The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Becket: A Tragic Hero, in a Bad Cause

On the feast day of Thomas Becket, I always feel impelled to note his profoundly ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, his death was the stuff of legend--fearlessly confronting the four knights who came to murder him, impelled by King Henry II's rash words.

On the other hand, the cause for which he fought--clerical immunity from the secular law--has prove over the centuries to be an incredibly ill-conceived one. The legacy of clericalism and cover up has cost the Church and the faithful dearly. (You can read an earlier draft here.) And Anne Duggan's edition of his correspondence does not exactly palliate his less noble aspects; I came away from it more sympathetic toward Henry than I had been previously--and Duggan is an admirer of Becket.

I have to admit that there is something about him that catches the imagination. And there is the great moment in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, portraying Becket rejecting the last, most insidious temptation--to use the Church's power for self-aggrandizement:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Perhaps it wasn't true to events (Gilbert Foliot thought that exactly the offense Becket was guilty of, and he was no fool.) But sometimes when the facts don't work out, we honor the intent anyway.

A problematic saint, Becket--the font of much good, but also of much harm. A great man despite his flaws? Perhaps; but perhaps it is wiser to view him as a man great in his love for God and the Church, but lacking the critically important virtue of prudence.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"Be Swift to Love, Make Haste to Be Kind"

My old friend and mentor Bill Tully used often to end services with these words, from Henri Frederic Amiel :
Life is short,

And we do not have much time

to gladden the hearts of those who

make the journey with us.

So… be swift to love,

and make haste to be kind.

And the blessing of God,

who made us,

who loves us,

and who travels with us

be with you now and forever.
I had these words rubbed into me yesterday, when I heard from an old friend that someone we had both known a long time ago a had died. I had not been close with this person--in face, we had not been friends at all, but had quite strongly disliked each other.

Our lived then went separate ways, and I did not hear of this person until about a couple years ago--30 years after our paths had crossed--when a social media contact request appeared on my screen.

I did not reply to it, one way or another.

Be swift to love,
make haste to be kind.

We never know the day or the hour.

I wonder if, had I answered the request, we would have found common ground at last? Maybe not; we were inimical to each other when young--but the things that loom large in youth are seen in different perspective in middle age. I wish now that I had at least tried.

Every time we say "no" to these opportunities to reconcile disparate pieces of life, we are closing the door to possibility. I wish I had done so in this case. I'm really writing this as an aide-memoir, so that I may be more wise another time.

Because I don't want to say "no" anymore.

And you, whom I did not claim as a friend? Forgive me. And rest in peace.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"God is Here and Christ is Now": A Christmas Eve Sermon

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City, December 24, 2015 at 12:00 pm)

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

Well, that happened quickly, didn’t it? 2015, I mean—another calendar year zipping by, a winter that feels more like early Fall, and here we are, once more, on the day that will give way to Christmas Eve.

Are you ready? Am I ready?

I suppose it all depends on what you mean. Am I ready for the glitz, the gifts, my nephew and niece swamping my parents’ living room with wrapping paper?

Not quite.

Oh, I finished my shopping—just. I’m ignoring all the emails from Department Stores, from Amazon and Best Buy and Costco, among various other sellers of things good and less good.

And I’m saying to myself. “It is enough. Let it be enough.”

I don’t come to Christmas the way I did as a child—breathless with excitement for a large pile of toys. One of the down sides of growing up, maybe. But maybe not. Because when the wrapping paper is torn through, and the favorite toys mine at last, the rest of the day could seem anticlimactic. And as adults, we can often buy ourselves the things we want as well as the things we need. So the child’s Christmas in New York approach didn’t work for me anymore.

A few years back, I was rereading a favorite novel of mine,
Robertson Davies' A Mixture of Frailties (1958), in which a young writer enjoys a Christmas in Wales. Davies has him tell a friend that:
If I were at home, I would have finished my Christmas shopping a full two weeks ago; I would have wrapped everything up in elaborate paper, and tied it with expensive twine.

[Yes, he said "expensive trwine. Just go with it.]

I would approach the great festal day prepared for everything but a good time.... [F]or the first time in my life, I have got Christmas into focus. Tomorrow, I shall worship, I shall feast, and--quite incidentally, I shall give and receive.
(P. 176-177 (first ed.))

I've tried to learn from that, to make the worship central, the good times with family and dear friends central too, and the giving and receiving a pleasant incidental. The joy is in the celebration, the music, and the day, not in the "stuff." The gifts are symbols, symbols of affection and celebration. Even the massive, rock-like Panettone that someone is absolutely going to dump on me.

But what are we celebrating, here, today, in the drab last days of 2015? Isaiah tells us that “unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given.” And in the King James version that sounds pretty impressive. And the shepherds were given the same news, from an angel no less. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
But Jesus’s birth took place just about two millennia ago. What are we still celebrating for?

Are we waiting for the Second Coming, when so many think we’ll get the conquering Messiah Jesus refused to be? I don’t get that feeling.

No, I think we’re celebrating something far better than that. I think we’re celebrating the fact that our scriptures and our holy tradition tell us the decisive intervention of God in human affairs was to come down from heaven and share in all our joys and all our sufferings.
To be one of us, and share all the good and all the bad. To roam from town to town, and to help those who would let Him. To choose to die rather than to choose violence, and to love unconditionally throughout his life. Our Christian story isn’t like Greek mythology, where all-powerful gods and goddesses use people up like the toys kids will unwrap tomorrow. It isn’t like Norse mythology, where battles are fought to a standstill, creation is destroyed—and then the whole bloody cycle starts again.

No, our story is one where we first glimpse God in a newborn infant. A little child born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. We first see Jesus as a homeless child, stabled among the animals.

And yet that child is special. He won’t write any books. He won’t be a conqueror. He’ll just serve people, forgive them, heal them, and feed them. And he’ll teach them and us that that’s the very nature of God.

In the wake of the First World War, an Anglican theologian tried to explain to a bruised and battered people what the Incarnation meant, what Christmas was all about. He did it very briefly. “God is love,” Charles Gore wrote, “and love is sympathy and self-sacrifice.” Sympathy doesn’t mean pity—it means to feel with others, to share in their experiences. And self-sacrifice isn’t an exercise in beating oneself up. It’s giving of ourselves to help others.

And so, Gore wrote, “[t]he Incarnation is the supreme act of self sacrificing sympathy, by which one whose nature is divine . . .” emptied himself of divinity in order to grow, feel, think, and suffer like we do.

Or, to put it more bluntly, the story that defines us is one in which love, forgiveness, and compassion are so important that we believe that they are the very best not just of humanity, but of God. And we also believe that that love, that compassion, that forgiveness are as true of God today as they were that first Christmas Eve.

The Christmas story isn’t just a sweet story, it’s our story. It’s the story of love in a violent, often cruel world not so very different from ours. Isis rages, people shoot kids in schools, congregants in a church, or coworkers at a holiday party, and the powers of the world look on, unable to stop the violence, or, worse, fanning the flames.

And that’s just this year.

But God is there, in the victims’ families when they forgave the murderer who opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. God is there with the teachers who gave their lives to protect their students. And God is there in San Bernardino when Shannon Johnson made himself a human shield for a coworker, telling her “I got you.”

We celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the Incarnation, because it never ends. It’s not a historical event; it’s ongoing.

We celebrate it because God is here, and Christ is now.

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

Monday, December 21, 2015

New York and Nimet

Today I was discussing old radio favorites with a colleague, and WQXR's inimitable Nimet Habachy came up. She of the silken voice, eclectic and excellent taste. I listened to New York at Night through my teen years, and my love of classical music was enhanced by her enthusiastic and witty table-setting. Thanks to the power of Teh Google, I found an engaging mini-memoir:
cheherazade spun tales for a Sultan for a lousy one thousand and one nights. I spun tapes, records and CD’s for insomniac New Yorkers for over six thousand and one nights on WQXR radio, the (then) radio station of the New York Times. Scheherazade enjoyed only one nocturnal companion, the Sultan Shahryar. I, on the other hand, had a handsome cross-section of New Yorkers on any given night; obstetricians, New York’s finest, the Entenmann delivery men, cabbies and a lot of people with jet lag who weren’t too sure where they were.

