media. It is still possible to speak with people in person. Some might even say that this is better. Not that I object to social media, not at all, its advent has actually helped me stay in much better contact with long distance friends, but we ought to be honest and admit that it does not of its own suffice to maintain an authentic friendship. Commenting online takes place in an unrealistic environment because we can take our sweet time with what we choose to communicate and how we present ourselves. We can literally wait days at a time for a witty rejoinder to percolate for a comment thread. In real life, there is an actual human being who will stare at you with grave concern if you fail to respond in a timely manner, say, within five seconds or so. Face to face, there is authentic interaction, a conversation, if you will. These interactions with all of their pauses, wanderings, interruptions, and body language constitute honest to goodness communication. Social media can augment this but never replace it. I suspect that in our society we are greatly tempted towards contentment with only the latter.
  1. My life became more leisurely. I’ve always been a steady reader and have always done my best to make time to play with the children. Even if the presence of the computer never overwhelmed those habits, it definitely nibbled around the edges. It is temptingly easy to lose an hour working on cataloguing the itunes music library (Yes, I need help) or get caught in a tangle of fascinating wikipedia links. It’s no problem at all to waste more time than you wanted emailing and playing online games. Comedian Louis CK once made the observation that people seem to be unable to even wait for a few minutes in a grocery store checkout line without pulling out their phones. What ever happened to staring around randomly for a few minutes? This is part of the shopping experience! Same with the computer at home. When it was there, I knew I could always retreat to it for some light diversion to while away the time. Perhaps it became too attractive, more so than lying on the floor and driving cars around the rug with my son. Sometimes these small moments of fatherhood are touching and lovely, sometimes, let’s all admit, they are boring. These are the moments, though, that our children will remember for the rest of their lives. I hope that I do not miss too many of them. Without the computer I find myself, even if only slightly more frequently, reading books after the kids go to bed, playing at the piano, or sitting on the front porch with a drink and watching the rain. Before, I would have retreated to the comfort of mindless internet browsing.
  1. I probably will still buy another computer. Perhaps modern life is such that we simply require these devices. At their best, they are time-saving, helpful, and irreplaceable tools. Now that I have word processors, I shudder at the thought of handwriting even a single sentence. Think about it, you can go online and accomplish pretty much anything! Research information, find the nearest, best restaurant, check the weather, follow the score of the baseball game as it is in progress, watch almost any movie or television show ever made, and get quick and accurate directions to anywhere your heart desires.
What does this do, again?

What does this do, again?

 

My hope is that in the future I will be able to discipline myself to use the computer as a tool and not allow it to define the way I live my life. Perhaps I really am addicted to the thing. I am told that smartphone and internet addiction is quite real. I don’t mean to mock it. I suspect that the potential to some degree or another to give ourselves up to a virtual world affects all of us. I am thankful for the perspective I have been given by the death of my old computer. Perhaps we would all benefit from at least the occasional, voluntary fast from computers. Take a breath, look around, and experience human life in all its complexity, its joys and sorrows.

Weekend link: pilgrimage to Andalusia.

This beauty deserves a wider audience: a view of Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia homestead through contemporary eyes. The essayist notes some hilarious details along his road that O’Connor herself would have made a field day with, yet the central note of the piece is hushed, even holy:

I drove up the humble lane to the farm and caught sight of the house. “There it is!” I said aloud to no one. I parked in the grass behind the place and wandered around. I had my phone out like an idiot, taking pictures right and left as if amnesia was imminent. I didn’t want to risk it. A woman emerged from the porch and greeted me. “You must be a pilgrim,” she said. I am, how can you tell? “Pilgrims always approach the house differently, with reverence. Take your time. Stay as long as you want. The peafowl are over there.”

Read the whole thing here.

“Ya Hey” Part II (or, you don’t even say your name)

Onward!

So, to briefly recap from last time (this is a continuation of “Ya Hey” Part I, found here [so read it {things’ll, you know, make a hecka lotta more sense if you do}]), we’re talking about the poorly-named Vampire Weekend’s poorly named album Modern Vampires of the City which, in addition to being the worst-named record of 2013 (I mean, seriously), was hailed by media kings Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Slant Magazine and some guy named Robert Christgau as the year’s best. More specifically, we’re getting round to track ten of twelve: a glorious little ballad called “Ya Hey.”

