Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Valedictory for the Year



This may not be the last post of the year--la Caterina and I are planning a quiet and restful New Year's Eve, and, if anything sparks, I'll probably have time to add one last thought for the year. It's been a strange one, 2016. I was born in a year ending in 6, and for the last three decades, those years have signified major change in my own life. 1996 and 2006 were two of the toughest years in my life.

2016--well, keeping things in the "I" as they say in EFM, and leaving outside forces and stories aside, it has been one of change, as were its predecessors, but far more positive.

My own life in the law and in the church have taken me in different directions than I anticipated. In my legal role, the unexpected departure of a great leader and friend led to me taking his place. In the last six months, I have been challenged, engaged, and genuinely touched. I could not be more grateful for the chance to try to make a difference.

Likewise, my ministry at St. Barts has been a revelatory experience. In this first full year of ministry, I have had the chance to preach, teach, and to create a protocol for Eucharistic Visitors. ("Create" is unduly generous. Make that "cobble up from the work of others"). Here's fun fact: my best source of several fine ones for the protocol came from a diocese that I know, but where I probably could not get licensed, due to my pro-same sex marriage views. It was interesting and humbling to encounter those with whom I strongly disagree in a context where I learned greatly from them. It's a good reminder to me of what C.P. Snow called "the virtues of the other side."

Normally, I do a conspectus of the blog at year's end. But I think I want to quote one post on just this theme tonight:
Blog mascot Betty the Anglocat has taught me many lessons. And this morning, as she lay next to her old adversary Elspeth P. Kitten, I thought how lucky I am that these disparate animals who make up our herd of cats live in (relative) peace.

Later in the day, I reflected on what a gift the people we disagree with can often be to us. Oh, I know--we can get into shouting matches, flame wars, succumb to obsessive "comment wars" because someone is wrong on the internet. La C often uses this cartoon to call me out. And she's right to. Because sometimes they teach me things I need to know and even offer me comfort when I need it. The trick, I am slowly realizing is to shut up and listen. Not just hear, listen, and try to see why we disagree, and to disagree respectfully.

It doesn't mean caving. It means respecting the person with whom I disagree enough that I make the imaginative effort to see through his or her eyes, and to grasp their perspective emotionally, not just logically. It makes disagreeing much less disagreeable when I don't leap to the conclusion that disagree with me is clearly done in bad faith or lack of thought. (I know; I'm turning 50 this year--you think I'd have learned this sooner.)

Another example: I just this past week bought a devotional book that is privately published, kept in print as a labor of love. The person who curates this work is someone with whom I am at variance on several issues significant to us both. I wrote directly for a copy, and received an email that was warm and gracious. This person has enriched my life; if we had met in a different context, we might have seen each other as caricatures not people with much more in common than might otherwise be thought.
I still use that devotional book, for certain seasons of the liturgical year--

--Side Note: For the rest of the year, I pray the Daily Office, using the Daily Office Book. I mention this because here's another point of connection with someone I often disagree with, sometimes on his blog, sometimes here. Regardless, I do agree with Dreher on the power and utility ritual, liturgical prayer (versus spontaneous, extemporaneous prayer). And, by the way, it's not either/or--you can make room for spontaneous prayer within the liturgical framework of either the Office or the Breviary--

We still have Elspeth; we still have Betty. They coexist. And so, at the dawn of this blog's tenth year, it's still Betty's blog, I'm still Anglocat, and we'll go on prowling into the future.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Maturity is Sort of a Stoic Response to an Endless Reality"

Well, that's what she said:



The late Carrie Fisher was so much more than Princess Leia, or even General Organa; she was funny, effervescent, a script doctor, a novelist, and an unblushing, uproarious memoirist.

Here she is, in a justly famous bit, skewering George Lucas and bitterly praising him:



What a brilliant, funny, fiery spirit. We lost her too soon.

Rest in Peace

Monday, December 26, 2016

Facing the Raven

When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Training for the diaconate, the vagaries of my schedule, the location of the hospital I was assigned,, and the available transportation options meant that I tended to work fewer but longer shifts. My choice, not any requirement put on me. But it did mean that, on the occasional breaks and lunch times, I needed a fair amount of reading. As it happened, what I felt I needed, and what I read, was something fairly light, with a hint of darkness. Well, more than a hint, in fact, but not Bierce level bitterness.

For a good part of my time, I read Simon Raven's two linked novel sequences, Alms for Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt (the latter have not been collected in omnibus edition, though the series is available on Kindle). (Pro tip: between the two sequences, two novels, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle introduce some new characters, and revivify--hey, it's good enough for Bram Stoker--some old characters.) Raven's cynicism and wit had drawnly attention in watching his 1975 adaptation of Trollope's six political novels, The Pallisers, in which he darkened some characters (Phineas Finn) and excavates hidden depths in others (Dolly Longestaffe). My interest was piqued.

So, as I went on this extensive--though by no means comprehensive--journey through Raven's works, I didn't really absorb as much I am doing now, as I am re-reading at least Alms. Oh, I got the main points--Raven's self-hatred and anger at what he, at some level, deemed his wasted potential (his authorial stand-in is a handsome young man who, after his first appearance, in which he betrays his own true love (another schoolboy), is coerced to join the Army, where he gets his face quite literally shot off, and spends the bulk of his appearances (barring flashback novels) as a grotesque) view with his job de vivre, resulting in a curious mixture of rakehell and moralist.

And Raven's finding honor in his outsider characters--physicist Daniel Mond, Indian officer Gilzai Khan, a prostitute named Masie--while his more "honorable" characters often lack it (Captain Deterring, the Marquess of Canteloupe, politician Somerset Lloyd-James). And yet, the failures sometimes do come through--authorial stand-in Fielding Gray, more often than not fails to show courage, but he stands by Mond when it's dangerous to, he pulls off one quite thrilling James Bond-like escape in The Judas Boy that probably explains why he got hired to write "additional dialogue" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (hilariously, Raven's credit comes before the screenwriter's). But more often than not, Fielding, despite his essential decency, disappoints.

That's because Fielding, like almost all of Raven's characters, betrays those whom he loves and cares for. He has principles, but often fails to live up to them; he fails his friends by seizing a chance to redeem his early tragedy. And all around him are like him--corrupted by lust, whether of the flesh or of power, or for gold, Raven's people are in a sense doomed--their lives are being frittered away chasing that which is already lost. The betrayals meant to seize that which they hope will bring them joy itself deprives them of what they seek. So in Places Where They Sing, Tom Llwellyn (that rarity in Raven, a sympathetic socialist), regrets the death of his marriage, which was founded on his worship of his wife Patricia until intimacy cut her down to human proportions, revealing that he has no real love left for her--and the lack of love wears her away. Critics often write about Raven's wit but the cynical humor is founded on tragic sensibilities.

I can think of one exception, though: The adroit way Raven depicts the seemingly ill-assorted, but actually quite well suited couple, the publisher Gregory Stern and his upper-class wife Isobel is most interesting, because they probably enjoy the one fully functioning, healthy heterosexual relationship portrayed with any depth in Raven's fiction. There are many well realized unhappy relationships, along the way, but the Sterns are each attentive to the emotional needs of the other, and until Gregory's death in First-Born, they are devoted to each other, in their own idiosyncratic way.

No, the piece I missed out in my first reading is how well Raven had laid out the architectonic scheme of the thing long before the later novels were written. A story glancingly told in Sound the Retreat frames all of First-Born and dominates the last volume, The Troubadour.

Raven's flirtation with the supernatural (deepening in the last volumes) is normally held in tension with his extreme realism about the seamy side of life and his sad recognition of the fallibility and capability of pretty much everyone. He ends Alms in The Survivors with a poetic conceit that
I set out nearly 3 years ago, and which feels even more timely and poignant now:

In the last novel, The Survivors, at the memorial service for one of the few steadfastly moral characters in Raven's opus, Daniel Mond, all of the compromised, blackguardly, roguish, and even occasionally good characters are gathered together in Venice. As all of the characters stand about, exchanging witty banter, seeking to advance their own interests, or find a partner, Raven writes, "a curious thing happened." He provides capsule descriptions of the various conversations, involving all present, except for Piero, a young Italian prostitute, and adds:
while all this was going on:

A dark stain crept up the creek towards the landing stage, at first just a trickle of black, then spreading until it covered the entire width of the creek, coming fast and strong with the tide as more and more poured in behind it, lapping against the banks where the birds nested, lapping round the shining boats, finally coming right up to the steps of the landing stage and settling there, barely an inch below the bottom rung, silent, filthy and opaque.