Scheherazade’s Sultan had a nasty habit of killing his night’s companion the next morning in retaliation for having been betrayed by his first love. But the wily Scheherazade told such good tales, the sultan had to keep her alive till the next day so he could hear the end of the story. Needing to keep my ratings up on the graveyard shift, I found I could tease the listeners into keeping me company a little longer by stringing out the identification of the piece of music, so they had to stay awake to find out what they were hearing.

Many was the time listeners had to hear a brief history of Tudor England before finally learning they had been hearing Gloriana, Benjamin Britten’s opera on Elizabeth Tudor. If I created an intriguing enough link to the next piece, why then I could keep the listener around for maybe the next offering and the next… Then, Mr. Arbitron, who kept score of numbers of listeners out there, would have to concede someone was there at 4 am and I could keep my job a little longer.

Like Scheherazade, I could indulge in certain powers. Even as she could lull the Sultan with a romantic tale, I could do the same by offering the music of Debussy and Vaughan Williams. Scheherazade could excite the Sultan with a rousing adventure: all I had to do was play Wagner, a sure fire way to keep anyone awake. With diabolical pleasure, I pushed a button and New York slept or jumped out of bed at my command. Heady stuff.

How did it all come about? In 1980, I was “at liberty” but performing as a chorister in a singular production of Carmen playing every geriatric center between Manhattan and Co-Op City. I was reveling in putting the voice lessons I was taking to good use and learning the Bizet score. The population of Seville varied according to who was employed from week to week. Wishing to play my part to the utmost, I concocted what I deemed was an appropriate Spanish get-up, heavy on red and gold bangles. It wasn’t my fault that our Carmen was diminutive and favored beige and that some elderly residents mistook me for Carmen.
Read the rest, and meet the lady who helped me fall in love with classical music.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

End of an Industrial Era

Reading about the closure of the last deep coal mine in Great Britain moved me in a way I didn't expect. When I read the headline, I thought "Thank God!," remembering all the stories I read about mining working conditions and accidents in researching Phineas Finn's and the Earl of Brentford's visit to the Pontnewydd coal mine for Phineas at Bay.

But as I read the article, I remembered the stories of the coal miners themselves; the everyday courage shown by underpaid men and, all too often boys, working under conditions we would blanch at, with death or serious physical injury a daily risk, so familiar as to go unthought of until it eventuated. I thought also of the wives and children who grew up in these environments, and whose stories are generally only ever hinted at.

My research was not of the depth to tell those stories--I was, after all, only stopping off in a fictional mine in a real Welsh mining town (as Pontnewydd then was, but is no longer). No, I used such a locale as a backdrop for an event, the catalyst of the main plot of my novel. But I'm glad that my editior pushed me further, and impelled me to go into the bowels of the mine, to try to add some flesh to the bones of my plot. Because the miners deserved more, and while I hope they all find a safer and more remunerative way of making a living, I am glad I got to delve a little into the culture of that difficult, dangerous job.

I can't regret the closing of collieries, but I regret the dispalcement of the miners, even as I hope for a better future for them and their families. And I'm glad I got to look into their lives a little bit.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"I Had ONE Line. I Forgot It": Return to the Boards

So today I had the pleasure of acting for the first time since between college and law school. It was part of the Anthony Powell Society Luncheon, this year marking AP's 110th birthday. I was asked to play Bob Duport in a scene from Hearing Secret Harmonies--a scene in which the elderly, wheelchair-bound Duport snarls at art not to his taste, preens at having had the sense to hang on to his terrible collection of seascapes until they were profitable, and gloats to Jenkins about that "chateau bottled shit" Widmerpool being knocked out by Louie Glober (not quite; just his specs were broken, Bob's daughter Polly corrects him).

In short, I got to be nasty, plaintive ("Look at me now. Shunted about in a bath chair. Penny for the guy. That's how I feel"), matey, and so absent minded that my ex-wife had to remind me of the woman I'd cheated on her with.

Er, Duport's ex-wife, that is.

The luncheon was excellent, the company better, and my co-stars carried me through. We had a wheelchair, and I donned an elderly tweed jacket and a deplorably moth-eaten sweater that was even worse than I remembered.

I'd forgotten how much fun acting is. And how nervous I get just before going on.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Way We Read Now: Surmounting the Stereotypes

I missed George Packer's well deserved paean of praise to Anthony Trollope's magnificent The Way We Live Now. Packer praises Trollope's book for man of the right reasons; this, for example, is admirably well put:
Trollope’s London is a satirical distortion of the city that he found upon returning from eighteen months of overseas travel: the luxurious center of a vast empire floating on limitless credit, a society defined entirely by commercial interest, a hothouse of financial speculation and status competition, a place where relationships have become purely transactional.

The mysterious figure looming at the center of “The Way We Live Now” is Augustus Melmotte, a financier (the term had just been coined) of obscure origins—French? Irish-American? Jewish?—and unsavory reputation. No one knows how Melmotte made his fortune—there are rumors of jail time in Germany and fraud in France—but he’s rich, unimaginably rich, maybe the richest man in the world, and that’s enough for almost everyone in London society to swallow their blue-blood prejudices and distaste for his upstart manners. City investors beg to buy shares of Melmotte’s newly incorporated South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a murky project for a rail line from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz that has all the signs of being a fraud. A lucky few are given seats on the company’s board; young aristocrats chase after the hand and income of Melmotte’s unlovely but unexpectedly tough-minded daughter, Marie; socialites trade favors to score scarce tickets to his sumptuous dinner in honor of the emperor of China; the Conservative and Liberal Parties vie to put Melmotte forward as their parliamentary candidate for Westminster (the Tories win). Whether or not he’s a fraudster doesn’t matter, as long as the music keeps playing.

Just about everything in this money-soaked world is false. Love and marriage, for example. The female characters in “The Way We Live Now” are sold off in marriage to the highest bidder like horses at a bazaar. Marie Melmotte’s prospects turn so decisively on up-to-the-minute appraisals of her net value that, after being wooed and dropped by several suitors, she finally abandons her romantic fantasies and comes to a clear-eyed conclusion: “I don’t think I’ll marry anybody. What’s the use? It’s only money. Nobody cares for anything else.” The man who finally wins her hand, a California businessman named Fisker, does so by pitching marriage as a straightforward deal, minus the pretty words: “Let us go in for life together. We’ve both done uncommon well.”
But then Packer hits a sour note. He writes:
One character tries to stand athwart the tide of finance and falsehood. Roger Carbury, Lady Carbury’s cousin, is a bachelor in his late thirties, doomed to love a much younger woman (Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta) who can’t bring herself to reciprocate. He’s an old-fashioned country gentleman with disdain for just about everything that England, with its stupendous new wealth, is becoming. He’s the only character who isn’t dazzled by Melmotte and his money: “A miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

Trollope always complicates the moral starkness of his portraits. Carbury—the closest thing in the novel to an authorial stand-in—is not only a man of unshakeable principle but also a self-righteous prig who never hesitates to tell friends and family how to live their lives.
He's also a borderline stalker, harassing Hetta, and aching to quarrel with his protégé Paul Montague who has committed the unutterable sin of winning her love. More to the point, Trollope has missed the moral center of the novel. It's Roger Carbury, in part. But Roger shares that role with it's also a character Packer describes in distinctly unflattering terms:
A pronounced streak of xenophobia and anti-Semitism runs through “The Way We Live Now”—mostly attributed to Trollope’s high-society characters, but the author doesn’t completely escape the taint. He describes a Jewish financier named Brehgert as “a fat, greasy man of fifty, conspicuous for hair-dye.” When Brehgert proposes to a young Englishwoman who’s overestimated her own worth for too many years to be picky, the reaction is nearly universal horror, but she’s more pragmatic: as long as the man is rich, why should anyone care about his religion? Greed can be the leading wedge of freedom.
Yes, Breghert is at first sketched in profoundly unflattering terms, but he and Roger Carbury are the only thoroughly honest men in the book. In fact, Breghert treats those around him with equity and kindness, even when they treat him with contempt. As the book progresses, these two men--the old fashioned Tory whose day has passed and the seeming stereotype--are the only ones who try very hard to render to every one about them their due. And they're both outsiders, in a very real way--Roger has outlived his time; the High Victorian virtues he admires have been lost in the corruption of the age, and his embittered nature strips them of some of heir value. Breghert takes insult, scorn and polite contempt from his social "betters" and returns it with decency, but firmness.

