The Moment

The Moment
[Photo by Michelle Agins]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

New Life

This isn't from today--it's four years old, which means I can be glimpsed dimly in the procession.

But today, when I arrived at St. Bartholomew's Church, reporting for duty on my second day as a deacon, I was grabbed by one of our priests, an old friend, and asked if I was willing to do a baptism.


I said yes, of course; just as one never says "no" to AA, so too one never turns down an opportunity to do something new in ministry (well, that's my theory, and so far it's worked for me). But--a baptism? An infant baptism?

"What if I drop the poor little mite?" flashed through my head. Look at that video above, and all that marble. And I've been clergy for all of 8 days…

…But how could I say no, to serving in one of the two sacraments "ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel" as recognized in Article XXV of the 39 Articles? No disrespect to the other five, of course--hey, the blog is Anglocat on the Prowl, after all--but this is foundational stuff.

Baptism "is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God." (Book of Common Prayer, Catechism, p. 858). How could I shy away from that?

So I didn't. A wise and experienced priest showed me the best way to hold the baby when she was given to me, and I rehearsed her names in my mind again and again. When I took her from her mother, though, I found myself holding her not in the (superior) way my friend had demonstrated, but the way I had gingerly held my young niece when she was a baby. This baby was a happy one, reclining in my arms, and smiling.

I stepped to the font. "----- ----," I pronounced, "I baptize you in the name of the Father," (a handful of water over the head, avoiding the perfect lace dress) "and of the Son," (more water, maybe a bit on the dress this time), "and of the Holy Spirit." A priest came over and anointed her, and I received the candle for her, passing it to her godfather. "Receive the Light of Christ."And I returned my charge to her mother, murmuring, "she was an angel," which was true.

At St Barts, when we invite the congregation to welcome the newly baptized, the clergy who baptize infants carry them from the Crossing Transept to the Narthex, and then back to the parents. I asked my young friend's mother if I might carry her, and she smiled, and handed her over. We journeyed through the Church together, and I could feel the grin split my face as I returned her to her mother.

I proclaimed the Gospel today. I set the table, and communicated a good many people. And I baptized a beautiful baby girl.

Her new life in the Church, and my own, were off to a good start.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"I Run After Units": Returning to Trollope Country

An Address to the Trollope Society USA
At The Knickerbocker Club,
New York City
May 18, 2015

Well, If I had known that I would be following not only Melanie Kirkpatrick, but Jack Hall, the world's leading Trollope scholar, I might have hesitated when Randy Williams asked me to speak tonight. We also have with us in the room Robert Wiseman, one of the two men who have given us the restored text of The Duke's Children, as well as several scholars who have enriched my own understanding of Trollope’s works.

Among this starry crowd, I admit that I feel something of a fraud. While you have been restoring Trollope’s words, or illuminating his life, I have been brewing not real coffee, but ersatz. Finest quality ersatz, I hope, but still—I have added to the Trollope corpus only by using his writings as a jumping off point for my own tale.

My first job out of law school was doing criminal appeals for the Legal Aid Society here in New York City. Here’s the funny thing about criminal cases. Even when it’s not necessary to prove a case, police and prosecutors always want to know why.

Why do people violate the social contract? Why do they cross the lines we have drawn between right and wrong? Between good and bad? Why do people steal?

Or, in my case, why do we write sequels to classic works of fiction? Why do we appropriate the characters and stories of great writers? Like I asked a second ago, why do we steal?

Look, it’s not as if I’m the only one to do it. In fact, I’m in pretty good company. Shakespeare pillaged his plots from history, from myths—he even ripped off Homer. Dumas based the d’Artagnan CycleThe Three Musketeers and its sequels—on an earlier novel, the fake Memoirs of d’Artagnan published in 1700 by Courtilz de Sandras (we think; nobody’s proven it, really).

John Gardner retold Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. P.D. James’s last novel was yet another sequel to Pride and Prejudice. No zombies, but plenty of bodies in Death Comes to Pemberly. George MacDonald Fraser made an entire career off Harry Flashman, the school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

But why do we do it?

I think it’s because writers are readers.

What gave me the audacity to continue the story of Phineas and Marie Finn, of Plantagenet Palliser and his children, of all their friends and enemies?

A sense that the story wasn’t finished. To steal a phrase form T.H. White, I was haunted for years by the feeling that Trollope had not left the tale “round and bright and done.”