And yet nobody noticed except Piero, who was staring down from infirmary window and saw that the black stain was all over the lagoon, whichever way he turned his eyes.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Man of Mercy A Sermon on Matt 1: 18-25 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, December 18, 2016



Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will proclaim your praise

Ever since I was a teenager, there’s been this musical that’s pretty much always running on Broadway. Maybe you’ve heard of it—Les Miserables? No?

The best thing it did for me was get me curious enough to read Victor Hugo’s novel, which is about 1500 pages long (you might want to skip the 100 pages describing the Paris sewer. You won’t miss anything, honest. You’re welcome.)

So this 1500 page long baggy monstrosity of a book could just possibly the best exploration of Christianity in fiction. Because what Victor Hugo does n Les Miserables is gives us two heroes, not one. You all know about Jean Valjean, the thief who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children and spent nearly 20 years as a galley slave. After he’s finally released, he breaks his parole—because no one will give him work, shelter or food if they know he’s a convict—and is taken in for a night by a charitable old bishop. After Valjean tries to steal from the bishop and gets caught by the police, the bishop pretends that Valjean’s lie that the silverware that he stole was a gift is true. He gives the matching silver candlesticks to Valjean, and sends him on his way, asking him to make a good life for himself.

The other hero is normally thought of as the villain, but watch how you label people. Inspector Javert—we never know his first name; for all we know he doesn’t have one or remember it—is a firm believer in two principles: “respect for authority and hatred of rebellion." He is "absolute," in his belief; Hugo calls him a "fanatic." But his fanatical absolutism allows him to find a "straight path through all that is most tortuous in the world."

Not very promising hero material, really.

But he’s honest. He doesn’t break the rules he enforces, and when he thinks he is wrong in accusing the local mayor of being Jean Valjean (he actually is Jean Valjean, so Javert’s not stupid either), he submits himself for punishment after confessing his error to the Mayor. He’s brave, too; he infiltrates an uprising led by students, where he runs once more into Valjean. When Valjean asks to execute him for the rebels, Javert is ready to die bravely—and astonished whe Valjean uses his knife to cut the ropes that bind him, and lets him go.

Valjean’s gone into the brewing rebellion to rescue the man his adopted daughter, now grown up, loves.

In the musical they pretty this bit up. Valjean sings that the young man “is like the son I might have known/if God had granted me a son.” In the book, Valjean can’t stand the jumped up little aristo. And he’s going to steal his daughter! But he goes to rescue the wounded boy, and, after carrying him through the Paris sewer—runs smack into nemesis: Javert.

But Javert isn’t quite himself. He lets Valjean bring the boy home, and when Valjean returns to be arrested, Javert has left.

He’s let him go.

He’s not proud of it; he’s ashamed of this, his finest moment the moment when he realizes that “the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforeseen compelled obedience.”

He gets it enough to show mercy to Valjean, but can’t stretch to show mercy to himself. And so he kills himself, after writing a report of abuses by his fellow officers.

Today's Gospel reading though is about a man who also knows that "the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforseen compelled obedience." A man of mercy.

Because for me, the main action of today’s Gospel happens before the Angel shows up. Joseph has discovered that Mary is pregnant. Now, as Joseph and Mary were betrothed, any sexual relations between her and another man was adultery.[1] And as explained in Leviticus, if a man has relations within the walls of a city with a maiden who is betrothed, “you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death.” (Deut. 22:23)

Later, the adult Jesus is asked to approve the stoning to death of the woman taken in adultery, so we know that penalty remained in effect in his lifetime.[2] And perhaps we understand something of the root of Jesus’s quick-witted mercy shown to that woman: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone saved her life.

Maybe we’re too used to the story of Joseph and the Angel to see it in the round as it’s read to us. Remember that Joseph was a man of royal lineage, but in the same gospel we’re reading, we’re told that he is a craftsman, a carpenter (Matt 13:55). Joseph lived in an honor culture, and any indiscretion on Mary’s part would bring shame not just on her, but on her betrothed, in whose honor and social status she had become embedded.[3]

Joseph could have reduced the injury done to his honor by enforcing the penalty against Mary. He didn’t.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly,” we are told.

Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.

That didn’t let him off the hook, though. He would bear the disgrace, the loss of honor.

Joseph’s mercy here is especially powerful and moving because the Angel hasn’t shown up yet—he has no reason to believe that Mary is innocent. He has no reason to believe anything of her except that she has betrayed him.

He forgives her anyway.

We don’t know why Joseph doesn’t assert his rights, other than the brief description of him as a “righteous man.” What’s surprising about this is that Joseph’s righteousness isn’t in following the Law. In fact, he flouts the Law—he denies it its prey.

A more typical definition of righteousness from Joseph’s time, or Jesus’s, would be to follow the Law, to enforce it.

Like the scribes and the Pharisees who drag the woman taken in adultery to Jesus, and try to bully him into approving their killing her, as the Law requires.

By the standards of their day and their culture, they are being righteous. It’s the righteousness of Inspector Javert, but it’s none the less a form of righteousness.

They’re thwarted by a new kind of righteousness, one they’re not able to recognize or see as righteous. So Jesus outfoxes them, and saves the woman’s life.

Some three decades earlier, Joseph is preparing to do the same thing. He’ll divorce Mary quietly, avoid the scandal to the extent he can, and take the rest on himself.

But Joseph is living this new kind of righteousness that Jesus lives later. Joseph’s righteousness is not that of the Pharisees. Like Jean Valjean, he sacrifices his own good for the sake of someone he has no selfish reason to protect. Why? Maybe it’s because he knows that “the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforseen compelled obedience.”

According to novelist Roberston Davies, Joseph is unofficially the patron saint of the betrayed. I like that, because of what his example tells us about how to respond to the people who we love, and may even love us, but who let us down, even break our hearts.

Respond with love. With forgiveness. Put aside the anger, and ego, and try to minimize the harm. In a very different context, writer Steven Moffatt summarizes Joseph’s response to what he understandably sees as betrayal: “Do you think I care so little for you,” he asks, “that betraying me would make a difference?”

We can’t always perfectly live up to that high a standard of love. But God can, and does. And Joseph does his very best to return God’s love with his own loving merciful response to what he thinks is Mary’s crime. He doesn’t plan to remain married to her. But he does try to protect her safety and even her good name as much as he can. He shows us how it’s done, and maybe passed that lesson on to that baby Mary brought into his life.

And all this before the Angel says a word.

___________________________________

[1] “Mary in the Gospel of Matthew,” in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis, Fortress Press,1999) at 40.

[2] See also WF Albright & CS Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew (Garden City, Doubleday & Co. 1971) at 7-8.

[3] David A. de Silva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic 2000), at 33.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Wheat. I'm Dead,They're Talking About Wheat."



Beyond the fact that Love and Death introduced me to Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, its sly takeoff on Russian novels, and the films of Ingmar Bergman got me when I was too young to get the references. As I grew older, my affection for the film only grew.

There's a wisdom under the humor, though, that is very evocative for me. Allen's film is funny throughout, but it's profoundly humane, with its delicate, gawky send up of heroism, its affectionate malice to overwrought classics in print and film--a simple joy in life.

In a fraught time it's easy to forget that. And I should remember.

I had a charming encounter at the Second Avenue Deli yesterday. I was in clericals, on my way up to Albany after my last service of the day, and the Starbridge book study I have been leading, and la Caterina was driving me from St Barts to Penn Station (we were to grab lunch en route).

Anyway, traffic was murderous, so we stopped at Second Avenue Deli for pastrami. As I waited for one of the two countermen to get to me, I was engaged, just a little shyly, by a youngish (I'd say 30s) man and his wife. They kept kosher, so he was ordering with care. But when the counterman gave them each a hefty sample of pastrami, they gestured toward me. Teh contemn sliced me off some, and we all exchanged smiles.

"You have to live a little," he said.

"It may not be good for you every day," she added. "But when it's good pastrami--"

Her husband joined in--

"Then you have to live a little," they concluded.

"You never know," the husband added, with a little subfusc humor.

"I'm optimistic," his wife pertly replied.

The white haired, rubicund counterman, beaming, said "Every morning, I thank God for giving me my life back from the night."

The husband chuckled. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," the counterman replied. "What a gift--and it never gets old."

Just as well I hadn't preached that day. I can't compete with that mini-sermon, seasoned with a generous free sample of pastrami.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Sort-of Brief for the Partial Defense: Neville Aysgarth

In the course of the book group meetings St. Barts is hosting on Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, we've reached Scandalous Risks and Mystical Paths, up for discussion on December 11.

In discussing the books, I was asked why I had any sympathy with Neville Aysgarth, the "liberal Protestant Modernist" who is dean of Starbridge Cathedral in 1963, and who --

Ok, Spoiler Alert.



As Elaine Kendall summarized the plot:
"Scandalous Risks" is told in the first person by Venetia Flaxton, a peer's daughter who falls hopelessly in love with the venerable dean of Starbridge Cathedral. No matter that Dean Stephen Aysgarth is past 60 and Venetia a mere 26; less matter that he is her father's closest friend, husband to the neurotic Dido and parent of adult children, a man in a highly conspicuous and vulnerable position, a bit overfond of the bottle and at chronic odds with his Bishop--he's still irresistible to Venetia.

When the book opens, Venetia is a jaded woman in late middle age, revisiting the scene of her youthful indiscretion. Her voice is brittle and wry as she recalls the consuming passion that dominated her life; Howatch will maintain this tone throughout her witty, literate but essentially didactic book. The time is 1963, just as the waves of social change are lapping at English shores. The Beatles are still fresh-faced boys sporting Dutch bobs, skirts hover at a respectable fingertip length, and a Church of England bishop has just published a revolutionary treatise called "Honest to God," in which the gospel of love is taken far beyond its traditional limits. This radical volume has not only caused considerable turbulence within the established church, but provided Dean Aysgarth with justification for his dalliance with Venetia.

That romance is the sum and substance of "Scandalous Risks." Because the lovers must be so exceedingly cautious in the cathedral town of Starbridge, much of the love affair is conducted through letters. Venetia and her dean (whom she calls by his given name, Neville, because his wife calls him Stephen) write to each other daily, arranging their weekly trysts in his car and their more casual encounters on a bench in the churchyard. Because the logistics alone would hardly make riveting reading, they discuss church matters and debate the provocative issues raised by the author of "Honest to God."

They also make love, though not in what Howatch delicately calls "the ordinary way," because the dean has promised his wife that his adventures will never degenerate into technical adultery. Unsatisfactory as this restraint may be, Venetia stoically endures it, abstinence only serving to make her heart grow fonder. Non-consummation combined with Howatch's formal, elegant prose style lend the book its 19th-Century quality, a mood reinforced by the minutiae of church activity. During the course of the love affair, the dean is embroiled in a controversy involving an avant-garde sculpture he's commissioned from another attractive young woman; the work of art is considered unsuitable, if not downright pornographic, by his ecclesiastical superiors.
NB: To be fair to the late John A. T. Robinson, that's not quite the point of his book; a much more nuanced and helpful critique by N.T. Wright is a good counterbalance (though Howatch has Charles Ashworth give some good counterbalance in the novel, as well, Wright is more charitable).

In any event, why do I have some sympathy (not all that much; he's the primary bad actor in the book, but some) for Aysgarth?

First, we have to remember that Aysgarth is exclusively viewed from the outside in SR; we don’t see his thought processes or into his heart other than through externals, such as his words and his notes to Venetia. Some of them are true, others are not. It's harder to assess his actions when we don't have full access to his thoughts and feelings, as we did in Ultimate Prizes.

In the 16 years since we last encountered him, Aysgarth has lived in a very difficult marriage with his notoriously "impossible" wife, Diana Dorothea, known as "Dido." Dido is emotionally unstable, eager to impress, clever, and dangerously receptive, in that she's infamously indiscreet. She loves her husband, but not in a way that he finds easy to accept. He has tried very hard, and been quite devoted to her throughout that time, refusing speak ill other, putting her welfare over his career. Aysgarth is sacrificing again and again to achieve his redemption, but over time, has forgotten his duty of self-care; he has mistaken submission to Dido’s whims with loving her (which he finds very hard to do). Just as he did with his first wife, Grace, Aysgarth doesn’t have the stomach to face the hard facts of life. He tries, but embroiders them, to make “everything lovely in the garden.” Denial is his key defense mechanism.

Aysgarth has been, prior to the events in the novel, pretty successful in trying to make the relationship with Dido work, despite all their incompatibility. There is nothing in SR or in the later novels to suggest that he has engaged in any similar relationship prior to Venetia’s crying jag on the vacation to the Hebrides. The relationship clicks into a place that has nowhere to go but disaster, but is, like that of his mentor Bishop Alex Jardine and Ashworth's future wife Lyle Christie before them, an attraction of people who are fundamentally very well suited but not placed so that they can marry. Jonathan Darrow, often Howatch's spokesperson, aptly uses Venetia’s car as a metaphor for the “transient” nature of their relationship.

Notably, Aysgarth has been deprived of some important truths by his mentor, Alex Jardine, who (in Ultimate Prizes) held out for him as an ideal the amitie amoreuse, but hid from his the disaster(s) it had fostered in Jardine’s own life. In other words, Jardine’s reticence leads Aysgarth to think that the kind of relationship he wants with Venetia when she is, to him, his Egeria, is easily attained and maintained. But in fact, it’s difficult, easily sliding into exploitation and folie a deux. This was true for Jardine (with Lyle, obviously, but also with Loretta, and, as we see in Mystical Paths (Nick has a psychic flash), with Lady Starmouth). Jardine may only censure himself for Lyle, but in fact, he’s been far more harmful than he can bear to face. Aysgarth follows his example with grotesquely naive expectations, because he buys Jardine’s “glittering image,” in part because, when he was dying, Jardine told him a lie to preserve it, while gaining Aysgarth’s assistance with Charley and Lyle.

John A.T. Robinson plays a role here; his book Honest to God reaffirms Aysgarth’s faith that he isn’t being exploitative, but rather that he is consecrating an unconsecrated love, and that he’s pursuing his vocation by doing so. As the gap between his ideals and half truths and reality gets wider and wider, he falls into the weaknesses Darrow warned him against: drink and denial.

It’s not that Aysgarth is a victim, it’s that the whole milieu of the early 60s colludes with his self-deception. The reality he has to face—that he must let Venetia go, that Dido is his for life, that he is hers forever—and not just legally, but in fact, emotionally-- and he must find a way to come to terms with that very difficult, but not necessarily completely bleak reality. Darrow tells Venetia that Aysgarth is "bound to [Dido] with chains of steel," and he's right. Aysgarth isn't trying to break free of Dido, but to make room in his life with her for Venetia. It's a doomed quest, every bit as doomed as Jardine's own domestic menage in Glittering Images was doomed. But these aren't evil men evilly chortling and choosing to do evil; they're both men who have failed to face reality and allowed their own gifts for rationalization and wish fulfillment to blind them.

Notably, Aysgarth is also without much support. Charles has Lyle, Darrow, and Alan Romaine to hold him together. Aysgarth could go back to Darrow, but has nobody else who is useful (Dido actually tries, Venetia and Aysgart's daughter Primrose can’t, his protege Eddie is too obtuse). Notably, his bishop—Charles—does not have a pastoral relationship with him, a fact that is in large part, but not exclusively, on Aysgarth. In Absolute Truths, we’ll see Charles come to grapple with his share in that relationship.

End of the Line: Curtain and Poirot


Curtain: Poirot's Last Case- Pledge Event Screener from Dennis Allen on Vimeo.


Now, when I was a boy unsystematically working my way through the stacks of the Floral Park Public Library, I plowed through the fiction collection, laying waste as I proceeded. Among other things, I read pretty much all the Hercule Poirot novels and a fair number of the stories.

As I grew up, I confess I lost interest in Poirot and Christie generally. She was too much a puzzle-setter, and the characters in her novels too often generic pawns so that could each equally be guilty, or not. P.D. James, herself a formidably great novelist operating in Christie's genre but decades later, limned the flaws of Christie and her Golden Age peers well:
Agatha Christie has said herself that she makes no claim to be an outstanding literary novelist but she knew precisely the limits of her talent and her style was lively, the dialogue good and the story never falters in the telling. It is easy to criticise her as a writer, but someone who could provide relief, entertainment and excitement to millions of people throughout the world, in peace and war, cannot be dismissed as negligible.