I couldn't resist bringing Breghert back in Phineas at Bay, to explore that kindly, subfusc decency a little more, to spend a little more time with the nicer of the two honest men our Diogenes found in his search through a profligate London.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Law and Gospel: A Day With Nadia Bolz-Weber

(Photo of Nadia Bolz-Weber at First Lutheran Church, Albany, NY; photo by CRTC).

Day 2 of the Capital Region Theological Association's Weekend with Nadia Bolz-Weber, and I just want to comment on some of the high points> Before I turn to my takeaways from Pastor Nadia, let me thank the gracious and warm staff of the CRTC who made this newcomer feel most welcome, and who averted disaster for the members of my breakout session group (we ended up all at lunch together) after the restaurant--no names, no penal drill--took so long to produce our meals that we hadn't received them at the end of the time allotted for us to eat--the program was delayed to let us get back. Also, I want to thank Katy Stenta for her hospitality and kindness, as well as for good conversation in the intervals and the breakout sessions. (Now g'wan and read her blog; she's good; her twitter stream under #NadiaTakeover gives a pretty good précis of the day.)

Now to my own response to the day. Nadia's commentary on Grace continues to resonate with me, especially her explication of it answering a questioner who wanted to know what she meant by describing herself as a "Law and Gospel" preacher. Here's a summary of what she said, based on the notes I furiously tapped out on my iPad:

We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience ego the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.

Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.

She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are fodiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.

As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)

A final point--Bolz-Weber criticized much of liberal Christianity (rightly, in my opinion), for having a "high anthropology"--that is, for having too high an opinion of human goodness. She said that she only had to look at her own flaws--present as well as past--to know that that view doesn't jibe with reality. I can;t help but agree. Once again, that great passage from C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark, where Lewis Eliot debates an official of the Third Reich, speaks for me:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
(Revised 12/14/15)

Friday, December 11, 2015

An Evening With Nadia Bolz-Weber

This evening was the first of two parts of the CRTC workshop with Nadia Bolz-Weber that I am attending. It consisted of an interview with Pastor Nadia by a moderator and a brief Q-and-A with the audience, followed by a book signing.

Hearing speak for over an hour was an illuminating experience She describes herself (accurately) as an orthodox Lutheran preacher of the Gospel. Oh, she's kinetic, funny as hell, and passionate--there's no way of describing here what her talk was like.

Although, it occurred to me, these clips of her speaking elsewhere hit some of the notes that resonated with me--a little differently, but you can see her doing it, and get a better flavor for her presentation than I can give you bu trying to summarize her words:

1. "God's Grace is Absolutely Free; We Don't Earn It, We Just Try to Respond to it"

This resonates with me especially. She related it to her experience in AA, andI can identify. Why one alcoholic gets sober and another doesn't is a great mystery. But when the obsession is lifted--that's grace.

2. "Accidental Saints": Finding God in All the Wrong People

Anyway, more tomorrow, with the actual workshop group. So far, an enlightening and inspiring event.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"The Readiness is All": A Sermon for Advent II, 2015

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
December 6, 2015)

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

OK, That’s Hamlet, not Scripture, but I think it has something to tell us about Advent. Advent is one of those seasons of the Church year when the mood inside these walls is especially different from the mood outside. Outside, you can feel the buildup to Christmas intensifying. Get your shopping done! There are bargains to be had—better hurry! Buy for the kids, the parents, the spouse. And, hey—buy something for yourself, too. After all, who knows what you want better than you do?

Inside here though—the readings take us to a very different place. The unknown prophet named by tradition as Malachi starts off on a joyful note--the Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom we delight—he is coming. And then the prophet asks us, darkly, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

He tells us that the Lord will refine us like silver—which involves a lot of fire—and the experience will be like cleansing garments with fuller’s soap. Now, fuller's soap is not Ivory Snow, or some nice gentle cleanser that softens your hands while you do the dishes. It’s made of alkali, urine and chalk. It’s like taking a bath in bleach, only it smells worse. A lot worse.

So, like many Episcopalians before us, we flee from the Old Testament to the New. Where Luke introduces us to the uncomfortable figure of John the Baptist, fiercely preaching a severe gospel of repentance.

Is this Advent or Lent we’re going through, anyway?

And is our beloved holiday season really a warning to be afraid, to be very afraid, of the judgment of the Lord?

No. I don’t believe that it is.

“Be not afraid” Jesus says over and over, in all of the Gospels, so I’m pretty sure we don’t have to dread his presence in our lives. Whatever Advent means, and these readings mean, it isn’t that. We don't follow the Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards, who famously warned his own parishioners, “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” That’s very dramatic, and I’m sure it increased the offering that week, but it’s bad theology. Even in a week when The New York Times that there have more mass shootings than days this year—it’s still bad theology.

The Fourth Gospel tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and did so that we could become children of God. All of us.

The proper response to that good news is joy, but joy with a tinge of awe. We don’t do awe well in our generation. We toss around the word “awesome” as a synonym for “excellent” or “good.” But that’s not awe.

Look around you, at this space we have the honor of worshipping in—the explosions of color and light in the Rose Window, the blending of wood and stone, brick and marble. We’re in a place of celebration, but it’s celebration that has a solemn quality to it. It’s joyful, but it’s a joy that carries deep meaning, and mystery. We’ll never completely understand it, but it’s real and can move our hearts, so that we come back week after week.

Awe can be frightening. And I’m not going to conjure up all the standard nature metaphors—beautiful but terrifying lightning storms, or incredible mountain vistas. Because good though they are, we’re talking about God, and I can’t have a relationship with Niagara Falls, or a mountain. It can’t know us, can’t love us the way we are taught, and the way I believe, that God loves us.

No, let’s stick closer to home for this. Think back to the first moment you realized were in love. Not infatuation. Not desire. The real thing. Now, I can’t speak for anybody but me, but mixed in with that unbelievable joy, that thrill that only the presence of that one special person can bring, is a kind of fear. The fear of being vulnerable. Will she love me back? What happens when he gets to know how insecure I am? Will I get hurt?

That’s awe.

And becoming aware, really taking on board, the love of God carries with it some awe. It’s hard to accept that we are loved by God. It’s especially hard to find room in our busy lives in an increasingly scary world that seems out of joint. With all that, how can we make space for a relationship with a God we can’t see, or touch, or whose voice we can’t hear.

It’s hard to remember the children we once were, and find that kind of spontaneity in ourselves again.

And that’s what Advent is for.

It’s a time for finding that moment when we feel at one with the world, where we can open ourselves to feelings we so often push to the side.

And how on earth do we do that?

Well, in AA, we have a saying—act as if. Be a part of what’s happening here these next few weeks before Christmas. Stay for coffee afterward, maybe take a tour. Maybe take an active part. There are all kinds of ways, you know—help decorate the church for Christmas, wrap toys to be given to children to fulfill Christmas wishes.

Here’s a secret—Community Ministry gives you the opportunity to meet incredible people, both our volunteers but especially our guests, who so often taught me what grace under pressure really is like. If that’s not for you, you can take a class—we have everything from Bible study to yoga classes throughout the week. Or just be here and soak it in, and clear some space for yourself to breathe. And listen. Don’t worry if you don’t hear anything. You will when the time is right for you.

Advent for me is a chance to make that space in life so that we can hear the inmost promptings of the heart, can open ourselves to discovering where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now, I stole those words. They’re from Frederick Buchner, and they’re the best translation I’ve come upon for what theologians mean when they talk about God calling each of us, clergy and lay, to a special ministry. It’s finding that place, he , “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Some find that place in ordained ministry, as priests, or, as I have, as a permanent deacon.

But our lay ministers and volunteers, our altar guild, the incredibly talented musicians who create beauty here every week, are responding to that call. And so are many people whose responses we don’t see, because they pursue that calling outside the church walls, and we’re here as a community and sustenance for them.

Advent is a bit like Lent, then.

