Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Do this in memory of me (my annual 're-run')

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet my honest nature prompts me to further comment that the bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are perhaps the only universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (Well, all right ... I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a 'golden age' is a favourite pastime of everyone in every era, yet such have never existed.

I am not likely to call the Last Supper an actual celebration of the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) But I provide this 'annual reflection,' which I reserve for Holy Week, right now because I'm weeping my way through the liturgy, as usual for this time of year. Today at the Eucharist, for example, though I've heard the words literally thousands of times, I shed a tear when I heard "on the night he was betrayed..." (Even when I view the intellectually deficient film "King of Kings," I still cry when Lucius says to Barabbas, "Go! Look upon him who is dying for you!") I wept through "All glory, laud, and honour" on Palm Sunday (not as much as I shall when we cry out "He is risen indeed" a few days hence), not only because I know the same crowd shouting "Hosanna" cried out "Crucify Him!" a few days later, but because it gives me a thrill to think those Hosannas to the Son of David have echoed for 2,000 years. My regulars will recognise the sentiments, but blogging for all of these years taught me what I already knew from being a student for a century - original ideas are rare, and I think Einstein was the last to have one. :)

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) When I was reading Luke yesterday, I had to smile, seeing how, right to the end, the apostles were tossing about the idea of who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

It is all too easy, particularly if one not only watches the scriptural epics and reads the 'Lives of Christ' of another time, and has been exposed to the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth, to picture twelve intense young men, in great awe at having been first to see the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. Actually, what was present at the Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with all this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were either simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated a day early. (Well, at least, in that day, they were spared the irate vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "But wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. I would imagine that Matthew was still sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering all of his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from that sad incident of attempting to walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. (I've no doubt Peter made sure he was prominent during the "Hosanna" procession... why he hung out in the court of Caiaphas later on Thursday night still puzzles me... Perhaps it was poetic justice, since wonderfully fallible Peter of Rome would live to see what has endured - the sort of priests foreshadowed by Annas and Caiaphas also would exist till the parousia...) The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Still, whenever I heard the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me to think that the perpetual memorial has endured for two millenia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water was the catholic element - and these rituals of common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc., with Christians being the odd ones who conformed neither to Jewish nor pagan society.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine (and oil, and incense... forgive me, since I am so High Church) - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. We shall never accept that, of course. :) Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that some ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name...

...out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life... - I must stop here, because I'm crying again.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Peculiarities in 'sign and symbol' perceptions

Last Friday, I attended what may be the most magnificent concert I have ever heard. It was a 400th anniversary celebration of Monteverdi, and his Vespers were performed splendidly. I was utterly 'transported' - it was the sort of concert that I think I may one day hear the heavenly choirs perform if they give it sufficient effort. Needless to say, I'm no stranger to the texts of Vespers, and I could utterly feel the emphases Monteverdi gave to particular passages, and the striking contrasts in his presentation of 'one text following another.' Certainly, one trained as a musicologist could write substantially on how he used this-or-that technique to achieve this effect, but, deep down, we know that art cannot be categorised the way that one might describe a mechanical pursuit or scientific experiment.

It suddenly struck me that, for all the energy I've expended in my writing (just as an example, on the Internet site and blog), amazingly I never write of music! Part of the reason is that to do so is too painful. Music was (and is) a great passion of mine, and an area where I was gifted, and having necessity mean that I never had a chance to use those talents cuts me to the quick. Yet I believe another element is that, where some musicologists are 'technicians' to a point an engineer might envy (they are utterly incapable of enjoying a concert, but will know if the acclaimed artist sang a 500-year-old piece in something other than its original key or with its bare bones arrangement - or will bemoan if it is a piece not composed locally and in the 21st century), I am very far from this. Frankly (just as with dissertations - and I have pursued those as well), I believe such approaches are contrived. I assuredly can see where a composer created a powerful statement, but I doubt that papers on 'Beethoven's use of the augmented sixth chord in the last movement of Suchandsuch' contain anything that ever entered Beethoven's mind at the time.

One professor of mine, years back, made me smile when he mentioned an acquaintance with song-writer Irving Berlin. (Many specialising in musicology would not only have had no humour in them but would have had a long spiel to present about 'moving from 6 to 1 to 4'.) He teased me that at least Irving Berlin wrote a total of four melodies, where Verdi only used two - his early stage being 'oom-pah-pah,' his later 'sol-la-ti-do, sol-la-ti-do,' as I well knew. Still, to mention the aria I most loved to perform, when Leonora in La Forza del Destino sings the sweeping, "non m'abbondar, pieta Signore," I doubt even someone whose musical pursuits had not advanced beyond London Bridge is Falling Down would not perceive the huge emotions, conflict, and passion in the presentation.

Liturgy is also a passion for me, of course, and an area I've studied in massive detail. I love reading the works of (most!) noted liturgical scholars - by which I do not mean someone who has swallowed a lot of balderdash at some 'workshop' where gregarious, persuasive types (who indeed have knowledge, but share it selectively and with deliberate vagueness) further some local agenda or another. My love for worship is very instrumental, of course, but I also love the strong emphases on history and on 'sign and symbol.' The problem (and this even noted scholars concede... eventually) is that very little is known of the related history (until the Middle Ages - and every liturgist worth his salt not only thinks medieval liturgy was disastrous but would like to restore the purity of the 3rd century, if one could only discover what it was... even if the 3rd century didn't mean having saints in the next pew, and mostly meant capturing whichever bishops last sacrificed to the pagan gods). 'Sign and symbol' can strike people very differently, with only the liturgists themselves usually seeing the 'sign' that they expect will be prominent.