We don’t know if Trollope had finished with the Duke, or with Phineas, for that matter. From my first reading of the Palliser novels, while I was in college, to the day I began my continuation of the story, two plot threads were left dangling into my cerebral cortex, itching away at me.

First, the strange complacency of Phineas Finn in The Prime Minister, where he and the Duke get into a debate about equality—with Phineas attacking it, and the Duke defending the idea, at least in the abstract. What had happened to the radical Member of Parliament to strip him of his fire and passion? How strange that he is on the sidelines in The Duke’s Children, despite Marie’s much more prominent role.

That was the really irritating itch, but there was second one.

Trollope leaves the Duke at Lady Mary’s wedding. We are told that “One who did not know him well might have said that he was a man with few cares, and who now took special joy in the happiness of his children” but that in fact he was reminding himself of all that he had suffered. A classic Trollope moment—the Duke is transfixed in a moment of time, like Bishop Proudie praying that he might not be glad that his wife was dead, or the Archdeacon, at his beloved father’s bedside suddenly horrified that he’s watching the clock in hope that he can get the telegram off announcing his father’s death so that Government can appoint him bishop before it falls.

But here’s the thing—Trollope never leaves his characters in those revelatory tableaux moments. Life goes on. Bishop Proudie shambles out to join Reverend Harding’s funeral. Archdeacon Grantly mourns, and then sends the telegram, anyway—only to miss becoming the bishop.

That great last glimpse of Plantagenet, doing the done thing, while he is secretly adrift in self-pity? I do not believe for an instant that Trollope meant to leave him their forever.

And neither can I believe that Phineas Finn would end up as a mere political drone, a more intelligent version of Lawrence Fitzgibbon, being shuffled from office to office.

Think about that for a moment. Phineas endures the slamming of Society’s doors on him by the poison of Quintus Slide’s journalism and Mr. Bonteen’s malice. Worse, he goes through the searing ordeal of being tried for Bonteen’s murder. He discovers how few of his friends know him well enough to squarely reject his guilt of murdering a man in the street.

Phineas discovers that Lady Laura can offer him nothing but a dramatic scene in his cell, but that his fellow outsider, Madame Max throws herself into saving his life.

Saving it for what?

For Phineas to diminish into just another politico, living on his wife’s money?

Or to age into a forgettable role as a good, dull, graying functionary?

I just could not believe that the brief glimpses we get of Phineas in The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children represent Trollope’s full development of the character who had made his way to the center of high society only to see its hollowness.

Only two years after publishing The Duke’s Children, Trollope died, and so we cannot know what, if anything he would have done. So the itch at the back of my brain became barely noticeable, only flaring up when I periodically dipped into the novels again.

Then, nearly ten years ago, my wife and I binge-watched the the 1974 television adaptation by Simon Raven. At the end of it, Catherine had to listen to a Festivus-style airing of these grievances. When I’d finished, she said simply. “You write it.”

Well, in general, when Catherine tells me to do something, it’s usually a good idea. So I started it.

I began thinking of how to approach Phineas and Marie. I immediately knew I could not continue the story right where Trollope breaks off—to do that, I would have to imitate his style to perfection, which simply couldn’t be sustained for a long book.

And a long book, at least by modern standards, it would have to be. A short novel just wouldn’t provide the feeling of capaciousness, of leisurely development of character over time, that typifies Trollope’s work. And in fact, by today’s standards, where an average debut novel is between 70,000 and 90,000 words, Phineas at Bay, weighing in at a little over 180,000 words is long. 100,000 words shorter than either of Trollope’s Phineas novels—but, by today’s standards, long.

To carry off a lengthy, Trollope-style book, I made three initial decisions.

First, I would set the story some twenty years after the ending of Phineas Redux—somewhere in the unspecified 1890s. That would give me some cover for the inevitable differences in style, and would allow for some difference in characterization.

Second, Phineas’s slight staleness in The Prime Minister would be my starting point, and his rekindling of his radicalism would be the primary story line.

But how to get him there?

Well, Phineas was a barrister, we know. He devilled under Mr. Low, remember? And a practicing barrister can easily find himself face-to-face with injustice. In fact, he could be dragged into doing something about it against his will. As a barrister, Phineas could, simply by being present in Court at the wrong moment, be handed a “dock brief.”

What, I hear you ask, is a “dock brief”?

