Friday, 28 May 2010

The poet speaks

I have never had the slightest flair for writing poetry, yet I was recalling this week that I once won a poetry contest during my young adult years. I still recall the poem - and am not about to share it here because it is just too weird. At that time, it was possible to win a poetry contest even if one was not stoned at the moment (though at least half of contestants undoubtedly were), provided it sounded as if one was. The utterly incomprehensible was taken for profound... and I'm not going to be diverted by whether that was key to my later apophatic leanings.

It therefore is my act of humility today to provide my readers with little bits of original 'poetry.' (What follows may give the impression that I am a cheeky little bitch. I shall respond to this with the exact words I would use were I ever charged before the Inquisition: "Have I ever denied this?") I wrote a blog entry in March (entitled Firstborn here) in which I freely admitted how those who are lifelong 'churchy' types tend to be self-righteous crumbs, rather like the Prodigal Son's elder brother, in time, so, if I seem to take shots at the young here, know it is only because my own generation saddens me. Who thought the super-cool baby boomers would end up arch-conservative, miserable sorts who think a scintillating conversation consists of discussing one's triglycerides or target heart rate?

I suppose I'm also weary because I received an email from another student who skimmed my Internet site and wanted the accelerated, do-it-yourself kit for becoming a mystic. She'd just read the Dark Night of John of the Cross, and remembers when "she went through all of that - a long time ago." Interesting. My guess would be that someone who has been an abbot for fifty years probably has yet to meet someone who has been through the dark night. It must have been a combination of this correspondence and my interior woe that I'm losing command of my foreign languages, but I had a bizarre dream that night, that I was addressing a group of young people and calling out, "Que pasa?," to which they all heartily replied, "Nada!"

Now that conservative politics are quite popular, the young who are very devout sometimes could try the patience of Job with their smugness. (I was ten times more impossible at that age - and I dare say a hundred times that now - but the most tiresome part of such dialogues, which are almost always with total strangers, is that I often agree with them - on the essence, if not always the accidental.) Here is the beginning of a poem for a young woman who presented me with a copy of the Divine Mercy novena and 'stations of the cross for the unborn,' and who apparently thinks her cause for canonisation is assured because she's never had an abortion. (This is in brief - my penance was to hear her for half an hour... supposedly in a chapel set aside for silent prayer...)

Pure as an angel,
And proud as a devil,
My virtue heroic and demeanour stoic,
I'd surely be canonised, or, in its stead,
A beata at least,
Except I'm not dead...

Another of this breed, who informed me that she is guided directly by the Holy Spirit and is in the "new religious life" as a third Order Carmelite (though the singularisation she displayed at one service made me quite certain Teresa of Avila would have kicked her from here to Mars), deserves a poem as well.

I pray at least four times a day
And quarrel in between.
And I attend Mass daily,
Though I mouth off at the scene.
I chant the Office (sometimes, it's quite dusty on the shelf),
And cherish absolution, so I give it to myself.

My 'regulars' know that I love to attend a daily Eucharist, and that, depending on where I am at midday (my favourite time for this), I'll take it where I can. One spot that is sometimes convenient has an entire crop of the sorts I mentioned earlier in this post. I have no idea of how this happened, but there are two very young priests (both of whom undoubtedly would be more comfortable around the time of the Reformation, when stakes were not rare and they might have been just SO glorified by being drawn and quartered) who must be transplants to the diocese, since they say the Tridentine Mass with impeccable rubrics and stone faces, though it was not normative long before they were born. One of them irritates me immensely - his image of a God who is ready to punish the horrid congregation with all sorts of wrath that would make Sodom and Gomorrah look like a mere warm-up would make anyone want to run in the other direction. He brags of having told a homeless man that God would not help him because he was divorced. His sermons are always about sex - even if it is some wonderful feast that deserves a mention. So this poem is for him - he's speaking in the first stanza, I in the second:

Wicked though this earth is,
True Salvation I'll reveal.
My sacrifice is boundless -
Never even copped a feel.
Other men, less noble, would find that they could not -
But I'm a glorious martyr - and just tie it in a knot.

Mouthpiece for the horror, ultimate pastoral mess,
Smug on one great 'virtue'... unaware of all the rest.
A shred of humble knowledge may lead him from the dark -
If he's contrite at 50, after bonking in a park...

As I was writing this, I checked email, and naturally found the usual junk, plus a few items soliciting donations, one of which had to do with a retirement fund for religious Sisters. So I'll close with not only a poem but the one and only song I've ever written - and it's all for ageing solitaries. It loses something without the musical accompaniment, but if you are good and make sure I have three tots of gin, I may sing it for you some day (tongue very firmly in cheek).