Most of the earliest liturgical texts are snippets - and usually one can't know for certain whether they were used regularly in worship, or to what extent this was so. I have this vivid mental picture of a bishop scribbling a 'to do' list, and inadvertently leaving it in a cassock pocket, to be discovered in some 20th century excavation. He might have written the equivalent of "pick up milk - remind Adeodatus to take out the recycling - feed the cat - check to see if the dry cleaning is ready." Liturgists who are brilliant and creative enough could spend days on this text, possibly developing ideas of parts in early liturgies where milk was lifted in praise of the fruits of creation, non-human animals were fed to show no elitism on the part of humanity, glass was separated into green and clear to show that we, too, will be recycled by grace regardless if we are transparent or not (those of you not in the know may be unaware that the highest praise of the saintly today centres on their being 'transparent'), and that dry cleaning, however harmful to the environment, is an affirmation of the value of human labour - and note the development of concepts of worship and sacramental theology, where already there was a connection with preserving 'the cloth.'

Among the works on my 'further reading' list in liturgical studies was one by a Protestant theologian. (I didn't like it - so I can't quote his name from memory, and won't even waste the energy looking it up.) He naturally focussed on baptism, and in fact seemed to see Communion as something of an after-thought. He cannot be faulted for 'creativity' in interpretation. It seemed that he assumed that just about every epistle was quoting what could loosely be called liturgical texts. "We proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord" would be taken for an acclamation, undoubtedly highly emotional if not directly inspired by the Spirit in each individual case, of "Jesus is Lord" which people shouted after baptism.

I'm not one for rows, but I love academic arguments. My favourites are those where distinguished, dedicated theologians from different areas of specialisation quibble over points. I believe the new lectionary is a gem, but it's great fun to have liturgists explain the 'themes' and their connection, whilst the scripture scholars insist that the combination of texts has no exegetical connection.

I very much enjoyed the works of Annibale Bugnini, who was involved in the Vatican's efforts at liturgical reform from 1947 through the 1970s. He wrote with undisguised excitement at what was under-way - though I dare-say he (and his colleagues) pictured something along the lines of Maria Laach, not a perpetual nursery school or weddings as a popular musical entertainment to celebrate the unique trends of Bob and Sue. Having seen how their ideas often back-fired, while realising what they intended and the reasoning, was enlightening to me. Even in the areas where I most disagree (for example, the 'communion procession'), I can envision what delights they hoped to restore. (I hate standing for the Eucharistic Prayer, and do not see it as an increase in reverence, however much I know that it is an ancient custom or illustrates our being a royal priesthood... and I'm cranky because it makes my back hurt...)

I'm not pleading 'not guilty' here, of course. There are particular gestures, passages and the like which move me incredibly. (Remember, as I showed earlier, that I equally assume that everyone is transported by both Monteverdi and Verdi...) The trouble is that it took me thirty years to discover what they meant (for example, "the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours" gives me a thrill when I realise it was from the Didache - and I love the ancient, rich symbolism of "holy things for holy people," even as I admit that probably half the congregation thinks replacing 'behold the Lamb of God' with this passage is a denial of the Real Presence). Liturgists know both the history and speculations - probably no one else, including the bishops, has a clue. The symbol is very likely to be misread - but which of us would have the courage to admit this?

When Bugnini's noble 'communion procession' was first instituted at grass-roots level, there were people who loved and hated 'let's all walk up and join our voices in the latest trendy song, while trying to concurrently hold song sheets and grasp the hands of the children.' Some of those promoting this may be forgiven (since they heard it at a workshop, I'm sure) for such idiotic explanations as "kneeling meant God was above us and we were servile - standing is the way one meets a friend." (Much as I think I'd have enjoyed sharing some new wine with Jesus of Nazareth at Cana, the more because I believe those who crashed the party to be with him may have been the reason the host ran out of wine in the first place, may I be spared from ever thinking He or any Persons of the Trinity are my equals...) Those who enjoyed it thought it was 'something to do' on the way to communion (...people who have 'nothing to do' or become bored on so brief a journey are beyond my comprehension, but I wonder if this says something about their understanding of the Eucharist in the first place... and this without any speculation about those who had told them the Eucharist 'celebrated ourselves.') Those who hated it saw quietly approaching the altar rail and kneeling to receive communion as far more reverent (and so do I - there, I said it and I'm glad - and it also gives me more of a sense of being one with the entire Christian community.) Both camps hardly thought the 'sing Ray Repp's Sons of God while trying to juggle the kids and a song sheet, then receive standing' was a glorious procession which emphasised the Communion as the high point of the liturgy.

I particularly enjoyed John Macquarrie's writings, because he not only combines an impressive knowledge of sacramental theology with pastoral 'horse sense,' but had the courage to say what could make one look old-fashioned, dumb, or stunted. Recall that all of us liturgical fans (I can't resist adding 'or wind machines,' and ask my readers to forgive me that pun) were facing a dilemma. We had to insist on returning to the purity (pre-Charlemagne and Gregory VII if one was clever enough) of the early Church rituals, yet more or less had to ignore any progress between the 4th century and the 20th. (Oh, we had to applaud our sudden progress today - but bemoan that anything happened in the Middle Ages, renaissance, 19th century and so forth.) John Macquarrie was frank about how, for example, even if the separation of baptism and confirmation was indeed an historical accident, it was a providential one - affirmation of one's mature faith, and a rite of passage in modern culture when we have few, has great value. To my knowledge, he was the only specialist in sacramental theology who admitted that liturgists place a stress on baptism unequalled by anyone else, and that this excessive emphasis could have negative effects on others.

