The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In Memoriam: The Rev. Bruce W. Forbes

From St Bartholomew's Church:
Dear St. Bart's Family,

Our friend and colleague the Rev. Bruce Forbes died peacefully at home early this morning following a brief illness. He was 94.

A service is planned for Bruce at St. Bart's in September, on a date to be decided, when everyone will be back from summer travels and can attend.

Bruce served at St. Bart's over 50 years. He was a wonderful priest and friend to many in several generations. He will be deeply missed.

Please hold Bruce in your prayers at this holy and tender time.

May his spirit rest in peace and rise in glory.
So, two other things about Bruce.

First, after my ordination, I inherited one of his jobs--leading the choir in prayer before the 11:00 service. Bruce would come into the chapel where the lay ministers and choir would gather, and call them to attention with a roar of "CHOIR!" Then he would lead a short prayer, which he made sure I had just so when I took over. When I told him I included the bellow, he smiled. "Good," he said.

Second, Bruce played the curmudgeon to perfection--sarcastic, quick with a quip--but was also willing to explain his theological preferences with a gentle seriousness (I once asked him why he disliked incense, and received an erudite critique of Catholic theology of its use that was quite interesting.) He could be quite funny (for years, he presided over the 10:30 am chaos in the vesting room with a sort of Alan MacNaughtan comic weary resignation), but was genuinely kind.

Finally, he was a Trollope fan. I have in my collection several volumes from his library of the old World's Classics hardcover editions that were once his. I'm glad of that; it will remind me of him when I revisit them.

And when I bellow at the choir.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Redux

In our over a dozen years of war, now, it becomes harder every year to write something on this day. Two years ago, I posted this:


My father's stepfather fought in World War II, and helped liberate a concentration camp. What he saw there clearly changed my "Uncle Fred"--so my sister and I called him, as he married my grandmother long after we came on the scene. He had an extraordinary gentleness, and an awareness of what mattered that I admired then and even more so now. But many who survived that trauma were marked differently than my Uncle Fred, and suffered for years after they come home, as do their successors.

From Herman Wouk's The Winds of War:
Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He had given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why?

Because the others did it, he thought. Because Abel’s next-door neighbor was Cain. Because with all its rotten spots, the United States of America was not only his homeland but the hope of the world. Because if America’s enemies dug up iron and made deadly engines of it, America had to do the same, and do it better, or die. Maybe the vicious circle would end with this first real world war. Maybe it would end with Christ’s second coming. Maybe it would never end.
In War and Remembrance, Wouk wrote (through the fictitious correspondent Alistair Tudsbury), that in World War II, "Men fight as far away from home as they can be transported, with courage and endurance that makes on proud of the human race, in horrible contrivances that make one ashamed of the human race." We seem mired in that paradigm still. Brave soldiers, women and men now, are taking terrible risks and paying prices up to including their lives. These veterans, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, receive woefully inadequate support and treatment.

Whatever we think of any given war, we should hold our veterans, living and dead, in high esteem. One last quote, from T.H. White, depicting a despairing King Arthur, written in the darkest days of WW II:
But here and there, oh so seldom, oh so rare, oh so glorious, there were those all the same who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction, in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, the jest of Pilate's. Many stupid young men had thought they were dying for it, and many would continue to die for it, perhaps for a thousand years. They did not have to be right about their truth, as Galileo was to be. It was enough that they, the few and martyred, should establish a greatness, a thing above the sum of all they ignorantly had.
Two years later, I simply have nothing to add to it, except this: Remember the fallen, and honor those who served and are among us today.

The Elbow of Thomas Becket

You have to admit, this story has a properly medieval feel to it:
On Dec. 29, 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II crept up on the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in the city’s cathedral and murdered him with their swords after he clashed with the monarch.

More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow traveled this week from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, back to England, where it will make several stops before returning to the site of his assassination.