The novels of the Golden Age were particularly strong on plot and puzzle. The nuances of characterisation, setting and any criticism of social and class inequalities were sacrificed to the originality of the plot and the ingenuity of the murderer. Bodies were found in trains and aeroplanes, in church belfries, buried in an already existing grave, and were frequently found in rooms where door and windows were firmly locked. Victims were killed in a number of unique ways including being precipitated down an iron staircase and hit by a stone propelled from a catapult. The world these writers portrayed was one which readers shared and understood, and any sense of the world outside the comfortable confines of conventional English village life was absent.
True enough, although--and I think I'm right here--there are one and a half exceptions here. The half exception is Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and the true exception is Curtain, her farewell to Poirot, faithfully adapted as the end of the long-running series starring David Suchet.

Styles gets a nod because of the gentle air of melancholy that suffuses the book, especially in its opening chapters. It's not a great book, or a great mystery, but there's a desperation and a threadbare pride animating Poirot, who is at the time (during WW I) of the events of the novel a refugee from occupied Belgium. That alone is enough to prevent the proceedings from wholly lapsing into the spot of coziness James deplores in Golden Age mysteries--a trap Christie fairly often falls into. (Not always, though. And Then There Were None ain't deep, but it's loaded with atmosphere, and claustrophobic dread.)

But Curtain, ah, Curtain--the novel that shows just how good a writer Christie could be. Hastings, a lonely widower, struggling with his inadequacies as a parent and a younger generation he can't understand; the Luttrells, so caught up in their financial anxieties that they've lost sight of the fact that they love each other; and Poirot himself, desperate again, struggling with his own physical decay and grappling with an adversary who has found a way to kill and kill again, while remaining untouchable. Poirot is wracked with self-doubt, ethical qualms, and outright fear. It's as if Thackeray's 'dolls" as he called his characters woke up as Trollope's much more deeply realized, psychologically thick people.

So in Curtain, Dame Agatha transmutes her dolls into people. Her characters--at any rate, most of them--come to life, because there are stakes, and they are not pawns on a board.

Christie famously disliked her most famous creation, and in some of his outings, the insufferable Hercule is just that. But, oh, how he shines when his back is against the wall.

I don't want to stretch it further than it will go. Christie is no James. But in this last novel (not the last written, but the capstone), she pulls off a literary coup, she punches above her weight, and retires as the Queen of Crime.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Crack in Everything: A Sermon on Luke 23:33-43



(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, November 20, 2016)

We live in a broken world.

Maybe it always has been broken.

You can read it in history books. You can see it live on the news.

And you just heard it in today’s Gospel reading.

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it, and the world promptly crucified Him.

Our world.

My least favorite liturgy of the year is the Passion drama, where all of us are meant to scream out “crucify him,” as the crowd. I cringe every year as I join in the cry.

Because we all want to believe that we wouldn’t be part of that crowd, that we wouldn’t have chosen the violent man of blood over the Prince of Peace, that we are the heroes of the story.

If only.

I have a terrible suspicion that who we are, that who I am, anyway, is Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. Because all too often I have chosen to deny love to my fellow men and women, to pull away from the person who isn’t comfortable to be around, who looks different, who acts different, whose pain is too evident. So we walk by, or at least I walk by, with at least enough decency to feel a tug of shame.

That’s not the worst of it, though. Because it's not just strangers. When we let down the people we genuinely love, in displaced anger, or fatigue, and push them a little bit away from us, or make them the butt of what passes for affectionate teasing, but carries with it a real bite of malice, we betray those whom we love, in a smaller way than Judas betrayed Jesus, but in a very real way nonetheless.

Oscar Wilde wrote that each man kills the thing he loves, and it doesn’t take much to do it. We do it with a bitter look, a flattering word, a kiss. Some love too little, some too long.

In other words, our little betrayals, our minor unkindnesses, are a part of the broken world we live in.

That we are partakers in and makers of the brokenness.

That means we are not the heroes of the story. We own the wreckage.

So we are the soldiers who crucify Jesus and we are the people who mock him. We can’t just offload all that guilt onto the people who are not-us, however you define not-us.

That lets us off the hook too easily.

We have met the enemy, and he is us. And she is us, too. Walt Kelly warned us.

And so we look around and see a country, a world, even, riven with hostility and suspicion, a mess too big, it seems, to be cleaned up.

The day after Election Day, we heard that the great poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen had died. In one of his greatest songs, “Anthem,” he wrote that

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

But those signs aren’t signs of hopelessness, of abandonment. Leonard Cohen didn’t think that the brokenness of the world was irredeemable. Just a few lines later, he admits that there’s a crack, a crack in everything. But then he tells us: That’s how the light gets in.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been leading a book study on the Starbridge Novels of Susan Howatch. And one of the main reasons why those six novels speak to me, some 20 years after the last one was published is because Howatch asks the question of how can all the suffering, the mistakes, the messy lives, be allowed by God. The question isn’t answered by any one of Howatch’s earnest clergymen. No, it’s the atheist sculptor Harriet March who comes closest to the mystery in describing her own work:

"Every step I take, every bit of clay I ever touch, they are all there in the final work. If they hadn't happened, then this" - she gestured to the sculpture - "wouldn't exist. In fact they had to happen for the work to emerge as it is. So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears, everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I re-use, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that, in the end, nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me".

Harriet here is a metaphor for God, in the form of Christ the King, whose feast we celebrate today.

Later in the novel, Howatch comes to grips with St. Paul’s seemingly smug line “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” How can that be, she asks, and here is her answer, very much in sync with Cohen’s, almost like an expansion of his:

The verse would be better translated "All things intermingle for good to them that love God." This would mean that the good and bad were intermingling to create a synergy--or, in other words: in the process of intermingling, the good and the bad formed something else. The bad didn't become less bad, and the dark didn't become less dark--one had to acknowledge this, acknowledge the reality of the suffering. But the light emanating from a loving God created a pattern on the darkness, and in that pattern was the meaning, and in the meaning lay the energy which would generate the will to survive.

Which leads us to the brokenness of life. It’s painful, it’s divisive, it’s frightening. It can be lethal, even.

But here’s the thing—the brokenness of the world, the destruction that it brings into our lives—can call us to a more full life. It can present an opportunity to see our own share in the state of things we deplore, and stop us from only deploring others.

All those hurts we inflict, and that we suffer I was describing earlier? We don’t know where they lead after the moment they’re inflicted. Famous Blue Raincoat another Cohen song, tells a tale of a man betrayed by an affair between the woman he loves and a friend he thinks of as a brother.

After describing the betrayal in the body of a letter that is only friendly on the surface, the writer pauses and asks what he really has to say. He stumbles at first: “I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you. I’m glad that you stood in my way.” And then he realizes the reason for the impulse to write, why expressing that forgiveness was so critical. He finally says “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.”

It’s not about pushing past our own pain and putting it aside, it’s about using what we feel, how we feel, to open our hearts to others we might not have seen in their full humanity before. And to empathize with them through the shared experience of being human.

Because being human means being terribly vulnerable to the tragedies and upheavals of life. It means fear, and betrayal, yes, but loyalty, love and devotion too.

Just as we are part of the problem, just as we bear our scars that may make it hard for us to open up to those we fear may turn on us, so too we can surprise by a sudden flash of a smile, an unexpected offer of trust.

We’re not just our flaws. We’re not just our failures of courage or of love. And we can learn from those failures, and give meaning to them by not falling into the same patterns that lead to distrust. Our very failures can fuel our becoming our best selves.

Forget your perfect offering,

There’s a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Actor Leaves the Stage

We find heroes in unexpected places. When I was a boy, I was introverted, fresh-mouthed, loved books more than just about anything (you may ask, "what's changed?" if you must), and decidedly not comfortable in my own skin (Ibid.). Nor was I comfortable with the Long Island zeitgeist. My parents, who cordially loathed Manhattan (at least with kids in tow; they had no objection to a civilized play occasionally, but traffic was and is the bane of their existence), would take my sister and me in for a run at the Strand (me) or record shops (my sister) a few weeks before Christmas. When I was 13, after the book run, the records shopping and dinner (at which the equally important book gloat would take place), an additional event was added: we had dinner early, and afterwards went to a play at CSC Repertory.

And life was never quite the same again.

The play was Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and the lead actor was my cousin (my mother's cousin and lifelong friend, so my first cousin, I suppose), Robert Stattel. You can see some more of his credits here.

Last night, I found from my mother that Bob died on November 9. So far the obituaries are scant, and almost bald. A true testament to what Leo McKern referred to as the evanescent nature of theater. So, a few words to remember him.

Here's what The New York Times had to say about that production:
Christopher Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus” is a loosely episodic play held together by the power and music of the verse. But one would not know it from the supple and engrossing version now showing at the CSC theater on East 13th Street. Credit that result to the actors in the two principal roles, Robert Stattel and Philip Kerr, and to the direction of Christopher Martin.

“Faustus,” as everyone knows, is Marlowe's tale of the famous medieval figure who sells his soul to the Devil so that he can explore all knowledge and savor all the pleasures of the earth. It is a course, though, that leads to eternal damnation.



As Faustus, Mr. Stattel emphasizes the intellectual side of the man. With his spectacles, his ruminating look, his head cocked questioningly at the universe, he is the curious mind incarnate. In spite of the famous passage in which he summons up the likeness of Helen of Troy and other scenes of magic tomfoolery, Faustus's besetting sin is not sensuality but insatiable curiosity. He is always questioning Mephostophilis about the arrangement of the heavens, the stars in their courses, the nature of distant lands. But as he pushes further into these realms, he is conscious of the price he must pay for his knowledge. “In much wisdom is much grief,” said Ecclesiastes and Faustus appears as a case history to this text.

Philip Kerr's Mephostophilis is the soft foil to his master, “pliant, full of obedience and humility.” Mr. Kerr in friar's cowl and with humble countenance never lifts his voice, but his pres- ence is the constant reminder of the Devil's bargain. Both men speak their lines beautifully, never letting the “poetry” get in the way of the thought.
Yes, that's the play I remember. But Thomas Task's admirals perceptive review does not capture the blazing power Bob brought to the last scenes, when Faustus struggles to find a tear, a regret, and, failing, falls into hell.

Something of that is captured in Mel Gusow's review of Bob in King Lear:
DURING his distinguished career, and especially during his four seasons as the leading actor of the C.S.C. Rep, Robert Stattel has been earning his way toward ''King Lear.'' His performance in Christopher Martin's new production is, to a certain extent, a synthesis between his tormented ''Oedipus'' and his all-too-human ''Woyzeck.''

Naturally, Mr. Stattel conceives of his character on a grand scale, and his performance accelerates in passion until his final, bereft, almost hushed ''howl.'' But he also makes us keenly aware of the irony that is the drumbeat underneath the dialogue.

In his madness, Lear sees his life's mistakes with a white-hot clarity. To choose one of a score of moments: When Edgar enters in the guise of Poor Tom, in Tom Spackman's impersonation he is as scurvy as a lifelong Bowery derelict. Mr. Stattel takes a quick look at him and, in his wry delivery, Lear's line ''Didst thou give all to thy daughters?'' becomes a sardonic stab to Lear's own heart.

Physically, Mr. Stattel is slight of stature, but his acting has a heightened emotional awareness. His Lear is a man enthralled by his destiny yet reacting intuitively. His wrath is not that of an Old Testament prophet but of a father slighted by a favorite daughter. By not beginning at too high a pitch, Mr. Stattel leaves an open expanse for Lear's tragic future. Rage accumulates until, wandering on the heath, he exhorts the winds to purge his soul.

***

Mr. Stattel's always-articulate performance harnesses the production. Everything moves in his orbit - and some of that movement is erratic.
A few years later, Bob was asked to recreate Lear with the students at Fordham's College at Lincoln Center. I knew several member son the cast, and a few of my friends and I from Rose Hill infiltrated the cast party. Bob was beloved by the cast, I think it's fair to say, all of whom praised him as an actor, but even more so as a kind, gentle man, who made himself available to the students who were on fire to make their own way in the theater.

Bob showed me that same gentleness, encouraging me in my own literary interests, and in my love of theater. I was shy with him, really, because he was so eminent and yet so gentle, and because I was star-struck, from the day I met him in his "Faustus" make up after the show to the last time I saw him, at our annual family reunion in September, with his partner Allan Knee, who had persuaded Bob to step out of retirement once more to perform in The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit. I had been looking forward to see him onstage once more. My shyness with Bob cost me a pleasure that I regret: when he heard that I had written Phineas at Bay, he wanted to read it. I never quite worked up the nerve to give him a copy. Arrant folly, on my part--even if he thought it poor, he'd have been kind. But his judgment meant so much to me; I had to work up the nerve and hadn't yet. I thought I had more time.

One day I will truly take to heart those wise words of Henri-Frédéric Ariel, “Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

Still, Bob did take those words to heart, and gladdened the hearts of family, friends, colleagues (Frank Langella himself walked me to the dressing area when I showed up backstage to see Bob after a performance of The Tempest, telling me of his admiration for my gentle cousin, who played Gonzalo in that production).

God rest his soul.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Finally Leaves Us.



As though 2016 doesn't have enough to answer for, we have lost Leonard Cohen; the NYT has some good words about his career:
Over a musical career that spanned more than 45 years, Mr. Cohen wrote scores of songs that addressed, in language that was spare and often oblique, themes of religion and love, depression and suicide, politics and war. More than 2,000 recordings of those songs have been made, by artists ranging from the folk singers who were his first champions, like Judy Collins and Tim Hardin, to leading rock, pop, country and even rhythm and blues performers, including U2, Elton John, Sting, Trisha Yearwood and Aretha Franklin.

Mr. Cohen was an unlikely and reluctant pop star, if in fact he ever was one. He was already 33 when his first record was released in 1967, sang in an increasingly gravelly baritone that seemed to have trouble finding and remaining on key, played simple chords on acoustic guitar or a cheap Casio keyboard and cultivated a withdrawn, ascetic image at odds with the Dionysian excesses associated with rock ’n’ roll.

In addition, he was anything but prolific, struggling for years to write some of his most celebrated songs and recording barely a dozen studio albums in his career, of which only the first qualified as a gold record in the United States for sales of 500,000 copies. But Mr. Cohen’s sophisticated, carefully crafted lyrics, with their meditations on love sacred and profane, captivated other artists and gave him a reputation as, to use the phrase his record company concocted for an advertising campaign in the early 1970s, “the master of erotic despair.”
I'll admit it; I'm a fanboy of his. To me, he was Bob Dylan for grown ups. This review, of the one concert of his I attended, gets at some of what made him magical in performance:
At Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, Cohen delivered on the declaration he uttered early in the evening.

“I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but I promise that tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got,” he said.

And that he did, along with a superb six-piece band and a trio of back-up singers that included the sublime Webb Sisters (Charley and Hattie) and his longtime songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson. Performing for 3 1/2 hours including intermission, he delivered a career-defining show that included numerous selections from the new release.

The tropes of his performance style are by now familiar, but no less comforting. The spry septuagenarian, clad in his trademark dark suit and fedora, belies his age by literally skipping on and off the stage. He delivers many of his vocals either crouched in intense fashion or literally on his knees, and his ability to rise to his feet effortlessly even while singing provides a testament to whatever health regimen he’s on.

Far from his amusing self-description in his new song “Going Home” as “a lazy bastard living in a suit,” the performer invests his performance with a searing intensity that takes on almost religious overtones. Even in this cavernous arena, he held the audience spellbound throughout the lengthy evening, no more so when he quietly recites his poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep.”

His demeanor is ever courtly, profusely thanking the audience several times for their attention and repeatedly introducing not only his musicians and singers but everyone down to the sound mixer and the guy who rigged the curtain. During his band member’s numerous solos, he frequently took off his hat and sat by their feet, as if in supplication.
Let's stay with this a second. Cohen's generosity to the artists with whom he shared a stage was exemplary. Writing about the same concert, I said:
One of the things about Cohen's performance style that really struck me, and I think must reflect the man himself, is admiration for his fellow artists on storage--musicians, singers,etc.--and his desire to showcase their talent and honor them.

So Cohen extends "I Tried to Leave You," allowing each of his fellow artists to shine, and put her or his own stamp on it. . . Note the soubriquets, too--the "incomparable Sharon Robinson;" the "sublime Webb Sisters" (always identified by name, too); the "sweet shepherd of strings" Javier Mas.