Just very recently (and this in the context of a presentation about the Easter Vigil), one lady in attendance (who probably 'skimmed' a text about the early Church) asked why baptism is administered to the young, because (so she thought) in Augustine's time everyone waited till death was near before being baptised. (Actually, it seems to me that quite a bit of time lapsed between Augustine's baptism and his death... but I think that, then or now, and despite Augustine's rather excessive presentation about the necessity for early baptism, Augustine's own struggle with what he wanted 'but not yet' would find ready understanding in many an ear.) There's ample enough evidence that those who delayed baptism, hoping to receive it specifically on their death beds, had reasons that weren't exactly liturgical norms for eternity. They wanted to get in plenty of sin and have it wiped out at the last minute. Or they had high positions, which might entail such niceties as sacrificing to the old gods rather than face difficult consequences, and hardly wanted to lose their heads or end up penanced for apostasy (which might involve being barred from one's profession, removed from military careers, or maintaining total continence in one's marriage.) I also think that, however much there are holes in what we know of early catechesis, an extended period of preparation makes sense amongst Greeks who knew a quite different approach than did Israel... or that one didn't want spies for the Empire bringing up the offertory procession.

Bear with me once again... I sometimes hang in crowds where people could argue for hours over the specific meaning of 'et cum spiritu tuo.' It's almost as nuts as when I saw two musicologists argue for a day over what chord progression (V-I or IV-I, the latter known to most of you as that used for 'amen') was more effective.

The Reform of the Liturgy (1948-1975)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Enough with this 'obesity epidemic'

I rarely talk about items 'in the news,' but this one has become so constant that I'll break that rule this once. One of my biggest concerns is that, from what I have seen on-line, various nations and districts are taking initiatives to legislate about outlawing or taxing particular foods. It may seem odd that I am so against this - there certainly is no junk food in my cupboards, nor is there sugar. But I frankly believe this precedent could be destructive - indeed, could lead to a larger problem than currently exists. Where will it end? Rationing, so no one can have more than a forkful of protein again? Taxes so high that no one can afford anything on his plate except the 'healthy grains' that are making everyone as fat as horses?

I shall not live to see this, I suppose, but I believe the day will come when currently blind medical science realises what I've known all of my life, having been raised on that dreadful "Mediterranean diet." Practically no protein and fat, combined with a huge percentage of grains, is the surest formula for being ravenous twenty-four hours a day. The effect is similar to drinking salt water when one is hungry. I've never been slight, but, unlike many others in my age group, I weigh what I did at age 13 - because I got away from eating starch, and don't have the fruits and vegetables (which I love and always have) unless I have protein at the same time.

When I was a child, I well remember those who ate meat three times a day, and carried crisps and sweets in their packed lunches, who did not have weight problems at all. As a young woman, except for those involved in competitive sports or dancers, no one I knew was interested in exercise in the least. Our social outings would typically be, for example, going for drinks, not heading for a gym. I doubt there has been a time in history when people were as obsessed as they are now with working out and avoiding fats. The day will come when someone finally sees the correlation between the stress on grains (and no protein) and the weight problems.

Just do a Google search, and it will become all too clear that the doctors (whom many seem ready to follow like a Pied Piper) have absolutely no solution for weight problems. "Successes" may be one group of women, described as 'morbidly obese,' who observed a rigid low fat diet, then sacrificed mind, heart, and soul for a life that consists of nothing but earning a living and three hours a day of exercise. They lost 19 pounds in a year, then gained it back - but are classed as 'successful' because they didn't start gaining after six months! This is one of scores of examples. The best it seems one can hope for with these 'safe, healthy' diets is slight weight loss that at best is regained at the same rate that it was lost.

Sadder still is that those such as the women I've just mentioned will have to endure all sorts of misunderstanding, abuse, and mockery. It was bad enough in the days when they'd have merely been the target of those who thought them ugly. Today, there are scores of supposed psychological problems which will be assumed. On a theology forum (which hasn't the slightest relation to weight problems), someone posted a question (and I quote) - "Is weight the sign of screwedupness?" I'm inclined to doubt a correlation. I certainly would prefer the company of Queen Victoria, Pope John, Orson Welles, or Thomas Aquinas to that of the slim Ted Bundy. Yet there are as many Internet sites, films, articles and the like which emphasise this nonsense as there are those 'medical sites' which insist that, at best, someone can hope to maintain a 5% weight loss.

I don't consider losing a few pounds and gaining it back (the more if one sacrifices any quality of life in the process) as a success, but those who bought this 'study' in the first place have much to endure from those who'd agree with me - but for different reasons. Those in the study, as far as I can see, were targets of an effective scam. But their friends are more likely to assume that they have a hidden stash of chocolates - or that they fear losing weight because they just have to have been raped or molested and live in terror that a man might find them attractive - that they are 'kidding themselves' - the list can go on forever.

All along, they will have endured that, once anyone knew they were trying to lose weight, absolutely anything they eat or drink will come under fire. Any activity that doesn't involve exercise will be condemned. I must have been a trend-setter - I had anorexia back in 1973, when it was little-known and seldom a disease of the working class. Still, I had to hear endless comments about how (for example) my drinking coffee meant I couldn't lose weight. When my torso was black and blue because my bones were protruding through my skin, I still had 'helpful' women advising me that I had big hips and 'had to do exercise.' (Only concern for my welfare, I'm sure. A woman's having discernible hips is a grave sin, and perish the thought I should go to my Maker, as I surely soon would have had the anorexia continued, if I still lacked skinny hips in my coffin.)

Those who were successful with low carbohydrate approaches (see some of the blogs that I follow) indeed may be open about this - but even the 'studies' about supposed (not genuine!) low carbohydrate dieting are a 'sell out.' Where, for example, Robert Atkins 'stuck to his guns' despite criticism, apparently the next generation are mired in sycophancy. A study of which I read, chronicled in the New England Journal of Medicine, oddly was funded by the Atkins centre - though it isn't low carbohydrate at all. No - it's the 'safe' version that will possibly meet the dictates of "my doctor says not to lose more than a pound a month... protein has to be kept to three ounces.. take in at least 180 grams of carbohydrates per day... don't lose more than ten pounds... stock up on healthy grains..." Those in that particular study, as in another I saw written of in the Daily Mail, temporarily observed 'Atkins induction', but did not progress to ongoing weight loss. They proceeded (undoubtedly gaining in the process, at once) to the 'safe' (translation - worthless) version which some doctor or nutritionist might approve - and it's just as worthless as the 'success stories' I previously mentioned.