Before England had a Legal Aid scheme, judges had the right to let a prisoner in the dock who could not afford a barrister to pick one out in court. And that barrister would be required to defend the case. That served my purpose—Phineas could be picked out by a defendant in a politically sensitive case.

Of course, there’s one problem with that; why would Phineas return to the law, with his seat in Parliament, and Marie’s money?

Thinking of Trollope killing off Mrs. Proudie because of an overheard complaint, I remembered dear, loyal Mr. Low, and handed him a debilitating heart condition.

Phineas returned to the law to keep his old pupil-master’s practice afloat.

And while in Court to defend Larry Fitzgibbon’s son, as a favor to his old friend, Phineas is assigned a dock brief representing a young Welsh miner accused of riot. What he sees re-awakens his social conscience, and brings him into collision with his own party.

Meanwhile, I needed a romantic plot. Phineas’s sister Barbara was another casualty, so that her daughter could become Phineas’s ward, and bask in the attentions of a young Tory MP, and in the new Lord Chiltern, the son of the current Earl of Brentford, Phineas’s old friend Oswald.

Season with Lizzie Eustace and Reverend Emilius to reflect the darker side of the fin de si├Ęcle, and with the surprising romantic reawakening of the Duke of Omnium, and I had a plot.

I wrote three whole chapters—and then I went dry. I lost the manuscript with Catherine’s edits, the computer it was stored on crashed.

Phineas at Bay appeared to have been stillborn.

Until just about two years ago, right around my birthday, I found that manuscript, and, typing it into a new computer just to save it, found myself knowing what happened next. And so to the end of the book.

The very last line, and its context , I had known from the moment I started re-typing. How I got there was not really down to me; The characters took me there on their own.

I used to suspect that Trollope was exaggerating when he described himself as weeping with his characters in their sorrows, and laughing with them in their joy. Then I started writing for them—and no. No, Trollope was not exaggerating a bit.

I found myself seeing through eyes not my own. Oswald, now the Earl of Brentford, as a worried father, evoked a level of sympathy in me that I never expected him to. The despair of Lady Laura, inconsolable after two decades, required exorcism. Marie’s courage and active nature led her to once more seize the initiative to protect those whom she loves.

And the Duke—well, the Duke’s re-awakening to life and the imperative to go on living takes him away from our last glimpse of him in Trollope. But it takes him in a direction that honors his past, while asserting that a man now nearly sixty could still have a future.

The writing of Phineas at Bay was amazingly freeing. I found myself playing—there are all kinds of literary allusions and jokes throughout the book. Characters from Trollope’s other novels make cameo appearances, characters from other Victorian writers make appearances, and if you look closely enough, I managed to hint at just how naughty Lady Eustace is without writing more than two sentences that would have been disapproved of by Mudie’s Select Library.

I’m still rather proud of that.

Frank Greystock, the honorable Tory MP who marries for love in The Eustace Diamonds, remains honorable here. His rivalry with Phineas is collegial, his partisanship leavened by an abiding respect for personal ties.

Mr. Roby and Mr. Rattler, alas, are beyond reform. But we knew that.

And, reaching all the way back to the beginning of the Palliser novels, George Vavasor’s legacy makes itself felt.

Although I had to do quite a lot of research, the writing itself was more natural than the legal writing I have done over the past quarter century. My editor, Karen Clark had to push me to take us with Phineas down into the coal mine, but once I set my hand to it, the characters made sure I arrived in one piece.

I had come back to Trollope Country.

I didn’t coin that phrase; Ellen Moody, who’s here with us tonight, did. She used it to describe both the familiar territory comprised by the Barset and Palliser novels but also the less familiar, more atypical locations and milieus in which Trollope's less comfortable, less widely read novels are set--Prague, in the case of Nina Balatka, or revolutionary France as explored in La Vendee.

Often sequels to classic novels are discussed in terms of working in the "world" or "land" of the original authors. But I adopted Ellen's coinage of "Trollope Country," because it brought to mind a thought from George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Flashman novels I mentioned earlier. In a non-Flashman novel, titled Mr American, Fraser draws a distinction between “land” and “country.” He writes that:

“When it has been enclosed, and worked and farmed for centuries, it's land; when it's open, unbroken, waiting to be possessed, it's country.”