Here's a member of a new minority,
A Vatican II casualty,
Catechist, Gregorian musician, sacristan, servant of the clergy,
Alone, I was reduced first to begging,
Then "Franciscan worm" pot-pourri,
Oh, it's not an easy life for a lone ranger nun,
Who's going to take care of me?

The Hours of the Office lack their full effect,
Alone, I can't chant antiphonally,
And hearing my own self-accusations makes Chapter lack efficacy.
I'm my superior and director and, in that regard, I'm deprived educationally,
I can only teach myself what I already know -
Who's going to take care of me?

(Maybe I complain, but the facts remain,
I can't staff my own infirmary,
And there's no retirement fund for a lone ranger nun,
Who's going to take care of me?)

This tune is rather naughty - as this post was haughty,
And I'm no model of charity.
I'll probably be penanced to sing "Who's Sorry Now?" until the latter days of eternity,
Divine plans can seem murky to the proud and quirky,
When the path's been rough vocationally,
So I'll just mutter this prayer - and, for once, stop there,
Who's going to take care of me?

Now, having demonstrated the truth expressed at the outset (that I'm no poet at all), I wish the lot of you blessings for Trinity Sunday. Cheers. Pax et Bonum! Hi-yo, Silver! ;)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

For those wondering if scientists can pray

I believe my readers may share the awe I felt in listening to the talk on this web cast, by John Polkinghorne, entitled Can a Scientist Pray?. It deals specifically with prayers of petition, and gave me the impression that at least some scientists are capable of praying very well indeed.

As veterans of this blog know well, I have no understanding of science whatever, beyond wishing the atom had never been split (I say that with regret - my school average was perpetually ruined by my grades in that subject, almost as much as by mathematics.) I didn't have the slightest notion of what a 'quark' is, and my sole knowledge of chaos theory stemmed from that one of my train books... was... (oh, go ahead, Elizabeth - you've already admitted to liking Philippa Gregory, Maeve Binchy, and even Brendan O'Carroll and Nora Roberts' "Enchanted"...) "Jurassic Park." I may feel a sense of great awe seeing a museum exhibit of the DNA molecule ("molecule" probably is the wrong term, but I'm not concerned), but it's more along the lines of "Canticle of the Creatures" than anything technical. I indeed studied some of John Polkinghorne's writings as part of my philosophy of religion requirement a few years back, but it's far beyond me to understand his books. I was pleasantly surprised at how much easier it is to enjoy his clear, witty, and engaging manner of speaking.

I have still another act of humility for today. I always freely admitted to being totally hopeless with matters scientific, yet readers have probably caught on that I'm not exactly in the dark (beyond the great Nada and clouds of unknowing) with respect to prayer. I'm perfectly capable of writing at length on all sorts of topics in that regard, and on ascetic theology. That is why it is difficult to admit that I never really understood prayers of petition at all. (Occupational hazard - I can't help being apophatic, but that does present the dilemma of making anything one says about God make one sound like an agnostic.)

Quarks may be beyond my comprehension (though I've found myself singing "Stardust" a lot today...), but what I loved in the presentation to which I linked was the image it gave me of God as the endless Creator. I also shall spend much time pondering and praying about the idea of prayers of petition uniting our will to God's, and being the source of great power in the process.

I wish all of you many blessings for the glorious feast of Pentecost! (We who love the mystical actually love saying "I don't know" and "don't understand" - thinking of the Trinity and Holy Spirit specifically gives endless possibilities.) Of course, I'm naturally distracted at the moment, trying to decide if the "Pentecost red" for tomorrow's wardrobe (I'm a fright in pure red, but adore fuchsia...) should be my good dress and picture hat from Palm Sunday, or a casual print with fuchsia tights. (The latter may win if the weather is good and I want an airing.) Vanity of vanities... ;)

Saturday, 15 May 2010

On 'getting real'

One paradox with which the devout deal constantly (it is universal, but those not in the category of devout do not necessarily think of it much) is that, when we take a peek at our own weakness and sinfulness, we tend to say "but that's not like me!" Granted - sometimes this is quite true, since we all have moments of being puzzlingly inconsistent, or of indeed doing something very much out of character. Yet I cannot be alone in catching myself saying "that's not like me," even if the matter at hand is something I've (grudgingly, reluctantly, but eventually) admitted to just about every time I've expressed contrition during the past 40 years or so.