I'm not suggesting that this is universal! Many people, myself included, had very substantial weight loss (in some cases, well over 100 pounds), and never gained it back. Yet they aren't likely to be taking in 6-11 servings of grains each day.

Fun is a thing of the past. Social gatherings with people who fear eating, or drinking anything but water, are bad enough at my age - but legislation that makes children fearful of so much as a Coca-Cola is a disgrace. I also hate the idea that the young will have no social life beyond planned exercising. What has this obsession with low fat diets and grains accomplished? Why has this 'epidemic' occurred at a time when people are exercising at the highest rate I'm sure anyone can recall, and fear fats to no end?

Legislation based on 'healthy eating' (which probably is a ploy to increase tax money) may well deprive those who have had successful weight loss of the very foods they need to not join the ranks of the 'obese.' Worthless though the advice of most 'professionals' is, selling 'self esteem' or 'motivation' (even when one doesn't even expect that a single client will achieve significant or permanent weight loss) is highly lucrative.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Firstborn here...

It must be thirty years now that 'birth order' became a pre-occupation, and one which many authors found lucrative. (Note that some of the ideas I had and express below, some of which I have on file from an article I wrote in 1985, must occur to many people - I've seen similar ideas elsewhere, so accuse me of being a frustrated sibling if you wish, but not of plagiarism.) I frankly doubt that there's all that much to the concept. Today, when a 'huge family' is three children, I suppose much weight can be given to such studies, but I well recall when many families I knew had six or more children - and I imagine that an enormous percentage of the population were 'middle children,' who for some reason are supposed to have all sorts of problems that Augustine would have chalked up to original sin. In fact, based entirely on many people I have known, not on 'studies,' I genuinely believe that what strengths, weaknesses, talents, whatever, any one of us have has no correlation to birth order at all (and I'd have known that even if the only large families I'd known had been those of my own parents.)

I wrote recently about my qualms about the 'designer children' wish - and I equally loathe the goal of 'designer siblings.' The idea that there is some magic formula (one common idea I've heard from many people is that a pregnancy within a very short time of the first-born child's arrival ensures the next child and the first will be inseparable, for example) which will bring about sibling relationships which are so close and loving that they can barely be surpassed by the persons of the Trinity is balderdash. I would recommend that anyone - whatever their age or family size - take a serious look at their own relationships (and those of their friends) with siblings, and not to restrict this look to when you all were adults and probably had only periodic contact. I'd bet my last penny (if I still had one) that most of us would admit that we've had moments of wanting to stuff one another up a chimney. (Don't tell the yuppies, who have no concept of memory, only of self-help and the like. I can think of one I knew who nearly tried to drown her sister in a fit of rage when they were adolescents, yet who is weeping and wailing because a school counsellor saw her three-year-old as having 'rivalry' with his younger sister.)

There are exceptions, of course, but I wasn't at all surprised when someone I knew, who was doing a psychology study, found (to her) unexpected results for a fairly extensive survey. She had done a detailed poll of young adults, exploring their interests, values and so forth, and the relation this had to the responses of their siblings and closest friends. She was amazed (though I was not, when she told me) that close friends were far more similar (and congenial, in most cases) than were the majority of siblings, and indeed that 'best friends' had more in common than identical twins.

I think many of us, even if we get along with siblings well enough, would admit that we may share nothing much beyond mitochondrial DNA. In fact, were we to ponder the situation, it's likely we'd find that the only reason we had any extended relationship with them was that we shared the same parents. Had we known the same person - perhaps as a schoolmate, or co-worker, or acquaintance - without having parents in common, it's unlikely we would have chosen them as friends. (There's the added problem, of course, that all siblings had ugly competition - that trouble simmered because we were under the same roof - that every last one of us feels the others had something we didn't - that we've all had moments of being proud of the others but years of jealousy.)

Mellow after my Sunday wine and beef (all the more precious during the Lenten season), I'm just having a bit of fun today. What follows is very far from exegesis - read Tom Wright or Raymond Brown for that. :) Yes, I'm aware of the meanings of the parables (I already did read the greats), but I'm too weary to go into Israel, eschatology, or wisdom literature. I'm just going to admit that, whether there's anything to 'birth order' or not, we first-born children do tend to come off rather badly in the scriptures.

Here are a few for whom I feel sorry - almost as much as I do for myself:

  • Every last first-born in Exodus, especially those who didn't know how to outsmart the angel of death.
  • Esau, who was constantly being ripped off by his conniving, double-dealing, sneaky brother, who, when Esau was in great need, would deny him even a little lentil soup. And papa always took that little con merchant's side, too!
  • Leah, who was a pawn in a dirty trick, who knew Jacob (yes, the same little crumb who had such wonderful family attitudes in the previous example) would not have married her had he not thought she was her sister, and who married a man so lustful and self-centred that he wasn't even aware of whom he was bonking.
  • Yes, I even feel for Cain! I assuredly do not condone fratricide, but Cain had inherited weakness and a tendency to be drastically impulsive from both sides of the family. After all, his gift had been rejected - and brother Abel must have been disgustingly smug!
  • Super first-born Adam - who had only one shot, winner take all, and then had, over a lifespan of 99 years, to hear his wife nagging him for having listened to her and blaming him for everyone's labour pains.
Naturally, I once felt the greatest sympathy for the Prodigal Son's elder brother. Perhaps it is because the easiest ways to find horrid blemishes are to look into a mirror, but it's only recently that I find Elder Son to be insufferable. (Maybe it's ageing, as well. We very devout sorts, by the 'high middle ages' of one's life, have had various occasions when we've had the shame and joy of the Prodigal Son, and have felt the wonderful divine embrace of forgiveness and re-integration. And I affirm that strongly, even though some of the devout, mostly who came to strong belief in later years, have been the Prodigal in some detail, but we who never were inclined to riotous living have had equally grave falls which tended to be far more subtly malicious and much less fun.) Dare I concede that, for all that both of the sons showed an extreme lack of filial piety, I could tolerate the younger one far better? (Actually, except that he'd have to take certain things to the harlots, the Prodigal sounds very much like the few men whom I have loved... but that's another subject for another thread.)