It’s a chance to stop a bit, recognize that every day the world offers us all chances to find that place, and put our deep gladness to work. It’s a chance to step back from the rush, and get ready to hear. It’s a chance to oppose the cruelties and violence that are so common in our world, and by opposing end them. Not with more violence, but by acts of kindness and a refusal to accept that cruelty and violence establish the norm. They do not. So Advent is not a deadline; it’s a process. It’s about readiness.

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

Learned Helplessness and Signs of Hope

In the wake of this week's reportage that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015, and yesterday's voting down by the GOP House of a proposed amendment to prevent gun sales to terrorists, you could be excused for falling into a state of absolute despair about our politics. I admit, I have my moments when I'm tempted to.

But there are reasons not to do so. First, the problem of passing reasonable legislation that could ameliorate our gun problem is a problem of political culture, not constitutional law, despite the assumptions who read nothing more than headlines describing Supreme Court decisions. Yes, it's true that District of Columbia v. Heller found an individual right to own firearms [1], but that's not all the Court held:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. . . . For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. . . Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
(Citations omitted.)

The Court notes in a footnote that "[w]e identify these presumptively lawful regulatory measures only as examples; our list does not purport to be exhaustive."

There's a second caveat to the Court's finding of a personal right to own a firearm:
We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”


It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment ’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
(Citations omitted.)

Think about that for a moment. The Second Amendment protects ownership only of weapons that were the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time” of its enactment. This is hardly the charter the NRA was hoping for.

So if we can find the will politically, we can act. We are only helpless because we perceive ourselves to be.

Two other grounds for hope. First, although mass shootings are on the rise, gun violence overall has significantly decreased since its peak in the mid-1990s. That doesn't mean we should let our craven political class off the hook; it does mean that anger, not panic, is the correct response. It also means we need to grapple with the specific problems posed by mass shootings, to see what policy initiatives and legislation could help address them.

Along those lines, I want to highlight a post from Brian W. Schoeneman, a veteran political professional who is also, I think it fair to say, a serious conservative, and avid Second Amendment supporter. Remember when I angrily called for gun owners to step up? Schoeneman does (admittedly with some shots at liberals, but I'll take it):
It is incumbent upon those of us in the gun rights community, not the gun grabbing advocates, to come up with the ideas to help solve this problem, however. Our passion for defending our second amendment rights has lead to a great expansion in the rights of Americans to keep and bear arms as protected by the Second Amendment, which we should be proud of. At the same time, to paraphrase Stan Lee, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. No law-abiding gun owner wants their rights infringed upon because a criminal used a gun to shoot up a school, a theater, a clinic or anywhere else. But that’s the first, and only, response from those on the left to these crimes. Clearly, the solutions to these problems aren’t going to come from the left. They have to come from us.

In the interests of full disclosure, when I ran for House of Delegates in 2011, I received the AQ rating from the NRA. I also received the Virginia Citizens Defense League endorsement. I’ve been a gun rights advocate my entire life – it was the earliest political issue I became passionate about. I’m also a gun owner, owning both long guns and handguns, and I took my wife on our second date to the gun range. For those concerned about my conservative credentials, this is one issue where I am to the right of Attilla the Hun. At the same time, I recognize that the status quo – where every day and every week we see more tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora, and these latest – is untenable. We need to take some positive steps to address these issues.
OK, not thrilled to be called a gun grabber--but still: Thank God. Seriously. Because if Mr. Schoeneman gets it, then we might just see more on his side of the fence join with him. And he might be surprised to discover how many liberals don't want to eliminate the Second Amendment, but would make common cause with conservatives to try solutions that might solve what he rightly calls an epidemic.

Here are his ideas--he carefully notes that they are not final proposals suitable for enactment, but first thoughts to start discussing (I'm abridging his discussion of the ideas, but it's well worth a read):
1. A national firearms transfer fee to fund mental health beds and an enhanced NICS background check system – Funding for mental health, especially in poorer communities, has been a concern. . . . . Imposing a reasonable, flat fee on every transfer of a firearm that requires a background check – not more than $20 – could help provide additional funding without raising taxes on everybody. The fee would be set aside specifically for mental health and NICS, with the mental health portion going where it is most needed.

...$20 is the equivalent of a box or two of ammo. $100 is too high. $20 is reasonable.

2. Expand the NICS background check system to include the terrorism watch list – . . . .If we are honestly concerned about international and domestic terror, it makes little sense for us not to be cross-checking gun purchases through the terrorism watch lists. While there are obvious concerns about the accuracy of those lists, those same concerns exist for all of the various databases used here.

If we do add the terrorism watch list to NICS, there needs to be an expedited appeal process to ensure those mistakenly on the list or those who are on the list because they are wanted for questioning in regards to some other individual’s activities (as the NRA noted in the link above) aren’t delayed unnecessarily from buying a gun.

Because we are dealing with a Constitutional right, these changes absolutely have to involve due process, and give anybody denied at the minimum a right to be heard in their own defense.

3. Repeal the three day “must issue” rule for delays in background checks – Right now, if a background check can’t be completed within three days, gun dealers are required to transfer the gun. Over 99% of background checks are instant, but there are some that take longer, often due to gaps in the data. It is likely that, if we add the terrorist watch lists to NICS, the delays will increase. While there should always be an emphasis on speed, speed at the expense of accuracy is not acceptable here. It is better to err on the side of caution and not transfer a firearm if the background check has not been completed. If this becomes a common way of delaying purchases and impacts law abiding citizens significantly, it can be addressed later. . . .

4. Pressure on social media companies to do more to restrict the ability of potential mass shooters to connect with like-minded individuals and self-radicalize – While I am not aware of any formal studies (we could use one) on the role of social media in the increased number of mass shootings, there does appear to be plenty of anecdotal evidence. And there is no question that the rise of social media has had a major impact on recruiting of radical Islamic terrorists and the self-radicalization of Americans. Facebook and Twitter – the latter especially – have been common tools used by terrorists to spread propaganda and self radicalize.

As more and more Americans spend more and more time interacting with each other over social media, the emphasis on policing social media needs to increase. While government should not step in here to curtail what is, unfortunately, free speech, these social media companies should make it more difficult for hate groups, potential terrorists and their sympathizers, and similar high-risk people to use their platforms to coordinate attacks and spread propaganda. . . .

5. Treat these mass murder as a public health issue – Treating gun violence as a public health issue has been controversial for a while and almost derailed the Surgeon General’s nomination. That being said, there is some logic to treating this violence – especially the parts of it tied to mental health issue – as a public health issue. At the very least, it would lead to more non-partisan studies on the issue, and potentially to more people trying to find solutions. There are a lot of areas that need to be explored, not the least of which is the actual – not anecdotal – relationship between mental health and mass shootings, as well as the relationship between certain types of drugs and violent behavior. It’s time we take these issues out of the realm of politics and conspiracy theories and actually start studying them.
Schoeneman writes that "Even the solutions I’ve outlined below feel inadequate. I don’t know if any solution is ever going to feel adequate in the wake of another one of these tragedies, but we can’t afford to let despair cloud reason. My goal here is to present solutions that actually address the various problems leading to mass shootings, and are politically feasible."

I doubt he'd thank me for my endorsement, but I think he's met that goal (though he's getting beat up pretty badly in the comment section of his blog). Most of the ideas he presents are good (number 4 really is only viable if the social media companies and communities do it themselves, without government pressure, let alone mandates. Otherwise the First Amendment is being violated--but Schoeneman is aware of the problem, and tailors his suggestion to address it), and I'm delighted to see them proposed by a genuine conservative and supporter of the Second Amendment. If others in his community join him, we could see some progress. We might even stop screaming at each other, and start talking--and, even better, listening.

[1] While the Court's analysis in Heller essentially erases what it calls the "prefatory clause" of the Second Amendment, what I would call the declaration of purpose, its analysis is on the whole defensible, and, in many ways, correct. Much more problematic is McDonald v City of Chicago, which "incorporates" the Second Amendment against the states, who would be the entities to make sure that the militias are in fact "well-regulated," which is the purpose of the Amendment. While I'm normally a believer in incorporation of the Bill of Rights as against the states, the Second Amendment doesn't really fit that paradigm, as incorporation leaves nobody with the ability to ensure the militias are in fact "well-regulated," thereby defeating the purpose and reducing the declaration of intent to surplusage.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Only Engine of Survival

Leonard Cohen's darkest song, "The Future." gives us a stark warning:
You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little jew
who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going
any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder.
Things like today's shooting in San Bernadino,make you suspect that Cohen's vision was prophetic:
Multiple assailants terrorized this city Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 17 at a center for the disabled and leading the police on a manhunt culminating in a shootout in a residential neighborhood that left two suspects dead and a possible third in custody.