I remember once learning of a favourite prayer of Francis' - "Lord, who are you? Lord, who am I?" We'll certainly never know the former in total (in fact, the more we seek the answer, the less we realise we know - and that's rather glorious and awe inspiring.) Yet I think it's the answer to the second that we fear the more! We are far more fragile than we like to admit. I no longer have copies of his books on my shelves, but I'm fairly certain it was Thomas Merton who observed that God cannot be present with us in our fantasies because he can only be present in what is real - us.

Even in our moments of being troubled at our actions, I believe that it's actually true that 'that isn't like me,' however many hundreds of times we've had proof that we act in a certain fashion. There's another part of us that cries out for intimacy with our God - which longs to live the values fostered by such intimacy - and which wants to share this in love of neighbour.

I'm not about to distinguish the nonsense on the Internet forums with undue attention, but, since it is so widespread (and so many people see a 'vocation' to bully or be bullied...), I want to make a distinction between the grace there is in God's removing our self-deception and the 'you have to stop kidding yourself!' line in which on-line bullies so excel. (The latest, I understand, is that self-hatred - especially in relation to 'health' - is supposed to be healthy and to motivate one. Nonsense. Hatred of anyone destroys us, and hatred of ourselves leaves just a shell of fear and shame.) God calls us to be real! Our self-deception, which often leads us into sin but always keeps us from our potential, always needs to be shattered by love and grace. Think of it - whenever we've experienced conversion, after all the self deception, the Truth is enormously refreshing.

Someone asked me an odd question this week, and one which has no answer - so please allow for that I intend no literal exposition of any visions of the afterlife here! (If you really want a clue to the afterlife in such detail... well, try those 'death experience' books, if you can manage to detach yourself from the knowledge that all were penned by people who were alive when they did so.) I was asked what hell must be like, specifically in relation to a discussion of serial killers.

I cannot begin to explain heinous evil, and, lest I have nightmares tonight, I'm not going to dwell on the subject. I've never been one to focus on hell in any case, and, since my idea of evangelism is to focus on our dignity in God's image, and on intimacy with the Beloved, obviously I don't think 'hell' is a part of this. The after-life is beyond our description, however one may long for the greater intimacy which will grow for eternity - and I believe in cosmic redemption even if I cannot define that any more than give one details of heaven (beyond a vague, anthropomorphic residue to my thinking which makes me think that we musicians are distinguished in that we have to work in both lives...) ;)

Yet, awkward though this expression is, perhaps the very means by which we will continue to be called to this intimacy will be in grace stripping us of self deception, allowing us to be fully real. We all have experienced the painful but exhilarating, marvellous embrace of Truth, as I mentioned earlier in this post. I do not believe in a God of vengeance and punishment, but wonder if those who have fallen into heinous evil, gone beyond even having human delicacy and conscience, might find seeing the truth to be hell. (I further see divine power as unlimited in a fashion beyond our comprehension - there's always the chance for this revelation of Truth to lead to purification within us, however horrid our actions may have been.)

I become ill when I even think of heinous violence, and those who have been guilt of this certainly 'saw' it up close... Could their hell be to see it with no gloss, no wicked detachment? Could they, perhaps, see the real agony of the victims, and of everyone associated with them? Or of how such violence infects the world at large - how all of creation grieves and suffers? How God Himself descended to suffer with his creation?

Well, all right - I'm being a bit too ambitious here - but, if those who were close to being totally wicked here had to be completely stripped of self deception (which should be a glorious, joyous, if painful action of grace), and to fully face the totality of the effects of their actions, I wouldn't want to think of a worse hell than that.

Nor would I forget this could mean their redemption.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

You mean that wasn't a joke?

I must confess that, since I tend to laugh at myself and most of the world constantly, I frequently fall into a trap which had consequences ranging from 'tripping up' the other (sorry, that pun is unforgivable...) to nearly losing a (figurative) leg. I am not the sort who'd laugh at what another said or did in order to mock - and I'm usually rather good at sensing when someone did not mean to be funny and therefore saving my laughter for later (and sometimes for this blog.) I so love humour that I cannot count the times when I assumed someone had made a marvellous joke - when that was far from the case.

Note to anyone who just might find this blog in an Internet search: if you are featured below, do not be offended, because I happen to be enormously fond of the few friends I mention here. I'm enjoying the lot of you, not being disparaging.