Becket had been a dear friend of King Henry II’s. But after he became archbishop of Canterbury, he resisted the monarch’s attempts to tame the church’s power. The knights, thinking the king wanted the archbishop dead, killed him. Becket was canonized in 1173, and he became one of the most revered saints in England. His shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a popular pilgrimage site, and it was immortalized in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which followed the journey of a group of pilgrims to his tomb.

In medieval times, Becket’s bones were viewed as having mystical powers. According to legend, they could stop dogs from barking, and they cured a man who said he had suffered for 30 years from nocturnal attacks by a demon called the Incubus.

In another account of Becket’s prowess, a young girl who misplaced some cheese and who feared being beaten for the transgression prayed to Becket, who was said to have led her back to it, according to William MacLehose, a lecturer in the history of science and medicine at University College London.

The journey of the bone relic, which is held in a gold case, was celebrated on Monday with a Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London attended by President Janos Ader of Hungary and Cardinal Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest.

Along its journey, the elbow fragment will be temporarily reunited with a piece of Becket’s skull — normally kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England — before stopping at Rochester Cathedral on Friday and Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday. It will then return to Hungary.
And, if that's not enough, there is the fact that the Knights Bachelor escorting the relics to Canterbury did so in defiance of a curse, and with some unease.

However flawed Becket and his cause may have been, he carries a savor of myth, and a historical power of heroism that's lasted over 800 years. And people want touch that, even today. An odd atavistic thing, this fascination with relics--condemned in the Thirty-nine Articles, of course, but that one is more honored in the breach, even now--because the touch of the past, however desiccated, however withered, brings that past and all its emotional resonance to bear.

Monday, May 23, 2016

O Hai!

Above is Horatio P. Kitten, a fine Brooklyn native who traveled (see video above) to North Carolina with la C and me, then to Albany (being 15 years younger than all of the cats in the Dutch Kills Orchard and cattery (Brooklyn Branch). He now reigns over the home of a friend and colleague of mine.

It's nice, in this world where lie can often be stark and even cruel, to see that sometimes the Ninth Doctor has it right.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Once Around the Sun

It's hard to believe that a year has passed.

But it has, in fact. One year ago today, I was ordained a deacon. It's been an astonishing trip around the sun since then, as a friend used to put it in congratulating us on other anniversaries of equal import.

In my first weeks after ordination, I had the chance to baptize a beautiful baby girl;a few scant months later, I had to perform last rites at a roadside accident. I was the deacon at the wedding of two dear friends, and the memorial service of another.

Birth, death, marriage.

That I get to do all this at St Barts means a great deal to me; bypath started here, at one of the lowest ebbs of my life, and I returned as life took a decidedly upward turn. The people and clergy of my home parish have welcomed me, worked with me, and have made me their deacon, along with my great mentor and friend, our senior deacon, who, I am glad to say, abides with me.

You might wonder why not a picture of the service, or of me actually doing one of the wonderful, and occasionally terrible, things ministry involves? How about a sermon clip? Why Cohen's Anthem? Because it says something that is to me deeply true, that informs every single moment of my ministry:
You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
We're all of us flawed, all of us imperfect. But, accepted and owned, those perfections can be openings to grace in all of its forms. We can accept our own flaws, and those of others. We can take action, but not self-righteously. Every little crack in us can be a way of letting the light through. Forgive each other, because we need forgiveness ourselves.

You don't need a lick of religious faith to believe that--though it's a part of the Gospel message. But theist, atheist, agnostic--is there anyone in this tatters, cracked, and still imperishably beautiful world who does not believe that "Every heart, every heart to love will come--but like a refugee"?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Penny Dreadful: Pleasures of the Post-Text

As the author myself of a post-text, I can appreciate the pleasures of revamping and re-interpreting an established classic. When done well, it opens up new vistas on the established work, and new insights into why it speaks to the reader or viewer.

Penny Dreadful has, in its forst two seasons, gleefully subverted a series of iconic tales, and has woven them together. It's a melange, but one that works more often than not.

