The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Piercing the Veils: A Sermon Delivered at St. Barts, NYC July 12, 2021

Nowadays, we all seem to be living in the world foreseen by the old western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s one of Jimmy Stewart’s better outings, a story about an honorable United States Senator (I told you it was an old movie) who goes back to the West to attend the funeral of an old friend, played by John Wayne. The Senator’s first claim to fame, and the beginning of his glorious career as a stateman, was that he stood up to the local bad man, Liberty Valance, and ended his career of violence by shooting him. We viewers come to see that the Senator did stand up to Valance, but Valance had already shot him once, when Wayne’s character shoots the villain, firing at the same time as the Senator fires his last round, which goes wide. Telling the story to the local newspaper editor, the Senator is stunned to see him tear up his notes of the interview. The Senator asks if he isn’t going to use the story, and the editor answers him, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Life in 2021. This all seems a far way off from Jesus of Nazareth, but so is the Gospel reading for today—it alludes to Herod’s belief that Jesus is John the Baptist retuned from the dead, and the people’s belief that Jesus is Elijah, or simply a prophet, but a mighty one, like one of the prophets of old. But the balance of today’s Gospel tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. Unusually, we have a non-Christian account of the events that partially tracks the Gospel account. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish collaborator with Rome, tells us in his Jewish Antiquities that Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, their brother. Antipas proposed to her, and they married. [JA, 18.110]. Herod Antipas’s divorced wife complained to her father, who went to war against Herod, wiping out Herod’s army. Before this, Herod had killed John the Baptist, who Josephus described as “this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” Herod, feared that John the Baptist would use his great influence John had over the people to raise a rebellion,” and had him executed. Josephus concludes his account by noting that “the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure with him.” No bewitching dance, no cruel request from Herodias and her daughter for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Just a politically expedient killing in a prison. But, of course, Josephus was presenting an account of his people aimed at protecting himself, and incidentally, them, by showing their great loyalty to virtue and moral government. We know that there was a Salome. Josephus identifies her as the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, confirming the Gospels on that point. He also tells us that she married twice; first to her uncle Philip the Tetrarch, and then, after his death in 34 CE), she married her cousin Aristobulus of Chalcis, making her queen of Chalcis and of Armenia Minor. So however John the Baptist died, Salome seems to have made out all right. But the Gospel story of her dance, Herod’s promise, and Salome’s demand of John’s head has been percolating through our culture for two millenia, and has been immortalized not just in our holy scripture, but in art, drama, film, and in just about every kind of media you can think of—if you look hard enough you can even find “Salome’s Dance” as a plot point in Marvel Comics. Brad Brucknell takes us through a lot of those media representations, especially Oscar Wide’s 1892 play, Salome, and its offshoots. It’s Wilde who created the “Dance of the Seven Veils” that Salome is said to have used to charm Herod, and she chooses, in Wilde’s play, to seek his head not for her mother’s revenge, but for her own desire to own the Baptist. Brucknell points out that Wilde’s play can be boiled down to the classic dichotomy of the virgin and the wanton femme fatale. [1] More recently, Adeena Karasick has sought to reclaim Salome; in her 2014 article “Salomé: Woman of Valor,” Karasick answers back that “Salomé has been serially exploited by Gustave Flaubert, Charles Bryant, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss and Atom Egoyan, forever entrenching her in social consciousness as a dangerous woman, a female praying mantis who both literally and metaphorically cannibalizes the head of her lover.”[2] And there’s truth in this—the villain in the Gospel story is Herodias, not Salome, who simply obeyed her mother’s command. And Herodias had reason to fear John, as Josephus’s account makes clear. Looking soberly at both stories, John the Baptist was executed for posing a danger to Herod’s rule, whether or not Herod wanted to kill him. The Gospel portrays John as Jesus’s forerunner or role model in his death as well as in his ministry. Both challenge the Imperial domination system of Rome. Both earn the sympathy of the ruler who ultimately orders his execution—Pilate’s evident reluctance to kill Jesus matches Herod’s desire to keep John alive. So here’s a different legend: John and Jesus each had an uncanny ability to reach the conscience of those who had been coopted into the imperial domination system, those who had learned to live by its rules. If Wilde’s fervid play has any poetic truth in it, it is that Salome wanted to find herself in the prophet, to cherish him, and change herself, trapped like a fly in amber by the trappings of the Court of her step-father. And we know that both Pilate and Herod found within themselves a stirring of conscience, a desire for something other, something better, when confronted by these inconvenient Galilean prophets. These hard-faced, hard-hearted rulers within a corrupt regime briefly found their better selves in engaging with these prophets, and found themselves touched by their innocence, their righteousness. We live in a world that is wracked with corruption and lies. The most basic facts are turned into partisan battles—do vaccines work? Are our elections rigged—and all of this is done without evidence, just by shameless assertion. The temptation to tune out, to not care, to withdraw, can become irresistible. But if even hardened tyrants like Pilate and Herod can hear the sweetness and purity of mercy, of kindness, then surely we can too. In a way, we are Pilate, we are Herod—I don’t mean that we are as jaded or cynical as they were. But like them, we have a choice: We can open our hearts to the fundamental truth that the keystone of life is love, and do our best to fan that truth into a flame that will warm our hearts for life, or we can, maybe sadly, reject it. Neither Pilate nor Herod had the courage to change. But we can. We can take the side of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and we can try to live lives grounded in kindness, in letting go of grudges and resentments. We can try to offer our help to those who need it, and recognize that we are all connected. And if we do, we can dissolve the hard places in our souls that have grown over the years without our realizing it. And in that small way, we can join Jesus and John, walking in their way of compassion and love. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. [1] ELH , Summer, 1993, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 503-526. [2] Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues No. 26 (Spring 2014), pp. 147-157.

