The road executes a sharp curve
pulling me toward the shoulder where
a concrete angel kneels in the grass. [Read more…]
The road executes a sharp curve
pulling me toward the shoulder where
a concrete angel kneels in the grass. [Read more…]
The Pentecost 2017 issue of Dappled Things is now live!
The issue features Dana Gioia’s, “The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia,” with accompanying visual art by Luis Tapia. Also included is the 2017 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, “Obedience Lessons,” by Abigail Rine Favale, as well as “Reading The Benedict Option as a Parent” by Bernardo Aparicio García and poetry from Don Russ, and more.
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A recent ramble around the fictional corners of the interwebs brought me upon this rare recording of Flannery O’Connor speaking about the grotesque in Southern and Catholic fiction, as a preamble to her reading of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The aesthetics of the grotesque are interesting in many ways, and I wonder sometimes how much I agree with O’Connor in this regard, but there is no doubt that she presents her ideas in a more cogent fashion than today’s half-educated novelists could manage.
Obedience Lessons Abigail Rine Favale
Winner, 2017 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
Not Less Than Everything Sally Thomas
The Bridal Ferns, Sofia M. Starnes
Lessons from Galicia Sofia M. Starnes
Mushrooms Sofia M. Starnes
Learning to Paint Richard Cole
A Birthday for Therese: Intimations from First Youth Daniel Fitzpatrick
The Moved Mover Hilary Biehl
Hallgrim’s Church Kim Bridgford
The Great Snowflake of 1887 Don Russ
A Roadside Epiphany Don Russ
Inheritance Jeannette Canning Schmidt
Sunnyside-Up in a Blanket Wally Swist
Gifts of the Magi Vincent Casaregola
Charles Baudelaire James Matthew Wilson
The Presence Elise Hempel
Reading The Benedict Option as a Parent Bernardo Aparicio García
There is so much activity and variety in the American visual arts that it is difficult to assess the significance of any individual artist, especially one still productive and unpredictable. Over the last quarter century, however, it has become clear that the sculptor Luis Tapia has accomplished something singular, important, and slightly surprising. He has reconceptualized one of the oldest traditions of Latino and American regional art—the santero’s craft devotional sculpture—in a way that is both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins. In the process, Tapia has not only redeemed this powerful but narrow tradition from the weight of its own past; he has given his personal revision of it an international presence, thereby elevating the distinctively Hispanic form of sculpture beyond its folkloric identity. Without losing his personal connection with the past, Tapia has transformed the restrictive roles of the santero and the santo into something meaningfully new—more fluent, contemporary, and expansive.
Luis Eligio Tapia was born in Agua Fria, New Mexico, just outside Santa Fe, in 1950. His father, a fireman at Los Alamos National Laboratory, died mysteriously when he was one, possibly from beryllium poisoning. His mother, who never remarried, worked at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. Tapia attended local Catholic schools and briefly studied at New Mexico State University. For a few years he worked in a retail clothing shop. As his interest in Latino traditional arts developed, he co-founded a local artist group, La Cofradia de Artes y Artesanos Hispanicos. In 1981 he worked on the restoration of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos. A self-taught artist, Tapia mastered the craft of carving and painting sacred images, called santos—a tradition that has been continuously practiced in New Mexico for four centuries. Unsatisfied with duplicating traditional subject matters and techniques, Tapia experimented with bold color and intricate design. He also renovated traditional subjects by executing old motifs in contemporary ways. He initially sold his art at regional fiestas. By the mid-1980s, he found a commercial gallery in Santa Fe. His work has steadily gained wider recognition through group and solo exhibitions. Tapia’s sculptures are now in major museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, the Denver Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition. There is irony in his depiction of contemporary economic and racial relations between Anglos and Latinos, rich and poor, but his attitude toward his subject matter is never detached.
The vibrancy of Tapia’s ironic and incisive satire seems closer to Goya or Daumier than to his voguish urban contemporaries. If he is ironic, he is also big-hearted and vulnerably human. His mordant sense of humor—a rare thing in sculpture, especially in the Catholic devotional tradition—makes an immediate human connection with the onlooker. Tapia gains a particular kind of energy and authenticity by allowing the viewer to feel quite directly his complex and sometimes contradictory emotions. He is angry, amused, affectionate, rude, and reverent—often at the same time. Tapia is a visionary realist who visibly occupies the same daily world as the viewer but also reveals its hidden moral, indeed religious, resonances. He has made the devotional forms of the santero profane and political without losing their sacred authority.