It's principal source, of course, is Dracula. Set a few years before the action of that novel, with only a fleeting appearance by Van Helsing, and an utter subversion of Stoker's Mina Harker, the core of the show is in Mina's life;go friend, and betrayer, Vanessa Ives. Near the center is Sir Malcolm Murray, Mina's father, Vanessa's father-figure. The rest of the characters--Victor Frankenstein and his creation, ripped from their Georgian origins, Dorian Grey, Ethan Chandler (well, not really), and various friends and foes, circle around Eva Green's Vanessa.

What makes Penny Dreadful work is its patience; the show takes a very slow burn approach. Ethan's identity is revealed very gradually, Dracula is offstage for two full seasons, and Dr. Seward has just arrived. The characters are developed in long, slow story lines (enlivened by periodic outbursts of gore and violence--not for the little ones!) And what should be a bloody mess holds together, because in the action sequences, the characters remain themselves.

Also, the full commitment of the extraordinary cast makes the program. Eva Green's Vanessa is beautiful, yes, but harrowed. Her smile is rare, and often wry. The producers and Green have no compunction about deglamorizing Vanessa--indeed though there is nudity, with Vanessa it is never prurient--she is vulnerable, not desirable in those scenes. And Billie Piper, who I quite liked as Rose Tyler, has upped her game dramatically. In season 2 and 3, she goes from vulnerable to genuinely frightening, without losing the complexity of her character.

Rory Kinnear has found a way of making Frankenstein's Monster at once more human and more ruthless than any prior incarnation.

By mashing these monsters together, has John Logan taught us anything?

Yes; the monsters are us. Or, perhaps, we are they. The "heroes" are battling their own dark sides, the monsters are striving to enjoy their humanity. Only at the extremes are the demarcations clear.

Why do we love to be afraid?

because it allows us to "other" that in ourselves which we fear, and then, hesitantly, to accept it.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Back to the Future?

The return of the The Church Lady to Saturday Night Live raises an interesting point: How is it, in 2016, that we are watching a battle of the 1980s vs. the 1990s?

Back in July 2015, I suggested that:
It has been, I think, the Obama Presidency's burden to try to maneuver through the interstices of the now long-stale battle between orthodoxies of the Right and Left that no longer address the conditions or issues of the day--the felt necessities of the time are not summed up in the 1980s anymore. The battles between Democrats and Republicans these last years have a weirdly formulaic resonance--we know what each side will say before they say it, and it's done with so much less conviction than before. The generations of Reagan and Carter, of Clinton and McCain, have battled themselves to exhaustion. (And what of Hilary Clinton? Will she, if she ever takes the stage, fit either or neither?)


Whatever. The long 80s are coming to an end. On their way out, we're all winning and losing the battles that defined the era. Marriage Equality? Chalk one up for the liberals. Austerity in Europe, and only a partially Keynesian response in the US? Tie. The Right to Bear Arms sacralized? Conservatives on the board. You get the idea.

But somewhere under the ice, again, whether for weal or woe, is stirring a new Era to replace the long 80s.
And yet, the real 1980s, in the form of Donald Trump, the icon of the "greed is good" era, has reasserted itself by banishing the idealized "purified" version of Reaganism espoused by Ted Cruz. Trump, blustery, big-haired, full of swagger, represented the reality of that era in a way that Ted Cruz did not. Trust me, I was there.

And so, just as Bill Clinton rode out to battle Reaganism, Hillary Clinton rides out to defeat Trumpism?

Well, maybe. Hillary Clinton's issues page doesn't really savor of what we who lived with it think of as "Clintonism." (Her effort to woo Republicans put off by Trump has a familiar feeling to it though.) Still, the symmetry is bizarre: Trump is the last gasp of the 1980s spirit, stripped of the Gipper's folksy facade; against it, avatar of the 1990s?

And so the Church Lady, whose regular appearance spanned 1986 to 1990, must return.