And that's the thing about Trollope Country--it's country the way Fraser uses the word. Oh, Angela Thirkell appropriated the geography of Barsetshire, and Ronald Knox in his Barchester Pilgrimage gives us a couple of fleeting glimpses of Trollope's characters, but neither of them actually spend much time with Trollope’s characters or concerns.

So I had open country to explore and to work in. And I had one other strong conviction: The story has to matter for it to be worth telling. For all of the charm of Barchester Pilgrimage, it’s just that—a reverential, nostalgic daytrip. For a story to matter, the writer has to take risks.

So in Phineas at Bay we see the Duke move on from that moment in which Trollope left him suspended. We see his years of grieving Glencora end, and in this book, the Duke, at long last, dances.

Phineas Finn defies Prime Minister Barrington Erle, and his standing with the Liberal Party is in jeopardy.

Reverend Emilius finds himself drawn back to London, compelled once more to try to win Lizzie Eustace. He does so at great risk, and some cost. And Lizzie herself, no longer a young beauty, has to decide who she is at heart—if she can only find some truth in her heart.

Great liberties to take with Trollope’s characters. But in the writing, I felt in my own heart that I was keeping faith with Trollope. Now that the book is out, and I have experienced it recently as a reader, I still feel that way. Let me tell you why.

Lady Glencora—sorry, the Duchess of Omnium, if we’re being formal—once chided her husband “We must go after our nature, Plantagenet. Your nature is decimals. I run after units.” She’s right, of course. The Duke is most comfortable with policies and ideas—decimal coinage, Blue Books, and the means of implementing good public policy.

But Lady Glen—sorry, I just can’t keep up the formality—like her creator, Lady Glen is fascinated by people. Their individuality, their hopes and fears. By turns, she’s drawn inexorably into the lives of Alice Vavasor, Madame Max, Lady Eustace, Phineas Finn, Adelaide Palliser, Ferdinand Lopez, Frank Tregear.

Her interest isn’t based on the worth of those she cares about, either; she’s as solicitous of Lopez as she is of Phineas Finn. Good or bad, once Lady Glen takes you under her wing, she’ll do her best to see you get your due.

And that’s where Lady Glen and her creator are as one.

Just two days ago, I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church-the American Anglican Church, in Communion with Trollope’s beloved Church of England. So, like Trollope’s clergymen, from Septimus Harding to Joseph Emilius, I find a sermon text helpful to me when I speak.

Here’s one, to go with Lady Glen’s observation that she, like Trollope, runs after units. This is from from He Knew He Was Right:

“The good and the bad mix themselves so thoroughly in our thoughts, even in our aspirations, that we must look for excellence rather in overcoming evil than in freeing ourselves from its influence.”

And it’s these two qualities—Trollope’s deep love of the individual as she or he is, and his recognition that we are all of us, every one, a mixture of our good and bad traits, that constantly bring me back to Trollope Country.

I was a voracious, if uncritical, reader when I was a boy--I read Agatha Christie by the yard, as eagerly as I read Mark Twain. Rex Stout alongside Dumas with the occasional sci fi relic from my father’s collection, and a deep soak in Bernard Shaw's plays and prefaces.

But it was reading Trollope--The Warden and Barchester Towers, specifically--that crystallized my own literary taste forever. Oh, I'd read some Dickens, some Poe (a lot of Poe. Did you know he wrote comedy too? It's terrible, but he tried.)

Hawthorne shed a light into who I would become as a reader--I read The Scarlet Letter, and thirsted with curiosity to understand the workings of Roger Chillingworth’s mind. (Still do; I may be driven one day to re-tell that tale from the Doctor's perspective if only to get him the hell out of my head.)

Because he was real to me in a way very few characters in fiction were. Conflicted, a mix of impulses, cruel and kind. The ruins of a man once great, at least in potential. Hurt, and hurting others.

Then I met Septimus Harding, the Warden. A devout, good man of God who has, without even noticing it, become enmeshed in a genteel, kindly administered, corruption. A loving soul, generously running a charitable institution, most of the funds of which support--er, him. His critic, John Bold, is right. On paper, at least. And yet, without Mr Harding, Hiram's Hospital declines into desuetude, and when Rev. Harding dies, his creator writes of him: "And so they buried Mr. Septimus Harding, formerly Warden of Hiram's Hospital in the city of Barchester, of whom the chronicler may say that that city never knew a sweeter gentleman or a better Christian." He has become the moral touchstone of the Barsetshire novels, this compromised, well-meaning, vacillating man.