Monday, June 7, 2021

“A House Divided Cannot Stand” A Sermon on Mark 3:20-35 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC June 6, 2021

Sometimes the Lectionary seems to know just what we need and assigns us those readings. Not always, of course—there are weeks when we tumble into the seemingly endless morass of Psalm 119, or, even worse, the vindictive psalms, or a dry stretch of Leviticus, and the preacher struggles to find a way to relate the experience of ancient times to the way we live now. Today, though, we have a stark warning against submitting to the autocratic rule of a would-be king and a pointed observation by Jesus that the scribes those who accused him casting out demons by Satan’s power misunderstand how power works. If Satan has risen up against himself, then Satan can no longer stand, and his very end has come. On a hot June day just about 165 years ago, Jesus’s observation was reframed by a man most Americans think of as one of the greatest leaders this nation has ever had. A man who many claim as a prophet and as a martyr. On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln stood on a speaker’s platform in Springfield, Illinois and spoke words that, at the time, cost him his chance of election to the United States Senate, but ultimately led him to the Presidency. Four lines into his speech, Lincoln quoted the Gospel, and announced that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and then he added that this meant that a Nation could not be half slave and half free. Lincoln explained that he did not expect the Union to be dissolved – that he did not expect the house to fall -- but that he did expect it would cease to be divided. Simply put, the house would become all one thing or all the other. For Lincoln, that meant that either the opponents of slavery, would arrest its further spread, and place it on the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new--North as well as South. He then described how the political and legal systems could not only easily fail to contain slavery but might instead entrench it even in the free states. The division in the United States, like that in June 1858, is disquieting, even a little frightening. Views are so at odds that the very concept of the factual has been called into question by an increasing segment of the political world and even the best journalists struggle to keep up with the blended truths and lies that are often indistinguishable. Laura Marks, my friend and former landlady, is a writer and a producer of the show The Good Fight. During its 4-year run so far, the program has tried to capture the experience of the era of bad feelings we currently live in. Even the opening sequence emphasizes instability, loss of security, and disruption. As the credits roll, we view a series of objects representing normalcy—briefcases, law books flanked by handsome bookends, furniture, computer screens, and office phones, only to watch each explode in front of us, climaxing in a desk, shattered and splintered. Even the backdrop, the spotlight, and the fragments of the desk fall down among the devastation, and we are left to contemplate the wreckage. That opening sequence leaves us in a landscape in which nothing is stable, nothing is secure. And I think Laura and her colleagues are right: that’s how life in these United States has felt since 2017, and still feels even today. For those of us who hoped that the election and inauguration of a President who ran on a return to normalcy, and hopefully, toward thawing relations between our warring factions, . But as Goya wrote many years ago, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,” and dispelling those monsters is not a simple matter. Relationships once sundered are hard to restore. The concept of truth is even harder. In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the “ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction [that is, the reality of experience] and the