After all, we are, if only for now, revisiting her era.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Sun Begins to Set

President Obama does all the commencement speaker schtick, and does them well, but when he begins talking about the importance of Howard University, he's able to easily use the first person plural, It's important that we have a president who can speak to the progress our nation in the years since he graduated college.

And, yes, I love the swagger in "And, yes, it happens to be better off than when I took office. But that's different story."


"That's a different discussion. For a different speech."

The speech has a valedictory feel. And that's appropriate, as the focus is about to shift from President Obama to those who would replace him.

But for a few months, yet, we remain in good hands.

Meantime, here's some of the core of the President's speech:
The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse. That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.

And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect — just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
Whoever wins will have, in my opinion, a pretty tough act to follow.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Gore and Grace

If you're in town on May 15, I'm speaking at Grace Church at 10:00 am:
MAY 15 - WALKING THE WAY: CHARLES GORE, LIBERAL ANGLO-CATHOLICISM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE - THE SUNDAY FORUM @10AM. Led by the Rev. John Wirenius, lawyer, constitutional scholar, Deacon, novelist. One of the founders of the Second Oxford Movement, Bishop Charles Gore was a passionate defender of free scientific inquiry, individual conscience, and social justice. These views often brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities of his age but stemmed from his belief that doctrine was secondary to a commitment to a Christian life--what he called walking "the Way," as the Early Church called the Jesus Movement. We explore how Gore's belief in a very traditional Christian life and liturgy led to a lifetime of commitment to social justice.
Grace Church in New York is located at 802 Broadway (at 10th Street) New York, NY 10003

A good number of Gore's works are available online.

UPDATE: Because of a death in the family, the speaking engagement has been moved. Almost certainly it will be June 5.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Not As the World Gives: A Sermon on John 14:23-29

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, May 1, 2016

“I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Well, there’s the problem right there, isn’t it?

We like how the world gives. When it gives, at any rate.

Because comfort, money, distractions—you know I could write this sermon on a phone while watching a cat video?—yeah, we’re basically ok with how the world gives.

After all, the world is falling over itself to give us what we want.

Not so much what we need, but what we want, as long as we can afford to pay.

I know what some of you are thinking—is this going to be one of those dreary sermons where everything that’s fun is held up as a sin. And the devil, to steal a line from Bernard Shaw, gets to have all the passions as well as all the good tunes?


I’m not going to suggest you scatter ashes all over your brunch so that the taste of your food doesn’t distract you from the contemplation of God.

That would be St. Francis.

And I’m not going to suggest that you should agonize at length over whether your pleasure in enjoying that brunch is sinful, because it doesn’t serve the purpose of preserving your health, it’s simply gratuitous. That’d be St. Augustine, and he was a great example of the reformed rake who may be much more decent than he was in his unreformed days, but is nowhere near as much fun.

No, I’m not going there. But here’s where I’d like to go: When Jesus says he doesn’t give as the world gives, he means that the gifts of God are not conditional.

What we build up, what we are given by the society in which we live, the careers we pursue, those gifts are conditional. Lose a job, and a whole cherished way of life can be stripped from us. Homes, relationships, status—all of these can be lost, because they’re never really ours.

But what is really ours, then?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says it’s peace—“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

It might help focus our attention on what he’s giving us if we remember where we are in the Gospel. You and I may be six weeks into Easter season, but Jesus is at the Last Supper. He’s washed the feet of his disciples, he’s looking ahead to Judas’s betrayal, and Peter’s, and he’s saying that right there, right then, he is giving them peace.

So, really not as the world gives. Not power, not possessions, not status, not conditional. Something that will get the disciples through the ordeal of the morning, and strengthen them for their journey as an Easter People.


Peace doesn’t mean quiet here, or ease. But it’s hard to define what it does mean. The peace of God, which, according to Paul, surpasses all understanding, isn’t going to be captured in a single homily.