People are complicated.

In the decades since I first read Trollope, my admiration for him has only grown. I have often enough pointed out that Phineas Redux, in which members of two despised minorities--an Irish Catholic and a Viennese Jewish widow--are the hero and heroine, and Trollope makes the readers cheer their happy union--readers who would despise Phineas Finn and Madame Max Goesler were they to meet on the street, mind you. And that's a sign of something.

Trollope is not safe. As life is unsafe, so too Trollope isn't safe.

Lady Glencora, the charismatic, charming coquette who matures into a great lady without losing her wit and her vivacity (and incidentally provided Susan Hampshire with the best role of her career), dies in the opening sentence of The Duke's Children, leaving us with the stolid, good, dutiful Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium.

You know, the much less interesting one. Except--without her, he becomes more interesting.

Less fair than he used to be (he's downright cruel to Marie Finn, who has on multiple occasions been his and Glencora's benefactor), he is brusque with the children he inarticulately but deeply loves.

Without the raffish, mercurial Glencora, sober Plantagenet cannot be who he is. He's lost for much of the novel.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

And I'm just dealing with the two novel sequences that are Trollope's best known, nostalgically remembered books, let alone his less well known works. Take his descent into madness in He Knew He Was Right, the sympathetic bigamists in Dr. Wortle's School, or the acidulous satire in The Way We Live Now.

On the surface blander than Dickens or even Thackeray, bluff, old, "safe" Anthony Trollope outdated them all, pushing boundaries they didn't dream of, and getting away with it, too, because he was "a safe pair of hands."

It was a brilliant shell game. He didn't get caught in his lifetime, or even by the critics for the most part. But we know. We know.

Trollope influenced my own view of human nature more than his more pyrotechnical peers, more than the writers of my own era, who all too often seemed to me to oversimplify, to not quite get it.

From him I learned that we are none of us just our worst moments, and that we cannot live on the summit of our best moments, either.

Phineas at Bay is a thank you to the great psychologist who taught me about human nature, who gave me the understanding to endure the myriad small betrayals and wounds we experience from those who love us both before and after they hurt us--and to forgive them, and accept forgiveness for the hurts we have inflicted in our own turn.

And people surprise for good as well as for bad.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

We cannot be reduced to our worst moments. Or even our best.

In Phineas at Bay, I tried to evoke Trollope's characters, but also his realistic generosity and tolerance. His insistence that nothing God has created is without worth. In sum, to pass on what I learned from him.

That’s one of the wonders of literature—why we write, why we read. I learned these truths from a man I have never met in the flesh, and yet was among my greatest teachers.

I hope my novel gives you pleasure. But it’s all right if it doesn’t. There is plenty of room in Trollope Country; I’m just one of the first homesteaders. You can go over to Father Knox’s corner, or Angela Thirkell’s patch. Or you can cultivate your own.

There’s plenty of room, and you can go anywhere. Maybe we’ll meet in the Cathedral, as Septimus Harding chants the Great Litany.

Didn’t I see you at the Beargarden, the night Dolly Longestaffe solved the crisis of the mouse in the orchestrelle? Or maybe you were at one of the old Duke’s dinners, alongside Doctor Thorne.

We’ll all run into each other along the way; everybody does, you know, in Trollope Country.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ordination Day

(Photo by Michelle Agins; used by permission)

And that's the moment.

This past Saturday, May 16, 2015, I knelt before the Right Rev. Andrew M. L. Dietsche and received the laying on of hands, and was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Or, as the invitations traditionally--and are more theologically accurate in saying--state, I was ordained a deacon "in Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." The Church Universal, not a sect. Our divisions are unfortunate, and reunion to be aspired to.

But I digress.

I've been walking this path now for over seven years. Four years of EfM (you can also hear me at St Barts on the subject). Three years of Diocesan training. A challenging but ultimately eye-opening academic year of clinical pastoral training, and a delightful academic year at St. John's in the Village as a "seminarian" (not technically, but as close as matters).

There wasn't a person I didn't learn from, not a moment that didn't enrich my faith and expand my heart, even the hardest pastoral care visits. The fact that I was allowed to represent the Church to people in extremis was terrifying to me, until I did it. I dreaded putting a foot wrong, making a mistake. But when I got in the room, it was not about me. Even if all I could do was stand at the foot of somebody's Cross and be with them, I was there to represent the love of Jesus Christ, not for some alleged wisdom of mine. Once that penny dropped, I was able to put aside myself, and focus on the sufferer.

