Tag Archives: christian

Eve, the Eternal Housewife

 

538px-William_Morris_John_Ball_trimmed

By artist Edward Burne-Jones for William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball. Illustrating the couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?” (Public Domain)

The translation of Ève continues.  To recap, I am translating Charles Péguy’s poem, Ève, from French to English. In the poem, Jesus delivers a long monologue to our ultimate mother, and humanity generally, about Paradise, the Fall and the Redemption.

Below is my first draft of the section of the poem where Jesus compares Eve to a housewife whose work is never done, partly because she can never be content with leaving anything alone.  This part led me to an insight about some of the people in my life, and might cause me to be more compassionate about the things they do that get on my nerves. The word Péguy uses in various forms in this section is “arrange” or “tidy up.” According to Péguy, we are plagued by an insatiable urge to bring order to chaos of the world, even though it is futile

Péguy humorously asks us to imagine Eve as the hard-charging homemaker who would ask God to wipe the mud of his shoes and then wash his hands if he ever popped in for a visit:

Woman, I tell you, you would arrange God himself

If he came to visit your house in the season.

You would arrange the shame, and the blasphemy,

If he came to visit and flatter your reason.

 

You would have tidied up the wrath of God divine.

You would have washed away the great iniquity.

The time has long since passed. You cannot take your leave,

When you are stuck in the bottom of the ravine.

 

Women, you would clean up after the explosion

If God threw a bolt down at your lowly dwelling.

You would arrange for grace, and the absolution

If God visited you in this lonely lodging.

 

You would have tidied up the first anathema,

When it came upon you in your bleak loneliness.

You would have soon placed it within your formula

Of benign government and deceptive meekness.

 

Women, you would arrange for a renewed baptism,

If John the Baptist came and entered the Jordan.

You would tidy up the host, oil, and the chrism

If the men of the world returned to the garden.

 

Women, you would sweep up like crumbs from your kitchen

The bread from My body, of the Resurrection.

Instead you have stored up from your false religion,

The dry crumbled leaves from the tree of rejection.

 

You would sweep up the leaves from the red Tree of Life

Even after I sprang into the deepest womb.

You would demand to be the attending midwife

Even after I stepped from the mouth of the tomb

I know one woman I will call the Narrator. The day’s schedule is narrated to everyone several times a day. “First we are doing this, and at 4 o’clock we have to go to dinner, and then … ” If we are at a restaurant, the menu selections are read aloud and recommendations given to the other members of the dining party.

Another one I will call the Arranger.  If you leave a half-empty glass of water, tea or coffee by itself for five minutes, it will magically disappear, and reappear, emptied, in a kitchen sink.  Half-read magazines will be put away if left unattended too long.

There is another I would call the Director.  As you can guess, she likes to give directions to everyone about just about everything, no matter how small.

There is a certain lack of self-awareness in these behaviors. And they persist despite objection. And I can see now that it’s not really their fault, as it’s a consequence of original sin. Eve was not content in the garden, she felt she had to arrange for man’s destiny through knowledge of good and evil. Her daughters are cursed, on an almost unconscious level,  to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together for the rest of human history, and it shows up at the micro level in the most mundane things.

I don’t intend to leave men off the hook. Men have tried to “arrange” the world and humanity throughout history, though our errors are more apparent on the macro level: the misuse of political power, the abuse and exploitation of natural resources, or unethical scientific research and discovery, to name a few.

If we are listening to Jesus and his Mother, the best attitude includes letting things be. Yes, we must fulfill our daily obligations and take care of what has been entrusted to us, but you will never achieve perfection.  Whatever leisure or “free time” you have been gifted by God can always be consumed by an inordinate desire for order, if you let it.

 

 

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What Follows Politics: De Lubac Responds to Charles Péguy

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(This is more a note to myself, connecting some dots as I work my way through Péguy.)

One of Charles Péguy’s famous quotes is: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

This was something he learned from the Dreyfus Affair, a political controversy that tore France apart for about a decade.  While Péguy was on the right side of the conflict, he felt that the winners wasted their victory through an unjust and unworthy political power grab.

He made this observation years later in his book, Notre Jeunesse (translated as “Memories of Youth”).  Péguy reflected that great movements often spring from a mysterious, almost spiritual, yearning to set things right. However, because of original sin, whatever victories or progress we win harden into a rather ordinary political party, program or bureaucracy. Many idealistic young people who vote for a politician wind up being somewhat disappointed within a few years. The lesson is that it is beyond our ability to permanently “set things right”, and therefore we must be very fluid, very pliant to where the Holy Spirit wants to take us next. Don’t rest on any worldly laurels.

Cardinal Henri De Lubac responded to Péguy, I think, years later.  In the essay titled “A Christian Explanation for Our Times”, published in 1942 (and collected by Ignatius in  Theology in History), he described what follows the politics that had succeeded mysticism:

It is then that substitute faiths inevitably present themselves to fill this tragic void. Such is the fourth and final period of the process. Man is not satisfied by ideologies cut off from any source of real efficacy: the hour must come when he is disenchanted with them. He lives still less from criticism and negations. He does not live by laicism and neutrality. Inevitably something like a great call for air is produced in his inner void, which opens him to the invasion of new positive forces, whatever they might be. The latter conquer him all the more quickly, the more coarse and virulent they are. Cut off from a higher life, he gives in to the brutal pressures that, at least, give him the feeling of a life. Having abused criticism to make truth itself vanish, he now dislikes using it to protect his mirages.

A troubled credulity succeeds his faith. Rationalism has expelled mystery: myth takes its place. We know great examples of this.

(emphasis added)

Writing in 1942, De Lubac was referring to the mythology of Nazi Germany: its Aryan race doctrine, its occult pageantry, etc.  Mysticism had been expelled, but politics and reason were soon banished as well.

I find De Lubac’s observation to be an excellent lens through which to view subsequent history.  Reason and science were too dry for our taste buds, and we have embraced a host of myth “isms” as a substitute. They are not a religion in name, but are so in practice. Daedalus, Sisyphus and Tiresias stride the earth once more. And their progeny follow: a new Talos,  a new Chimera, etc.

And if you oppose them, you are an enemy of that myth.  You cannot beat these new mythologies purely with reason or politics. You must return to faith, and the tools of faith, to respond. The ancient world was laid to rest by Jesus, but the de-Christianization of the world has allowed it to return as a revenant.

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Games the Angels Play

Edward_Burne-Jones_-_An_Angel_Playing_a_Flageolet

An Angel Playing a Flageolet, Edward Burne-Jones 

 

(The translation of Ève is coming along nicely. I’ve translated a little over 8% of the poem in the last few weeks. I think it is the longest poem ever written in French, at over 200 pages, so I will be happy to be done by the end of the year.)