Without renouncing his own roots, Tapia has become a significant American artist of unique identity, personal style, and political power. He did not abandon his tradition; he transformed it. Tapia has emerged from the Latino, Catholic, Southwestern, rural poor—five varieties of marginalization, all alien to the mostly metropolitan world of contemporary American art. He has made each of those “minor” and frequently patronized categories mean something different from his precursors. He has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.
To discuss Tapia’s artistic identity in cultural and sociological terms is clarifying, but it also risks losing the main reason he is worth discussing in the first place—his excellence and originality. Contemporary art labors under heavy clouds of ideological weather. Latino artists in particular are rarely allowed to exist as individuals; they are abstracted into representations of group consciousness. Tapia’s art doesn’t matter because it is Latino, culturally marginal, or politically engaged. His art matters because it is so powerfully expressive, memorable, and original on its own individual terms. Studied in depth, his oeuvre reveals itself to be intellectually ambitious, thematically diverse, stylistically inventive, and masterful in technique.
Tapia’s particular genius is also refreshingly democratic and inclusive. His sculptures arrest the viewer’s attention whether that person is intellectually sophisticated or not. He has developed a visual language, drawn from both the Hispanic vernacular and elite traditions, that engages equally the cosmopolitan and the campesino. Significantly, his mostly small works hold the viewer’s gaze in ways that are simultaneously pleasurable and painful.
Tapia is a conceptual artist. There are always ideas animating both his forms and subjects, but those concepts are not imposed on the works. The meanings emanate from the physical objects themselves. We enter his disturbing and darkly beautiful work not intellectually but intuitively through its iconic images and visual narratives. There is also a conspicuously joyful mastery in his sculptures. They remind us that art, even tragic art, works most potently through pleasure.
I worry that I have taken too many theoretical flights in describing Tapia’s very sensuous art. If that has been the case, I blame him. I can’t look at Luis Tapia’s work without being flooded with ideas and emotions. Whenever I see his work in a gallery or museum, I have the same intense experience—I come, I see, he conquers. Even in a crowded exhibition, Tapia’s work arrests my attention, draws me in, and lingers in my memory. If you don’t believe me, turn these pages.
Dana Gioia, poet and librettist, is the Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California. He served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2009. He holds ten honorary degrees and has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University. In 2015, Gioia was named the Poet Laureate of California by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Luis Tapia is a pioneering Chicano artist who for forty-five years has pushed the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary. Rooted in a folk art tradition established in seventeenth-century New Mexico, Tapia’s work at once honors its origins, reinterprets traditional subject matter, and revitalizes age-old techniques. His works have been exhibited internationally and widely reviewed by several publications. Tapia has received many awards for his work, including the 1996 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the state’s highest artistic honor.
Not pausing as, in early evening,
I pass a stand of spring-white cherry trees,
I set it spinning anyway, a whirligig—
a thing, a dizzy space—inside-outside
my head: such galaxies, sea-runs of old light
seen faster close,
some distant eddies slowing, some
almost stopped, in a parallax enchantment
of grace-filled dance.
And having passed, I say of each
gray branch—gray presence while it lasts
dissolving into night—let it be shadow
of the brightness it holds, let it be
what first I understood: bone of the world
in cold bloom. It is good.
Don Russ is author of Dream Driving (Kennesaw State University Press, 2007) and the chapbooks Adam’s Nap (Billy Goat Press, 2005) and World’s One Heart (The Next Review, 2015). His poem “Girl with Gerbil” was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2012 after it appeared in The Cincinnati Review.
If the marketing team at Penguin Random House had wanted to generate controversy for Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, they would have given it a subtitle like “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”—and they did. The book’s cover, an image of the fortified abbey atop Mont-Saint-Michel shrouded in mist, doesn’t do much to ward off criticism about adopting a “fortress mentality,” either. While the publishers can congratulate themselves on getting the book the attention it deserves—it has been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker, among others—it is a pity that its presentation so easily invites misinterpretation, especially since The Benedict Option is at heart nothing other than a call for the Church to be more fully itself.
Others have already debated at length these headline-grabbing aspects of Dreher’s analysis and prescriptions, so I would like to focus instead on my view of the book as someone who came to it with more practical concerns: namely, from my perspective as a father.