At St. John's I learned a much more formal (but not fussy!) style of liturgy than I was used to, and discovered the intimacy off a small, vibrant parish. At all four places--the Diocese, St Barts, St. John's, and New York Presbyterian--I found willing, patient, mentors who spent time transforming a lawyer with good intentions into an ordained minister. The Rev. Deacon J.D. Clarke and the Rev. Deacon Denise LaVetty, in particular, have been, are, and will ever be, guiding lights in how to live as a deacon, an amphibian navigating between the Church and the World.

My debt to them is incalculable.

I'd say the same for my fellow newly ordained deacons--the Rev. Deacon Luis Rivera-Rivera, and the Rev. Deacon Shirley Lawson. I am delighted to call them by their new titles, and to thank them for all their manifold kindnesses to me over our years together. We bonded at our discernment conference, and they are my brother and sister in Christ, and not merely as a courtesy title, but in truth. Shirley's ebullient, uninhibited faith drew me further out from the ranks of the "frozen chosen," and Luis's serene acceptance of difficulties and challenges was an object lesson of what grace under pressure means.

So now to the great Joss Whedon question: Where do we go from here?

I don't know yet; my parish assignment will be worked out soon, and my interest in pursuing a ministry that involves restorative justice remains strong--though, as I learned over two years ago, it is a ministry that asks a great deal of people. There is much to be learned, much to be decided, and much work to come.

For now, this. On Sunday, I proclaimed the gospel, set the table, served Holy Communion at my home parish, St. Bartholomew's Church. I served alongside some of the finest clergy I have ever known, who embraced me, and welcomed me as a deacon among them. What's next will unfold.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Come Healing

Three days out, ordination is becoming increasingly real. It's been a long process--over seven years, in total--and I'm not the man I was when I started.

They don't call it formation for nothing.

Spend an academic year in a hospital, with the bewildering mix of those who are dying, suffering from illnesses terrible and mundane, or in the burn unit. And be there for them. The extraordinary thing is--I was able to.

That's a sign of the Holy Spirit in action; a sometimes cynical, sarcastic man, nonetheless able to serve as a channel for God's love to be expressed. I can't go back from those experiences, especially in the face of the love and support I received from my brother and sister ordinands, from our mentor, and from the chaplains whose commitment to this ministry was not for a term, or two, but ongoing.

Here's the thing: My gifts have been primarily been my skill with word, my cleverness. Nine months in a space where cleverness and contention are useless--well, that'll force you back on first principles. First principles here being empathy, and standing with those who are wounded.

I'm pretty sure I got more than I gave--but I did my duty. Not much more than that, I daresay--but still, that's not nothing.

My ministry will begin soon. I'm not the man I was.

Thank God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Seven Whole Days

How I wish you could have heard the choir of St. John's in the Village, led by Gordon King (who trusted me to chant the Great Litany the first Sunday in Lent), lead us in this hymn, a wonderful setting of the profoundly beautiful poem by George Herbert.

Today was the last day of my field placement at St. John's. The friends who have been so good to me there said good bye each in his or her own way--a kindly word, a "well done good and faithful servant" from Father Cross, who has given me helpful and supportive guidance throughout my time there; generous support from Father Alan, the interim pastor, a warm handshake from the Sexton, and--more of this later.

But most of all St. John's gave me its goodbye by being St. John's. In the congregation one last time as a layperson, I saw so much love invested in the liturgy. My mentor, Deacon Denise LaVetty, showed me one last time the proper way to unveil the vessels at the altar with a magnificent flourish, the thurifer wafted enough smoke for a Royal Wedding with an insouciance that belied his considerable skill, the Interim Pastor gave a moving, heartfelt sermon, and the music was everything one expects from St. John's--perfection. (Seriously, the choir did Thomas Tallis's If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments in a soaring counterpoint that was inexpressibly beautiful).

And then, afterward, the parish gave me a wonderful gift to wish me well--a deacon's stole, in white, and accented beautifully, with my name and the parish's forever linked:

I will never forget the kindness and warm welcome I have received from my friends at St. John's. The parish and its people will always have a special place in my heart.

And when--at this writing, less than seven whole days--I am ordained, I will carry them with me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Winston We'd Hardly Know Ye...

