At the Washington Post today, emerging Catholic writers take note: the George W. Hunt Prize announced today will be offering $25,000 to “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.” The prize is co-sponsored by America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. To be eligible, writers must be working in the English language and be under 45 years of age. There’s no word on the Post article about when submissions will be accepted or how to submit, so watch for an update with details.
“You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”
This line from Eucharistic Prayer III leveled me just the other day at mass–so much so that I (perhaps inappropriately) leaned over to my 6-year old son and whispered, “did you just hear that? Imagine . . . every moment of every day there’s a mass going on somewhere. How awesome is that!?” It happened to be his feast day (feast of the archangels). I couldn’t help but look in awe at the ceiling of our University chapel, painted with seraphim and cherubim, and ringed with the communion of saints. The eternal praise of God on their lips. It stunned me to think that this liturgy at once stops, reverses, and accelerates time in its very performance. The moment of elevation makes present the Lord’s infant body raised by Mary from the manger for the adoring shepherds’ feasting eyes, the Lord’s paschal body raised by his own hands at the last supper, the Lord’s battered body raised by the Romans on the cross, the Lord’s lifeless body raised by the power of the Spirit from the tomb, the Lord’s blessed body raised to heaven 40 days later, the Lord’s mystical body the Church raised from the blood of the martyrs and raised from the graves on the last day. The strange realization hit me that, my wife, children, mother-in-law, and all the others cobbled together at this mystery and in this space praise the Trinity with all other faithful on earth now just as truly as we do with John who worshiped through the revelation given on Patmos, or even with the prophet Isaiah, who heard the sanctus sanctus sanctus with his own ears and tasted the burning, cleansing presence of the Lord God of Hosts on his lips! Yes, this moment, this host elevated unites me to all worship in spirit and truth that has come before, but even stranger is the thought that I am somehow present to all the masses yet to come.
In pondering how this might be so, a short story by Evelyn Waugh flashed into my mind. Waugh’s “Out of Depth” masterfully illustrates the constancy yet transcendence of the liturgy. The liturgy as sticking-point is increasingly necessary amidst a throwaway culture, facebook feeds a speedreader can’t keep up with, memes that die in a day, and videos that go viral and are forgotten in five minutes (#unmemorable). Waugh tells the tale of Rip, a wealthy, well-connected, and shallow Englishman who finds himself, drunk, dazed, and (at the hands of a magician) deported from his own age and into the London of 500 years to come. A mental haze hovers over Rip as he wanders through the formerly familiar alien landscape. Taken prisoner by the white savages, Rip attempts to wake himself from what he believes is a dream. Communication with the natives of this new “Lunnon” proves a near impossibility, despite the linguistic similarities. The African “bosses,” who come and take Rip from the village, bring him to a learned man, whose thick accent baffles the attempt to communicate to Rip by reading Shakespeare. This moment strikes particularly strong chord. The plain language of English does not transcend time; even the seemingly timeless classic of Shakespeare seems of little use to bridge the intellectual, emotional, psychic gap for Rip. Something else, however, will do just that. Rather than paraphrase the moment of insight, let me allow Waugh to speak for himself:
“And then later–how much later he could not tell–something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-build church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
‘Ite, missa est.’ “
In Waugh’s imagination, even 500 years from now, when African Dominicans will be re-evangelizing the savage British Isles, the one immutable rock that weathers any storm, the one ever-glowing beacon that cuts through the haze of confusion and the vanity of time is the Lord’s sacrifice made once for all–the source, the summit, the sempiterna, the Eucharist.
The Doctor Who Christmas Special was recently made available via online streaming to those of us who do not have access to the BBC on our televisions. I’ve been thinking about it for a month now and cannot stop. The episode, entitled “The Time of the Doctor” marks the transition from Matt Smith’s Doctor to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
The goodbye scene is… well, let’s just say that because I already knew it was coming I was able to adequately prepare my emotions:
Oh my, when the bowtie hits the floor…
Doctor Who has a densely packed mythology that underlies the events leading up to the regeneration (the Doctor occasionally regenerates and is subsequently played by a new actor. This is the secret to keeping a show going for decade after decade after decade…). It would be well nigh impossible to unpack all of the background, but there are abundant theological themes throughout for us to muse upon. I have always thought that we ought to “read” Doctor Who in the same way we might read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This is to say, not as a straightforward retelling of another story with silly characters and magic but rather as a fairy tale that is implicitly Catholic-shaped simply because it assumes the presence of a greater reality of beauty and goodness. Now, I have no idea if the writers of Doctor Who are even the tiniest bit religious, but they certainly have created a world in which virtues and destiny and good and evil have meaning. Their stories are highly mythopoetic and dense with symbol.