This is in part a confessional blog, so let me confess that I am continually struck by the truth of what the novelist Georges Bernanos wrote: Sin makes us live on the surface of ourselves, and we will only come home to ourselves to die. And he awaits us there.

You are more likely to find your heart’s content, in part (this being the shadowland), the less sin and the more grace you have in your life. I have gone from spending a lot of time on sports, tv and politics (which were very unsatisfying anyway) to pretty much ignoring them. Classical music and poetry are my brand new passions, after ignoring them like some  homely wall flowers all my life. Translating French poems into English and trying to learn how to write my own poems is very satisfying, even if its purely a hobby.

I noticed an instructional book at B&N over the weekend, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie, that looks pretty good, which I may buy. If anyone has an opinion on it, please comment.

What follows is a simple, baby poem, but a good practice exercise nonetheless.  Rhymed couplets, eight syllables per line.  Initially I was trying for iambic tetrameter, but I do not have the discipline yet to work at poem long enough to create a consistent meter throughout. This was ripped off pretty quickly. I will probably never write anything but earnest religious poetry, and in this I try to sum up a lot of what I have read and learned the last few years.

 

GAMES THE ANGELS PLAY

 

There is a game the angels play,

They fold their wings and fall away.

 

Carried high on the winds of love,

They put their trust in God above.

 

There is no fear, there is no doubt,

Their bodies limp and blown about.

 

We hope to join them in the sky,

But first a child must learn to fly.

 

The lesson imparts hurt and shame,

You bear within the ancient blame.

 

But if you start to learn to cry,

You may grow wings before you die.

 

As you lay the weight on the ground,

Your soul begins to fly around.

 

And joins the dance up in the air,

And clasps the hands of the angels fair.

 

But first do find the partner true,

The one who gave his life for you.

 

He knows the dance and how to move,

There is no skill that you must prove.

 

No mighty faith nor works you need,

Just be content with him the lead.

 

And walk along the little way,

His heart will teach you how to pray.

 

And listen to the holy dove,

Who flies about the air above.

 

And when your time has reached its end,

Comes the hand of a silent friend.

 

This guardian you never heard,

Will take you to the living word.

 

You will learn your true name that day,

And join the games the angels play.

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Ève by Charles Péguy, in English

illustration-eve

 

(Update January 2018: I stopped working on this in mid-2017, and set it aside to see if I my interest would rekindle. It has not, so I have updated this post to reflect the most recent translation of the first 6-7% of the poem. I actually translated about 10%, but the last 3% percent was pretty bad. The more time I spent on this, I realized its not feasible to do a good translation and preserve the French Alexandrine Péguy’used. It just doesn’t sound very good, though this probably reflects a lot of my limitations as a non-French speaker and amateur poet. And as even Von Balthasar said in one book, the poem  is simply too long, though it may sound wonderful in French …. If a complete translation is ever to be attempted, it may be better to go with a free verse version, or to try Lady Lamb’s approach where the structure and rhyme scheme is preserved, but significant changes are made to the syntax, word choice, etc.)

Ève was Charles Péguy’s longest and last major poem, originally published in his literary journal in 1914. It was written in what are known as quatrains, four line stanzas using alternating rhymes. It also uses a form of French Alexandrine, a syllabic poetic meter.  Given that this was a tightly structured and very long poem (over 9000 lines), its not surprising that it has not been fully translated into English. Three small sections are available in The Holy Innocents and Other Poems, a collection of Péguy’s poems translated by Lady Pansy Lamb (what a name!), writing under her maiden name of Pansy Pakenham.  Of course, that book is out of print, and may be hard to find.

The poem, described as a Christian Epic by some, is essentially a long speech directed by Christ to Eve. Here Christ apparently stands outside time, surveying the history of Man. The three epochs or conditions covered are the time of Paradise, the time after the Fall, and the time after the Redemption.

At this blog I have often complained about the fact that a lot of great Catholic literature and poetry is either out of print or has never been translated into English. So instead of always complaining about this, I will attempt to do my part to resolve it. This will take a long time, perhaps a year or so, so blogging may be intermittent in the meantime.

This will be done in free verse. I do not know French, and am not a poet, so it’s quite beyond my ability to reproduce the meter or consistently rhyme. (* Changed my mind. I am getting the hang of this, and think I can rhyme most of it.  I will also use syllabic meter, and try to have the same number of syllables per line within each quatrain. The meter will vary by quatrain though. And this will take longer). I will start with Google Translate, which appears to be the best, free online translation software, as well as French to English online dictionaries.

I will try to rhyme where the opportunity presents itself, but I won’t force the poem to do so.  Lady Lamb’s three excerpts do use alternating rhyme, and sound wonderful, but her achievement is beyond my ability.  She also made substantial changes to word order and content of the individual lines to do this. Something substantive may be lost in this, but I am not qualified to criticize her choices. *As I said above, I have changed my approach. I am going to keep Peguy’s French Alexandrine meter for each line: twelve syllables divided into two half-lines of six syllables each, separated by a caesura. And also his paired rhymes, which use an ABBA or ABAB rhyme scheme. English syllablic verse does not sound as good to the ear as accentual or accentual-syllabic verse, but it is truly beyond my ability to create an accentual verse translation for a poem this long. (January 2018 Update. After reading Mary Oliver’s book on poetry, I appreciate why Peguy used the long 12 syllable line. Oliver argued that lines with more than 10 syllables were best used when the speaker was divine, such as God. It gives each line some extra heft.)

It’s fair to argue that you cannot translate this kind of poem without doing too much violence to it. Like all his poems, they are better appreciated in French.  My focus is on capturing the tone, imagery and religious symbolism.

Another problem is that this is a very dense poem, and Péguy uses idiom, puns and allusions to stay within the bounds of the quatrain. He was also his own typesetter, and others have written that his spelling and grammar are “incorrect” at times, either accidentally or deliberately in order to preserve the rhyme and meter. As good as Google is, I cannot simply accept the results it gives. Below is a link to a Google translated version of the poem, which is available in French at wikisource.

https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/%25C3%2588ve&prev=search

In the original French its this.

Google’s translation, while technically getting most of the words “correct”, often sounds really bad, and misses the idioms, allusions, and puns. It does not attempt to recapture the rhyme or meter.  So I do have to change quite a bit of the word order, substitute synonyms, etc. to improve the flow and capture what I think the true intent was.