(By the bye, these performers absolutely deserve the praise Cohen generously heaps on them (just visit their linked sites).)

And, easy as it would be to deploy this excellent artists as background, Cohen cedes whole songs to Robinson and the Webb Sisters, and "Who By Fire" is now as much Javier Mas as Cohen, et al.
Here's another thing:



"Famous Blue Raincoat"is superb in its ambiguity--the exploration of relationships marred by betrayal, and yet the betrayer has, in some way, brought a new perspective to the friend he betrays:
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I'm glad you stood in my way

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried...
In Cohen's writing, nothing is ever simple.

His music will live. I'm glad that he played to the house one magic night when I could be there.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"In the Room Where it Happens": An Evening with Ron Chernow



So you can catch Ron Chernow in the above clip rapping a small bit of the opening number to Hamilton. I got to hear him do a big chunk of it tonight, as he spoke with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer prior to being presented with the 2016 Empire State Archives and History Award.

The evening was splendid, from the reception beforehand, where I met Chernow, to the end where he signed my newly acquired copy of Washington: A Life and of Alexander Hamilton. When we spoke I told him that he had cost me a lot of money,as his Alexander Hamilton had induced me to buy all seven volumes of John Church Hamilton Life of his father. He asked me, "Have you read it?" I answered, "I've started it." He gave me the smile of one fellow sufferer to another. His biography of Hamilton also induced me to buy Burr's letters. He smiled at that, and I get it. As Chernow describes the Burr letters:
It is puzzling that Aaron Burr is sometimes classified among the founding fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton all left behind papers that run to dozens of thick volumes, packed with profound ruminations. They fought for high ideals. By contrast, Burr's editors have been able to eke out just two volumes of his letters, many full of gossip, tittle-tattle, hilarious anecdotes, and racy asides about his sexual escapades.
Alexander Hamilton at p. 192.

The conversation between Holzer and Chernow was the good stuff, though. Chernow discussed his biographies of financial titans, of Washington, and of Hamilton, and his forthcoming one of Ulysses S. Grant. Interestingly, his degree is in English Literature, and he drifted into biography gradually, finding that historical figures came to life in a way fictional characters do for novelists, leading him to give up the imaginary for the historical. As he put it at one point, to write biography of someone he first needs to capture "the music of his mind." I get that. The characters who come to life in fiction--even in my own--are the ones who have a life in the writer's imagination that feels somehow apart from that of the author. As I quoted Susan Howatch the other day, "You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right," she continues, the novelist's "themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated." (Howatch is writing specifically of Christian themes in novels, but her observation is true of any fiction that is worth reading--the interaction of the characters must generate the plot and the underlying themes or, as she says, the book will be phony.)

The discussion between the two historians on their craft was warm and relaxed, and was really quite interesting--Holzer is a good interviewer. But when Chernow started talking about the play Hamilton, the discussion caught fire. This covers some of the same ground:
When Lin first approached me about his idea, he said Alexander Hamilton’s life was a classic hip-hop narrative,” said Chernow, whose book, “Alexander Hamilton,” has been on the Times best-seller list for 22 weeks. “And when he realized he was speaking to the biggest hip-hop ignoramus,” Chernow recalled, “Lin said, ‘Ron, let me educate you in hip-hop.’”

Miranda later invited him to be the historical adviser for the musical; Chernow remembered asking, “Does that mean I tell you when something is wrong?” To which Miranda sincerely replied, “Yes, I want the historians to take this seriously” – which, Chernow said, was music to his ears. Using hip-hop to pack Hamilton’s story into quick, condensed lyrics that told a very rich, complex story, the composer had seriously impressed the author.

Chernow recalled the whirlwind of emotions that have come with having a best-selling biography turn into a box-office-breaking Broadway musical. “The idea of middle-aged men sitting around discussing politics in 1776 conjures up remote, musty figures in our minds,” Chernow said. “But these gloriously talented, young, ethnically diverse performers have made the Founding Fathers seem approachable – bringing them to life.”
Chernow described his initially being confused by the almost entirely non-white cast--until they sang. And he described actor Chris Jackson's portrayal of Washington as "majestic, even regal."

You can see how he reached that conclusion:



And, yes, both books are now signed.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Halloween Reflection



If there is a movie with a creepier ending--no; not creepy. Stylized, horrific, but with an aesthetic quality, brilliantly framed and shot--I'm not aware of it.

Now, I saw it maybe a year after it came out, so I'd have been roughly 15. And that ending stuck in my head for 35 years, and counting.

The film has its bumps--Farrow's English accent, some longeurs along the way, and a cheap death or two--but Ambrose Bierce would have approved that ending, and as an adaptation of Peter Straub's Julia, it does an emotionally fraught, claustrophobic novel close to justice. (Certainly far more than Ghost Story, in which a stellar cast is strayed by a lame script out for cheap thrills.)

Last night I watched Bride of Frankenstein for the first time in 30 years. And, for a movie released less than 10 years into the "talkie" era, it holds up quite well. It is unquestionably a better film than The Haunting of Julia/Full Circle.

But it has no place in my nightmares; Julia got there first.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suddenly Susan: Some Notes on Howatch

So for this Advent (starting a little early (November 6), ending a little early(December 18)), I'll be leading a book group at St. Barts on the Starbridge Novels of Susan Howatch. The books are old friends; I stumbled on them when Howatch was only partway through with the series, and bought Mystical Paths and Absolute Truths when they came out. They're interesting in several ways, but here's what grabbed me when I first read them: they succeed as moves first and foremost. Howatch's characters, particularly her leads, the conflicted intellectual Charles Ashworth, the mystic Jonathan Darrow, and the low church, ambitious Neville Aysgarth, are three dimensional figures whose struggles with their own flaws and with each other are credible, rooted in deep human insight, illuminated with deep empathy.

You can hear the overview of the novels that I gave at the St. Barts Rector's Forum over the summer here.

As Howatch explained in an interview with David Virtue (!):
Virtue: What makes good Christian fiction?

Howatch: It’s a vexed question. I don’t think of myself as a Christian novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes on Christian themes. I think there is a difference. A Christian novelist implies someone who thinks a Christian theme and tailors everything to fit. For me, the people come first and the Christian themes grow out of that. The important thing about Christian fiction is that first of all it should be good fiction; without that, nothing is possible. But because Christianity applies to the whole of life and the novelist’s concern should be the whole of life, if a novel is done well, it inevitably should have Christian themes in it because Christianity is dealing with the great fundamentals of life. Unfortunately many novelists today aren’t interested in broad interests or major themes.. . . I think it is extremely dangerous for any novelist to set out to evangelize, because you end up writing a Christian polemic. A novelist’s first duty is to write a story. A novelist’s second duty is to write a readable story, and without a readable story nothing is possible. You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right, the Christian themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated. In The Wonder Worker you can see the theology of healing, and you can see the business of sin and redemption and forgiveness at work. The themes are all there in the book. Once you start saying I am going to evangelize, that’s actually pride. When I had my religious conversion, one of the most important things was that I was working for years furthering my own self-interest. What I am going to do now, if I continue to write books, I am going to offer them to God to use as he pleases. That sets me free. I offer it to God and say “make of it what you wish”; otherwise you get carried away by pride.
By her standard, of writing good novels with compelling characters, and a storyline that naturally flows from their interactions, Howatch succeeds admirably in the Starbridge novels.

Each of the three clerics at the center of the series is the narrator in one book. The daughter of Aysgarth's best friend continues his story, as Darrow's son tells his father's story and his own. Ashworth then brings the series to a close. Importantly, there are no villains. While Howatch clearly has her favorites among the cast--she's quite fond of Ashworth, respects Darrow, and does not like Aysgarth as much as she does the other two--she gives them all their do, as she does for less central figures making up the work. The overlapping narration, in which the same event is often seen several times, through starkly different viewpoints, enriches the whole.

The theological component of the novels is rich, also, and worth noting, and I'll write about that next.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Humble, ‘Umble Stumble, Tumble: A Sermon Given at St Bartholomew’s Church, October 23, 2016

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Nearly the end of October, as we near the end of the liturgical year, you have to wonder how all the readings fit together sometimes. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’re in an election year, both here at St. Barts and in the country at large. Whatever it is, I can’t help but connect these readings with the questions of power and leadership. Those themes resonated with the scripture readings I was trying to reconcile with each other, and maybe find some common thread uniting them.