My tendency to the wry and ironic has two 'side effects' for those who are not ones for either. Some of my best jokes lead to others thinking I'm distressed (though, believe me, were I truly distressed, I'd either disappear or, were I caught, leave one with no doubt! Then again, lots of people so love sad stories that they manufacture them nearly as often as I lapse into jester mode. Last week, I was saying an Office in a church, and someone, unknown to me, thought I was ill because I had my head down slightly - to read the psalms - and was moving my mouth a bit, because, though I never read aloud to myself otherwise, I learnt years ago to say prayers aloud even if in a tiny whisper - probably back when one had to say lots of prayers aloud to gain the indulgences. Head bowed - ahem! - someone assumed to be talking to herself out loud - which I only do at home - yes, that's good ammunition for the psycho-babble brigade.) I often forget, as well, that religious humour, which usually appeals in particular to those with huge faith, can be taken as irreverent (which it normally is, and by design) and offensive (never!) by those who are delicate or who came to the faith in full-blown 'late have I loved thee' mode.

I recently saw a dear friend of mine who happens to be an author, and we somehow were speaking of some reviews I write for Amazon. I had no idea she'd known the author of a book I'd reviewed, which was a rather inventive and modern 'take' on the Montagues and Capulets - and which had me nearly doubled over with laughter, because I truly thought it was a spoof on a par with "Shakespeare in Love." (My love for Shakespeare endures, though my memory is rusty - but even I knew that "Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" was a bit off the mark.) My friend, who is a very lovely, sweet sort, and has such empathy with other authors that she cannot bear any negative criticism of them (...obviously, traits which no one would ever see in me...), was very sad to hear this, and reminded me of the author's other works (of which I'd never heard.) Actually, I'd given the book a good rating - how was I to know that the author was troubled that I was one of various people who thought her novel was a string of inside jokes?

How well I remember, after easily twenty years, when I was scrubbing a parish kitchen floor (..."Francis, go and repair my church" ... believe me, everyone takes us up on that one...), and my friend Jane, for my edification and entertainment, was telling me of a 'shocking' incident she'd observed when she and Sadie attended some sort of healing service (conducted by Franciscans, so things mustn't have been all that spit and polish.) Jane was relatively young, but always had an air of someone who'd seen 100 years of suffering which she'd enjoyed immensely. Sadie was as holy as they get, and a bit fey - she saw an image of the Sacred Heart appear on the screen when she watched one Brook Shields film, and asked if it was a religious picture. Sadie was of a shy nature, and was immensely devoted to her husband, who leaned towards being insensitive and was excessively fond of his glass. Sadie and Jane actually had a number of characteristics in common, but one huge difference was that Sadie was inclined to kiss nearly everyone in greeting, where I doubt Jane's kids had ever even seen their mother kiss their father.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Sadie kissed this priest! (Scornful look) This little, short priest. Right on the lips! Now, who would even think of kissing a priest, but Sadie went and kissed him - little short man he was, didn't look like much, but she went and kissed him! (Pause) She mustn't be too happy at home."

Jane couldn't be understanding why that last line sent me into gales of laughter. (Well, had I said it, I would have most definitely intended to be funny!) "Ah, Elizabeth, you laugh at nothing! Sadie really kissed a priest! Right on the lips!"

The mental picture of the timid, extremely pious Sadie in the role of wicked woman was so hilarious that I wish I'd been there...

Of course, there are other times when I (often with others) have unintentionally troubled someone because we mistook a flub for a joke. I'm thinking of when I assisted with a retreat for girls aged thirteen or so, who were school-mates. The retreat was held at a building which was inhabited by a few nuns, who still wore the long habit, old-style veil and coif, and who all happened to be of well below average height. (That will figure later.) Retreats for teens, despite all the 'heavy stuff' and their weeping (partly resulting from adolescent emotionalism, partly hormones with no place to take them, and largely from seeing clichés as fresh insights - believe me, you don't want to be over-exposed to the petitions and offertory processions, the latter of which include bringing up lipsticks and school books...), need to have some fun time. The kids decided, during the 'drink soda and giggle' period, that they'd like to put on a little show, and asked permission to wear some of the nuns' summer habits, which they'd seen hanging in an adjacent store room.

The girls adjoined to their 'dressing room,' and dressed in the nuns' habits - without removing their own blue jeans, running shoes, and athletic socks. Since the nuns were so tiny, the normally floor-length habits reached to slightly below the girls' knees (with ample portions of jeans, socks, and running shoes visible...), the coifs looked like white Grim Reaper masks, headbands and veils were as off-balance as the worst of adolescent emotions, and the effect when they appeared 'on stage' was enough to give us misguided souls in the audience the mistaken impression that they'd worked out a comedy sketch.

But this gets worse... The girls began singing "The Sound of Music," horribly off-key, and one of them did (what we thought was) a 'take' on the descant which Liesl sings in the play so terribly that we naturally thought this combination of sights and sounds was the opening to something to top Monty Python. Yes, we roared. I defy nearly anyone to think this was not intended to be funny... but, if I thought we had to contend with weeping at the Eucharist, the amount that resulted from their reaction to our laughter would have been a challenge to Noah.

Then there is my cherished friend Madeline, who has been enormously considerate and generous to me. I'd be first to institute her canonisation proceedings for many reasons, but (and this is the best illustration of my dad's "you've got the book learning, but not the ways of the world" theory on record) I still forget that Madeline not only never catches jokes but never intentionally said anything funny in her life. Madeline and I have known each other for decades, and I know well that, whenever she sees anyone, her greeting invariably is, "You know who died?" (Actually, that is inaccurate - on the rare day when she can't find even a remotely familiar name in the obituaries, there may be such variations as a report of who has a terminal illness or was victim of a disaster. At least 75% of the time, I've never even heard of the deceased.)

Madeline, who sadly moved from her life-long neighbourhood a few years ago, was telling me that one old friend, who'd remained till recently, now had moved as well. "It's a shame I don't hear from Billy (note to readers - about the old neighbourhood) now. He'd tell me who's dead, who isn't..."

Would you believe that I actually thought Madeline was laughing at herself? ... I was mistaken... I hope I didn't wound the pride of one who's been so good to me.

I'll let you in on something else... Referring to my recent post on capitalism and Genesis (no, I haven't lapsed into senility or lost my principles - if you haven't read the post, see below), I shared the reflection with an acquaintance of mine, who is more reverent than I but not much less wry, and it turned out that he didn't see the humour very well. (...I knew we were 180 degrees around the circle politically, but still hardly thought that Genesis was a mandate for laissez faire... Then again, he was present when - again see a previous post - a snobbish soul expressed her disgusted fear that she'd be in the company of Neanderthal man at the resurrection and, unlike yours truly, didn't have to choke behind a handkerchief...)

The 'speaker' about capitalism in Genesis was quite chilly with me on Sunday - I'm not losing sleep over that one, but it did remind me that I wouldn't have teased him quite so much at the time had I not assumed he was 'doing it on purpose.' What surprised me was that my other acquaintance, with whom I disagree on much but whom I regard highly, didn't think he was doing it on purpose...

So, on cliché buster patrol - it isn't always correct to assume 'laugh and the world laughs with you.' I still will caution anyone (above the age of fourteen) - especially those who have an interest in church involvement and/or the Internet - if you must cry, be sure to do it alone! Crying in the company of church people is always a mistake. Cry on the Internet (or even be mistaken for crying when you are laughing...), and you'll hear from 5,000 amateur shrinks... and no one, not even myself, has enough energy to laugh at that many people in a day.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Here's to the losers - Bless them all!

I almost titled this post "bless us all," but I borrowed the 'toast' above from a Frank Sinatra song I remember hearing. Since I remember nothing but that line, I've no idea to which losers he was referring - perhaps the song had a different flavour if he was performing somewhere such as Las Vegas.

Losers come in many varieties. My post today is dedicated to my own set - the losers who began as talented, even gifted, souls, and who spent years of education, training, and effort at developing the talents.... only to see, looking back decades later, that we not only accomplished nothing in any field that we loved, but that the few steps of which we were proud in our young adult years were so small that we'd be embarrassed to speak of them today. The efforts we made were fine for 'starting out' - provided they had led anywhere.

The blessing and curse of the educated loser is knowing (1) that one has forgotten more than one knows, and (2) that one is a nobody. I'm not sure whether the 'inflated' losers, of whom I'll speak in a moment, are better or worse off than are we. I've read too many great texts, seen too many concerts, and so forth, to have any illusions that I could impress anyone on the planet. The inflated probably have an easier time. Their only trait which I find exasperating is that they tend to assume others know even less than they do - and to have a 'let me teach you' attitude.

I can think of someone I used to know who mentioned constantly that she was 'an interior decorator' - though the only house she'd decorated was her own. (She criticised the 'bad taste' of everyone else on the planet in the process.) I knew yet another, who'd appeared in a single, local stage production (and was outstanding, I must say), who worked with me, and never worked in fewer than 5 references to that play daily. I am sure those two examples suffice.

Sometimes, though not usually, the inflated can be dangerous. I knew a woman once who had wanted to become a psychiatrist, but never achieved this goal. Her work was as a counsellor (not a psychologist - one who counsels students about course work and career planning), and she meddled in ways that could have destroyed them - phoning parents because she thought (often incorrectly) that someone had mental illness or drug problems, recommending commitment to mental hospitals, and the like.

I suppose, were I less realistic, that I could speak of myself as a writer and theologian - after all, I have an Internet site and a blog...

I naturally could speak here of the value we have in being created in the divine image, and I'd mean every word. But religious people too often fall into clichés, so I raise the toast in the heading to all the other losers in my own category.

  • To everyone with an advanced degree who was told that she could probably get a good-paying job if she only increased her typing speed, or who was asked, "You don't type? What could you do, be a waitress?"
  • To musicians who visit, for example, a strange church, and are asked if they ever considered joining a choir.
  • To those who are out of their minds with the horrid jobs they've taken to survive, and who can't share this with their closest friends because their friends think that for someone who won all the awards to be reduced to this is hilarious.
  • Fill in the blanks with your own experience

Why am I so irritable today? The silliest things do set me off. Remember the early days of the Internet? Any page one designed, let alone graphic one produced or MIDI file one sequenced, which looked wonderful in 1998 looks rather dreadful now - technology has changed enormously. Always, there was a problem of how different files sounded or appeared on other computers. I've noticed that some of my MIDI collection (not necessarily those I myself sequenced), which sounded delightful (for computer music, that is) once upon a time, sound like tin cans crashing now. I shall never cease to be amazed at how the same file can sound incredibly different not only on various computers, but that those which sounded great with (defunct) Crescendo can sound like cats wailing with Real or Media Player. For years now, I have contributed MIDI files and ring tones to an on-line site. (Ah, the graveyards to which once promising musicians are laid to rest...) The site owner had liked my contributing sentimental, popular Catholic hymns - the kind which one remembers from first communion or the Tuesday night novena. I sequenced quite a few (not because I thought them to be great compositions... and even one with my dreadful coordination, which makes my skills at the keyboard so bad that I'm convinced I passed my piano proficiency test the first time just so the judges wouldn't have to hear me play again, can manage to pound out better than "Little White Guest.") Some of them, especially those from ten years ago or more, sound dreadful today - but, considering this music never was anything but dreadful, I was glad that someone was enjoying them. Well, today I heard from someone who probably is just as big a loser as I was - who else performs in most Catholic churches? He'd used one of my MIDI files ("Jesus, Jesus Come to Me" - not exactly a song I'd like anyone to know I even knew, let alone one sequenced...), and informed me of how he'd corrected the melody, converted my dreadful string arrangement to grand piano, put in feeling. If he could do that with not only such a horrid song but within the limitations of computer music, he must be quite extraordinary indeed. But it took me almost an hour to laugh!

How does it happen that, the older one gets, the more childish someone realises she is being... and does it anyway? How did I compromise my dignity in even reacting to such silliness - and why would I be insulted because I'm a failure as a musician who knows this is so (though for lack of opportunity, not initial talent), where others take pride in being organists of such merit (which is about two steps below that of a fledgling busker) ?

Educated losers of this world, you are not alone, small comfort though that may be. And I promise to never, ever say that your being a loser is "God's will."

Memories sparked by John Steinbeck

Several weeks ago, at the very discussion group where we were exploring Genesis, someone made an interesting reference to the "Cain and Abel" themes in John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Though I have little familiarity with Steinbeck's work, I had read that book some years ago, and the reference led me to obtain a library copy - in which I became utterly engrossed on a rainy day. The settings (ranches, primitive cities filled with ponds) and the circumstances of most of the characters were not those with which I could identify, and it's amazing that I found it totally absorbing and brilliant in its depiction of human nature.

Some of what follows in this post will be far sadder than 'my usual,' so I'll laugh at my own expense for a moment to begin. What fascinated me most in East of Eden was its wisdom. Two characters in particular, Samuel Hamilton and Lee (the philosopher/servant), illustrated a breadth of knowledge and understanding, though from different perspectives, which made me wish I could meet their counterparts. Another superb touch was that Steinbeck, who cleverly crafted the presentation by blending true stories of his mother's family with relationships between them and the characters he created, explored characters' values, motives, virtues and vices with a deep wisdom of his own, and with rare flair.

The only reason I'm smiling is that, as is true of many hopelessly literary types, I'm constantly looking for companionship with people who not only possess such wisdom but express themselves so brilliantly - and I'm finally catching on that such are rare. :) Secondly, though I more or less caught on in time that this was the case, it did take me years and many mistakes before I realised that even if we overly analytical types may know our own values, motives, and the like, we never can know those of others. We can know people for decades - whether they are friends, foes, or anything in between - and, though we can be aware of traits they have from years of exposure to the demonstration, we practically never know what is behind their actions. (Trust me - one who truly goes one's own way, as I have since my umbilical cord was cut, not only will rarely be known, no matter how high is one's degree of honesty, but will be 'boxed' in stereotypes and, when one does not fit them, be assumed to be faking.)

East of Eden is a lengthy book, and Steinbeck shows a full scope of human strengths and weaknesses - everything from honour to unusual compassion to horrid cruelty and crime. In the case of every major character except one, the reader will know them very thoroughly, and Steinbeck explains their natures in depth. The single exception is Cathy, in Steinbeck's words 'a monster,' who is wicked to an extent that one may observe (thank heavens!) in very few people one meets in the course of a lifetime. (I've seen much in my life, and understand most human weakness, but, on the rare occasion when I've encountered one of the "Cathys" of this world, I can feel only horror.) Steinbeck knew when to leave a personification of (very true, if fortunately rare) evil to an enigma. (Remembering one utter bore I knew in my younger years, who couldn't understand why she was a failure at studying English literature and at writing though she dismissed any discussion of plot, theme, or characterisation with a cackling laugh and "It's only a story!," I shall add that there is no fiction of any worth which does not express enormous truth. Catherine Trask may be Steinbeck's creation, but, if one doubts such people exist, that would be shattered by reading a single newspaper.)

Others in the book are guilty of horrible actions, some involving criminal behaviour. Yet Cathy is the most chilling, not only because there is no counter-balancing good or even humanity, but because her wickedness is for its own sake. There is no motive. As a teenager, she murders her own parents - who are decent and even doting. Cathy is vicious not only for no reason, but with clear hatred for any goodness or decency she observes. She is aware of only evil, is totally mired in deceit and the desire to destroy others, and has contempt for any manifestation of love and caring in any sense. Frequently, her most vicious cruelty is reserved for those who have loved or been kind to her.

Though I observed it 'at a distance' (it had nothing to do with me, nor were the victims my acquaintances), my first exposure to senseless evil (when I was perhaps 8 years of age) would leave me with a terror of violence and deceit that haunted my youth - to this day, I cannot even watch news broadcasts, because my horror of violence has such intensity. Children are nowhere near as stupid as many adults think (or probably hope) they are, and certainly, at that age, I would have had some idea that violence and crime existed. Yet my initial encounter with the knowledge that there was evil in this world that had no motive, and the concurrent awareness that divine power (guardian angels, whomever) does not protect even the most innocent, was overwhelming.

When I was 8 or so, there were two incidents of horrible murders (not connected with each other), both of boys who were no older than I. To this day (and I'm shrinking with horror as I write this), I remember the newspaper account of one of them. No one had witnessed the crime, which involved a child's being burnt, cut, and finally stabbed fatally, but there had been people who overheard the child's screams. I cannot even bring myself to recall the pleading, imploring words here, but they will be in my memory till I die.

I suppose I could have had some vague understanding, despite my horror, of how someone might be a thief, or even have been violent towards another who was also involved with crime or who had wronged him, or how one could kill a crime victim to avoid being identified. (I don't mean that this does not sicken me!) Yet, despite my extreme youth, this was treading into new territory - the stuff of nightmares. Torture and murder of an innocent little child was a new concept to me. Evil for its own sake, and assuredly deceit to lure the child to his death, left me with a feeling of having looked Satan in the eye - and knowing no divine power would protect even the most helpless.

I never once shared this - until now. Perhaps that is fortunate. My mother was ridiculously over-protective, fearful (as she would tell me later, from the day I entered kindergarten) of the 'bad influences' that kids who, perhaps, used rough language, had germs, and so forth might be on me, and she never wanted me out of her sight. She feared my studious nature - some Victorian left-over, since this could lead to brain fever, various 'female troubles,' and men's hating me for not being an imbecile. (There really were Victorian opinions of that type - and many Victorians were very much alive in my mother's time, though it's beyond me how she met them.) For me to mention this incident may have meant my being restricted from reading at all. I already had learnt that confiding in adults meant either an awkward attempt to 'laugh it off' and mock, or a shocked reaction that 'you shouldn't know those things.' (This even if someone said 'hell' outside the pulpit! I'm sure that, then and now, there would be those who had greater objections to East of Eden because there is acceptance of houses of prostitution than that Cathy kills or destroys others.)

I'm sure this trait of mine has deeper roots, and am not suggesting it sprung from this first awareness of senseless evil, but I can see, now, that it set me apart in a fashion that often saddened me. Children, of course, know only what is part of their own lives. I so despised cruelty, violence, and deceit that I was completely puzzled even by its milder manifestations - the kids ganging up on the class scapegoat, the 'friend' who turns another against her friend and becomes the new best friend in the process, and so forth. When I was 12 or so, one of our teachers (very unwisely) had the entire class complete a questionnaire, with one of the questions being who it was in the class whom they considered their closest friend, and why. (Since the teacher was looking for votes for the vivacious, popular, rah-rah types, the response led to her loathing me - I'd never get beyond a passing grade from her after that point, and was the target of constant sarcasm and contempt if I participated in class.) Oddly enough, I received by far the most votes. I say 'oddly,' because I was rarely invited to a party or otherwise socially involved. Yet I do recall that others had confided in me, because, whatever flaws I had (and still do), they knew they would never be betrayed, mocked, or used. Then as now, I'd bite anyone's head off for being condescending, but, unusually for that age, I was incapable of deceit and had an unusual degree of compassion.

To lapse out of playing at being 'refined' for a moment, this naturally meant that I would grow up to be the sucker of the world...

I suppose I'm ravelling this thread because my mind knows what my emotions never can fully accept. The 'Cathys' of this world will remain enigmas. For all our weakness and, at times, wickedness, there is much good in most of us - and there are a thousand decent people, at least, for every "Cathy," even if the Cathys make better 'press.' But theists have to struggle, always, with knowing that divine power does not protect this world from evil, even that most senseless.

Many of us who are overly analytical and sensitive are artists (which I use loosely to mean any of the arts and humanities.) How ironic that we live for beauty, and are so highly sensual - yet forget that one can place a penny of darkness over one's iris and blot out any amount of sunlight. I'll 'hear' the screams of that murdered child (of which I knew only from a news article) for always - and, as another two examples, material I covered when I later wrote papers on organised crime and the Holocaust will be in my nightmares if I live to be 105.

I'm not suggesting, of course, that all but the tiniest percentage of humans are the likes of Cathy (even if those who are make many headlines.) Yet there is so much vengeance and cruelty, however on a small scale it is by comparison, which one encounters constantly that it is easy to see only the darkness. I'll never know the answer to this, but it strikes me that I understand many human weaknesses (in fact, I often wonder 'what the fuss is about' with what leads to at least pretended shock in others), but live in fear of the dark side - yet, on the rare occasions when I've viewed true evil, I'd be the type to invite Jack the Ripper in to tea, especially if he convinced me he'd had a striking conversion.

A constant theme, and one explored in great detail, in East of Eden has to do with "thou mayest" triumph over evil. This is explored in a context of differing versions of the text of Genesis - in one, God seems to promise 'you will triumph, which seems counter-intuitive - in the other, it seems a command. We are free - we may triumph. I'll spare you any ideas about divine grace for a moment - Steinbeck's development of the theme is crucial. We have choices.

Cathy and husband Adam (yes, their twins do expound on the Cain and Abel theme in their actions) have two very different sons, Caleb and Aaron. Caleb exhibits much of his mother's tendency to cruelty and vengeance, but his feelings towards Aron (the two As being 'a little fancy') are a combination of sheltering and intense envy. The boys do not know, in childhood, that their mother abandoned them, shot their father, and ultimately became madam of a house of prostitution which caters to those wishing to engage in violent, degrading sexual acts. Cal will learn of this (indeed, will both visit as a customer and later meeting his mother), where Aron continues to believe, as his father had told him, that his mother had died.

Though Caleb does not murder his brother, in a scene of twisted rage and envy, he takes Aron to see a 'surprise' - the 'circus' at this whorehouse, where Aron first sees who his mother is. (Aron disappears, joins the military, and is killed.) The 'timshel' (thou mayest) which Adam will say to Caleb is the crux of the theme's expression. Cal has done horrid things, but he needs to see that, whatever ancestry he has, he is not his mother - he remains free - he can triumph over evil. Caleb, unlike Cathy, acts with motives (even when they are wicked), and feels remorse - he is seeking love, indeed tries to 'buy it,' and his rage towards his twin reaches its peak when he meets Cathy, and realises that Adam's love for Aron must stem from that Aron looks like his mother, whom Adam loved and for whom he mourned.

There will never be an explanation for heinous evil. We can only hope we'll never be its source or victim - and no one must believe s/he is bound by fate, or beyond hope.