The fact that it appears near the end is no accident, as there’s been a buildup to it through the entire first 80% of the album. As mentioned before, songs like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” have songwriter-vocalist Ezra Koening with his back up against the wall, hackles raised in a white-collared, impeccably-arranged bout of rage/confusion/longing/ultimate defiance against the Triune God. He is, needless to say, a tad anxious of trusting Him.

funny-pictures-cat-bubble-bath-trust

But why? What doesn’t he trust God to do? To take care, maybe – to be more than ‘good.’ Merciful, perhaps. To hold everything together. “We worshipped you” he deadpans on the thusly titled song, “only in the way you want it / only on the day you want it…energetic praise you wanted / any kind of praise you wanted” – followed closely by a plaintive afterthought: “won’t we see you once again?” The flippant is always paired with longing for the God he perceives to be absent or indifferent. “Who will guide us in the end?” he asks, closing out the song with the twin senses of disappointment and desire.

Koening’s lyrics always stand with a double edge – but, compellingly enough, where most indie protests appear pastoral (with a barely concealed hostility lurking in the background), Koening’s bitter words can’t ultimately throw off the sense of tenderness he carries towards his Accused. And, having finished the first nine songs (some among which bristling with a few Adonai-directed barbs) he finally drops the mask.

And the gloves. The wisdom teeth are out. Track ten begins with the intimacy reserved for lovers:

“Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything”

There’s no criticism here, no laying into the seemingly neglected responsibilities God owes to His people. All of a sudden the roles are reversed: whereas the tension before was always on what He is or isn’t doing for humanity, here we have the eternal, undeserved Love of God contrasted with the petty inconsistency of human commitment.

But he goes for the throat here: anyone could have remarked on the staggeringly minute levels of love lost on the part of Babylon towards the Creator…but Zion? He’s not just talking about the historic Hebrew people here, he’s talking about us, with our liturgies and hymnals and mission statements and seven highly effective habits and love languages – we’re the ones, in Koening’s estimation, without love. Which is something that deeply, deeply resonates with me.

And besides, we’re taught that no one is good but God alone – that no one truly Loves but God alone.

“Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything”

And here’s where Koening’s deeply complex relationship with God really starts to set off some sparks. There’s no doubt about where he says he stands – whether he’s an atheist, agnostic or something in between (¿athnostic?) he’s certainly not a card-carrying congregant of your typical Christian church. He claims unbelief but then, like a man in the confessional, admits that his inability to love somehow stands “in spite of everything.” In spite of what? From the position of a confused postmodern, he admits of reasons to love God back: God’s own love, to start. And His presence in the muck of our indifference. And the sentiments only deepen:

“In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face
There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine.”

Koening recognizes that even though he can’t muster the case to ultimately believe (especially in light of all the things that don’t make sense to him), he still can’t shake the sense of the hidden God behind it all. A benevolence behind the curtain. Nothing solid enough to tell what (or where) it is, but suggestive enough to keep him up at night wondering what holds it all together. The words make me think about the engine in an aging television, the core of a tiny planet, fossilized fingerprints from way, way too long ago.

All of it builds to his most personal confession yet: “And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake…” he sings, and the bitterness of the earlier songs falls away and Koening is left standing with nothing but his vulnerability. He reaches across the divide towards territory he’s not at all comfortable with, to a paradigm that’d change everything in his life, one that’d justify the suspicions he can’t dismiss about the world. He sees it. But those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed as he continues: “…but I let it go.”

Out of the whole song, this is the line that haunts me most. Here we have this guy, a smart, articulate dude who not only has the desire and the empathy to feel for a God he can’t trust to exist, but writes to Him with such tenderness. A guy who admits the possibility that he’s wrong and that maybe in the end there’s a God whose loneliness is worth mourning, whose Love is worth trying to return. He feels it. It confuses him. He lets it shake him. But he let it go, saying “Ya hey.”

Which, as Michael mentioned, is pronounced Yahweh.

Koening is bought to the brink but still can’t step over the edge into the actual Everlasting Arms. And those believe watch on as he continues: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?”

We can!” some might say, but we’re not Ezra Koening – and we don’t know his conditions for belief. It’s a kinda strange passivity we’re left with – we’re the audience to an angst we believe we have answers to, but he’s a world away. So then maybe we think of our own little worlds and the people close to us who, for their own reasons, can’t come to believe – reasons that, to them, are all too legitimate. Maybe we want to plead with them to open their eyes and just see the God we see. Maybe we want to cry out with Koening at the God who stays hidden – at the God who, at times, allows things that make it so hard to find Him. And maybe, even as we open our mouths to complain about one thing or the other, we let ourselves feel small in the face of everything. Mysteries upon mysteries. And the chorus circles round as it continues, repeats. Repeats.

 

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ut deo

 

 

                                                                      Ya hey

 

 

burning-bush

 

 

 

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.

“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

wpid-final-poster-for-breaking-dawn-part-2-116435-470-753

NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

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.