From its very first paragraph, The Benedict Option invites precisely such a reading. “Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world his children will inherit,” Dreher explains in his introduction. “And so it was with me.” In my own case, becoming a father seven years ago made the importance of having access to a supportive community painfully clear. It also highlighted for me just how rootless and alienated from each other we have truly become. Not exactly shocking revelations, I’ll grant, but the point is that a whole array of concerns that had, until then, interested me in a largely academic sense, suddenly became both personal and urgent when my daughter was born. As I thought about those things that I would like to pass on to her—and later her two younger brothers—my mind turned naturally to goods of the soul. I realized very quickly how daunting a task lay ahead.
Too often, young parents trying to raise the next generation of Christians find themselves fighting what seems like an asymmetric war. I don’t mean only the often corrosive impact of popular culture on virtues that parents may be trying to nurture in their children. I am also thinking of the contours of contemporary life itself: the encroachment of work responsibilities on family life, the incessant busyness and noise caused by our overdependence on technology, the way families and friendships are broken up as we move in search of economic opportunities, the banality and utilitarianism of most of our educational system, the way even the built environments of our cities and suburbs seem to conspire to make the human act of knowing our neighbors seem quaint or even peculiar.
Understandably, having grown up during decades of a feel-good catechesis that promoted, more than anything, what sociologist Christian Smith famously labeled Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, many serious Christians raising children today have focused on doctrine and apologetics as ways of supplying what their own faith formation lacked. Unfortunately, while sound and compelling teaching is always necessary, the cultural trends mentioned above—to name just a few—constitute an implicit education all their own, orienting our lives toward a self-centered idea of fulfillment. One doesn’t need to read The Benedict Option to understand that these socioeconomic trends make it harder to communicate to our children the meaning of Christian charity or nurture in them a love for the true, the good, and the beautiful, which are always harder than the trendy, the flashy, and the luxurious. When our lives become so atomized that the faith cannot be incarnated in a community’s way of life, when our parishes are only franchises where we purchase religious services, Christianity becomes nothing more than a philosophy, losing much of its power to transform our lives. It is no accident that Jesus did not write a book but instead founded a Church.
These are the concerns that led me to read The Benedict Option, looking for a way forward—not to save civilization—but simply to raise my children in the midst of an increasingly secularist society. I have to say Dreher acquits himself well. Ultimately, The Benedict Option makes a simple argument: it takes the Church to raise a Christian (to put a new spin on that old saying). Dreher develops the argument carefully and convincingly, alerting Christians to the urgency of the task and providing a useful framework for how to go about doing it
The “Benedict option” is a term Dreher coined from a famous passage in Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where McIntyre argues that moral coherence can only return to our public life when there appear new “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained,” paralleling the way Benedictine monastic communities served as a locus for maintaining the “tradition of virtues” through the Dark Ages. “We are waiting not for a Godot,” McIntyre concludes, “but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” Dreher suggests in his first chapter that this new St. Benedict may in fact be not one but many: everyday Christians coming together to build a common life that isn’t ordered by the standards of what St. Augustine would have called the “city of man.” Dreher offers, as an alternative, a vision of community life inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, yet adapted to work for lay believers living in modern times rather than monastics in the Middle Ages.
The first part of the book sketches a historical argument—beginning with the Medieval debate between realism and nominalism—that attempts to illuminate “the long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning” to one of “once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection.” While I might quibble with some of the narrative Dreher presents here—for example, when he fails to recognize how historical, theological, and philosophical developments during the Middle Ages contributed to the rise of modern science and democracy—his overall point about our comfortable but “emptied” world stands, as does his call for Christians to stop looking to politics to save the day. Whatever one thinks of this section—whether it may be too defeatist, alarmist, etc., as some have argued—it is not where the real value of the book lies. Rather, what makes The Benedict Option so compelling is Dreher’s exploration of ideas from the Rule of Benedict—and how communities around the world have already put them into practice—that can enrich our spirituality and our church communities, making them “thicker,” more resilient, and more alive. Dreher includes sections covering many areas of life, from prayer, asceticism, and living by the liturgical calendar to education, work, and technology. In each of these, he calls on Christians to have the courage to place the Gospel first, even if that means forgoing opportunities for worldly success, for example by choosing to remain rooted in a community at the cost of a better-paying job in another part of the country. The focus is not—as some accuse him—on naively trying to keep the world out or avoid contamination by the impure, but rather on building micro-cultures conducive to human flourishing in the fullest sense.
The Benedict Option is a compelling call to Christians to stop living on the world’s terms, as well as a guide for how, in the twenty-first century, we can be “in the world but not of it.” It is written with a clear head, alert to the pitfalls that sects and cults fall into as they attempt to cut themselves off from the world. The book provides safeguards against these dangers by championing the Benedictine virtues of “balance” and “hospitality,” as well as through repeated cautions about turning the community, the family—or anything else for that matter—into an idol. Even if you don’t agree with all its prescriptions—the section on economics, which does tend toward isolationism, gave me pause—this is a timely, useful, and important book. It won’t answer every practical question about how to go about building up your local community, but it can give you a model to aim for. In my own parish, it has intensified the conversation about how we may better support each other and share in each other’s lives beyond Sunday mornings, and while we have no concrete answers yet, the conversation itself has already drawn us closer. Whether we call it “the Benedict option” or anything else, the type of community Dreher describes is really a place where we may nurture in our children, and share with the world, the kind of life modernity both hates and hungers for: the life that St. Paul simply called the “more excellent way.”
Abigail Rine Favale
Winner, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
He knew that neck. He had traced it with his fingers many times, with his lips. From where he stood, David could only see her profile, but there was something about the way she held her head that was instantly familiar—a little to the side, neck straight, as if listening to a sound in the distance. The chin had softened noticeably, the once angular jaw now rounded with flesh. And her dark hair, like his, had lightened with age. But it was Erica, no doubt, sitting just a park bench away.
In his memory—and, occasionally, in his dreams—Erica was immune to age. She appeared exactly as she did when they last saw one another, ten years ago, her body hard and reedy with youth and discipline. In his clearest mental image of her, captured from the vantage of her bed, Erica is standing in front of a full-length mirror, examining her body like a general might survey an enemy army, looking for a weak spot, an avenue of attack. She was pristine, but of course she couldn’t see it. That was why he was there, to adulate the body she was trying to conquer; he worshipped it, and she worshipped that.
Their affair was brief but intense, a collision of need. At first, David was able to compartmentalize it, hold it at arm’s length away from his stable marriage and satisfactory academic career. He had naively thought himself immune to infidelity, particularly with graduate students—if only due to his aversion to cliché. Erica was his lone lapse.
Susan never found out. She was a coast away during those weeks, handling the estate of her recently deceased mother—a detail that could be an unending source of guilt for David, if he let it. He remembers her return from California with agonizing detail; she slumped against him at the airport, almost shaking with grief and exhaustion. He held her silently, his nose against her hair, which still smelled like her childhood home, the home she’d gone back to sell. He burned with self-loathing, a fire that consumed any and all remaining desire for Erica. He called her that night, after Susan was asleep, to break it off. He doesn’t remember that conversation, the explanation he gave, if any. After that, David avoided Erica with precision, eventually hearing that she dropped out of the doctorate program—news he welcomed. The last ten years had given him ample time to mythologize their relationship, to see it as an innocuous blip, an exception that proved the rule of his otherwise flawless fidelity.
As for the pregnancy, something he instinctively thought of as “alleged,” when he thought of it at all—that was not part of his narrative. The final postscript to their affair consisted of a brief phone conversation, weeks after David had cut things off. Erica called him at work, leaving a vague message that David ignored for a few days, until he generously concluded that perhaps he had ended things too abruptly and they really did need one last rendezvous to feel closure. The conversation did not go as expected; he barely spoke at all. Erica told him matter-of-factly that she was pregnant, and she’d already made the necessary arrangements, so there was nothing he needed to do, she just thought he should know.
This news was shocking to him at the time—and deeply improbable. It was as if Calypso had materialized on Ithaca, after the blissful marital reunion, to announce that she was carrying Odysseus’ child. This was simply not how the story was supposed to end.
Abigail Rine Favale is a professor and writer living in Oregon. Her short fiction has previously appeared in a number of literary journals, such as the Potomac Review, Talking River Review, and Melusine. She has also published non-fiction essays with First Things and The Atlantic, among other places.
Eleanor Bourg Donlon
11 July 1914
St. Mary’s College, S–
I recently encountered a face from our joint past–a young earl and eager profligate, though not so young as formerly and certainly more inclined to high-minded pomposity. He obligingly provided me with your address. Although I remember well your abhorrence of all things resembling sentimentality, I own that I have thought of you often in the passing years. I shall venture into even more objectionable territory when I assert furthermore that I remember you daily in my prayers. I hope you are well and have remained safe in these anxious times. [Read more…]
Today’s the day that nothing happened.
A clouded haze is all that’s safe
I’m not sure
but my mind does know
what can be endured
and what must be erased. [Read more…]