Panic, chaos and rumor gripped this largely working-class community about 60 miles east of Los Angeles as the attackers carried out the nation’s worst mass shooting since the assault on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., nearly three years ago.The shooting began around 11 a.m. at the Inland Regional Center inside a building that was being used by the county health department for a holiday party as others cowered and hid in the building, sending out texts. Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino police said that most of the victims were found in one part of that building. He said the attackers also left an object that “is believed to be potentially an explosive device.”
Of course, we're still processing the Colorado Springs Planned parenthood shootings, which happened--when was it?--oh, yes--last week, right around the time of the Oregon shooting (remember that one?)

Note that I say we are "processing" this terrible events. Not "reeling from" or "in shock from" like we genuinely were in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. We're not in shock any more. This is the new normal.

Don't believe me? Well, read for yourself:
More than one a day.

That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people injured or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.

Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been injured in such shootings this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.


Two databases that track mass shootings that leave four or more dead or injured — and — depend on news accounts and are not official. Nonetheless, they give an indication of the widespread nature of such episodes. Since January, there have been at least 354 such cases in about 220 cities in 47 states, shootings, according to
That's more mass shootings than there have been days thus far in 2015.

Our national response has consisted of finger-pointing, gridlock, and complete inaction. Oh, and rise of the Open Carry Movement, which "seeks to normalize the carrying of firearms in public places."

We the People, in sum, do not care.

You want a Culture of Death? Look around you; it's here. This is what it truly looks like--when another massacre loses the power to shock, and so "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity".

Our politics are not up to the task--I admire President Obama's effort to stir up action--but we are torpid as a people.

This will continue as long as we let it. We have to choose that only engine of survival--love--and not give in to passivity, to the hopeless monotonous recitation of dreadful news now grown familiar and even boring. As a friend of mien who died last week was fond of saying, "Love is the Answer."

And we'd better choose to love our neighbors more than we love our guns, our status quo, our causes--whatever it is, even if it is good in itself, that we make an idol that can then instruct us to kill our neighbor.

Because if we don't, I've seen the future--it is murder.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

That's One Hell of a Bird...

Just a brief note to praise the remarkable Heaven Sent, the penultimate episode of Doctor Who this season. Capaldi's performance, Moffat's script (I think quite possibly his best and darkest since Jekyll), Rachel Talalay's direction, fuse into an extra long episode that is riveting and almost painful to watch.

The ads always say the Doctor is meeting an unparalleled threat, pushed as never before, etc.--this time, it really happens. Unable to divulge the secret that might set him free, 12 takes the long way around, in a tortuous, and yet ultimately stirring episode that wrung my cynical old pump more than once. (Oh, and Murray Gold's score was just right this week, at one point (%:04-5:27) evoked Colin Town's score from The Haunting of Julia:


I'll get back to other matters tomorrow, but just wanted to praise this extraordinary episode.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Temporarily Normal

So, while la Caterina and I were visiting her family for Thanksgiving this past week, my brother-in-law, who is an extremely skilled Doctor of Optometry, gave me a very thorough eye exam, with some good news--my myopia is slightly reduced this year. Then we went to find glasses. As he watched me peer with my suit-inch focal length into the mirrors, he had an inspiration. He whisked me to the back, popped two contact lenses in that corrected for my myopia (though not my double vision and astigmatism), and took me back out to look at frames.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, I saw the world in full focus, without an apparatus hanging from my ears and weighing down my face.

What an extraordinary sight! To be so in touch the world without my normal mediating specs and without the normal feeling of vulnerability and disorientation that I take for granted! To see, direct--well, at least it felt direct.

We all see through lenses, after all, if only those of our eyes, our characters, and our preconceptions.

But for just a moment, I was sighted more like than the norm than I have been since I can clearly remember.

How nice to visit that world. And yet how clearly I can see with my apparatus. In another time and place, I would be that disoriented blinking mole all the time.

In short, life, as it is, has much to commend it. Even in all of its imperfections.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Anglocat in the Pulpit Redux: Advent Sermonizing

So, as the new deacon at St Bartholomew's Church, I'm getting two chances to preach in Advent. First, on the Second Sunday of Advent, I'll be preaching at the 9:00 AM (Corrected, thanks to Claude Scales in comments) and the 5:00 pm services.

The readings for that day are a trifle dark, combining anticipation with a little dread: "the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?"

Who indeed?

I have to admit, the minute I was invited to preach and looked up the readings, my favorite passage from Shakespeare popped into my mind:
If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all.
So that will be the leitmotif of my first sermon.

Second, on Christmas Eve, I'll be participating in all the services (!), but preaching at the 12:00 p.m., with my good friend Rev. Lynn Sanders presiding. It's a tremendous honor to preach at the first of St. Barts' Christmas Eve services (followed by the pageant at 4, the Choral Eucharist (the Christ-mass) at 7 and then again, but with incense and extra brio, at 11 pm).

Keep me in your prayers and/or c'mon by!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Cost of Fear

Back in the day when we had aspirations--1883, to be precise--a lady named Emma Lazarus wrote a poem titled "The New Colossus" that you might have seen somewhere:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Well, those were the days.

Look, I get that there are legitimate security concerns that accompany the acceptance of refugees from a horrific civil war caused, in part, by the destabilization of the Middle East that has inexorably spread since we invaded Iraq and let loose long pent-up rivalries and hatreds, despite the efforts of two otherwise diametrically opposed administrations to tamp them back down. We should have a serious, measured discussion about what we can and should do, But let's face facts, folks: the heat and posturing of this debate isn't coming from legitimate security concerns.

It's coming from fear, in the wake of the horrific attacks on Paris last Friday.

Fear of the other, fear of being hurt again, as we were 14 years ago.

I get that last one. Believe me, I do. Two of my closest friends were out and about that day, and I came back to my old neighborhood to see a gigantic hole where a large part of it had once been. I still find reminders--most recently, a cardboard bookmark from the Borders bookshop that had been shattered and shuttered by the fall of the towers fell on my lap as I reread a novel I didn't even remember I had bought there. I'm sure that there are lots of little land mines like that in my library, and that I'll run across them over the years.

So, I get the fear bit. But we have often gone down this road. As long ago as 1927, Louis D. Brandeis had to remind us in the wake of the first Red Scare that "Men feared witches and burnt women." It was fear--fear of security lost at Pearl Harbor, and of the Other--that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans en masse.

We never learn, do we?

We'd better try, though. Because if we're not the new Colossus, we're on our way to becoming Ozymandias.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"There's No point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes."

Ah, well. It's been--hard to believe it--more than 30 years since I attended my one sci-fi convention, back in my high school days.

That is, my one until this past weekend, when I took my nephew and niece to LI Who 3, my second sci-fi convention, but my first Doctor Who convention. Really. Yes, I'm a geek, but until this past weekend, I had been fairly private one. Other than writing periodic posts here, and that sort of thing.

So, what was it like, you ask?

Like family reunion, in a way. We all compared notes, discussed favorite episodes, complimented the cosplayers--a wave of Seventh Doctors (mostly female), a striking Missy, and a Third Doctor who had made himself absolutely stunning replicas of 5 of the 7 Inverness capes worn by Jon Pertwee in his run as the Third Doctor. I mean, professional quality made Inverness capes.

Not to mention the original Tenth Planet Cybermen, a quite convincing Ten, a near-perfect Inqusitor, a brace of Two, and a stylish First Doctor.

Oh, and this chap:

I met Charlene, the woman who made him, just as I came in. He's made the rounds and is showing it a bit, but the level of detail and the love that went into his creation is touching--especially if you saw Charlene operating the controls and making the Dalek speak as children clustered around--well, they loved the Dalekk, even the younger ones who were a bit scared, and Charlene knew just when to surprise them.