distinction between true and false . . .no longer exist.” Michiko Kakutani’s 2018 book The Death of Truth pursues Arendt’s thought, and traces the fraying of the very concept of truth. She warns us that “Without commonly agreed-on facts—not Republican facts and Democratic facts—there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.” And our present day shows that the crumbling of the concepts of truth and objective reality feeds the growing division in our house. No sermon can answer Pilate’s question, What is Truth? on the grand scale, but we can start looking at our own truths, the ones we are reluctant to face, let alone to own. Truth begins with acknowledging that every single one of us is at once a sinner and a saint, both at the same time. That we fail, as well as succeed, in big and little ways. Some of you know that I’m a sober alcoholic, and let me just say that no one decides to go to AA because their lives are going so well. Before I could look the truth in the eye, I caused a lot of hurt, a lot of damage. Only after that could I drag myself down the steps to my first meeting at Trinity Wall Street. So, I can tell you that in the search for our own truth, we don’t get to assume that we are the heroes of the story and that someone else, someone very different from us is responsible for the brokenness we mourn. We have met the enemy, and he is us, and she is us, too. Except that we, or he, or she, isn’t really the enemy—not if we are willing to try to look the truth head on, own that truth, and try to incorporate that truth into our lives. But here’s the thing—our own brokenness, the brokenness of the world, can call us to a more full life. Because once we embrace truth, and bring it into our lives, we can see our own failings, our own share in the state of things we deplore, and stop us from only deploring others. And that can begin the healing from division. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a Leonard Cohen song, tells a tale of a man betrayed by an affair between the woman he loves and a friend he thought of as a brother. He recounts the affair, and then asks what compelled him to write. To his own shock, he is writing because of his need to forgive and to receive forgiveness. He needs to admit his own failings, adding “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” 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 moment of trust. One of my favorite St. Barts memories took place when Dean was still very new to the parish. After the 11:00 service, a young man, only in town for the day, came up to me and asked if he could be baptized. Like any good deacon would, I sought out our new rector, briefed him, and asked how we should proceed. Dean paused for a long moment. Then he grinned like a schoolboy, and said “It’s like Philip and the Ethiopian—'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” So we joined the young man in the chapel, Dean made sure he knew what he was getting himself into, that he understood the promises he was making, and –well, we baptized him. On the spot. Right then and there. So we’re not just our flaws. We’re not just our failures of courage or of love. We’re also our moments of generosity, of spontaneous kindness. Our very failures can fuel our becoming our best selves. We members of the Church, as followers of what the Apostles called “the Way,” owe each other a fundamental commitment to each other’s well-being. And by well-being, we mean their own flourishing as a unique child of God, and embracing the flesh and blood reality of the human being standing in front of us. That commitment is a choice to embrace each other, as we are, in the light of truth, binding up the wounds of division and hurtfulness. As long as we continue that work, the binding up of wounds, the reaching out in love, our house will stand. Because a house built on love will not fall. It cannot fall. And it will prevail. In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