Presumably both brothers were young, though the weariness of the elder son (with which I greatly sympathise) shows he must have been a highly responsible and obedient sort for his age. Given the opportunity and cash, many a young man would have fallen into riotous living and squandering money on harlots - Francesco Bernadone was not known for tight purse-strings. Many of the young really give no thought to tomorrow - he probably didn't notice the inheritance had been depleted until he received the eviction notice for his penthouse.

I'm assuming my readers are devout sorts - mostly because I can't imagine anyone sitting through a one of my posts otherwise. We can understand the Elder Son's weariness. We've seen utter bastards win every prize where we not only receive no credit but can be rejected (or sacked even when we worked for free.) We're sick of hearing tales of 'God's will' giving people opportunities, and wondering why he wasn't more generous with us. We've been self sacrificing and ripped off by those who know a soft touch when they see one. Need I say more? (Well, all right... I need to say one thing more, since blushing won't be fatal. The fact is that we can sermonise till the Judgement Day about God as Source of All Good, but, deep down, we feel he owes us a great deal. And, since we correctly see ourselves as sons and daughters of the Almighty Father, we have an entire cosmos of brothers and sisters, whom we hope will applaud our good example... and who don't.. and whom we'd frequently like to stuff up the chimney...)

I heard an interesting sermon on the Prodigal and Bro this morning, and one point was especially spot on. Elder Brother was totally dutiful, weighing what he'd done and what he hadn't got (the kid to celebrate with his friends), but had no love left in his actions - he is filled with contempt, envy, and rage. The homilist didn't say this, of course, but the Elder Son is a self-righteous bastard.

Churchy type, or even lifelong church professional, are you now? Then you'll agree with me that we've met the Elder Brother - and he is us. My act of humility for today is allowing myself dreadful grammar. It's only a fraction of that which I just may feel if I meditate for a little while on the Father's saying 'everything I have is yours.' (If you are so devout that you read this far, try that meditation in the next few weeks... it's highly penitential, but probably will lead those of you who are Catholics of any variety and make sacramental confession to have a painful, wonderful dose of self-knowledge, and very probably absolution that will have a joy beyond killing the fatted calf.)

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Martin Scorcese, Job, and the Lilies of the Field

By now, my regulars are accustomed to my 'strange bedfellows' tendency, and would express no shock at the peculiar association in the title. I'm smiling, as usual - one may study the scriptures in depth but, unless one is utterly devoid of imagination and sensitivity (of which I fear I've all too much), one cannot help but identify with particular passages - and in a negative fashion at times. I'd be the first to say that no scripture passage should be considered without careful exegesis, and that no one chapter or section should be seen 'unto itself.' The most cursory glance at, for example, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary would make it plain that, when Jesus spoke of considering the lilies of the field, he happened to be addressing an audience which was prosperous and inclined to making an idol of things material. Surely there are enough indicators elsewhere that Jesus not only had no place to lay his head but that he was all too aware of the plight of the destitute and outcast - and the 'lilies of the field' passage, had it been addressed to those begging in the street, would have been incredibly bad form.

Yet I suppose (though neither of my parents would have been inclined to scripture study) that I have a genetic pre-disposition to challenging passages. The single parable my dad remembered was that of the labourers in the vineyard - 'that is such a stupid thing!' (It hit rather too close to home, of course.) My mother, a neat freak and hypochondriac, had no tolerance for the dogs licking Lazarus' sores (that was the only line of the parable she remembered.) She also found cheeky adolescent Jesus, showing off in front of the doctors in the temple whilst ignoring his parents' woe, to be exasperating. I tend to forget Jesus' audience when he spoke of the lilies - and it doesn't matter that I am perfectly capable of exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount and what precedes and follows, and that I could prepare a thesis about elements of wisdom traditions and eschatology in that context. :) A part of me wants to reproach Incarnate Wisdom with, "From what planet do you come?"

Some years back, there was huge controversy (unfortunately, largely on the part of those who looked like utter fools because they were criticising a film they had not seen) over The Last Temptation of Christ. Admittedly, I didn't like it at all. It wasn't the temptation sequence which troubled me - heaven knows that, considering to what Jesus' ministry had led, and that, sinless though He was, he took on our humanity fully and surely had many temptations, confusion over the path he'd taken and whether he'd have done better to make other choices is the least of what He'd have had on his mind. (Though that invariable dilemma strikes all of us, it usually is a little later than age 33... but I dare-say would be more than intense when one happens to be hanging on the cross at the time...) What grated on me is that, through most of the action in this odd film, Jesus seemed to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

Too many years have passed for me to be able to quote the source or remember the author, but, when The Last Temptation was produced, I recall reading an interview with Martin Scorcese. The interviewer was a film expert and also a Jesuit priest, who was puzzled that Scorcese spoke of Jesus as focussed entirely on survival - hardly any stance that has basis in the scriptures or traditions. Yet I understood, all too well. Though, by then, Martin Scorcese was very far from destitution, he'd come from a background (as I had) where just about everything is based on just surviving. It boils down to many years taking any work one can find - hating it intensely in many cases - but having to endure anything (including contempt and abuse at times) from those in authority, just hoping to keep a roof over one's head. Both Martin and I have 'roots' in a culture where we indeed would have appreciated the aesthetic - and would have admired the lilies indeed - but we would hardly have been thrilled to beg for the privilege of fertilising the garden (meanwhile hoping that no one would come along who would do it for even less.)