For example, Google translates one of the early paragraphs as:

And to measure well their original strength

And to put their steps on these soft carpets,

And these two beautiful runners on oneself carpet

In order to salute their solemn slowness.

What? I think Peguy is attempting to describe a doe and buck at rest after they have been running around Paradise.

I changed this to:

And the preservation of their immortal worth

And the resting of their hooves on the carpet blest,

And the laying of the two beauties on the earth,

Which serenely welcomed their most languorous rest.

That’s not going to win any awards, but I like to think it makes more sense and sounds better than Google.

Also, there are many subtle allusions.  A later paragraph Google translates as:

And all these spinners and spinners

Mingling and unraveling the skein of their course,

And in the golden sand of the nebulous waves

Seven articulated nails cut the Great Bear.

The “Great Bear” is the constellation Ursa Major, which is part of the Big Dipper. What is he describing?

In French, this reads:

Et tous ces filateurs et toutes ces fileuses

Mêlant et démêlant l’écheveau de leur course,

Et dans le sable d’or des vagues nébuleuses

Sept clous articulés découpaient la Grande Ourse.

“Sept clous articules” translates variously as “seven stud nails” and elsewhere I get “seven hinged nails.” I have also seen “articules” used in French sentences to describe “swiveling” or “swivel.”

Péguy is describing the night sky as seen by Eve in the last two lines. I think the picture he is asking us to see is this:

810px-Dipper_constellations_(PSF)

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great and Little Bear

Ursa Minor or the “Little Bear” includes the star Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or North Star. It is close to the celestial pole, which remains a fixed point in the night sky.  The rest of the stars appear to swivel, or rotate around Polaris.  The Little Bear is composed of seven stars, or the “seven stud nails” that Peguy alludes to with “sept clous articules.” So the Great Bear swivels, circles, or goes around the Little Bear in the starry night sky, which Péguy describes as “golden stars” and “wavy spiral arms”. So I translated this as:

And all these spinning ones and all these weaving ones

Tying and untying their knotted silk fiber,

Amid the golden stars and wavy spiral arms,

The Great Bear circled all around the Little Bear.

 

This is my own interpretation, and may be completely wrong.  But given the paired animals of the earlier quatrains (goat and roe, buck and doe, etc.), I think he intended to describe two bears. And even if its right, it took a lot of time just to figure out this one line. The allusion, if I am reading it correctly, may be completely obvious to a native French speaker.

Finally, I probably should not dignify this by calling it a “translation,” as I am not a translator. At best it is a sketch or rough draft of a translation. My hope would be that a real translator, student, teacher or writer who is both fluent in French and has a lot of free time  would take interest in this and polish and edit it after I am done.  The first part is below, which represents about 4% of the poem (January 2018 update: The revised excerpt at the end is probably about 6-7% of the poem).

I will attach a complete PDF or Word document to the blog when (and if) I am done. Its possible I may get tired or grow bored with this.  I may sprinkle a few updates in the blog as the work progresses.

The poem is also available as an ebook at Amazon for a dollar or two.

*(Below is a revised excerpt, which follows Péguy’s approach in using a French Alexandrine meter, with a paired rhyme scheme in each quatrain)

(January 2018 Update.  Below is a revised attempt at translation, it is also a bit longer than my prior effort. As I said in the January 2018 update at the beginning of the post, I don’t plan to work on this any more.)

 

JESUS SPEAKS:

 

O my Mother buried beyond the first garden,

You no longer know of the kingdom of grace,

From the basin and spring to the high starlit place,

And the virgin sun that unveiled the first morning.

 

And the twists and the turns of the deer and the hind

Winding and unwinding in their friendly chase

And the sprints and the leaps that eventually end

And the celebration of their eternal race.

 

And the honoring of their original worth

And the resting of their hooves on the carpet blest,

And the laying of the two beauties on the earth,

Which serenely welcomed their most languorous rest.

 

And the rising rapture of the childlike gazelle

Lacing and unlacing his wandering trace,

Galloping and trotting and ending his chase,

And the salutation of his spirit vernal.

 

And the navigation of the goat and the roe

The crossing and curling of their audacious road.

And the sudden ascent to some immense plateau

And the salutation of their spacious abode.

 

And all these spinning ones and all these weaving ones

Tying and untying their knotted silk fiber,

Amid the golden stars and wavy spiral arms,

The Great Bear circled all around the Little Bear.

 

And these inventors and these embroiderers

Amid winding mazes of their organic lace.

And the fine surveyors from among these menders

Were rounding the corners of a hexahedron’s face.

 

A dawning creation without a single care

Turning and returning to the curves of the orb.

And the nut and the acorn the pome and the sorb

Under the teeth sweeter than the plum and the pear.

 

You remember no more the soft soil maternal

Its lush breasts exciting the many rising ears,

And your breed nursing from the numerous udders

And a chaste nature born from a body carnal.

 

You remember no more the soil all sable,

Nor the silence the shade and the white grape cluster,

Nor the ocean of wheat and weight of the table,

And the days of pleasure trailing one another.

 

You remember no more this plain in the summer,

Nor the oats and the rye and their overflowing,

Nor the vine and trellis and the flowers growing,

And the days of pleasure trailing one another.

 

You remember no more this dirt like a wellspring,

Which goes dull by the dint of being nourishing;

You remember no more the green vine flourishing,

And the amber wheat that shot up for your offspring.

 

You remember no more the tree red with apples

That bends under the weight at the harvest season;

You remember no more in front of your chapel

The youthful wheat springing right up for your children.

 

What since that dread day has become the sucking slime

Was then both a fulsome and a compliant soil;

And the Lady Wisdom and great King Solomon

Would not have divided the man from the angel.

 

What since that sad day has become the broken sum

Was obtained without a total or addition;

Lady Wisdom sitting on the Hill of Zion

Was no angel saving man from his destruction.

 

You remember neither this wide sweeping grassland,

Nor the secret ravine with the sharp slopes rising,

Nor the changing canvas of deep shadows falling.

Nor the valley sides as rich as fine porcelain.

 

You remember no more the gold seasons crowning

Dancing the same rhythm while still keeping the rhyme;

You remember no more the thrill of the springtime,

And the deeper sway of the cold seasons frowning.

 

You remember no more the bright dawning flowers

Flowing from the summits in rich drenching showers;

You remember no more the depths of the arcade,

And from the cypress tops the well-awarded shade.

 

You remember no more all the new years rising

Singing like a choir that summits the aeon.

You remember no more the start of the season

The chaste entwining of the sisters embracing.