The fan-led panels were fun--my favorite was "The People v. Steven Moffat" led by the afore-mentioned missy (so say something nice!) where Moffat was "indicted" for bad writing (acquitted), sexism (convicted, with a recommendation for clemency based on the prisoner's efforts to reform in recent years), and disrespect for canon (appropriately enough, the Scottish verdict: Not Proven).

But, of course, the guests. Ian McNeice complimented my watch chain (no, I wasn't cosplaying, as McNeice guessed, I just generally wear a pocket watch), and gave me his favorite Churchillian encouragement: "KBO--means keep buggering on..."

Let me tell you, running into an elegant Janet Fielding, and hearing about her career as an agent (she was at the Oscars when Peter Capaldi won), was an experience. Brisk, friendly, a bit sly in her humor. I later attended an interview with her, and she talked about the show, her career both behind and in front of the camera, and about Project Motorhouse, her charity which aims to buy "Ramsgate’s derelict West Cliff Hall and Gardens (aka the old motor museum). . . to transform the site overlooking Ramsgate port into three state of the art cinemas, a flexible theatre, an outdoor theatre/cinema, a restaurant/bar, a café, a gallery, a function room and offices." She smiled slyly when she acknowledged using her illness several years ago to get the Doctor Who family to throw two conventions to raise funds for the project, noting that "cancer makes for good emotional blackmail" (told you she was a high-powered agent!). But she was visibly moved when she told how the cast, crew and fans rallied to the cause; "Doctor Who really came through for me then," she said. Being Janet Fielding, when a questioner from the asked her about A Fix With Sontarans, she explained the Jimmy Saville scandal, and described her horror when she found out about it. When I watched the show as it aired in the 1980s, my favorite companion of the Baker-Davison-Baker-McCoy eras was Tegan; Janet Fielding more than lives up to her "Brave heart" character.

Katy Manning, likewise, is charming, warm and deceptively ditzy on the surface. She's not, in fact, ditzy at all, as far as I can tell. She's enthusiastic, fizzes like champagne, and a marvelous storyteller of the David Niven style, regaling the audience with a shaggy dog story based on her extreme myopia and her never wearing her glasses for public appearances when she was a young actress. I can't do justice in print, but it involved her needing to fix her makeup, darting too a series of arch-framed mirrors, and getting closer and closer--only to touch noses with a diner at a fashionable hotel in which the event she was attending was held.

I went to meet Katy--if she can take a liberty, so can I--and her warmth and kindness to this superannuated fan attending his first proper convention were notable. We chatted, she teased, we talked (she passionately defending Jo Grant as a character), and we took a picture together. As she was leaving, she made sure to thank all the convention staff in the room. Not perfunctorily, but at length. She had raised the emotional temperature in the room appreciably.

I've left the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, and Daphne Ashbrook for last. On the two panels I saw him do, McGann was wryly funny, charming, self-deprecating, and frank. I met him very briefly at the very beginning of the convention, and he was friendly, welcoming, and kind. At the end, after his final interview, he tapped my nephew on the shoulder in a friendly manner as he walked by.

"Hey," Paul McGann greeted my awestruck nephew, with an infectious grin.


So what was it like, overall? In a way,a bit much. Excessive, surely? Grown ups in costume over an extended weekend? Passionate debates over TV trivia--do not confuse your Inquisitor with Chancellor Flavia, I advise you.

But it's a bit much in a really good way. On a weekend that was torn by violence in Paris, I spent some time among people devoted to a program whose ethos is "Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in." And that had, just the week before, devoted its climax to revealing the weakness that underlies the very thinking that fuels the monstrous acts we human beings commit in the name of the highest causes we can find:

My time was not wasted. I was, with my nephew and niece, celebrating the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.

Next year, Sylvester McCoy will be the guest of honor. And McGann hinted he might come back. Hmmm....

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Let Zygons Be Zygons": The Light and the Dark

"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder."

--The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class)

Jack Tanner is, of course, fictitious. But his creator, G. Bernard Shaw was no fool, and was a dedicated Socialist; his pragmatism and gradualist socialism pervades the manifesto he wrote for Tanner. Unlike the fictional Jack Tanner, however, Jack Grahamis a tad more utopian, resulting in a sweeping condemnation of Doctor Who's handling of the The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, more in ideological grounds than on aesthetic:
The story is as thematically unstable as a Zygon. It declares itself to be about ISIS. Then declares itself to be about ‘immigration’. The story also brings in the issue of revolution. This is entirely extraneous and unforced, and a matter of ideological choice. There was no need to bring in this topic. Consciously or not, the concept/theme of revolution was imported into the story and associated with ISIS.

“We have a Zygon revolution on our hands” someone says. Naturally, a revolution is portrayed as about the worst thing imaginable. And, also naturally, a revolution is the action of a minority. Even as the story falls over itself to disavow any possible Islamophobic interpretation, as it goes to great pains to make all the right noises about how the extremists are in a minority, it also therefore paints revolution as the fanatical, illegitimate actions of an unrepresentative clique.. . .

“Then we will die in the fire rather than living in chains,” says Bonnie. This is supposed to terrify us. These are the words of a fanatic. The story takes it for granted that such rhetoric is insincere and chilling. I find it wonderful. This is the kind of political statement almost designed to make me cheer… except that, in this context, it has been given to the standard villainous revolutionary of bourgeois ideology: cynical, nihilistic, cruel, callous, fanatical.


Thus, as always, the collective mind of bourgeois civilisation forgets its own crimes and congratulates itself (inaccurately) on solving the very problems it caused in the first place.

All the same, I refuse to disapprove of, or disavow, anyone who says “we will die in the fire rather than living in chains”. Never.

People have praised the Doctor’s great speech at the end of the second episode. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever hated the Doctor more than at that moment. Reject the cycle of violence, says he, in favour of ‘forgiveness’. It is, of course, for the revolutionary to stop the cycle… the established power doesn’t have to because they want peace and forgiveness by definition. It is for the oppressed to forgive. The onus is on them. They must bear the burden of the greater moral responsibility. They must be the ones to prove their good intent, etc. Reluctance to do so is to be mocked as childishness, as a tantrum. As is the dream of Utopia (explicitly raised in order to be knocked down). It’s a childish dream because you haven’t got a plan. You need to have minutely detailed schematics and blueprints for the new society drawn up in advance before you can be taken seriously, before you can challenge the existence of the old – even if the old is killing you. Because the bourgeois imagination cannot handle the idea of actual freedom. Freedom, to bourgeois culture, is the freedom to be an atomised individual, a shopper, a voter, a taxpayer, a law-abiding citizen, one of the Zygons who just wants to live here and be left alone, etc. That’s the best there is in the impoverished, philistine bourgeois imagination. It can’t handle the idea of real freedom, radical freedom, freedom that doesn’t work like an RPG, freedom that’s more than the structurally circumscribed licence to move around inside pre-set limits. Even as it eternally chides the revolutionary for wanting just this, this is all it offers. Unless the revolutionary has those detailed schematics, then she is not to be taken seriously. She is just a dreamer, a utopian, a head-in-the-clouds fantasist, playing around with people’s lives for cynical, self-serving, self-deluding reasons. Of course, if the revolutionist does present you with the plans you demanded to see, you can then denounce her as wanting to force everyone to live the way she wants them to live.

“Sit down and talk,” says the Doctor. Oh marvellous. Why didn’t the Palestinians think of that!? Or the blacks in apartheid South Africa? Or the Kikuyu in British-dominated Kenya? Or the Herero and Namaqua in German-dominated Namibia? Or the Native Americans? Or the Congolese in Belgian-dominated Congo? Or the slaves in San Domingue? (I could go on.) Don’t fight! Don’t try to overthrow and chuck out your oppressors – just be reasonable, sit down and talk. After all, all ‘we’ ever want is a reasonable negotiating partner, right? ‘We’ always mean well and want peace, by definition. If only these truculent, trouble-making, zealous, fanatical rebels would calm down, stop causing the problems, and talk to us. I’m sure we could thrash out an equitable arrangement. A nice compromise – between the powerless and their oppressors.