Switching gears - recently, I attended an adult education discussion, where the speaker asked the group what follows the words "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Every one of us knew the answer (and looked a bit puzzled in adding) - "Blessed be the Name of the Lord." The book of Job terrified me in youth (fear not, I'm not going to explain Job in depth here.) It wasn't until I heard a rabbi explain Job, when I was a young woman, that I could see its wisdom. I very much liked an insight I read in Jon Levenson last month - that Job's error was in seeing hellish suffering as God's last word. Job's plight (or Israel's) is not hopeless - divine providence can replace despair with hope, and gloom with light.

For my cheeky inclination to add here "yes, but Job made out pretty well in the end...," a display of cynicism nearly on a par with how I think that "the Prodigal Son may have been welcomed warmly and had a cool party, but he was still broke and probably ended up having to tend the pigs anyway," I ask some leeway. I'm irritable since my back hurts worst in cold weather... and, if you'd had to bow and scrape to as many authority figures as I did just to survive, your back would ache as well..

Materialism indeed can lead to idolatry. It can blind one to justice (in daily life - most of us are not politicians), often leading to scoffing at others, bitterness, seeing everyone as opponents - denying their dignity, as created in the divine image and deified in the Incarnation. We poor kids aren't exempt, even if it works in the opposite direction. We well may be puzzled at what the wealthier sorts consider to be necessities (or that they'd neglect important areas of life just to acquire more), but our view can be a different side of the same coin - and we must take care not to be smug in envy and covetousness.

I did consult several commentaries about the 'lilies of the field' passage, but I've rambled at too great length to get off on that tack here. I'll merely mention being 'anxious.' In this context, "anxious" means pre-occupied. R. T. France, in the Tyndale commentary, mentions that: "The objects of our anxiety are... less important than the life and body (emphasis in original) they supply - since God provides the latter, he can be trusted for the former." France amplifies about how the mental attitude to which Jesus refers is one where a conflict with faith arises." The passage demands a commitment to ally oneself with divine purpose - an undistracted pursuit of our true calling (as sons and daughters of God), to which lesser concerns, however legitimate, must give way.

I'll save treatment of eschatology for later, but I noticed that Jesus' comments about anxiety are wise indeed. :) I cannot be alone in that my personal 'pagan temple' is where I tend to worship at the altar of the wicked goddess Fear. I'd mentioned how the Jerome commentary spoke of the passage as reflecting wisdom traditions. That commentary further explained (though not in that section) that the style of wisdom literature (which, in its present form, post-dates the exile, when Israel had seen everything the 'old gods' were supposed to provide as not on Yahweh's agenda - see my comments on Isaiah below) recognises uncertainty, and offsets any simplistic view. The sages were certainly aware of ambiguity and paradox.

"The goal of wisdom is the good life, here and now... A necessary ingredient is a proper relationship to God; indeed fear (awe) of the Lord leads to wisdom." "Experiential wisdom is a human response to the environment, and attempt to understand and cope... Compared to the commandments of the Torah, the teaching (of the sages) deals with the grey area of life which has to do with a formation of character." The created world is the source of wisdom's insights. "Human experience, how humans interact, becomes the basis for the sages' comments... (It) cannot be left unbridled. One must learn from it how to live, and thus ensure development of character."

Which of us hasn't seen how anxiety (though many fears are all too legitimate) can lead to sins of all kinds, and at best lead to an inability to develop such virtues as justice and compassion? It was essentially fear on the part of others that sent a 'threatening' Jesus to the cross. And, though I cannot claim to understand divine providence, I can testify (as could we all) that each day has enough trouble of its own.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Humming the worst of hymns

Heavens, do I have major intellectual and aesthetic pollution today... because I have a variety of utterly dreadful songs (somehow, just to give them the distinction of 'hymn' seems blasphemous) in my mind as a result of an unfortunate accident. I was at a library this week, doing some research about religious themes as depicted in contemporary literature, and one book was about how nuns have been presented (not only in literary treatment per se, but in the ridiculous pictures we used to see in magazines of the 1950s-60s, where it seemed all nuns were perpetually giggling and eating the poor man's version of Knickerbocker Glory - in the days when nuns hoped for more modern knickers and had a totally distorted version of glory.)

One illustration in the book was of a record album cover, featuring Medical Mission Sisters. (I'd heard the blasted tunes many times, having had the bad fortune to have a stint teaching little children. Maybe only those in convent life had full exposure to this rot, as I sincerely hope.) I'd had no idea that the songs were produced by a religious community, but just seeing the titles brought back memories of dreadful liturgies, back when 'making the children think it was their liturgy' was all the rage.

Some of you are young, many lifelong Anglicans, so I may not receive sufficient sympathy... but what other 'ancients' here remember such gems as these? (I'd forgotten them for forty years...)

"Spirit of God in the clear running water,
Flowing to greatness the trees on the hill.
Spirit of God in the finger of morning,
Fill the earth, bring it to birth, and blow where you will.
Blow, blow, blow till I be but breath of the Spirit blowing in me."

Or how about this one?

"It's a long road to freedom,
Winding, steep and high,
But if you walk in love with the wind on your wings,
And cover the earth with the songs you sing,
The miles fly by.

I walked one morning by the sea,
And all the waves reached out to me,
I took their tears, then let them be."