 

You remember no more the seasons well aligned

Equal and happy at the times of the ebbing;

You remember no more the springtime returning

The seasons unfolding and straightened within time.

 

You remember no more the seasons returning

Sharing an equal joy in a frisson of time;

You remember no more the coming of springtime

The lithe winding of the seasons diverting.

 

You remember no more, one pole to the other

The earth rocking gently as a pretty cradle;

And the harsh withdrawal and the sudden departure

Of a young season that perished from betrayal.

 

You remember no more, one pole to the other

The earth sailing smoothly as a fine three-master;

And renunciation, and the harsh departure

Of the season that dies from the frosty weather.

 

You remember no more, one pole to the other,

The earth balanced as well as a mighty tower;

And the cold diversion and the ivory pallor

Of an old season that dies now and forever.

 

What since elder days has become an endless toil

Was then the nectar of the rich and fertile soil.

And no one understood the dread ancestral woe.

And no one put their hand to the crook and the hoe.

 

What since elder days has become a painful death

Was only a normal and tranquil departure.

Happiness pressed on man with every joyful breath.

The embarking was like leaving a sweet harbor.

 

Happiness flowed like some ale over a spillway,

The soul was a still pond of deepening silence.

The rising sun made a glowing golden monstrance

And reverberated in a bright silver day.

 

The censor made vapors like a sweet-smelling balm

And the red cedars were rising like barricades.

And the days of rapture were growing colonnades.

And all things were at rest in the grey evening calm.

 

And the wide earth was but a vast altar of peace.

And the ripe fruit always ready on the tall trees,

And the long days were scribed on the tombs of marble

In all they were but a splendid serving table.

 

And the wide earth was but a vast sylvan courtyard.

And the fruit all piled at the bottom of the trees,

And the days aligned down through the marble ages

In all they were but a sweet blooming orchard.

 

And the wide earth was but a tone garden of herbs.

And man was here at home while the pretty buds flowered,

And man respected by all the beasts and their herds

An amicable and benevolent shepherd.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Both resting and leaning onto His creation.

And with a love that was loyal yet paternal

Was then nourished by its homage and libation.

 

And God Himself alone holy and eternal

Had weighed the planet on his merciful balance.

And then considered with a regard paternal

The man of his image and of his resemblance.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Saw the inception of a new flowering age.

And the Father watching with a gaze paternal

The world brought together as a humble village.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Meditated on the splitting of night and day.

And he contemplated with a gaze paternal

The world timbered from wood into a fine chalet.

 

 

And God Himself one youthful yet eternal

Measuring all kairos and the plentiful age;

Fatherly considered with a gaze paternal

The world circumscribed like a beautiful village.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Made plans for going on a trip and the return.

And the Father watching with a gaze paternal

The world gathered around like an enormous burgh.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Started calculating the extent of the years.

And constantly watching with a gaze paternal

The seasons’ crown passing among the four sisters.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Saw the beginning of the chora and kairos.

And calmly looking down with a gaze paternal

Saw the reflection of God on its countenance.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Saw the beginning of the chora and kairos.

And quietly watching with a gaze paternal,

Saw the perfect image of God in every locus.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Saw the beginning of kairos and the cosmos.

Fatherly considered with a gaze paternal,

That the world is fading and a thing that passes.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Saw the first budding of a garden that says yes.

This Florist regarded with a gaze paternal

The blooming of a world putting on its best dress.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Marveled at the scale of the great sprawling spaces.

He then considered with a gaze paternal,

The relaxation of a world in its paces.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

A spectator watching the games of a young age.

Looking quietly with a gaze paternal,

He considered himself in man’s mirror image

 

And God Himself youthful holy and eternal

Laughed indulgently at the wishes of youth.

Prudently He then watched with a gaze paternal,

The world all dressed up in its own birthday suit.

 

And God Himself youthful holy and eternal

Looked at how the children of the primal age are.

Watching impartially with a gaze paternal

The world sailing along a beautiful seashore.

 

And God Himself youthful holy and eternal

Counted on his one hand the number of infants.

Cautiously he watched with a gaze paternal

The younger girl who was the last of the twins.

 

And God Himself youthful holy and eternal

Noticed the playing of children with their rattles.

Cautiously he watched with a gaze paternal

Like a mother leans on the sides of two cradles.

 

God Himself leaning then over love eternal

Noticed her flourish in their little dwellings.

And Fatherly he saw with a love maternal

It doubly shared between the two beautiful twins.

 

God himself bending then over love solemnly

Noticed her flourish in the two little dwellings.

And Fatherly he saw the love joyfully

Being spoken between the two beautiful twins.

 

God Himself bent over the flower eternal

Watching her blooming at the tips of the new stems.

And God himself leaning on a love fraternal

Watched her germinating in the hearts of the twins.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of the laughter of the age

Impartially he watched with a gaze paternal

The world grouped together on a beautiful stage.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of the weeping of the age.

Impartially he watched with a gaze paternal

The world embarking on a golden pilgrimage.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of the crying of the age.

Impartially he watched with a gaze paternal

The world sailing away on an ocean voyage

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of the kissing of the day.

Impartially he watched with a gaze paternal

The world raising anchor and sailing far away.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of bold and careless thinking.

He watched anxiously and with a gaze paternal

The world sailing to the threshold of a sinking.

 

And God Himself holy youthful yet eternal

Watched the beginning of the advancing of age.

With a look always young and always paternal

He saw the beginning of a world growing sage.

 

And God Himself holy thoughtful and eternal

Considered all his work and found it a wonder.

From the first diamond to the final black cinder,

He enveloped it all with a gaze paternal.

 

And God himself holy blessed and eternal

Considered all his work and found it to be good

And that he was perfect and there was no falsehood

And it unfolded in an order paternal.

 

And the creation was like a mighty tower

That rises high above as an immense palace.

And kairos and chora provided the passage.

And the days of pleasure were like a sweet bower.

 

And the fidelities were strong as a tower.

And kairos and chora were waiting like footmen

And kairos and chora protected the deadline.

And the fidelities were not a fin’amor.

 

A God Himself holy, author and eternal

Considered all his work and found it a wonder.

From the apple blossom to the thistle flower,

He enveloped everything with a gaze paternal.

 

A God Himself holy, august and eternal

Saw only decency and a love filial.

And the world of spirit and the world temporal

Was before his true eyes a temple lilial.

 

A God Himself holy, father and eternal

Saw everywhere his sons and the sons of his sons.

And the fields of meslin, beside the fields of maize

Were before his eyes as the cloth of the altar.

 

A God Himself holy, youthful yet eternal

Saw then the universe as a boundless legacy.

A world without offense, a world without mercy

Developing the folds of an order formal.

 

A new God Himself one, holy and eternal

Saw then the inception of youthful novelty.

Fatherly watching with a gaze paternal

He beheld the real Form of emerging beauty.

 

A good God well-meaning, holy and eternal

Considered his work and then found it to be pure.

A cultivating God, economic and real

He saw the rye yellow and thought it was mature.

 

A fair statuesque God, holy and eternal

Considered his work and thought it was beautiful.

From the first fold and to the final crucible

There was one asylum equal and fraternal.

 

You remember no more this bright coat of rapture

Thrown over the shoulders for the world’s blessedness,

And this river and this flood and this genesis,

And gentle submission to the rules of honor.

 

You remember no more this cloak of tenderness

Thrown over the whole soul and this cape of honor.

You no longer experienced this chaste caress

And gentle submission to the rules of rapture.

 

You remember no more this bright coat of goodness

Thrown upon a whole world and this benevolence,

And this multitude and the ancient excellence,

And this cool solitude and this honest firmness.

 

You remember no more this satin coat of grace

Thrown upon the people and in great joyfulness

An entire world swollen with the same tenderness

From the close-cropped surface to the final terrace.

 

You remember no more this august wedding feast,

And the sap and the blood purer than morning dew.

The young soul had put on her snowy bridal dress,

And the whole earth inhaled the lavender and rue.

 

And the young man’s body was then very chaste

And the regard of man was a fathomless pool.

And the pleasure of man was then so vast

And the goodness of man was like a priceless jewel.

 

You remember no more the innocence of earth

The storehouse crowded to the front of the portal.

You remember no more this wild breed giving birth

And the meadows streaming with the immense cattle.

 

You remember no more the austere destiny.

You remember no more the revitalized earth

You remember no more the passion clandestine.

You remember no more the deeply covered earth.

 

You remember no more the wheat a vast blanket

And the sheaves rising to assault the granaries.

You remember no more the tireless grapevines.

And the clusters mounting to assault the basket.

 

You remember no more the enduring footsteps,

And the harvest rising in flight like some insects.

The grape harvest rising to assault the baskets.

The shoes of the pickers left some sandy footprints.

 

You remember no more the yawning cistern,

And the harvest rising to assault the millstone.

You remember no more the one wandering soul

And the suspicious steps on the paths through the shoal.

 

You remember no more the everlasting days,

And the grapes rising up to assault the vintner.

And the trellis rising to assault the farmer.

And the sumptuous steps on the sandy pathways.

 

You remember no more the involuntary corn,

You have known nothing but poor and futile plowing.

You have known nothing but poor and futile loving.

You have only known the dour worldly scorn.

 

You remember no more corn unforgettable.

You have known nothing but the harvested seasons.

And from the hills of the dying evergreen trees

You saw the starting of the days implacable.

 

You only remember cisterns leaking,

And the meager pastures and the meager plowing.

And the meager measures and the meager loving.

And the highest plateau of the cedars rotting.

 

 

 

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Charles Peguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc”

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(Thanks for all the likes in response to the recent poems. Writing poetry was certainly never on my bucket list, and its a relief that they weren’t complete disasters.)

I mentioned in a prior post I was going to provide excerpts from some of the French poet Charles Péguy’s major works.  He was the one who inspired me to write a few. The thing about his major poems is that they are very, very long, sometimes running into hundreds of pages. You will either love them or be very bored by them. It’s ok.

The following excerpt is from his 1910 poem (though some call it a play) Le Mystére de la Charité de Jeanne D’Arc. This translates into English as The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. It is the first part of a trilogy, the other two being The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents.  All three are hard to come by in libraries, and the first and third are out of print. Péguy had planned to write as many as fifteen mysteries on various topics of faith, but he tragically died too soon at the age of 41.

It is hard to describe this one. It reminds me a lot of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogs. There are three speaking roles, Joan, her friend Hauviette, and a local nun, named Madame Gervaise. The events, which occupy the space of an afternoon, occur in Joan’s village before she begins her quest to save France. There are long stretches that are akin to poetry, and other sections of ordinary dialog.

The part I am going to quote comes at the beginning, when Joan is considering the plight of France during its war with England. It almost reminds me of a Psalm of lamentation from the Old Testament. This is all spoken by Joan:

Our father, our father who art in heaven, how far is your name from being hallowed; how far is your kingdom from coming.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of the earth.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of France.

Our father, our father who art in Heaven, how far is your will from being done; how far are we from being given our daily bread.

How far are we from forgiving those who trespass against us; and not succumbing to temptation; and being delivered from evil.

That was just the warm up. The better part, which speaks to our Christian frustration follows in a few excerpts:

O God, if we could only see the beginning of your kingdom. If we could only see the sun of your kingdom rise. But there is nothing, there is never anything. You have sent us your son whom you loved so dearly, your son came, who suffered so much, and died. And now, nothing. There is never anything. If we could only see the daybreak of your kingdom. And you have sent us your saints, you have called each one of them by his name, your other sons the saints and your daughters the saints, and your saints have come, men and women, and now nothing, there is never anything.

Years have gone by, so many years that I cannot count them; centuries of years have gone by; fourteen centuries of Christianity, alas, since the nativity, and death and preaching. And now nothing, nothing, ever. And what reigns on the face of the earth is nothing but perdition.

You have sent us your son and the other saints. And nothing flows upon the face of the earth but a stream of ingratitude and perdition. God, God, will it have to be that your son died in vain?

And not only do temptations besiege us, but temptations triumph, and temptations reign, and it is the reign of temptation, and the reign of the kingdoms of the earth have fallen into the reign of the kingdom of temptation, and the evil succumb to the temptation to do evil … but the good, who were good, succumb to a temptation infinitely worse: the temptation to believe they have been forsaken by you.

Her friend Hauviette, commenting on this, accuses Joan of trying to pick a fight with Jesus. Themes of despair, damnation and others are explored.

Peguy wrote a sequel, called The Mystery of the Vocation of Joan of Arc.  It is set some time later. It was published posthumously, and never translated into English.

P.S. There appear to be two English translations. The more recent, which has a reddish cover, only gives you about half the poem. The full version runs about 200 pages.

 

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God’s Calling Card

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I took a walk yesterday with two of my female friends during our lunch break. It was a beautiful day, but a front was moving through the area. The wind was playing havoc with their hoodies, and whipping that glorious hair of theirs all around. They were laughing at the sight of themselves, and a woman’s happy laughter is a special kind of music that I think only a man can fully enjoy.

I had been teasing them about showing up for work on Wednesday, in spite of it being “A Day Without Women”, and asked if they should turn in their “Woman Cards.” One half-jokingly wished that she did have a woman card to pull out from time to time. We laughed some more and finished our walk.

The wind was blowing, but I had not been listening closely enough. If I had, what I hoped I would have said was: “You don’t need one. You are God’s calling card.”

Genesis describes God as sending woman to be man’s, and by extension the world’s, helper, and that she was the last thing that was made. She was God’s calling card to the world and endowed with that special genius for love.

Sin forces us to live on our surface, and its often hard to see the true image of what we are meant to be beneath another’s face. Through the mystery of Charity women have the ability, on some level conscious or unconscious, to see underneath, much of the time. It’s a love I see whether they are taking care of a sick child home from school, or a dying relative in a nursing home. Love overcomes any repulsion for sickness and death. I certainly don’t have that natural inclination. Or it shows in the often very tedious and unglamorous work that happens behind the scenes at your church or a local charity. Their heart sees the image in people they may never actually lay eyes on.

And its a love that let’s a woman see the true image of a man beneath the broken shards on the surface. I’m sure many a man has thought, bewilderingly, what does she see in me? Especially, when one may not even be physically attractive.  How am I good enough for her?  I thought that way much of my life, and missed many opportunities for love. What I missed was that woman was a living symbol that love is greater than any flaw or sin. (It can also cause a little frustration, when a woman naturally wants to help a man “change” and fulfill the great potential she sees inside. Some progress is possible, but the final transformation will only happen after death. Patience is a virtue!)

Paul said that “Woman is the glory of man,”  in that sometimes controversial letter of his. I am not sure exactly what he meant, but I like Adam’s reaction to his first sight of Eve:

Adam is talking to himself … out loud. And he says more than one word, like a few sentences actually…

We don’t do that a lot. There are a lot of adjectives that probably exist only to describe the behavior of men: aloof, reticent, dour, taciturn, reserved, stoic, etc.

Adam was dazzled by this “glory” from God.

Women, thank you for being you.

 

 

 

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The Mystery of Beauty

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Christ and Two Marys, William Holman Hunt

“Beauty will save the world!” the old man said.

But my son did not pray for the world.

Its stones, crowns and kingdoms held no light for him.

My only son, my beautiful son.

Who looked like Mary his mother, an echo of Eve,

She who was never marred by sin.

Like lightning striking a fig tree,

he could root you to the earth with a look.

He did not call down fire from Heaven,

for he was the fire, and those who drew near were scorched by his beauty.

And never was he more beautiful than on that one day, that singular day,

when he opened himself to the world, the world he did not pray for.

There was no beauty to be found for three days after,

for he was wandering the lands of the dead, looking for your new face.

Like Psyche, he returned with a prize, and he had saved the world

and your race, while finding Beauty.

And then he came back to me, the son who I had missed for so long.

But first he gave Beauty to the world,

and she came forth, veiled, from the Tomb in a new gown.

An unstained garment.

“You are beautiful,” he said, “But you will serve your sisters.”

And there he made the fateful introduction, for standing on either side of him

were Truth and Goodness.

They were not afraid of her, nor jealous, nor covetous.

Having Charity, they loved her, having Faith, they never doubted her,

and having Hope, they would never give up on her.

These three girl cousins, who walked the road with the newly acquainted sisters,

who have their own story, gave the new one their blessing.

This beautiful new sister.

She is the bold one, Beauty, though she is veiled.

She is the first one to greet you, the first one you see,

though you will never see her face till you enter her home,

where she lives with her sisters, my son and his mother.

There she will possess you and be possessed by you in a lasting embrace,

and no veil will divide her from you, or you from my son.

(My beautiful son, who saved the world).

But you cannot cling to her now, only after you ascend to me, your Father.

This is my will for you and her, my dutiful daughter, Beauty.

She is beautiful because she points away from herself,

to Truth and Goodness.

That is why she captures your eyes, and makes them hers.

Yet she frees them, and when she turns her head,

you must follow the path of her gaze, which leads to her sisters.

If you cling to her, Beauty fades and withers.

She is delicate as a breeze, a scent, or a whisper.

Her gown softly rustles as she approaches,

she likes to come upon you unawares, when you are defenseless.

Treat her well, this dutiful daughter of mine,

who helps my son to save the world.

 

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Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World

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Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the movie adaptation of The Two Towers, Theoden chants a portion of the above poem  as the darkness closes in. He then asks aloud: “How did it come to this?” Archbishop Chaput, in this survey of contemporary America, proposes to answer this question, among some others, including, “What Comes Next?” While he is writing primarily for a Catholic audience, I think Christians of other faiths grappling with the current problems may find it very helpful.

The book’s title comes from Exodus 2:22, where Moses names his firstborn son, particularly the King James Version:

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

It is thought that this was a reference to Moses time in Egypt, a “strange land” for a Hebrew. Moses later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt after he accepts a mission from God. America is arguably the “strange land” now, where man has taken the place of God, and we build large monuments to ourselves.

Archbishop Chaput may be the closest thing to a “public intellectual” among the American Catholic Church’s leadership.  After reading the book, I can tell he is extremely well read, and conversant with the ideas and arguments of artists, scholars and activists from all corners: Alexis De Tocqueville, Saul Alinsky, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, etc. He is also very conversant with all the more recent big thinkers in Catholic theology, as would be expected (De Lubac, Balthasar, etc.).

I am often interested in writers’ last names, specifically their origin. Chaput is a French name, and apparently means the “wearer of a distinctive cloak or hat”, and is derived from the French word for “chapel.” Certainly an appropriate last name for  a Catholic Bishop.  He should probably be made a Cardinal, but he is a little too forthright for that to happen anytime soon.

Chaput’s purpose is try to and help Catholics and other Christians (its not just for Catholics) understand how we got to this point. He argues that the roots go far back beyond the upheavals of the last fifty years. Essentially, he agrees with De Tocqueville’s observation that democracy is only as good as the people who live there.  Our ancestors, regardless of their party, accepted that they were sinners, were accountable to God for their actions, and accordingly went about governing this country with greater humility, caution and tolerance for those who disagreed with them.

That has changed. While the vast majority of people still believe in a higher power, more people than at any other time have substituted the worldly project of utopia for faith in God. When you don’t put God first, you make a God of other things.  Thus political candidates, parties and public policies have substituted for Jesus, Church and the Sacraments. God is a means to the worldly end, and not the End. The great joke about building utopias is that the word means “nowhere”, as St. Thomas More invented it in his semi-satirical exercise in imagining a perfect world.

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter summary. The first chapter is a particularly strong overview of the current situation. The next several get into “How did it come to this?”

The later part of the book is focused on “what to do”, and “what comes next?”.  Chaput may not agree with the ideas laid out in books like “Resident Aliens” (a chapter title), and is probably not a fan of what is known as the “Benedict Option”, referring to the monastic community of St. Benedict.   In those ideas, Christians sort of withdraw from the world and public sphere and focus on living prayerful, purpose filled lives. Sort of like islands in the storm of barbarism.Rather, I think Archbishop Chaput would prefer us to remain engaged, part of the world, even if we don’t expect solutions from the political process. He gives examples and encourages us to stand fast.

So, what does come next?  A lot of heavyweight Catholic philosophers and theologians have wrestled with a theology of history over the past century or so: Romano Guardini (The End of the Modern World), Josef Pieper (The End of Time), and Hans Urs Von Balthasar (A Theological Anthropology), for example. Pope Francis in particular seems to like Guardini, and is particularly fond of the novel Lord of the World, a fictional exercise in imagining the next phase.

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Guardini, writing after WW2, argued that the great Modern project had failed, and that something new must take its place. Guardini hoped that a new man, fully converted, would be able to:

… see through the illusions which reign in the midst of scientific and technological development: the deception behind the ‘liberal’s’ idolatry of culture, behind the totalitarian’s utopia, the tragecist’s pessimism; behind modern mythicism and the hermaphrodite world of psychoanalysis. He would see and know for himself [that] Reality is simply not like that!”

I don’t think that’s happened. Rather, the world seems to have tired of postmodernism’s irony, and are interested in rebooting Modernism 2.0. Thus the great interest in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Genetic Engineering, Virtual Reality, Life Extension, etc. Modernism failed because Man was not Modern, but now he can be remade through a trans-human ideology and technology. This helps explain in part why the transgender issue is so hot right now. Its just part of Modernism 2.0. Elon Musk seems a particularly prominent spokesman for Modernism 2.0, watch him to see how the new narrative continues to develop.

So, what we are left with is just plain old witness, and the readiness to stake everything on God. But as Chaput notes at several points, its not enough to ignore the world, or hope for a separate peace. You will not be allowed to disengage and retire to a monastic community.  You may not be interested in Modernism 2.0, but its interested in you. It wants your affirmation and approval, not acceptance. It will keep pushing on all fronts: public  education, workplace rules, health care, public expression, the role of parents over their children’s upbringing, etc. Chaput encourages us to continue our witness in the public square, and all that we do, even if we do not put our faith in political processes.

I will cite someone even more blunt than the good Archbishop. Writing on the same issues in the last chapter of his The Moment of Christian Witness, Hans Urs von Balthasar scripted an imaginary conversation between a commissar and an anonymous Christian under interrogation. The title of this chapter was Cordula, the name of a young girl allegedly martyred by the Huns. The catch is Cordula initially tried to hide, but after everyone else was killed, came out and gave her final witness and received the crown of martyrdom. Balthasar writes that in the end, all we have to offer is our defenseless exposure to the world, like Christ.

Hopefully it will not come to that.  And as Chaput writes, we must be hopeful, but not optimistic. Chaput likes the poet Peguy, and cites to his long poem on the second theological virtue. Hope is something we receive through God’s grace, optimism is a belief in Man and his sand castles.   I would bet on grace, not man.

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Andrew Greeley: Prophet of the Body

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For we are members of His body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:30-32

Andrew Greeley, an American Catholic priest, scholar, and novelist, died four years ago this coming May. I was thinking about him last night, and decided to do a post. A far more erudite memorial can be found here. These comments are of course those of a layperson, and someone who had only the most fleeting encounter with him. So he is free to bonk me on the head for my misunderstandings and inaccuracies if we ever meet in Heaven.

Father Greeley drove up to my college campus outside Chicago one night in the early 1990s to give a talk. The subject was the portrayal of God in the movies. I had read a few of his novels, so I was excited by a rare opportunity to see a famous author. We gathered in the church at the campus Catholic center, and listened to him for about an hour. I can’t remember all the movies he discussed, but the one that stuck with me was Bob Fossie’s 1979 film, All That Jazz.  The movie was a thinly disguised self-portrayal of the famous dancer and director, and apparently inspired by Fossie’s own near death experience or dream when he had heart troubles a few years earlier.

At the end of the film, the protagonist dies. Greeley’s view was that the portrayal of the encounter of the soul with the character of Angelique, an angel of death, and a sign of God, was entirely in accord with Christianity. The Beatific Vision is the “wedding bed” he said, that great consummation of love we are all looking for, whether we know it or not.  I remember him saying that “God will be far sexier than Jessica Lange”, or words to that effect. A bit shocking to my relatively young ears, you might imagine. (Young man that I was, I watched it at first opportunity).

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Angelique, from All That Jazz

When we went to Q&A, I asked him about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which had been released a few years earlier.  He advised watching it with the volume turned off. He loved the visuals, but hated the script. Scorsese (who dropped out of a Catholic seminary) was a disappointment to him, and overly influenced by “Neo-Platonism” if I am remembering Greeley’s words correctly. Don’t ask me to explain that one, I am no philosopher.

Over the next decade or so I dipped into and out of his fiction and non-fiction. He was an incredibly prolific writer, and I wonder if there is anyone who read everything he published. He had a Ph.D. in Sociology, and wrote many scholarly works about the Catholic Church and religion generally from the 1960s onwards.  They often involved broad surveys of American Catholic experience and opinions, and with a focus on current problems within the Church.

Among lay people, Greeley is far more famous for his works of fiction than his scholarly career or Church criticism. In the late 1970s, he decided to become a storyteller, and eventually wrote about sixty novels. His fiction can  be grouped into four broad categories:   There were about half a dozen stand alone science fiction and fantasy works.  The next group were the most controversial, probably twenty or so books set in contemporary America involving the lives of Catholics and their struggles. There was the long semi-humorous series about Father “Blackie” Ryan, a Father Brown like priest who solves mysteries. The last series, which all had the word “Irish” in their titles, and still ongoing at his death, followed the lives of an American Catholic couple from courtship through early middle age.

Father Greeley’s prose was very readable and he had a gift for characterization. I don’t believe he won any big awards, but he sold a lot of books that spoke to the hopes and fears of many Catholics, especially a certain subset who still went to Mass but otherwise felt alienated from the Church.