But we can begin to see aspects of Jesus’s gift of peace by watching its effects gift in the lives of the apostles.

Peter and the other apostles weren’t exactly profiles in courage prior to the Crucifixion. When the guards came to take Jesus, they ran away and hid; Peter denied knowing him. Thomas refused to believe the testimony of his sisters and brothers in God that they had seen him.

In their different ways, the Twelve were paralyzed by fear.

But after their encounters with the risen Christ, these unimpressive, deeply frightened disciples all went out and taught openly, defying the authorities. And they did it calmly, good naturedly even—not making scenes, but sharing their truth with all who would listen.

Not afraid anymore, and not with bravado—the false courage that hides fear. They knew who they were, and were going about their Father’s business.

And that self-knowledge and that calm certainty that their following Jesus was the most meaningful thing they could do freed them to communicate that self knowledge and self-acceptance to others—to Steven, the first deacons, even to Paul, who persecuted them until the discovery of his own best self knocked him to the ground. It was the very people he had persecuted who helped him to come to terms with the revolution in his own soul.

They were at peace.

But that peace isn’t that of the world—they weren’t accepted by society, they weren’t rich and respected, they weren’t popular with the Establishment.

What they were is themselves.

In his Confessions, St, Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

When St. Augustine wrote those words he was describing his own experience. This was a man who had tried living for pleasure, tried living a life of the intellect, tried living for others.

None of it worked.

He even tried the life of a religious believer. He’d joined the sect of the Manichees, who believed that the world was divided between the Light—which represented the life of the spirit—and the Dark, which represented the life of the flesh. It was a subtle faith, for educated people. The religious life structured around a parable of guilt over the desires of the flesh.

Which, as someone who was brought up a Long Island Catholic, sounds like old times to me.

But Augustine couldn’t function in that atmosphere. He couldn’t flourish in a faith that required him to embrace only part of himself. And when he learned more about the Christian faith, more about the incarnated God, something in the idea that God could be with us, could be like us, could be one of us, spoke to him with a truth that the subtleties of the Manicheans could not.

That’s because Christ promised integration, not division of the Self.

So many faiths ask us to abandon who we are, to conform to some external standard that has been imposed on us. Be a good consumer, a good employee, a good Democrat, a good Republican, a good Christian—

--oh, yes, the Church can sometimes try to divide us between the Light and the Dark, and keep only the Light. Think of the Prosperity Gospel. Think of anytime the Church or a church has stoked up anger against the other, and let us off the hook, while we cherish our own righteous indignation. We’re being invited to take one facet of ourselves as defining our whole self, and defining that Light against the Other, who is cast as the Dark.

Nice and easy. Christianity on the cheap. I’m OK because you’re not ok. Or I’m ok, because I’m not you.

But what drew Augustine in, why Augustine matters nearly 1600 years after his death, was that he lived today’s Gospel. He was restless with his life—which was a pretty good one, by most standards—until he found himself in God. He found peace, the peace Jesus left with the disciples.

How can we find that peace?

We can begin by not confusing the parts of our lives with the whole. Don’t let the roles we play in various parts of our lives become a mask to hide under. Recognize that there is more to each of us than our jobs, our careers, ourhobbies.

Do you feel restless, dissatisfied?

Good. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” If your heart is restless, you’re on the path.

So be patient with yourself. If we’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’d better have some love for ourselves. And that means patience.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find yourself impelled to do something different from what you’ve done before. Ten years ago, having just turned 40, I felt myself tugged towards ordained ministry. Here I am now.

As mid-life crises go, it’s been pretty good.

Because the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is trying to teach you something. She’s not pleading on your behalf to some hostile judge or jury. You’re the one she’s arguing with, pleading with sometimes. You’re the one she’s trying to help lead to integration, to wholeness.

If you let her, the Advocate will lead you to “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [1]

And in so doing, lead you to the Peace of Christ, which is not given as the world gives, but can be yours no matter where you are in life.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.



[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC at pp. 118-119.