There also was the unforgettable "Joy is Like the Rain," not to be confused with the Gregory Norbet "masterpiece" by the same title:

"I see raindrops on my window,
Joy is like the rain..."

I couldn't figure out if the original authors of these gems were aged 5 or merely hadn't taken their bipolar medication.

Remember "Hear, O Lord"? I suppose I just am uncomfortable with misplaced modifiers, but take a good look at these lyrics:
"every night, before I sleep, I pray my soul to take - or else I pray that loneliness is gone when I awake."
Loneliness may be hard to take, but it does seem a strange prayer: "kill me tonight if I'll be lonely tomorrow."

I have no idea why - maybe that record album cover contained this gem, though I'm uncertain. But at least I think it has been some time since anyone was subjected to:

"I cannot come! Aside: today kids would think it was a reference to orgasm.
I cannot come to the banquet,
Don't bother me now,
I've married a wife,
I've bought me a cow,
And I have fields and commitments
That cost a pretty sum
Please hold me excused
I cannot come."

That's on my mind today... a pathetic situation. Oddly enough, I think I only actually heard that song performed (at a youth mass, of course) once, many years ago. Whichever music is worst tends to be that which most enduringly affects some part of one's brain in which it becomes an enduring memory.

As an aside, I shall admit that there are some musically dreadful songs for which I either have some affection or which I consented to play at liturgies now and then, because they brought back memories or were cherished by many people. A few years ago, there was an Internet poll where Roman Catholics were invited to share the 'what and why' of their very favourite hymns. I was expecting either the great or the sentimental, yet the winner was "Be Not Afraid." The comments section showed that the reason it was first on the list was that people remembered it from "Dead Man Walking."

I love Gregory Peck and A. J. Cronin, and shall confess that, when I watched a video of "Keys of the Kingdom" (and this though the film in no way does the book justice), when the children sang "Come, Holy Ghost" because it was main character Father Chisholm's favourite hymn, I had that in my mind for days. And I'll be hopeless for at least another week, because, having recently read Eamon Duffy's excellent Faith of our Fathers, I was reminded - all too well - of how, in childhood, about the only hymns we sang in church were in honour of either Mary or the Sacred Heart. I found I was humming, "Mother of Christ, O Star of the Sea, pray for the wanderer, pray for me" when I was polishing the furniture today. (Exactly what I was humming or thinking of that led me to place the iron in the fridge is beyond me. It's only striking me now that I'd best go off and find whatever it is that I put where the iron is supposed to be...)

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Language can be as transcendent as silence

Humour me. By the time the March winds are blowing, I am so pining for heat, sunshine, and warm breezes that I feel that it's already been winter for ten months, and that my brain may never thaw. I therefore am capable of heading posts in a fashion that is so weird that, with a little luck, someone may take it for profound. :-)

Very recently, I attended an excellent presentation related to liturgies for Holy Week. I particularly enjoyed explanations of symbols and references which I had not previously grasped. I believe I'm not alone in that certain passages of scripture or liturgical texts, glorious though they are, can become so familiar to us that it's striking when we suddenly see a meaning we did not recognise in our first hundred reflections.

What struck me with awe (and this may be surprising, since it is a text and setting with which I have extensive familiarity) was a particular choral setting of the Reproaches for Good Friday. The text, in itself, is hugely powerful - the more since it brings to mind Yahweh's various laments of this sort in prophetic books which long pre-date the crucifixion. Yet the text in this setting had a special meaning for me, because, though most was in English, the beginnings of each section included the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal Once, have mercy upon us), in alternating Latin and Greek.

It is difficult to express this, particularly because, for all my tendency (sometimes excessive!) towards analysing, I cannot express certain elements of prayer any more than I could describe music - it can only be experienced. I especially loved the inclusion of the ancient tongues because it wraps me in a sense of the timeless and universal quality of our worship. Obviously, nothing keeps God from being timeless (some of you might prefer 'everlasting,' but, appropriate though quibbling in that area may be for the 'old feast' of Thomas Aquinas, I shall refrain), and the Church is unquestionably universal - even if one has the bad luck to be in a church where the 11th commandment is 'everyone must sing everything' (therefore language must not advance beyond what the children of three might use, and music must accommodate the tone deaf and those with a range of three tones). In my case (however much I struggled with my essential New Testament Greek, and though my Latin, which has accents reminiscent of Pius XII rather than Caesar, would make classical scholars grimace), the inclusion of the Greek and Latin captures "do this in memory of me" (and so forth!) spanning two millenia and an entire globe.

I'm afraid that I don't understand Hebrew or Aramaic - so let it not be thought that I do not have a strong sense of Judaism as Christianity's mother religion. But Israel indeed was a light to the nations - and it is amazing that, within a few centuries of Jesus' resurrection, pockets of Christian communities, mostly amidst a majority population which remained pagan, were joining in common worship - in the languages of the Empire. Most Christians, then as now, were Gentiles. Forgive me for recycling one of my common reflections, but I always pictured, when Jesus is being tempted with the kingdoms of the world, that Satan was scoffing, "Who do you think is going to accept this Trinity business - the Greeks?! And you certainly can't think your message will ever pull any weight in Rome!"

When I am praying privately, I often recite the creed, or Lord's Prayer, or a psalm, in Latin. (Greek would be just too painful... too bad I was over 40 before I even learnt that alphabet, though I often do throw in a Kyrie Eleison here and there.) My love for the English language can hardly be topped, yet I also need a sense of the transcendent - the timeless, classic languages remind me of what is changeless (poor analogy, I know... changeless because they are dead... but I warned you that my mind is frozen).