On Not Being Tired

This blog has withered in these past four years. Watching my country tearing at itself at the behest of a would-be authoritarian engendered a profound disillusionment in me that, I will be frank, gravely diminished my faith in my fellow Americans, and drained much of my creative energy. I did not like who We, the People were becoming. The real end of the Trump Era was the January 6, 2020 riot at the U.S. Capitol--nothing less than an attempted coup incited by a defeated leader who sought to extend his time in office. The number of our elected representsatives were prepared to use their positions toward that end, even before the violence broke out, was shocking but not surprising. The recoiling at the breach of the Capitol froze the outgoing Administration in shock--even Mitch McConnell had finally had enough. As he said yesterday"The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people." This morning, for the first time in a very long while, I woke up with no fatigue, no anger I had to repress. I know we are not healed yet. But, after a long dark spell in survival mode--partially pandemic, partially pragmatically blunting my own edges to try to rebuild my own community by encouraging mutual love--I have reached the morning. There's a light dusting of snow on the ground. My cats nudge me awake. I'm not tired. Not a tiny bit.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The End or the Beginning? A Deficit of Optimism

Back in 2016, before things went agley, I postulated that we were, at long last, leaving the shadows of the "Long 1980s" and would see, at long last, what followed them. To say I got that wrong is to put it mildly. Instead, we have lived (at the federal level) through a comic book version of 80s kitsch, disassociated from the problems actually facing the nation and its people. The coronavirus has killed over 330,000 Americans since March, and, well, here we are. Elizabeth Sandifer put it well:
The key thing to know here is that there exists a model of spiritual enlightenment in which enlightenment is a horrifying and bleak thing. The adjective I'm going to use for this sort of enlightenment - Qlippothic - is important. Basically, it suggests that there is a form of enlightenment that can be found by encountering and contemplating the darkest parts of humanity. The Qlippoth refer to the hollowed out, vacant, and rotted shells of spiritual concepts. And the whole radical idea of Kenneth Grant is that there's not actually a difference between those, which are basically the horrible nightmares within humanity, and actual enlightenment.
That's a pretty spot-on depiction of 2020 as of this last day of the year; the Senate holding up more than token relief payments, a soft coup attempt picking up steam, one that will fail, but will further divide a polarized populace, as we retreat to our corners until-- What? I wish I could offer some inspiring, inspiriting words this morning. But I'd be faking it. Don't get me wrong; We the People have elected a good, decent man and a strong, determined woman who will together try to bind up the wounds of division. As in the film, after the mourning comes the morning, letting the sunshine in. Let us hope, dafka--despite all the bitterness, loss, and hatred--that the next Act of the drama will take us beyond these futile worn-out arguments and measures, and that we have at least one more second Act after all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Hero's Welcome

US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan - 1976 official portrait.jpg
By Robert S. Oakes - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. DIGITAL ID: <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b07877">cph 3b07877</a>, Public Domain, Link