Edith Stein writes in Science of the Cross,
“every genuine work of art is a symbol…that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning , which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.”
A world in which everything means something is a world that is highly charged with the Divine presence. Nothing is merely a true to life “adult” recounting of grim facts. No gritty, dour, post-modern drama, here. This is why science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific are so wonderful; it hasn’t given up telling stories. The Doctor may or may not be a Christ figure (I think probably not), but his actions always have resounding significance. He is very old and very wise, a true hero, journeying through a noble world in which nature is shot through with grace. Our lives are lived with precisely the same significance. Each day is a heroic journey, and at our best we make of ourselves a gift for those we love. All of our actions have eternal significance.
The Christmas special finds the Doctor, appropriately enough, in a town called Christmas where snow is always on the ground and the truth is always told. All of the ancient enemies of the Doctor and his species the Time Lords have gathered here in response to a mysterious question beamed out to all time and space. It is a question: Tell us your name, doctor…who? The enquirers turn out to be the long lost Time Lords, speaking through a crack to another universe. To answer and speak his name, forbidden to all, unlocks the door to allow the Time Lords back to their rightful place in this universe, but for the new world to come on the one we have now must die. To answer doctor who? brings on apocalypse as The Silence, Daleks, Cyber Men, and Weeping Angels are all eager for a final battle to push back the new world and destroy the Time Lords forever. Under these circumstances, the Doctor is and must remain unknowable. The question remains unanswered.
The Doctor has seen all of this before, this planet with the town called Christmas. He has journeyed here many years in the future and stood at the foot of his grave. This is where he dies for the last time. No more regenerations. It is predestined.
In such conditions, his only victory is to keep the villagers of Christmas safe. And this he does for hundreds of years, steadfastly refusing to say his name out loud but also steadfastly refusing to abandon these innocent people to the monsters at the edge of town, drawn in by the mysterious question like moths to a flame. The Doctor forestalls the apocalypse, but experiences a long, slow apocalypse of another sort. This one is personal, and he knows that it only ends with his own death. Is this a picture of a sacrificial Christ figure? A tragic hero? A simple, confused man unsure how to make a big decision? Perhaps all of these, but I would say that he is most clearly a saint. A sometimes flawed yet entirely virtuous martyr for the good of those he loves.
In the end, a miracle is granted. It is occasioned by life energy (or whatever the fancy, sci fi name of the sparkly blue stuff is) being sent through the crack from the other Time Lords. This is most certainly a graced moment, a pure gift from those who love him. Without it his regeneration will not take place and the last Time Lord will have fulfilled his predestined death, the way of all creatures. With renewed energy, though, instead of the final end there is a regeneration. The viewer never has it spelled out, but obviously the future that the Doctor had seen is not so set in stone. His grave will not be here after all.
However, this regeneration is not cheap grace. There is most certainly still a death. The transition from one face to another is not a mere change in appearance, a new face on the same essential personality. The old Doctor is gone. He dies and undergoes the transfiguration of the grave and new life.
“Goodbye, Raggedy Man,” bids a vision of his faithful friend. Indeed, goodbye. We are all breath on a mirror and we fade away so quickly. We have but a short time to become saints. In this life is much that is difficult and suffering and goodbyes. The heroic journey must always end in a death, and yet, grace is lingering, drifting along through a crack in the universe waiting for us to inhale.