Alert that loose associations are ahead: I suppose it could be argued, and well, that use of classical languages, or even of archaic English (though anyone who went to school till age 14 should be able to get through modern English, whether from the time of the first Elizabeth or the second), can give a sense of the transcendent without the immanent. There could be, as well, a sense that a language one uses only at prayer isolates worship - which should, in some way, be a part of every aspect of our lives - as if it existed only in church. But I do think that some use of the 'archaic' (take your choice) is valuable.

Naturally, I also believe that those who either chuck or ruin magnificent musical compositions (the latter by 'dumbing them down'... and when I use English that is that dreadful, my ire is strong) should be executed on the same scaffold with those who murder the Queen's English. :)

On yet another note - new translations, provided they are faithful to the original texts, can be very valuable. But they must be in a version faithful to proper use of the vernacular - not slang (which often is outdated by the time it's printed - and which can vary from town to town and one generation to another). I'll grant you that, for all that I think it is close to perfection in language, even I giggle at some phrases from the King James Bible (considering what certain words now mean.) Nonetheless, nothing from the 1600s sounds as dated as slangy texts written within the past 10 years!

Monday, 1 March 2010

The old prayer books and 'conferences'

I'm not referring to liturgical texts here, but to the sort of devotional books that, during my youth, many people carried in their pockets or used in the sitting room. Many such books included exhortations to those who wished to become saints (a noble aspiration, indeed - but none of the canonised saints would have met these standards, because it tended to boil down to 'look for scorn and assume everyone is admiring you,' contradictory though that is.) I think the reason some of my own generation (and those who'd be a bit older) acted like such posturing fools in adulthood is that we were 'on the cusp' (and there I'm not referring to the astrology most of us embraced in the 1970s.) We were over-reacting to the 'kick me - admire me' dilemma to which we had been introduced, which suddenly was replaced by 'self awareness' (the real thing is a godsend - the counterfeit variety a cloak for self absorption) and such other trends as a narrow feminism.

Most of these books didn't include only prayers, but copies of 'conferences' and lists of ways we could root out faults. Finding one of these books today (as I did recently) can lead to a certain embarrassment, but I'm smiling yet again at how perspective can colour one's impressions. For example, one part of the daily prayer routine for all was 'examination of conscience.' (This wasn't in relation to preparation for sacramental confession - it was a constant review. I think it's a very good idea to take a moment to see if we have sins or distractions - the trouble was that the wording of these lists could be either overly discreet or leave one to explore the conscience of the entire world.)

Many of the items listed are not sinful, though they might lead to sin in a particular case. There was a very excessive emphasis on 'setting example,' where one was supposed to wish the 'humility' of scorn in the next breath... amazing that someone wanted to be despised and rejected, yet assumed this would lead to admiration. (Yes, I know Christ was despised and rejected - but even Franciscans occasionally remember that the Incarnation doesn't mean only the cross. If one's identity is only as a criminal condemned to death, millions, Christians or not, aren't going to be admiring one for two thousand years.) Now that I think of it, how many of us are looking to others for example in the first place? I can see the idea of example as creating problems if it leads to an exaggerated sense of our own importance - or if, for example, one mistreated another and is not concerned about the lack of charity and justice, or the harm one may have inflicted, but is caught up in wondering if the person we kicked down the stairs now has ceased to admire our example.

Most of us are not candidates for maximum security prisons, so I suppose it's understandable that heinous crimes were not included in books aimed at the devout (such details might only spark imaginations - turning prayer time into a detective story.) Yet there were sins of which anyone is capable which either were ignored, mentioned in a vague and offhand fashion, or sandwiched between 'did I enjoy praise?' and 'was I distracted at prayer?'

I'm sure there are many who would see lists such as these as leading to scrupulosity, and perhaps that is true in some cases. My more cynical disposition makes me wonder if one might inwardly think, "Oh, how very holy I must be, that I must beg divine mercy for being distracted - and have to focus constantly on whether my halo is fading!"

I'm just picking this at random, but there were dispositions (such as 'enjoying praise') that normally were just human nature - and often healthy - in themselves. They indeed could lead to sin in some cases. Certainly, if someone needed praise so badly that s/he sought to destroy the reputation of anyone else who seemed to be getting this, or who neglected children to be known as the tireless church worker, and so forth, it's deep water. (And, in successfully draining such a swamp, one must accept the inevitable point of being up to one's arse in alligators.) Yet it could go to ridiculous extremes, where simple compliments had to lead to putting oneself down, or where someone who'd been a dressmaker for 20 years couldn't assist another because one was proud if one admitted to a talent.

Coincidentally, this little prayer book made reference to criticism - a topic of which I wrote recently. If someone can never admit he is wrong, that can lead to large problems. However, the 'conference' would lead one to think that every critical comment is correct (where haven't we all known those who criticise even the silliest things, in everyone - and isn't this often an ego game?) The idea was that, if one resents or ignores criticism of any kind, one is infected with pride. I would think that getting caught up in such a nonsensical, narrow view might blind us to valuable, perhaps extremely important, criticism.

I'm mentioning this because those who have no previous exposure to these points of view may not understand why over-compensating led to extremes which were just as bad. And those of us who fell into the trap, though we might remember some major document or great work of theology, usually have long forgotten that ideas we learnt first, and against which we rebelled later, well may have come from an innocuous little prayer book.

There was a well-worn joke (probably old when Rome, at least as centre of Christendom, was young) which a few priests I knew used to enjoy repeating. (This aside from the one about Mrs O'Leary, who confessed that she stole a rope without mentioning there was a pig on the other end... I still can't explain why jokes that were so silly and well-worn were hilarious if the right priest told them.) "Father, do you think I should change my self-examen?" Response: "I wouldn't change anything in this cold weather." (I, of course, am not going to compromise on setting a good example by relating how many of them raised the toast of "Here's to those who wish us well, and all the rest can go to hell." Perish the thought that were taken as literally as some of what was in the prayer books...)