Aye, the hour grows late, and we've time fair nay mair tales...what's that? I promised one? Aye, so I did. The year was 1987, and Uncle John was a law student, at Columbia Law School, a lowly first year student at the time. The Law School was convening a celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and then-Chief Justice Rehnquist was there, but he was not the focus of the event. No, CLS had decided to honor the contribution to constitutional law of Associate Justice, William J. Brennan. The event was divided, like Gallia, into three parts. First, a relatively brief gathering, open to all, where Dean Black, Rehnquist (and, if I remember aright, Justice Thurgood Marshall) spoke about Brennan, and his jurisprudence. Brennan himself said a few words, and the event recessed. The second part was a formal dinner, the tickets for which were prohibitively expensive. When I told my then-significant other, Holly, about it, she was fiercely determined we should attend. She insisted on buying the tickets (she was working, I was not; at the time CLS discouraged first years from working during term.) When we bought the tickets, the woman behind the counter raised an eyebrow that we should be attending. It was a very generous gift on her part, and we went in our best. True fact: As far as I could tell, I was the only student there except for one 2L I recognized who was working the event as a waiter. Another True Fact (tm): Other than my professors, most of whom were socializing with each other, the judges and scholars from other places who were gathered,I didn't know any of the people there. I was seated--as happened several times in my first year--next to Visiting Professor Arthur Chaskalson, an anti-apartheid lawyer from South Africa, (praise to Jack Greenberg for inviting him!) who was one of the bravest people I've ever met, and was courtly and gracious as always (he had to be sick of me turning u at all these dinners, and invariably being his companion, but he never showed it.) As Arthur (what? He told me to call him Arthur. He was a mensch, ok?) was caught up in the social whirl. Holly and I were pretty much deserted, until my Torts professor, Kendall Thomas, came over to keep us company a bit. Always one to look after the underdog, and for this one night I was that, Professor Thomas visited with us a bit, made Holly laugh, and went on his way. Dinner ensued, and then--well, this: The desserts and liqueurs were wheeled out, and the large cluster of academics, judges and Illustrious Alumni and Visitors swooped down on them with a remorseless efficiency. Justice Brennan stood all alone, for just a moment. Holly, God bless her, pushed me in the lower back, and hissed "Go SAY something to him." So I did. I have no idea what undergraduate gabble I spewed, but he took my hand, and as I was about to stagger off, having failed to communicate to this great man in my chosen profession, he wouldn't let me go. He insisted on talking to me, and asked me questions about what I hoped to do and be. Somehow he closed the gap of age and eminence, and I relaxed, and it was a lovely conversation. He caught eye of Holly, who was a very pretty woman, and beckoned her over. And he charmed us both. Not with facile charm, but by being interested in us as people. He teased us--"you're headed to Legal Aid," he said to me (and years later Vivian Bergerwould make that happen), and he praised Holly's acting ambitions, and brilliance was in the air. We left, awed, but warmed and excited about the potential in our young lives. After graduation, when I published my first law review article, on the First Amendment, the subject on which the now-retired Justice was the greatest living expert, I sent him an offprint, thanking him for his kindness that night. To my shock, I received a reply--Justice Brennan thanked me for the article, saying he was sure he would read it "with pleasure and profit" and thanking me for thinking of him. His signature was spidery but clear. I framed that letter, and it hangs in my office to this day. One is not often blessed by one's heroes.

Monday, August 10, 2020

What They Did in the Shadows: Dark Shadows, The Beginning: Episodes 1-5

Darkshadows.jpg
By Uploaded by TheCustomOfLife; from World of Soap Themes (Webmaster: Brian Puckett)., Fair use, Link