(You might object that the extremist Zygon faction in the story doesn’t fit this model… they’re not particularly oppressed, they’re not natives, they’re ISIS in disguise, etc. But ‘The Zygon Inv’ chooses to tell this story that way. It chooses to invoke revolution against oppression and associate it with a thoroughly unsympathetic ISIS analogue who have no real claim to the moral high ground.)

Of course, in turns out that all revolutionaries need is a good talking to from a nice, liberal compromiser. Stand your revolution down, says the Doctor. And then he forgives them. I’m sorry but just who the hell is he to forgive them? Are we really so arrogant in our culture that we think it is for us to claim the role of father confessor to the rest of the world? Just how sick and twisted is it that an imperialist culture, drastically culpable in creating the turmoil that created ISIS, thinks it has the right to produce morality fables about war? Morality fables which, moreover, accord to us the moral high ground and the right to arbitrate, the right to preach about forgiveness, about the need to sit down and talk? Who the hell do we think we are that we get to absolve anyone?
This is the kind go polemic that gives leftism a bad name. Not because it takes Doctor Who seriously--I think the episode is trying to make a serious point, as I wrote yesterday, and a serious critique is an appropriate response. But it's a terrible critique, because it basically indicts the storyteller for not telling the story that the critic wants to hear, not for any falls in the story. Yes, Harness and Moffatt are using tropes to make the viewer uneasy--Kate Lethbridge Stewart has never been more like her father (She even preens a little while using his famous "Five rounds rapid" line), and never more dangerously wrong. She's the one who must have her memory wiped at the end, because Kate, for all of her wonderful qualities, can't be trusted with the knowledge that the Osgood boxes are dummies. Even Bonnie is more worthy of trust, the story tells us, than Kaye. Dear, funny, lovely Kate, who originally combined the best of her father and of Liz Shaw, but who in Death in Heaven tossed a Cyberman head at the Cyberleader, stood toe to toe with Missy, shanghaied the Doctor--hey, that wasn't very nice, was it? She coerced the Doctor into falling in her schemes, and, in defending the earth in each case, was more than prepared to commit genocide.

Just like her dear old Dad.

Don't be fooled by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, or by the revered and (rightly!) loved Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. They're not white hats; they're gray hats, willing to go to extremities to save the earth. They're Torchwood without the sex pests and with a lot more charm. And, it should be said, they are both incarnated by two fine actors who make you love the characters they play--but you don't have to, you know, and there's a strong case to be made against the Brigadier and his daughter if you take off the Sonic Rose Colored Glasses.

There's a reason Kate apologizes to the Doctor after she comes her Osgood Box. She's let him down, just as the Brig often did. Unlike her father, though, she was a scientist before she was a leader. Her failure to understand is more culpable, as Liz Shaw's would have been.

Bonnie's redemption is slower, but more complete. But again, here, Harness and Moffat complicate the story; the Zygons (unlike the Silurians) weren't an oppressed indigenous people; they were refugees, it is true, but refugees who decided to conquer a less advanced civilization and live off its remnants. They were the aggressors.

The people of earth, represented by Kate, responded with generosity on the Day of the Doctor, largely because Kate (but not Osgood) was plunged into a Rawlsian position behind the veil of ignorance. The Zygons, also behind the veil, settled for half a loaf, and peace broke out. A peace that the Zygons could end, but not without a terrible slaughter that they would almost certainly lose--there 20 million Zygons were slightly more than half the population of Tokyo alone. Bonnie was leading a suicide mission to start a suicide war, out of anger because her people were not dominant a planet that was not theirs alone. No, that swings too far against her; they wanted to live openly, she said, not assimilate. There was some traction to her claim, though not the imperative she felt, as witness the Zygon who had found his new home to be just that, home.

(The affinity Zygons seem to feel for the world views of those they "borrow"from may play a role here; Bonnie transitions easily into becoming Osgood, and shows a ruthlessness in Clara's body that Clara herself sometimes displays).

TL; DR: This is not a depiction of ISIS, or of the consequences of the Iraq War II; it's a parable. About peaceful revolution, about the horrors of war, about that marvelous exchange from C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark that I quoted a while back. Snow's stand-in Lewis Eliot, debates the balance of power in 1937 with a young Nazi:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
The Light and the Dark (first ed.), at pp. 148-149.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Doctor's Defining Moment

I know that writing about an episode of Doctor Who on Veteran's Day may seem a bit flip, but The Zygon Inversion has some important things to say about war, and the costs it exacts--costs that, in my lifetime, are normally borne by the veterans and their families and friends. The rest of us let them bear that burden for us. So, tangentially, the episode relates to the day.

I think this is one of the defining moments of Peter Capaldi's time as the Doctor, however long his run may be--and I hope for a long run, with this level of quality. That's because this speech is one that only Capaldi could do. Oh, we've seen moments last season and this that called on his talent--a flash of Malcolm Tucker in Time Heist, the epic speech in "Flatline", the reaction to Clara's betrayal of him in Dark Water, his searing encounters with Julian Bleach's Davros--but this is the first time Capaldi had to leave it all on the field. This is the first time they've called on the man who played Randall Brown, or Dr. Pete in The Field of Blood:

But back to The Zygon Inversion. Watch it again Look how many efforts he makes to reach Bonnie and Kate--he mocks them, American huckster-style, he roars, he pleads (sounding for a moment like Sylvester McCoy trying to reason with the Master in Survival), he shares his own pain and self-loathing--and here we get a flash of Tucker again--not the "Iago with a Blackberry" we all laugh with or at, but the exhausted, drained man, who denounces the hypocrisy of the system that served him up as a scapegoat in just the same way he has served so many others.

Without any disrespect for the remarkable actors who have played the Doctor, this scene is written for Capaldi's range, his passion, his fire--and his weariness. I genuinely cannot see any other actor who ever played the part doing this speech anywhere near as well.

And I want more of this. The Capaldi Era is in full swing now; he, Moffat, Peter Harness--and, let's add, Jenna Coleman and Jemma Redgrave--have raised the bar very high indeed.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Help the Anglocat: A Question of Ecclesiology

Right, dear friends and readers, I'm going to ask for some clarification, especially from the Roman Catholics among you. Now, as a former member of the Roman Catholic Church ("RCC" for short here), I had a pretty good grounding in the Church: Four years with the Marianists, three with the Jesuits, and having read both the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 and the Code of Canon Law (1983) to write a peer-reviewed article on the role of canon law in the RCC sex abuse crisis, I don't think I'm a dunce on these matters.

But--that doesn't mean I know it all. So, let me ask you to be my reality check. In an echo of this post, I expressed surprise at the ease with which SoCon members of the RCC felt free to dismiss the very pope they demanded liberals obey a few years back, only to receive the reply, "For the eleventy-billionth time, Popes are themselves bound by Tradition and Canon Law."

Now, I have to admit, i don't believe this to be correct as a matter of Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges that precedes the 1983 Code of Canon Law describes the promulgation of Code itself as “an expression pontifical authority, and is therefore invested with a primatial character.” The Code itself states that it abrogates customs (traditions) that are contrary to its terms unless they are immemorial *and* tolerable in the judgment of the ordinary *and* cannot be removed due to circumstances. (Canon 5.) Section 331 of the Code states that "The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely." Succeeding canons (332-335) make clear that the Pope has power “not only over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular groups of churches and groups of them.” (Canon 333 S 1). He is in communionn with bishops, but he has the right to determine how to exercise his office. (Id., S 2) “No appeal or recourse is permitted over a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.” (Id., S 3). The next section provides that "Bishops assist the Roman Pontiff in exercising his office. They are able to render him cooperative assistance in various ways, among which is the synod of bishops. The cardinals also assist him, as do other persons and various institutes according to the needs of the times. In his name and by his authority, all these persons and institutes fulfill the function entrusted to them for the good of all the churches, according to the norms defined by law."