Of all the advice people love to give to young mothers, some of the most prolific is on how to be patient with small children, certainly a necessary skill. Yet the state of mind required for happiness at home with small children isn’t really patience, as such. It’s a kind of flow that transcends patience: an attentiveness to and delight in minutiae that others don’t seem to notice. It’s something like the state of mind required for watching the film Into Great Silence—or for living in a monastery. It is a Theresian “little way” of detachment from goals of one’s own, as the time when those goals might have been achieved slips irretrievably away. It is the patience of the surfer of the waves of boredom, as described by David Foster Wallace:
“Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”
Thank God that the bliss lies on the other side, as experience has shown me that it does. And thank God this sort of endurance test is also required of writers, or I would never have encountered it before embarking on motherhood. Women with little or no such previous experience must also fight their way through boredom’s waves, and I think from hearing some of their stories that an unprepared person tends to fare worse when first plunked down inside five rooms with a tiny being whose need-based behaviors can’t be disciplined, scheduled, or predicted, and who depends entirely on her body for nourishment. Even for the experienced, the brain goes begging. When not well supplied with its own nourishment, it can wander into some dark and dry deserts.
While I am gone from what most people consider high-pressure environments, still the habit of internalized pressure is not gone from me. (“Wherever you go, there you are,” right?) I’m impatient for success, in heaven and on earth, and I do not know whether success will come. Not knowing scares me, but more and more the experience of meeting the daily tasks and accepting the daily gifts is peeling away this fear, baring me ribbon by ribbon to the air like the potato I am. It is stripping off not the desire for excellence, but the desire for validation.
I will know this deceitful desire is gone when I can accept my limitations in the way described by Caryll Houselander, when I can
stop striving to reach a goal that means becoming something the world admires, but which is not really worthwhile, [and] instead . . . realize the things that really do contribute to our happiness. . . . the things that satisfy our deeper instincts: to be at home, to make things with our hands, to have time to see and wonder at the beauty of the earth, to love and to be loved. . . . To work for real human happiness implies unworldliness, the kind of unworldliness that is usually a characteristic of artists, who—in spite of glaring faults—prefer to be poor, so that they may be able to make things of real beauty as they conceive it, rather than to suit themselves to the tastes and standards of the world.
As a mother and an artist, I am grateful for the space and peace to pursue these deeper instincts daily. One minute motherhood will seem like the limiting condition on art; the next it will appear as the only hope for preserving the bliss on the flip side of boredom that is art’s necessary prerequisite. I would never have had the opportunity to rediscover this characteristic bliss of childhood and preserve it into adulthood, if not for my creaturehood as a woman and my re-creation as a mother. At times this cycle is breaking me completely, but only in order to rebuild me. There is reason to be grateful for this.
As my friend measures the flour into the starter, a little clump of dough in a clean green-labeled Kalamata olive jar, she gives me instructions on how to replicate what she’s doing. “Every time you go to bake, feed it and divide it. Put half in your batch and half in a jar, and put the jar back in the fridge.” This will let the bacterial culture responsible for raising my bread divide and thrive.
How long does it last, I ask her. “Your lifetime,” she says. “Of course it can get too funky to be repaired, and then you’ll have to start over. But if you take good care of it and are lucky—” She shrugs: who knows how long?
That morning we had attended Mass together at a parish perched on the edge of a wild American river: in a crumbling Midwestern town, between railroad tracks and factories, a miniature Italianate church all newly renovated in local steel and stone. Its German glass windows and Italian marble altars, lovingly tended, gleam like jewels. Here again: replication, growth, nourishment—culture. Dividing and thriving.
Our children, too, thrive without our fully knowing how. Some are babies, others have grown tall; the tall ones sit together in the grass and chatter. “We are robins,” they say; “we are building our nests.” Who are they becoming? Who knows who they will be?
While we watch them, we sit and talk. It takes patience and a certain habit of being to approach other minds in a different mood from your own and turn that encounter, in the moment, into an exchange that is fruitful for all parties. It isn’t exactly art, or if it is, it’s a type of performance art, once pursued by the sort of people who used to be known as “cultivated.” I don’t excel at it; many writers don’t; more often our successes in building culture are achieved alone, trying to reach others who are also alone, trying to build a bridge. But sometimes not. Sometimes there is a small victory: a synthesis.
“[The Kingdom of heaven] is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. . . . [It] is as if a man should cast seed into the earth, And should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear.” (Luke 13:21; Mark 4:26-28)
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.
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?
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.
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.
I LOVE the Cross.
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.
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.
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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, 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.
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.
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. . . .
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.
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!
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!”
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!
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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!!!