The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, November 20, 2016

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

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

We live in a broken world.

Maybe it always has been broken.

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

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

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

Our world.

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

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

If only.

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

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

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

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

That we are partakers in and makers of the brokenness.

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

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

That lets us off the hook too easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget your perfect offering,

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Actor Leaves the Stage

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

And life was never quite the same again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

God rest his soul.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Finally Leaves Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see how he reached that conclusion:

And, yes, both books are now signed.