Old friend and fellow fox-without-a-brush Anthony Clark has drawn my attention to an intriguing post by historian Richard Toye, asking what Churchill would make of, and how would he fare, in the 2015 election. Toye makes several observations, which I will give in capsule form, though the whole of his post is really worth a read:

1. "[I]f Churchill was fighting in this year’s election he might feel that the electorate is rather passive and perhaps even that politicians are getting a surprisingly easy ride."

Booyah! Toye hits this one out of the park. Yes, a thousand times. I won't spoil Toye's post for you, but the active, often ribald life on the hustings Churchill knew, compared to the soggy, dreary mess that passes for political debate now, well, yes. Passive electorate. As an American, I can't help but feel we've contributed to the downward slide of the mother country in this area; the UK seems to be copying our abysmal presidential debates where everyone tries like mad to avoid the actual question and to return to their pre-arranged talking points. And we let them get away with it, for the most part.

2. Citing Churchill's infamous "Gestapo" speech, Toye notes that "the level of debate has arguably declined somewhat over the last seventy years, but abusing the enemy is nothing new." Well, if Toye were writing about the US, I'd think he was somewhat downplaying the rabid tone of American poetical debate, which really is enough to make one despair, but he isn't. That said, With respect to Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, Toye himself writes that "[t]he reactions of ordinary voters to the speech were broadly negative." (P. 221). It hurt him with the electorate. We seem more inured to that sort of thing now, though again, that's from an American perspective. Still, I think Toye's larger point--that WSC would have thrived in the cut-and-thrust, overt the top world of social media is spot on.

3. "Equally, Churchill might well be appalled by the quality of today’s press, but then again he was not particularly impressed by the activities of the Fourth Estate within his own lifetime either."

Agreed. I think the modern divide between the court stenographer press and the lowest-common-denominator-tabloids would have been wearisomely familiar to Churchill. And, by the bye, to Anthony Trollope--look at his repellent Quintus Slide (who appears in my own Phineas at Bay), or his Tom Towers.

No, I think Toye is correct to point out that is two ways, at least--vituperation, and sensationalist press, we have nothing on the late Victorians or the first half of the Twentieth Century--but that we fall behind them in one major way: we ask far far too little of our candidates. Can you imagine any candidate, in any party, making a truly Churchillian speech--individual, brimming with allusions and metaphors, eloquent--and not being written off as a thundering old bore? We live in an age of rhetorical austerity, or maybe even of downright poverty.

(Edited for clarity.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Anglocat at the Threshold

(Photo by Gene Bourquin)

There I am, at the left, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2015, which was my last day as a lay server, at my field parish, St. John's in the Village. This coming Sunday, my last as a layperson, I will sit in the congregation at St. John's, and I will be a congregant. But I will also remember.

Because the following Saturday, I am to complete a journey that had begun when I first started this blog, discerning at the parish level a call to the vocational diaconate. After seven years of training (four years of EfM, followed by three years of diocesan training), I, and my two companions on this way, re to be ordained.

This isn't the last pre-ordination post, mind you. This is the post about standing at the threshold. My years as a Lay Eucharistic Minister and EfM Mentor, my service as crucifer, thurifer, and even unlikely clinical pastoral training student--they have ended in terms of work to be done.

The new journey is yet to begin.

And so over these last ten days, I am able to reflect on all that I have seen and done in these seven years. The lay leaders and clergy who guided me. The priests and deacons, especially, of the diocese who welcomed me. The directors of formation who taught me, and the mentors--at New York Presbyterian's Pastoral Care Department and at St. John's, in addition to those who raised me up at St Bartholomew's Church. My EFM mentors, and those who journeyed with me. My bishop. My family, especially my wife, known on this blog as la Caterina, who has traversed this way with me, lending realism and compassion where needed, and always seasoned with love.

So many generous friends, old (back to high school and college) and new, who encouraged me--literally; a middle aged lawyer/scholar of cynical mien isn't where you normally go prospecting for clergy. So many people to thank, and to thank God for.

And I'll do the first, at the proper time and season, and I do the latter daily.

But as I stand at the threshold in these scant few days, Easter days still, let me look back, and show you one of the peak experiences that always grounds me: liturgy, here performed at my home parish, by some of those aforementioned friends, mentors, and fellow-travellers.

Or, perhaps you prefer this version, where the knowing eye can discern the Anglocat:

And, forgive me, but these people are inexpressibly dear to me, one more: