The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is the Pope Catholic? (Answer: Yes.)

Above, a melange of conservative pundits denouncing Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, this is harshing some liberals' mellow feelings toward Pope Francis:
Pope Francis met privately in Washington last week with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who defied a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, adding a new element to an American tour that saw Francis attract huge crowds and articulate left-leaning positions on poverty, immigration, the environment and inequality.

Vatican officials initially would not confirm that the meeting occurred, finally doing so on Wednesday afternoon, while refusing to discuss any details.

Ms. Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether government employees and private businesses have a legal right to refuse to serve same-sex couples. She spent five days in jail for disobeying a federal court order to issue the licenses.

Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan County in Kentucky, on her first day back to work after being released from jail earlier this month.Kentucky Clerk in Gay Marriage Dispute, Kim Davis, Joining G.O.P.SEPT. 25, 2015
Kim Davis, center, with her son, Nathan Davis, by her side, spoke on Monday outside the courthouse in Morehead,

On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers.

“I put my hand out and he reached and he grabbed it, and I hugged him and he hugged me,” Ms. Davis said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. ‘Thank you for your courage.’”
To each side of this debate, I can only ask: What did you expect? Francis is not an American politician; he is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, an ecclesial body that has strong, long-held views on subjects that do not fit the orthodoxy of either American political party, or of American polity in general.

As I acknowledged in a 2011 article about Anglo-Catholic theologian Charles Gore, Roman Catholic social teaching has been strongly pro-worker, critical of unfettered capitalism, and advocating for the poor since the late 19th Century when Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum 1 Encyclical on Capital and Labor (1891). Pope Benedict and John Paul II don't get credit for it, but they hewed to this line, too, and I've written elsewhere of the late Edward Cardinal Egan's impatience with dismissal of Catholic Social teaching by conservatives, as well as his pronounced distaste for America's Mideast exploits. It's true that Robert P. George shamefully sought to limit the bishops to "“making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies," but what success he had there reflects poorly on him and the individual bishops who followed his lead. Neither John Paul II, Benedict, nor Francis backed away from the Church's social teaching.

Likewise, liberals need to take onboard that Francis is not one of us. I don't say that with dislike--I think Francis has been a success in changing the tone so that ecumenical dialogue is possible again, and so that disagreement need not poison relationships. But he has upheld the Church's traditional teaching on marriage, and I strongly suspect he will continue to do so. If he can--and this has not happened yet--convince the clergy and laity of the Roman Catholic Church to abate the hostility some--far from all--display toward their gay and lesbian brother and sisters, he will have again achieved something worth doing. because the status quo, with traditionalists and liberals locked into unproductive hostility gets in the way of the work of the Spirit. And that's where Francis is working. He's trying to turn down the temperature while remaining faithful to the truth as he sees it. That is, in itself, worth doing.

Look, if you believe in a Christianity that recognizes the love and ministry of those in same sex relationships, as an Episcopal Deacon, let me just say "The Episcopal Church welcomes you." As do several other churches. Pope Francis's traditionalism here isn't a surprise, or a betrayal. He was never our guy. And he's not the political conservative's guy, either. He's a good man, walking the Way by the light he has, one within the strictures and structures of the Roman Catholic Church. He's trying to do it in an irenic and community building way, one that damps down conflicts, and allows conversations to happen. And when that happens, the Holy Spirit has room to do wonderful things we can't predict.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Mystery of Mark Twain's Lioness Part 1 Redux

[I don't normally do reposts, but what follows is a revised version of a post from March 17, 2010, in which I address issues that would be illuminated by the publication, as part of the complete Autobiography of Mark Twain, of the long-suppressed Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript, in which Mark Twain gives his perspective of the events discussed below. Ironically, while Jean Clemens and Isabel Lyon have had the tale told from their perspective, each by an able scholar, only now, more than 5 years after the post I optimistically labelled Part 1, can the great writer's voice be heard. So this post will provide context for my reaction to the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, which I hope to post by Friday, if not before.]

The recent (2010) publication of Laura Skandera-Trombley's book,
Mark Twain's Other Woman is significant in that it presents a well-sourced, sympathetic account of Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon who started out as his wife's social secretary, and subsequently became his personal secretary in a relationship that was both unconventional and intense--on both sides. The relationship ended with charges of embezzlement and more on Twain's part, and ferocious countercharges by Lyon's recently-acquired husband, Twain's business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Lyon, interstingly, never spoke out against the man she called "the King." After making the papers, and causing a social scandal, it was forgotten for 60 years after Mark Twain's death.

Trombley's book is well written, and her use of Lyon's voluminous papers adds details to a period in Twain's life that his too often been relegated to the unremitting darkness portrayed by Hamlin Hill's overtly hostile biography God's Fool (1973) (which revived the Lyon story) or the equally unrealistic sunniness of Albert Bigelow Paine's important but hagiographical authorized biography, published in 1912. Hill's bleakness and blithe assumption that the unfortunate Miss Lyon was herself without any flaw is a lovely myth, with Twain as a doddering, drunken Lear and Clara and Jean Clemens vying for the roles of Goneril and Regan. Trombley's book is not myth; it cuts the story down to mortall side, and works in shades other than primary colors. Trombley is, like Hill, a supporter of Lyon's, but, unlike Hill, has an abiding affection for Twain.

Still, Trombley to some extent buys into Hill's paradigm; she is rather prone to disparage Twain's later writings in a way that denies their political influence on antiwar protestors as late as the Vietnam era. Where she disparages these works, such as "The War Prayer" and "King Leopold's Soliloquy" as "shrill" and marred by a "constant note of misanthropy" (pp. 64, 62), writers such as Maxwell Geismar found them bracing and inspirational enough to compile a book length anthology of them, which I have owned since I was a teenager, and which helped me form my own political outlook.

More to the point, though, Trombley's overt championship of Lyon leads her to make all credibility calls in Lyon's favor, even though Lyon's own diaries (as Trombley notes) were heavily edited by her, and her 1906 daily reminder, at least, exists in multiple, inconsistent forms, devised "with the intention of either misleading anyone who would read he reminder or as a backup in case the original was stolen." (Trombley, p. xvi). Lyon is thus that well-recognized literary (and legal) figure, the unreliable narrator (or witness). Yet Trombley by and large trusts her, in a manner that in places borders on the naive. The same can be said for the actual financial transactions at issue. For example, Trombley dismisses the Clemens's statement that a power of attorney Twain executed in favor of Lyon and Ashcroft (before their marriage) had been given to him to sign among a batch of papers, and he had just done it, relying on his business manager and secretary, like Henry Blake relying on Radar O'Reilly. She dismisses this account relying on the boilerplate statement used in all notarizations that the document was signed in the presence of the notary as conclusive. Now, Trombley wrote in 2010, and although it isn't her field, the systemic prevalence of fraudulent "robo-signed" mortgage assignments and other documents--all notarized--might have given her pause.

In other words, Trombley's book, good though it is, is an advocate's piece, and needs to be read in conjunction with a corrective. Fortunately, there is one.

A more skeptical view of Lyon's account is taken by Karen Lystra in her 2004 book Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Lystra rebuts Hill's uncritical acceptance of Lyon's last version of events, and deploys the unpublished diaries and a manuscript by Twain's youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, whom she asserts Lyon banished from her father's house in order to maximize her chances of marrying him. Lystra's book is an important corrective to Trombley's championship of Lyon. In championing Jean, Lystra carefully examines the transactions between Twain, Lyon, and Twain's business manager Ralph Ashcroft (who married Lyon in 1909). Lystra is both more detailed and skeptical on these transactions than is Trombley; where Lystra asserts that Twain's notary who notarized his power of attorney in favor of Lyon routinely notarized documents without Twain's presence (an inappropriate, but not uncommon, practice even today, and one which one finds especially extended to "special" clients--the rich and famous, for example).

Another questionable move on Trombley's part which is her acceptance as if uncontroversial of Lyon's claim that Jean Clemens attacked on two occasions the family's long-time servant and friend Katy Leary. (82, 96-97) Lyon's account is questioned quite acutely by Lystra, who suggests that Lyon misinterpreted Jean's own statement of what happened, and embroidered it based on stereotypes of epileptics which were common in these years. Trombley simply treats Lyon's observations as self-evidently true, and suggests it indicates that Jean suffered from postictal psychosis. (82; see also here). Well, perhaps. If it happened--it is unhelpful that Trombley does not address Lystra's critique of Lyon's account, which is uncorroborated by Jean's papers, or Katy Leary's account of life with the Clemens family--then Trombley's explanation fits the facts. But when only Lyon establishes the facts, we have the problem of the unreliable narrator again, and those altered diaries are especially disturbing.

It doesn't do to overstate the matter; it's not that Lyon cannot be right absent corroboration; however, the fact that she is a somewhat unreliable narrator and the unpleasant denoument of her relationship with Twain suggest that Lystra's critique deserves to be considered. It's Trombley's decision not to do this which is troubling, especially as she is certainly aware of Lystra's critique--she cites Lystra as a source at least twice in her footnotes, and in fact provided a blurb for the book's jacket in 2004. And yet, she never engages with Lystra's rather powerful critique of the Hill-Lyon perspective.

While both Jean and Lyon have modern champions, the one voice which has not been heard in all of this is Mark Twain's. He left behind a 429 page manuscript, commonly known as the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript," which has not been published to date. It is only known in snippets, when quoted by Hill, Lystra or Trombley. They have widely varying estimations of it; Hill cites it as evidence of senility, Trombley calls it "bizarre" (p. xiv), while Lystra defends Twain's accuracy and acuity in writing it, as well as depicting it as a great effort to come clean about his own guilt in banishing Jean for years while under the sway of Lyon. Until the manuscript is published, there is no way to know whose characterization is more apt; the great writer, one hundred years after his death is voiceless in this riveting drama.

One thing I'd say about his mental capacities in his last months (assailed by Hill), however is this: Twain's last essay, The Death of Jean, written in the days after her death on Christmas Eve 1909, and a mere five months before his own death, is powerful, moving, and has all the hallmarks of Twain at his finest.

(edited and expanded)

Next: A Tentative View of L'Affaire Lyon

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Death of Jean: Mark Twain's Autobiography Volume 3, Part 1

Many years ago (ok, 1987. Leave off, willya?), I wrote my senior thesis on the Autobiography of Mark Twain, which had not been, at that time, published in its entirely, but only in fragmentary editions that were either left unfinished: Albert Bigelow Paine's 2 volume Mark Twain's Autobiography (1924)--which at least tried to keep faith with the author; Bernard DeVoto's 1940 culling of excerpts Mark Twain in Eruption; Charles Neider's fundamentally fraudulent, and appallingly mislabeled The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1960),which betrayed the author by scrapping his stream of consciousness structure, political musings, and other controversial content, in favor of a warm, Reader's Digest youth-to-old-age series of anecdotes. (Since then, the late Michael J. Kiskis released an admittedly incomplete version, the sections Twain published in his own lifetime in the pass of the North American Review, called Mark Twain's Autobiography. Unlike Neider, who boasted that he had improved Twain's writing (!), Kiskis Professor referred to his own book, in a letter he kindly sent me, as a useful introduction until the definitive University of California edition was out. He also quite reasonably defended its value in its own right as the last extended piece Twain presented the public, and the most poliched version he reached of the admittedly much longer Autobiographical Dictations.)

One of the few touches I admired in Neider's volume was his addition, in its proper place, of Twain's touching--one might say heart-breaking--tribute to his daughter Jean, the essay The Death of Jean, originally published by Paine in his collection What is Man? Neider's restoration of the piece was right. In his edition--like Paine's publication of the piece--is edited. It's powerful and moving, and more full than Paine's--bit still cut, in two significant aspects.

We know that, now that The Autobiography of Mark Twain volume 3 is, at long last, out. I just received it, and flipping through, noticed that in the new edition, "The Death of Jean" begins with the author--writing on Christmas Eve, shortly after Jean's death in her bath after an epileptic seizure--writing that with her data, the Autobiography is closed, its purpose in leaving his children a source of income after his death moot, as Clara was now well off, and Jean beyond his help. (Pp. 310-311) (Clemens vacillated on the purpose of the Autobiography--at times he loved it for itself, attires he saw it as a self-help copyright extension, at times he saw it as a literary stroke of genius. He contained multitudes, what can I say?)

There are other passages that were new to me, too, including the suggestion that Jean's "disease, and its awful convulsions, wore out her gentle mother's strength with grief and watching and anxiety, and caused her death, poor Livy!" (P. 316). As Resa Willis notes, earlier he blamed himself for her death--the strain of the round-the-world tour, the loss of their Hartford home, his visiting her too often in her sickroom. Willis also notes that Jean had not had a seizure for 13 months before her mother's death.

Here, in his renewed grief, he offloads some of his guilt onto Jean, simultaneously absolving her; mourning her sincerely, but trying to shed a burden too long carried. (Again, Willis notes that Olivia Langdon Clemens had suffered from heart trouble and hyperthyroidism, among other medical problems, for years.)

All of which is to say that Clemens was a complicated man, and that his editors tried to smooth out his jagged edges. A mistake, I think; we need Mark Twain, but we need him in all his complexity and human frailty. And that's what he tried to give us, and why he was "speaking from the grave."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Be Swift to Be Kind: In Memory of a Man I Didn't Know

Bill Tully, when he was Rector of St. Barts, often used this as the final blessing:

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.

I always loved this blessing, and when our new interim rector used it, my heart was lifted. But let me just add: it expresses a truth that is both inspiring and terrible.

We often pay lip service to it, but we should remember that life--this life, I mean--is terribly fragile, and that in our modern age we assume risks every day that we don't even think about. But beyond this, our mortal life is contingent. Or as a friend said to me recently, about a man who had died in an accident, "Half an hour ago, he thought he had a future."

We all do.

But my point isn't to fear-monger about death; quite the contrary, it's to remind myself (and any readers who care to read) that we have to live each day to the fullest, and not waste those we have. We don't have infinite time to make amends, we don't have infinite time to put things right, we don't have infinite time to tell the people we love that we love them, and to show that love.

So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. Forget the tribe you belong to (left-right, reasserted-reappraiser, whatever).

Be swift to love. Make haste to be kind.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Shape of Things

I spoke not long ago with an old friend, and we talked a little bit about ministry to the sick. I haven't done all that much yet--my field parish didn't need any hospital or home visits in my time there, and so my main experience was Clinical Pastoral Training (the less-intensive version of Clinical Pastoral Education we deacons receive), which I did at at New York Presbyterian. But our conversation reminded me of ow afraid I'd been of CPT before I did it.

Not for myself, really--I was deathly afraid that I'd let down the patients that I was there to help. I doubted my own ability to bring any comfort, because my primary ways of dealing with the world--knowledge and deploying it--were useless. I knew that much.

What I didn't realize is that a willingness to plunge in, listen, and meet people where they are was really all I had to bring into the room. The rest was God and the patient. I was really there as catalyst to that conversation--a witness in some cases, in other, a proxy--someone to whom the patient could say the things they needed to say to God, but needed someone who would visibly hear it for it to have meaning. Sometimes I was there just to be a symbol that God and the Church had not abandoned the ailing person. And on one occasion, my role was to help the family by providing a liturgical framework n which to say their goodbyes.

In none of those roles did I do anything clever or special. To paraphrase David Niven, I showed up, I stood with the sick person, and I paid attention. I was mindful, I'll give myself that. And that's not nothing.

Mindfulness isn't easy--it's a personal flaw of mine that I can get so wrapped in my own thoughts that I am not aware of what's right in front of me. So the fact that I was able to get out of the way, and be there for the person I was there to serve and the God who called me to that service is a big deal for me. But this isn't ultimately about me.


No, it's about the shape of things--how there can be a beauty in the lifecycle, even with the pain that entails. I knew someone once who had fractured several relationships that were important to her. When she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the jolt of impending mortality galvanized her into action; she used her last months to repair those relationships insofar as she could. I've never seen more meaning plucked from a tragic situation.

Sometimes I get asked--especially if I'm wearing the clerical collar--how my faith survives a world in which terrible things happen to good people on a daily basis--not in a hostile way, but in a sense of genuine curiosity. I don't have perfect answer, other than for me that's the point of the Incarnation--God isn't estranged from our sufferings, watching them afar like the gods in Lear; no, God is here in the world suffering with and for us, and helping us to draw meaning from suffering.

But why do we suffer, why do we die? Maybe we need to be finite, to have endings, to impel us to the sort of heroic reconciliation the woman I mentioned performed in her last months. Maybe we need to age and die to let go of this good Creation for whatever lies ahead. Because I don't believe that death is the end, you see. The writings of the mystics, and the weaker "peak experiences" described by Abraham Maslow, happen more often than we think. Inge wrote that the mystical facility is one which all posses, but few develop. Inge quotes his beloved Plotinus: "Nothing that truly is can ever perish." Robertson Davies agreed with him in his last novel, The Cunning Man. I don't believe it because they say so, but their testimony, and that of many others, validates my own experience and intuitions.

But this is becoming intellectual again, and that's not where I want to go. I'm not able to give you the answer why life has a shape that includes suffering, the sadness and rewards of aging and includes death. It does; that's all. But the experience of witnessing people drawing meaning and beauty from those facts has enriched me sufficiently that I don't experience these facts as undermining my faith, though they challenge me in living my own life.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Let's Make Jam"--Notes on Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice

I'm going to steal a leaf from Missy's book (on returning from her seeming vaporization in "Death in Heaven, she simply says, visibly bored with the topic, “Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind.)”, and spare the recap. Here's the atmospheric prologue to The Magician's Apprentice:

And here, in an act of rather startling generosity by the BBC (I bought the season, but good on the Beeb, anyway), is the full episode itself:

So, all up to speed then? Because, one last time:

Right, how you feel about this episode is going to be dependent on several factors. First, the episode is rich, and fast. Ideas that could make up a whole episode are used in minutes. A knowledge of old Who isn't strictly necessary, but enriches the his episode. But finally, the mood swings could snap a spine. This story ranges a emotional gamut from bleak despair--it opens with the Doctor himself seemingly committing an act of appalling ruthlessness--to Capaldi entering a medieval hall on a tank, playing the electric guitar (and yes, it's Capaldi playing). Capaldi sells this scene--under the manic glee, there's a bitter despair that leaks out when Bors tells him that he's been there for three weeks--has "it must be nearly bedtime" ever sounded so dark?

But the mood doesn't hold; in a lovely bit of amends to the two women who have come to seek him out, he greets Clara and Missy (mostly Clara, I suspect, but Missy gives a jaunty little grin, too) with "Pretty Woman" and Missy with "Mickey"; each enters in her own fashion--Clara brimming with concern, Missy matching the Doctor's theatricality with her own.

(Alas, it stops before Clara's and Missy's entrances, but see the full episode above.)

But--and here's the interesting thing--Missy is just as worried about the Doctor as is Clara. She emphatically warns him not to accompany Colony Sarrf, with a great line: "Doctor, listen to me. I know traps. Traps are my flirting. This is a trap." After her outrage at Clara sarcastically asking her if she's turned good--Gomez's accent thickens with fury, and she executes a couple of UNIT Redshirts she terms "spares"--

-- Missy plays this one pretty straight, and in fact, as soon as Clara (speaking for both of them) insists that they go with the Doctor, Missy goes with her to have her hands bound and accompany them to the very trap she warned about. Her rapport with Clara is remarkable--Coleman and Gonzales really sell their scenes together, with Gomez essentially playing the Doctor role, albeit with a mad flourish. Her deduction that they have arrived not at a space station but are on a planet is delivered with aplomb, but when she recognizes the planet as Skaro, her terror unnerves Clara.

We're back in Pertwee-Delgado territory here, with the "frenemy" dynamic that marked that era turned up loud. And here Missy and Clara work together not unlike the Doctor and the Master (and , with some banter, with the Brigadier) in Claws of Axos or with the Brigadier, Ian and Barbara in David McIntee's The Face of the Enemy.

The Doctor, meanwhile is otherwise occupied.

Here's where the episode gets really cooking.

Davros, "creator of the Daleks, dark lord of Skaro" was once the boy whom the Doctor abandoned to the extra-ghastly minefield at the very beginning of the episode. The old philosophical debate from Genesis of the Daleks, among other past encounters, is reprised:

And, on his deathbed, Davros means to defeat the Doctor, not on the field of battle, but on the philosophical plane: The Daleks exterminate Missy (who, in true Delgado style, tries to persuade them that they need her) and Clara; they destroy the TARDIS. Davros demands that the Doctor admit that compassion is evil, and w next see him returning to the battlefield--seemingky to exterminate the young Davros.

As an old friend of mine would say at the end of the episode, when we watched the show together, "Twang out."


It's a grand setup. What comes next will determine whether this episode is brilliant or just potentially brilliant. Will Moffat address the philosophical issues, or elide them?

A few random thoughts:

1. Capaldi's performance is a tour de force--forced gaiety, horror, despair, abject pleading for Clara's life--he sells them all. Capaldi really is "my Doctor."

2. Gomez is the best Master since Delgado, and if she keeps it up will surpass the Master. I loved the brief appearance of Derek Jacobi in Utopia (and his interesting take on the character in Scream of the Shalka; I have a higher regard for Anthony Ainley than many do--his performances in Keeper of Traken and Survival showed what he could do with a good script and direction), and John Simm had inspired moments. But make mine Missy.

3. Davros has never seemed more human, more relatable than when he is dying. Julian Bleach is outstanding here, weary, but determined to win the argument, and have the Doctor admit it, "just once."

4. I've seen some questions online about why Colony Sarrf needs to follow Clara and Missy if Bors is already a Dalek plant. That's a misreading, I think. The snake escapes Sarrf, infects Bors (when the Doctor thinks he's choking on a marble again). Until that point, poor old Bors wasn't a plant, but a friend.

5. How did Missy survive? C'mon. You can explain that in-universe easily enough. How often has the Master been betrayed by alien allies? Oh, right, every frickin' time. And Cybermen she built to give to the Doctor? Fairly sure she built in a failsafe "don't kill Mummy" device there, just in case.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"If you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it."

So saith Paul Newman in The Verdict, and I have to say I agree.

You know, I am so very, very tired of conservatives telling me what I,as a liberal Christian, think; the latest example is Rod Dreher quoting Rev. John Azumah, a a Presbyterian pastor from Ghana, who teaches at a PC(USA) seminary in the United States, describing his students' reaction to an imam's guest-lecturing:
They were agitated by what the imam said about homosexuality, but seemed wholly at ease with his negation of fundamental Christian beliefs. If this were a seminary in Ghana, my home country, the reverse would have been the case.

I have come to the conclusion that the doctrinal differences between American liberals and African traditionalists originate in deeper conflicts. We may argue about what the Bible says about sexuality, but there is a broader, unstated disagreement over the Bible itself. For mainstream Western society, the Bible is an ancient text that might arouse intellectual curiosity or become the subject of historical analysis, but it is hardly a sacred book. It has no more authority in American culture than the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s speeches, and other notable historic statements. Dropping the language of “obedience to Scripture” and “conformity to the historic confessional standards” from the PC(USA) Ordination Standards underscores this point.

The Bible has a very different status in African societies. Where Christianity has become dominant in the last century, the Bible remains a sacred text, relevant and living. The Bible is more than a compilation of historical documents.
Oh, please. the Bible has many precepts that the neither we liberals nor the conservatives here or in the Global South don't follow. Usury has wreaked incalculable damage on the poor and has helped core out the middle class (subprime mortgage crisis, anyone), but I don't hear the SoCons railing against usury, despite its being the subject of 3 times the number of biblical prohibitions as is homosexuality. (For my overview on both usury and same-sex marriage see here). So please spare me the notion that the Bible is living and vital for conservatives but isn't for liberals. I'm just not buying.

But the effect of the Bible overall in my life has been immense. And I take this seriously. I was ordained a vocational deacon in May, after more than 7 years of discernment and training. That means that I have made a commitment. I hope that, with God's help, my ministry will be of service to those who hunger and thirst, who are prisoners and need encouragement, to the sick, the widows and orphans, and that I may, again with God's help and through His grace, bring the light of Christ into dark places. Trust me, I need to more than just believe in God to even try to do that; I need to rely n God. My hospital training taught me that. It ain't about me.

So I don't like to hear my faith being written off as Dreher and Azumah as if they knew me. I believe in the Creed, quite simply, including the Resurrection and the Trinity. Period. This makes me somewhat traditionalist in my theology (I'm in accord with the so-called Second Anglo-Catholic movement, as ably described by Charles Gore, but those whom I know in the Church who take more modern approaches--well, we're all reaching to describe the same experience, the experience W.R. Inge described in 1899 as the "raw material of all religion"--the experience of transcendence and of immanence. Of course we describe it differently; it's experience we're discussing, not mathematical theorems, and experience is filtered through our unique personal sensitivities and perceptions.

Why weren't the students pressing the Imam on his lack of belief in Christian doctrines such as the resurrection and the Trinity? Possibly, oh, let's have a wild stab at this--because they know he's not a Christian, but rather a Muslim, and therefore that part of his talk was neither new nor shocking? And maybe they were being polite?

I don't know; he was there and I wasn't. But the plural of anecdotes isn't data, as they say, and more to the point, if you're going to frame my argument for me, at least try to look at it as I experience and live it. If you're going to try my case for me, don't throw it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Not For My Peace. . .

If you look at the heavy-set cove who is carrying the first cross (at :26-29), there I am. I've grayed more than I realized in the last 5 years, but I was heavier then than I knew, so we'll call it a wash. Not all that consoling, really.

But--here's the thing: There I am, a lay minister, in 2010. Our second cross, a dear friend with a wicked sense of humor, is now a verger. At least one other lay minister in that clip has been ordained a priest. Bill Tully, Bruce Forbes, Buddy Stallings, have retired from St. Barts, though are dear to me still. And that looks suspiciously like another dear friend, who moved to my other NYC parish, Trinity Wall Street, where I led Evening Prayer on Mondays for 5 years.

And now I am ordained, and my diaconal ministry will begin at the place that formed me, St. Barts.

And so, I think of "rare" Ben Jonson, who wrote:
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.
What better place to begin this new journey than my long-time home?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Biden-Colbert: A Pauline Exchange

I think it's important to take notice of the extraordinary interview Stephen Colbert did with Vice President Joe Biden this week:

Part I

Part II

The frank exchanges about grief and faith, and Biden's and Colbert's patently genuine refusal to claim heroic status for themselves, are a demonstration of a powerfully working, well-integrated religious faith--here Christianity in its Roman Catholic form--in life.

Colbert's own life is profoundly colored by tragedy, and finding God in that tragedy:
He used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”

It's hard to imagine any comedian meditating every day on so sincere a message. It's even harder when you know his life story, which bears mentioning here—that he is the youngest of eleven kids and that his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. His elder siblings were all off to school or on with their lives by then, and so it was just him and his mother at home together for years. They moved from James Island to downtown Charleston, and she sent him to a prep school, Porter-Gaud, where for the next several years he did next to nothing academically. “There was no way to threaten me,” he said. “It was like, ‘What? What's that? Oh, okay, I might get a bad grade? Oh no. Wouldn't want that.’ ”


He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
I can't help but feel that Colbert's--and Biden's--lives each represents an incredible living out of the lesson of Romans 8:28 laid out by Suan Howatch in her novel Absolute Truths:
uggest[ing] that the sentence "All things work together for good to them that love God" was slightly mistranslated, and that the translation should have been: "All things intermingle for good to them that love God." This would mean that the good and bad were intermingling to create a synergy--or, in other words: in the process of intermingling, the good and the bad formed something else. The bad didn't become less bad, and the dark didn't become less dark--one had to acknowledge this, acknowledge the reality of the suffering. But the light emanating .from a loving God created a pattern on the darkness, and in that pattern was the meaning, and in the meaning lay the energy which would generate the will to survive.
I admire both of these men for living out their truths, but doing so in a way that did not let the dark crowd out the light.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Prayer Request

Not my normal style, deacon though I am--I have always been hesitant to use this space to ask you, who are kind enough to read here, to hold someone in prayer. But I was shocked to read this:
The shooting of a high-ranking lawyer within Gov. Cuomo’s administration during a late night party before the West Indian Day Parade has marred festivities in Brooklyn.

A shaken Cuomo hailed Carey Gabay, 43, First Deputy Counsel to Empire State Development, as an example of the “American dream” who opted for public service instead of a hefty paycheck from a Wall Street law firm.

Detectives said they suspected Gabay was caught in the crossfire of a gang-related dispute. He is in critical condition at Kings County Hospita
From Capitol Confidential:
“Carey remains in critical condition and is currently in a coma surrounded by his loved ones,” Gabay’s family said. “Our family is thankful for the outpouring of prayers that we’ve received in the aftermath of this senseless violence. Carey has always been an inspiration to all of us and he continues to inspire us with his fight for survival. We are leaning on our faith and asking for continued support during this extremely difficult time.”

Gabay was shot in the head in the predawn hours Monday while walking along a Brooklyn street.

Cuomo said Tuesday evening on the return flight from his trip to Puerto Rico that there had been no developments in Gabay’s condition that had been positive.
I'm not going to pretend to know Carey Gabay better than I do, but when I was being vetted for my current position, he interviewed me. He was affable, kindly, and shrewd--he asked smart questions, and our conversation was both efficient and pleasant. The high opinion he earned from people I respect greatly and my own brief experience of him convince me that I would like him more the better I knew him.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book Gloat: Brattle Book Shop Edition

Well. now that I am beginning to settle back into life, a short book gloat seems in order. Or, What Did I Buy on My Summer Vacation (Highlights Reel):

Let's begin with the best--the copyright edition of a novel of great importance ego me--

Note the beautiful design on the page ends:

And here's the title page:

As near to a true first as I ever expect to own.

We now move to a nice find from the bargain table of Brattle Book Shop in Boston:

So, um, what are they? Two linked volumes by George R. Tyrrell, they together rate a chapter )and their author a whole Part) in Alec R. Vider's 1934 study The Modernist Movement in the Roman Church. They represent Fr. Tyrrell's effort to open Roman Catholicism to new learning and new political realities. He was excommunicated for these efforts, but in many ways anticipated Vatican II.

From the bargain table also:

All three volumes of George Eliot's masterpiece, in very nice shape, thankee, and all for $5 per volume. The "Holly Lodge" edition was a complete set of Eliot's works in 24 volumes, limited to 500 copies. These were part of number 97. Alas, the rest of my Eliot's do not match. However, I now have all the big ones, though my copy of "Scenes from Clerical Life" appears to have gone walkabout.

Not from the bargain table, but irresistible for a newly ordained deacon:

All one needed to know about vestments as of 1896. Maybe I can now understand why the Church uses the amise and the apparel. (I know, wild optimism. Still the apparel at least inspired Anthony Ainley's collar as the Master in Doctor Who, so nothing is ever entirely wasted.)

One last, and you can have a break.

First, I'm a great admirer of Werner Jaeger's Paideia. So it was a great pleasure to come across this:

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea...

Back from a cruise filled with incident and amusement--


No, no, nothing like that, but the damned song did keep running through my head. Although not an unflawed experience (serious problems on one day with passengers returning to the ship being stuck in an appallingly long line in the blazing sun, leading to at least two requiring medical attention), the cruise was an opportunity for rest, lots of time with my parents, sister, brother-in-law nephew and niece, and my beloved la Caterina. (My nephew has grown into a splendid young man whose company is most enjoyable, and my niece had the waitstaff eating out of her hand with her charm.)

We saw some magnificent sights--dolphins dancing outside on our last night, a whale sighting on our first, and some beautiful churches along the way. St. Luke's Episcopal Cathedral in Portland Maine was a highlight with its breathtaking Lady Chapel:

The service at St. Luke's was marvelous, and the hospitality the Cathedral's Dean and parishioners showed la Caterina and myself couldn't have been warmer. One member of the parish not only recommended a good place for a fresh lobster lunch, he drove us there so that we'd beat the rush.

I did very well in bookstores throughout the trip, filling she gaps in my theological library, completing my set of Randolph Churchill & Martin Gilbert's official Churchill biography, and even finding a Tauchnitz Copyright edition of Phineas Finn, a work that is, of course, quite dear to me. (There'll be a special book gloat post in a couple days.)

But the best part of vacation, any vacation, is the loafing. Reading books of dubious merit, spending time with family and celebrating both my Dad's birthday and la Caterina's (in celebration date order) was what made the time so special.

I could touch on the news, but I'm still on vacation mode, and staying that way a bit longer, I think. There'll be time for discussion of other things later. I'm probably going to have some thoughts about the religious liberty issues raised by the Kim Davis affair.

But I did just want to note that while I was gone, this little one-person blog, which has veered from religious matters to political, to literary, has surprised me by blowing past the 100,000 page views mark. In fact, it's at 100,265 as of this writing. I've sometimes feared that I was merely writing for myself and a handful of others, and maybe that's so--but at least you keep coming back. I'm grateful for that, and for your company here in this little corner of cyberspace. Many thanks.