And today’s readings can seem a little out of harmony with each other. We have Jesus, in Luke’s telling of his life, contrasting the ever so respectable Pharisee in the Temple with the wretched tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is not really what we’d think of as prayer; it’s more a love letter to himself.

Less prayer, more preening, as the Pharisee exults that he is not like other people. No, he’s special. He follows the law. He fasts, he tithes. And these things make him superior to all kinds of people: rogues, thieves, adulterers, and you know who else? That guy—yeah, that guy over there, the tax collector.

What about him, anyway? What’s he doing? The tax collector doesn’t even look up, just repeating over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”And yet Jesus tells us that it’s that other, the tax collector who goes home with God’s forgiveness, not the Pharisee.

Meanwhile, in the Epistle, Paul is telling us that he has fought the good fight, has finished the race, has kept the faith. There is a crown of righteousness waiting for Paul. So he tells us, anyway.

Placing these two readings back to back is a little uncomfortable. Because Paul does not sound much like the forgiven tax collector. Does he sound a little too much like that Pharisee?
Isn’t that the lesson of this Gospel—that we are all miserable sinners who should be aware of the depth of our depravity, and lamenting our wrongs?

Well, if I were Jonathan Edwards—you know, Aaron Burr’s grandfather, the fire and brimstone preacher who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that would be one way to go with this Gospel. I could ignore the Epistle, make us all shiver with the pangs of hell, and stalk off to coffee hour with a big scowl.

But I’d be lying to you. Because knowing and owning up to our failures and worst attributes is only part of the story. It’s a part of self knowledge, but not all of it.

And we do have the Epistle for today, and Paul’s calm confidence is very different from the lamenting of the tax collector. And, I’d suggest, just as different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
So why are these readings paired together? Is there some way that they can be drawn together, instead of ignoring one in favor of the other? What are they trying to tell us in late October of 2016?

I have a theory.

We are introduced to three figures in the readings. We have the Pharisee, a leader considered righteous not just by himself, but by his community. He has the respect of those who see him in the temple. He patterns his life to the law, he gives to the poor.

The tax collector is an outcast, reviled by the community that looks up to the Pharisee, but you’d be very mistaken if you write him off as insignificant, or weak. This is a man of force, of violence even. The tax collector successfully bid for the office and serves the occupying power to his own profit as well as Caesar’s. Tax collectors were hated because they were part of the apparatus of oppression. They exercised power over the people, and were infamous for using force to twist more money than was due out of the people. That’s how they profited from their position. So very much a man to be reckoned with. Hated, yes. But feared, too.

Then we get Paul. The 18th Century theologian Johannes Albrecht Bengel called the Second Letter to Timothy “a last will and a swan song conveying a legacy." Those scholars who believe it was written by Paul himself also believe it was written shortly before his death; those who think it was written in his name by another author view it as similar to Plato’s depiction of Socrates’s final days. A sort of imaginative reconstruction of how he would have said goodbye.

However you view it, today’s Epistle reading depicts Paul’s final summation of himself as an apostle. And more than that, he’s saying farewell to that life of service, and encouraging Timothy to follow his example when Paul is gone.
Each of the three men we meet has exercised leadership. Each has something to tell us about leadership, and presents a different image of what it is, or what it can be.

Each of these men of power has used their position differently. The Pharisee has conformed to expectations but smothers in his own self-regard. Anything he has done has been for his own betterment, and others have only incidentally benefited. The tax collector has abused his power, and bitterly laments it. Paul, at the end of his life, sees that life as one poured out like a sacrifice for the good of others —a libation is a ritual sacrifice, a drink offering to a deity—and he celebrates that life as well worth living.

But there’s more to it than that, even. The tax collector and St. Paul have something in common with each other, something that the poor Pharisee lacks.

They’re self aware.

They know who they are, for good and for ill.

Paul knows that he has run the race, that he has done what he could.

The tax collector knows that he has not. He longs for a second chance.

Paul and the tax collector share a virtue we don’t like to talk about in our competitive, striving, big-talking world. That virtue is humility. And you can’t have that without self-awareness.

I don’t mean thinking little of themselves, or denigrating their abilities and their character. Self-abasement is not humility. In his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope mocks that kind of false humility, saying there are “four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble,” and then you just lay on the ground to be walked on. Mordred in the musical Camelot tells us it’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.

The tax collector was not wallowing in self-hatred, as Jesus tells the story. He was, as Luke earlier described the Prodigal Son, coming to himself, recognizing the extent to which he had immersed himself in an evil way of life, and seeking a second chance. He gets it.

The poor Pharisee doesn’t. Why do I say “the poor Pharisee”? Because he doesn’t see himself as he is. He thinks that his compliance with the law is enough, and that his conformity entitles him to look down on those whose lives are messy.

He doesn’t understand the dark secrets of his own heart, let alone the hidden virtues of those whose lives don’t outwardly conform to his expectations. He’s shut off from the complex multi-faceted world around him, and can’t hear or see all the people around him except as mirrors for his own self-admiration. He does not know himself, and that means he can’t know others, including God.
Humility might be viewed as a combination of knowing ourselves, and then getting ourselves out of the way. Trying to understand our flaws and virtues, and seeing ourselves as we are. But then letting it go, and getting on with life. Being open to its joys and sorrows, and seeing those around us as people to relate to and know in their own right, not just as reflections of ourselves. C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone has achieved humility they will not be thinking about it; they won’t be thinking of themselves at all.
I don’t know that humility is a state that can be permanently achieved. I certainly haven’t got there. It’s a process, and there are relapses, backsliding and fits of ego along the way. But that’s ok. We don’t have to achieve that serenity St. Paul displays at the end of his life at any set point in ours. But we need to seek self-awareness. It’s enough if we can start off with the tax collector, seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, and then move forward from there.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Humble, ‘Umble Stumble, Tumble: A Sermon Given at St Bartholomew’s Church, October 23, 2016

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Nearly the end of October, as we near the end of the liturgical year, you have to wonder how all the readings fit together sometimes. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’re in an election year, both here at St. Barts and in the country at large. Whatever it is, I can’t help but connect these readings with the questions of power and leadership. Those themes resonated with the scripture readings I was trying to reconcile with each other, and maybe find some common thread uniting them.

And today’s readings can seem a little out of harmony with each other. We have Jesus, in Luke’s telling of his life, contrasting the ever so respectable Pharisee in the Temple with the wretched tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is not really what we’d think of as prayer; it’s more a love letter to himself.

Less prayer, more preening, as the Pharisee exults that he is not like other people. No, he’s special. He follows the law. He fasts, he tithes. And these things make him superior to all kinds of people: rogues, thieves, adulterers, and you know who else? That guy—yeah, that guy over there, the tax collector.

What about him, anyway? What’s he doing? The tax collector doesn’t even look up, just repeating over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”And yet Jesus tells us that it’s that other, the tax collector who goes home with God’s forgiveness, not the Pharisee.

Meanwhile, in the Epistle, Paul is telling us that he has fought the good fight, has finished the race, has kept the faith. There is a crown of righteousness waiting for Paul. So he tells us, anyway.

Placing these two readings back to back is a little uncomfortable. Because Paul does not sound much like the forgiven tax collector. Does he sound a little too much like that Pharisee?
Isn’t that the lesson of this Gospel—that we are all miserable sinners who should be aware of the depth of our depravity, and lamenting our wrongs?

Well, if I were Jonathan Edwards—you know, Aaron Burr’s grandfather, the fire and brimstone preacher who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that would be one way to go with this Gospel. I could ignore the Epistle, make us all shiver with the pangs of hell, and stalk off to coffee hour with a big scowl.

But I’d be lying to you. Because knowing and owning up to our failures and worst attributes is only part of the story. It’s a part of self knowledge, but not all of it.

And we do have the Epistle for today, and Paul’s calm confidence is very different from the lamenting of the tax collector. And, I’d suggest, just as different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
So why are these readings paired together? Is there some way that they can be drawn together, instead of ignoring one in favor of the other? What are they trying to tell us in late October of 2016?

I have a theory.

We are introduced to three figures in the readings. We have the Pharisee, a leader considered righteous not just by himself, but by his community. He has the respect of those who see him in the temple. He patterns his life to the law, he gives to the poor.