Before the pandemic, I had a minor surgery, but one that laid me up for a month, to my astonishment. Confined to laying on my side, I couldn't easily read and so I was stick with the pleasures of streaming video, which led me to the old Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. I watched it throughout my recovery, and, outsode of work hours, followed it through the next few months. Then, I was lured by Amazon into buying the complete series on DVD. Yes, the infamous "Coffin Set." Now, this may seem daft, but that's just because it is. But when the series came, I fired up the first episode, to see the new introduction by Alexandra Moltke, and to test the quality of my purchase. In doing so, I found that the quality was very high, and found myself drawn into theses first episodes all over again. So a few thoughts. First, the series uses its paltry budget extremely well; the main Collinwood sets are handsome and convincing, and the stratgic use of location filming at Seaview Terrace in these first epsiodes really cements Collinwood in the viewer's mind--it's as much a presence as is Shirley Jackson's Hill House. It also looks lived in, a place that has been inhabited for centuries in a way that the locales for the 1991 revival and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows don't measure up to, beautiful as they are. The first episode introduces Victoria Winters, a foundling seeking her identity, traveling to Collinsport Maine to take a job with the Collins family as a companion/governess. A fellow traveler on the train from New York, Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan who gives her a ride in his chauffered car to the hotel where she can get a taxi. We also meet Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the tough-talking hardboiled blonde, Eve Arden-type waitress at the coffee shop. She's kind to Victoria, still waiting for her taxi,but urges her to get back to NY. The episode ends with Victoria's arrival at Collinwood, and Elizabeth letting her in. In the second episode, we meet Elizabeth's daughter, Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) who humiliates her nice guy boyfriend Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) to dance with the local skels (to use NYC-talk). Carolyn is presented as seeking distraction, recklessly dancing with anyone, until Joe throws a punch, and Devlin orders him to take her home. Devlin tries to use their spat as a chance to bribe Joe to spy on the Collins family for him. Joe demurs. Episodes 3 and 4 focus on the rest of this night, especially Roger's increasingly edgy efforts to pump Victoria for information regarding Burke Devlin. He's hiding his terror of the man well, but it's costing him. He vacillates between charm and panicked frustration. Edmonds is awfully good. As is Bennett, quietly playing the piano in the gloomy sitting room, her head quietly drooping as the notes fade. When we first see Victoria and Elizabeth togther, the similarity is striking--Victoria's hunt for her identity, and the fact that the checks that paid the Foundling Home in which she was raised are postmarked from only 50 miles away from Collinsport raises the thought that they are mother and daughter. (We so often think of Victoria as a governess that we forget that her time with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a regal Joan Bennett) is as much a part of her job as educating the appalling brat David. (Roger Collins has his issues, but his snide exhortations to Victoria to "give him a good kick" have considerable justification (albeit not good child-rearing even in 1966). Despite David's nasty efforts to scare her off (much smaller, and thus more credible, than the Grand Guignol he attempts in the revival or HODS) Roger's apology, Carolyn's friendship, and Elizabeth's quiet need, plus her own desire to know, impel her to stay. The show is an extraordinary achievement thus far, and in this slowly unfolding plot the actors have a chance to make their marks. The core cast is extremely good--Bennett brings all her years of film acting to the small scree, Edmonds is a superb general utility player, finding character notes and comic moments in the blandest lines, and Barrett makes a strong impression. Moltke is more gentle, more tentative--with a strong backbone when challenged.

Coming Home

It has been a long fallow period in the world, and on this blog. Not so in life--work continues, co-writing with a good friend a project regarding Anthony Trollpe (more to come!), and other events have made the plague time pass. But yesterday, fter six months away (one and a half due to healing from an operation, the rest due to the Coronavirus), I returned home to St. Bartholomew's Church, whre I have been a regular attendee since 2007 (occasional attendee even earler--mid 1990s), where I became an acolyte, from where my wife and I were married, where I discerned a call to the vocational diaconate, and where I returned as deacon in 2014, and have served since. In the video above, the Church is mostly empty. The Rev. Susan Anderson-Smith and teh Rev. Deborah Lee preside and preach respectively, and I have the honor, forthe first time since early in this bizarre, calmitous year, of reading the lessons, leading the psalm, proclaining the Gospel, and dismissing the people. Fittingly enough, the prescribed dismissal was that used by J.D. Clarke, my beloved predecessor and mentor as St. Barts's deacon: "Let go into the World, rejoicing in the Power of the Spirit!" After a long adventitious exile, I had come home. And tonight, I remember the beautiful words of Be Jonson's "A Farewell to the World": But what we're born for, we must bear: Our frail condition it is such That what to all may happen here, If 't chance to me, I must not grutch. Else I my state should much mistake To harbour a divided thought From all my kind—that, for my sake, There should a miracle be wrought. No, I do know that I was born To age, misfortune, sickness, grief: But I will bear these with that scorn As shall not need thy false relief. Nor for my peace will I go far, As wanderers do, that still do roam; But make my strengths, such as they are, Here in my bosom, and at home.