This is consistent with the old (but well researched) Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes the authority as “plenary” allowing him to bind and loose in individual cases or in general, annulling his own laws or those of his predecessors, with or without the assistance of a council:
Whatsoever thou shalt bind . . . Whatsoever thou shalt loose"; nothing is withheld. Further, Peter's authority is subordinated to no earthly superior. The sentences which he gives are to be forthwith ratified in heaven. They do not need the antecedent approval of any other tribunal. He is independent of all save the Master who appointed him. The words as to the power of binding and loosing are, therefore, elucidatory of the promise of the keys which immediately precedes. They explain in what sense Peter is governor and head of Christ's kingdom, the Church, by promising him legislative and judicial authority in the fullest sense. In other words, Peter and his successors have power to impose laws both preceptive and prohibitive, power likewise to grant dispensation from these laws, and, when needful, to annul them. It is theirs to judge offences against the laws, to impose and to remit penalties. This judicial authority will even include the power to pardon sin. For sin is a breach of the laws of the supernatural kingdom, and falls under the cognizance of its constituted judges. The gift of this particular power, however, is not expressed with full clearness in this passage. It needed Christ's words (John 20:23) to remove all ambiguity. Further, since the Church is the kingdom of the truth, so that an essential note in all her members is the act of submission by which they accept the doctrine of Christ in its entirety, supreme power in this kingdom carries with it a supreme magisterium — authority to declare that doctrine and to prescribe a rule of faith obligatory on all. Here, too, Peter is subordinated to none save his Master alone; he is the supreme teacher as he is the supreme ruler. However, the tremendous powers thus conferred are limited in their scope by their reference to the ends of the kingdom and to them only. The authority of Peter and his successors does not extend beyond this sphere. With matters that are altogether extrinsic to the Church they are not concerned.


As the supreme teacher of the Church, whose it is to prescribe what is to be believed by all the faithful, and to take measures for the preservation and the propagation of the faith, the following are the rights which pertain to the pope:

it is his to set forth creeds, and to determine when and by whom an explicit profession of faith shall be made (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. 24, cc. 1 and 12);
it is his to prescribe and to command books for the religious instruction of the faithful; thus, for example, Clement XIII has recommended the Roman Catechism to all the bishops.
The pope alone can establish a university, possessing the status and privileges of a canonically erected Catholic university;
to him also belongs the direction of Catholic missions throughout the world; this charge is fulfilled through the Congregation of the Propaganda.
It is his to prohibit the reading of such books as are injurious to faith or morals, and to determine the conditions on which certain classes of books may be issued by Catholics;
his is the condemnation of given propositions as being either heretical or deserving of some minor degree of censure, and lastly
he has the right to interpret authentically the natural law. Thus, it is his to say what is lawful or unlawful in regard to social and family life, in regard to the practice of usury, etc.


The legislative power of the pope carries with it the following rights:

he can legislate for the whole Church, with or without the assistance of a general council;
if he legislates with the aid of a council it is his to convoke it, to preside, to direct its deliberations, to confirm its acts.
He has full authority to interpret, alter, and abrogate both his own laws and those established by his predecessors. He has the same plenitude of power as they enjoyed, and stands in the same relation to their laws as to those which he himself has decreed;
he can dispense individuals from the obligation of all purely ecclesiastical laws, and can grant privileges and exemptions in their regard.
In this connection may be mentioned his power to dispense from vows where the greater glory of God renders it desirable. Considerable powers of dispensation are granted to bishops, and, in a restricted measure, also to priests; but there are some vows reserved altogether to the Holy See.
Now, leave aside whether you, gentle readers, or I, agree with this model of the papacy or not. It certainly accords with the medieval research I did, and with the Code as quoted above. But is there something I've missed, some limitation that curbs the powers of the Pope?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Richard Hooker's Day

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates Richard Hooker, who did so much to theologize the Elizabethan Settlement--proving that good policy can make good (canon) law. I think it safe to say that much Anglican theology is explicating the themes of Hooker's writing--the defense of variety in political and ecclesiastical structures as "things indifferent" to the Faith, but rather dependent on local need and culture, is the dawn of the local episcopate central to world-wide Anglicanism to this day. His classic Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity were directed at refuting the Puritans who would disrupt the Elizabethan Settlement, and tried to point out to them the fact that the reason holds its place in assenting to the structure of the church, but that the issues that cause division are seldom those upon which the Faith depends:
The first mean whereby nature teacheth men to judge good from evil, as well in laws as in other things, is the force of their own discretion. Hereunto therefore St. Paul referreth oftentimes his own speech, to be considered of by them that heard him.By what means so many of the people are trained unto the liking of that discipline. “I speak as to them which have understanding, judge ye what I say1.” Again afterward, “Judge in yourselves, is it comely that a woman pray uncovered2?” The exercise of this kind of judgment our Saviour requireth in the Jews3. In them of Berea the Scripture commendeth it4. Finally, whatsoever we do, if our own secret judgment consent not unto it as fit and good to be done, the doing of it to us is sin, although the thing itself be allowable. St. Paul’s rule therefore generally is, “Let every man in his own mind be fully persuaded of that thing which he either alloweth or doth5.”
[2.]Some things are so familiar and plain, that truth from falsehood, and good from evil, is most easily discerned in them, even by men of no deep capacity. And of that nature, for the most part, are things absolutely unto all men’s salvation recessary, either to be held or denied, either to be done or avoided. For which cause St. Augustine6 acknowledgeth, that they are not only set down, but also plainly set down in Scripture; so that he which heareth or readeth may without any great difficulty understand. Other things also there are belonging (though in a lower degree of importance) unto the offices of Christian men: which, because they are more obscure, more intricate and hard to be judged of, therefore God hath appointed some to spend their whole time principally in the study of things divine, to the end that in these more doubtful cases their understanding might be a light to direct others. “If the understanding power or faculty of the soul be” (saith the [144] grand physician1) “like unto bodily sight, not of equal sharpness in all, what can be more convenient than that, even as the dark-sighted man is directed by the clear about things visible;Preface, Ch. iii. 3. so likewise in matters of deeper discourse the wise in heart do shew the simple where his way lieth?” In our doubtful cases of law, what man is there who seeth not how requisite it is that professors of skill in that faculty be our directors? So it is in all other kinds of knowledge. And even in this kind likewise the Lord hath himself appointed, that “the priest’s lips should preserve knowledge, and that other men should seek the truth at his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts2.” Gregory Nazianzen, offended at the people’s too great presumption in controlling the judgment of them to whom in such cases they should have rather submitted their own, seeketh by earnest entreaty to stay them within their bounds: “Presume not ye that are sheep to make yourselves guides of them that should guide you; neither seek ye to overskip the fold which they about you have pitched. It sufficeth for your part, if ye can well frame yourselves to be ordered. Take not upon you to judge your judges, nor to make them subject to your laws who should be a law to you; for God is not a God of sedition and confusion, but of order and of peace3.”
Now, note that this is not, taken in context, a counsel of blind obedience, but rather of humility--do we know enough to be the judge in a recondite or difficult matter? Or are we, with only fitful attention, setting up ourselves as higher authority than our knowledge can bear, and thereby rending the fabric of the Church on "things indifferent" to salvation?

Hooker's tone is gentle, for the most part but he has shafts of insight that are not just illuminating; they can be a trifle barbed. Here he is describing the certitude of the puritan that Scripture must bear the meaning for which they contend:
These are the paths wherein ye have walked that are of the ordinary sort of men; these are the very steps ye have trodden, and the manifest degrees whereby ye are of your guides and directors trained up in that school: a custom of inuring your ears with reproof of faults especially in your governors; an use to attribute those faults to the kind of spiritual regiment under which ye live; boldness in warranting the force of their discipline for the cure of all such evils; a slight of framing your conceits to imagine that Scripture every where favoureth that discipline; persuasion that the cause why ye find it in Scripture is the illumination of the Spirit, that the same Spirit is a seal unto you of your nearness unto God, that ye are by all means to nourish and witness it in yourselves, and to strengthen on every side your minds against whatsoever might be of force to withdraw you from it.
Hooker's work is important for both theology and jurisprudence, and, although a definitive modern edition has been been published, I still use my old 1875 copy of John Keble's edition--with a smattering of clippings about Hooker and other works pasted into the volume by a prior owner. I love the connection of Hooker and Keble, and honor them both. The Folger Books are expensive, but I have got a copy of the commentary volumes.

I hope to study Hooker in greater depth in 2016 (was 2015--I'd like to write something about his presence in the DNA of Anglicanism that won't be a cliche, if I can.