The tax collector is an outcast, reviled by the community that looks up to the Pharisee, but you’d be very mistaken if you write him off as insignificant, or weak. This is a man of force, of violence even. The tax collector successfully bid for the office and serves the occupying power to his own profit as well as Caesar’s. Tax collectors were hated because they were part of the apparatus of oppression. They exercised power over the people, and were infamous for using force to twist more money than was due out of the people. That’s how they profited from their position. So very much a man to be reckoned with. Hated, yes. But feared, too.

Then we get Paul. The 18th Century theologian Johannes Albrecht Bengel called the Second Letter to Timothy “a last will and a swan song conveying a legacy." Those scholars who believe it was written by Paul himself also believe it was written shortly before his death; those who think it was written in his name by another author view it as similar to Plato’s depiction of Socrates’s final days. A sort of imaginative reconstruction of how he would have said goodbye.

However you view it, today’s Epistle reading depicts Paul’s final summation of himself as an apostle. And more than that, he’s saying farewell to that life of service, and encouraging Timothy to follow his example when Paul is gone.
Each of the three men we meet has exercised leadership. Each has something to tell us about leadership, and presents a different image of what it is, or what it can be.

Each of these men of power has used their position differently. The Pharisee has conformed to expectations but smothers in his own self-regard. Anything he has done has been for his own betterment, and others have only incidentally benefited. The tax collector has abused his power, and bitterly laments it. Paul, at the end of his life, sees that life as one poured out like a sacrifice for the good of others —a libation is a ritual sacrifice, a drink offering to a deity—and he celebrates that life as well worth living.

But there’s more to it than that, even. The tax collector and St. Paul have something in common with each other, something that the poor Pharisee lacks.

They’re self aware.

They know who they are, for good and for ill.

Paul knows that he has run the race, that he has done what he could.

The tax collector knows that he has not. He longs for a second chance.

Paul and the tax collector share a virtue we don’t like to talk about in our competitive, striving, big-talking world. That virtue is humility. And you can’t have that without self-awareness.

I don’t mean thinking little of themselves, or denigrating their abilities and their character. Self-abasement is not humility. In his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope mocks that kind of false humility, saying there are “four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble,” and then you just lay on the ground to be walked on. Mordred in the musical Camelot tells us it’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.

The tax collector was not wallowing in self-hatred, as Jesus tells the story. He was, as Luke earlier described the Prodigal Son, coming to himself, recognizing the extent to which he had immersed himself in an evil way of life, and seeking a second chance. He gets it.

The poor Pharisee doesn’t. Why do I say “the poor Pharisee”? Because he doesn’t see himself as he is. He thinks that his compliance with the law is enough, and that his conformity entitles him to look down on those whose lives are messy.

He doesn’t understand the dark secrets of his own heart, let alone the hidden virtues of those whose lives don’t outwardly conform to his expectations. He’s shut off from the complex multi-faceted world around him, and can’t hear or see all the people around him except as mirrors for his own self-admiration. He does not know himself, and that means he can’t know others, including God.
Humility might be viewed as a combination of knowing ourselves, and then getting ourselves out of the way. Trying to understand our flaws and virtues, and seeing ourselves as we are. But then letting it go, and getting on with life. Being open to its joys and sorrows, and seeing those around us as people to relate to and know in their own right, not just as reflections of ourselves. C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone has achieved humility they will not be thinking about it; they won’t be thinking of themselves at all.
I don’t know that humility is a state that can be permanently achieved. I certainly haven’t got there. It’s a process, and there are relapses, backsliding and fits of ego along the way. But that’s ok. We don’t have to achieve that serenity St. Paul displays at the end of his life at any set point in ours. But we need to seek self-awareness. It’s enough if we can start off with the tax collector, seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, and then move forward from there.

In the name f the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"And They Keep On Sacrificing Us": Christa on the Subway



(Photo by Anglocat)

Sometimes events crystallize unrelated things into perspective. Yesterday, having arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine early for the ordination of a very good friend, I decided to have a look at the installation The Christa Project, which, as described in the NYT, was originally installed in 1984:
Edwina Sandys had seen this before: the 250-pound bronze statue of a bare-breasted woman on a translucent acrylic cross being installed in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

This time around, however, she does not expect to see something else she had seen before: the statue being packed up after a call from a ranking church official telling her it had to go.

That happened the first time “Christa,” Ms. Sandys’s sculpture of a crucified woman, was shown at the cathedral in Manhattan during Holy Week in 1984.

A controversy erupted, complete with hate mail attacking it as blasphemous. Overruling the dean of the cathedral at the time, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York called the statue “theologically and historically indefensible” and ordered Ms. Sandys to take it away.

This time, it is being installed on the altar in the Chapel of St. Saviour as the centerpiece of “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary works that interpret — or reinterpret — the symbolism associated with the image of Jesus.
When I read the article, I wasn't sure how I felt about this, not as a work of art, but as an altarpiece and thus a focus for devotion.

Not because I have any discomfort with the Imago Dei being represented as female (I always think of the Holy Spirit in that way). Certainly not because I believe in complementarianism--I'm rather forcefully on the record to the contrary.

Not that I would censor it, or press for its removal, or criticize anyone moved by it. I just wasn't sure how I felt about it, for me.

And not that I thought it blasphemous (it patently isn't), or scandalous, or bad art (it's very good indeed, beautifully fashioned, evoking old Rosary crucifixes, rather like the one I wear on a chain, given to me by my parents, who received it from my maternal grandmother on their wedding day).

No, my ambivalence stemmed from my discomfort with theologies that distinguish the "Jesus of History" from the "Eternal Christ." (Yes, that means much of the 20th Century, and almost all (to date) of the 21st. You're surprised? I wasn't dubbed "the Valid Victorian" in college for nothing, you know, and my classmates knew who they were dealing with.) That's because I believe that Christianity's primary claim is a historical one as well as a theological one, one that focuses on the life and nature of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and when we begin to step away from the man who lived and died and was seen again, well--we run into the danger of rendering him abstract. I need flesh and blood, not pretty stories.

But when I saw the work twice, first with a fellow-deacon who showed it to me, and then later that day when I showed a friend, the wife of a deacon, I was struck by the fact that both women had the same reaction: they saw it as depicting the sacrifice of women in society, analogous to that of Jesus. One of them even murmured, on viewing the sculpture, "And they keep on sacrificing us."

I began to see that my theological beliefs might not need to drive this particular train, even for me.

All well and good, but what about the envisioning Jesus on the Cross as female? How did I feel about Christa?

This afternoon made up my mind for me. After serving at St. Barts, I took the shuttle, so I could get the A Train. As the packed train pulled in, and I left it, I heard a woman say, "Get your hands off me." I turned around, and near to the back of the platform, a young man and a young woman were standing next to each other. I couldn't tell if the words I'd heard were spoken in anger, fear, or as banter.

Their body language ruled out banter pretty clearly, and, with people brushing by them with that NYC three-mile-wide-stare, he grabbed her arm.

I'd like to say that I walked over, in my clericals, and intervened. I hope and trust that I would have, had it come to it, but what I in fact did do, was quickly walk down the tracks, looking for police officers, and, thank heaven, I found two of them. As I was pointing out the man and woman to the officers, two young women joined me, and corroborated my account, and the two officers moved in before things could escalate. When it was clear the all was under control, I left.

No wonder both of my friends had seen "Christa" as capturing their reality! In a full, bustling vibrant public space, here was a young woman being bullied, forcefully seized in a possessive way against her will. None of the men around her stopped, or even looked back. The women mostly just kept on, grim-faced.

We're in the last throes of the most vicious political campaign of my lifetime, and how men treat women has come to be central in that campaign. No; that's sugarcoating it, and I won't traffic in lies here. Women's right to be free from assault is, apparently, up for debate at this election, and the seeming public acquiescence in violating that freedom.

The Incarnated Christ, the Historical Jesus, you know what?--they're both big enough to embrace Christa. Julian of Norwich, who was a lot more theologically astute than I'll ever be,wrote of Jesus as Mother, and I defer to her wisdom. Christa crucified reminds women that their experiences are embraced by God, encompassed in God's love, and that they, every bit as any man, are fully invited to partake in the fullness of God's love and redemption of Creation.

I'm with her.