He was also a man of strong opinions and no small temper. He was a Democrat with a capital D, and not shy about his criticisms of those who had different points of view on political issues. He was also an unstinting critic of what he saw as the flaws of the leaders of the Church and how they led it. Many of his novels portrayed priests and high ranking members of the Church in a negative light. He likely paid a certain price for this professionally, and there were perhaps many who did not like him personally.

In many ways, I think his life encapsulates the stillborn “Catholic Moment” in America. If the last few centuries of the Church in France is like a long Indian summer that never ended (my next post I think), the experience of the Church in America is like a Spring that never ripened into Summer. The election of JFK was the high water mark of sorts, and things have kind of gone sideways since the 1960s. The reason for this, and the topic he had the most to say on, was human sexuality.

As the linked piece by Weigel discussed, the watershed moment for Greeley and the Church in America was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical condemned artificial birth control as sinful, and it was perhaps the most negatively received encyclical in the modern period. Many Catholics, including theologians, disagreed with it, and later left the Church, in part, over this.  Greeley disagreed, but he stayed. He did let his fictional characters voice his opinion though, and I remember one of them referring to it as “that damned Encyclical” if memory serves.

This failure of many to trust the Pope, and it was a failure in my view, perhaps derived from an insecure Catholicism still looking to fit in with the modern world and America. A Catholic Church that couldn’t get with the times on sexuality would never be taken seriously by the news media, the universities, or the entertainment industry. Anti-Catholic prejudice was a stronger force back then, and we cannot completely dismiss that pressure to conform as a factor in this rupture.

But Greeley and other dissenter’s instincts were perhaps not completely off base.  Pope Benedict the XVI, in a recent book, Last Testament: In His Own Words, acknowledged that while he agreed with Pope Paul VI’s conclusions, he felt that the analysis in Humanae Vitae was lacking. Not enough of a theological foundation had been laid to support it.  This heavy lifting was later done by Pope John Paul II in what has come to be known as “The Theology of the Body.” This Pope expressly affirmed that the body was good, that human sexuality was good, and that human marriage was a great symbol of God’s love for the Church and its people. It affirmed traditional teaching but without any of the negative or suspicious treatment of sexuality that often clouded how Catholics were taught about sex.  Over time, many think that this will be Saint JPII’s most enduring legacy.

Greeley had great respect and admiration for Pope John Paul II, but for the rest of his life either disagreed with or was skeptical of traditional Church doctrine on subjects like artificial contraception, the ordination of married men, and a few related topics. It was unfortunate, because I don’t believe they were that far apart in many ways. He was otherwise very loyal to and protective of the Church, and was not shy about taking to task those he thought were unfairly critical of her.

The recurring theme in Greeley’s fiction was that human romantic love, or eros, was good, and a sign of God’s love for us. Usually the protagonists are a man and woman who find their way through various adventures and hardships to love each other. Love made the suffering of life bearable. Like an Old Testament prophet, he hammered away at this theme again and again in his fiction.  I think that Greeley had a genuine call from God to speak and write on this issue, and its unfortunate that (in my amateur opinion), his mission and that of many others in the Church was diverted, in part at least, by their disagreement with Humanae Vitae.

Greeley will probably never be promoted for Sainthood, but if he is, perhaps the Cubs finally winning the World Series a few years after his death can be chalked up as one of his miracles. Sláinte, Father Greeley!

P.S. One of the recurring irritations I have experienced in trying to learn more about my faith is that so much that has been written by famous and well respected Catholic writers and scholars is out of print.  Greeley is no exception, particularly when it comes to his non-fiction (another 50 books or so) and early fiction. If anyone from his estate were to ever read this, it would be great if more of his bibliography could be digitized and made available in ebook form. I recognize that the rights to his works may be held by many different interests, and perhaps it is much more expensive to do this than I realize. But it would be a shame to lose so much of it to time as all the university library copies eventually fall apart and are discarded.

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The Half-Life of Sin

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Radioactive Man and his origins, from The Simpsons

This post is for someone who is trying to wrap their head around concepts like the Fall of Man, Original Sin, or “What’s Wrong with the World?, or in other words, the poorly catechized young person I used to be and am still striving to overcome. If you are bored by or struggling with traditional methods of explanation, this alternative approach may be helpful. As Catholic writer Fabrice Hadjadj said in his recent book, it may be ok to be whimsical so long as we are not frivolous. Times have changed, and new methods are required.

In writing about our origin story, the Englishman G.K. Chesterton famously described humanity as “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.”  Like Robinson Crusoe, humanity looks around on the shore for the flotsam and jetsam of truth, beauty and goodness.

For purposes of this post, I am going to expand on Chesterton’s line of thought and ask you to visualize the shipwreck as being caused by a bomb, a spiritual atomic bomb of disobedience to God that is called “original sin.” The explosion and shockwave of our disobedience has made creation groan, and the harmful radiation of sin has mutated us. We are all eX-men (different than what God made) in a sense, and endowed with strange, new superpowers.

 

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“And then their eyes were opened …” Genesis 3:7.

 

The mutation has estranged us from the natural world. Animals shy away from us, we are plagued by disease and natural disasters. Why? It was too dangerous to leave the natural world subject to our full control since we went over to the dark side.  All our material security or progress would come through toil, by the “sweat of our brow.” If we had been left with the power of naming, or full dominion, like Adam, we would have destroyed the natural world long ago.

In some mysterious way, the effects do extend down to the physical level, and is thus passed from parents to their children. Ours is an embodied faith.

But hey, you might ask, continuing with the superhero theme, what about the compensations, all the cool gear and powers?  And you would be right to ask about this, as our new state comes with a utility belt of sort. For starters you do get a mask and costume of pride, which prevents you and others from knowing your true self. Are you truly transparent at all times to God and others? No, we all know that much is hidden inside and rarely shared.

Some tools are neutral: We do have our intellect, and the freedom to use it as we wish.

And then there are the powers, quite a few actually. The most dangerous superpower may be the ability to lie. Through lying you can create a dream world for yourself and others, where right is wrong and bad is good.  Or where there is no Truth at all. I am not responsible for my actions.

Some forms of lying are merely the result of poor reasoning, which we call fallacies, or take the form of mental disorders.

To take one example, psychological projection: Why is the Church so obsessed with sexual ethics? The world wonders in frustration. Many ask this.

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the priest molesting the altar boy

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the teacher sexting her student

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the adulterer who gives an STD to his spouse and abandons his children

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the physician who performed a few thousand abortions last year

Or the pimp who trafficked a minor, or the man viewing child pornography while his family sleeps, etc., etc.

But is it the Church that’s obsessed with sex, or us mutants? Well, perhaps the Church is obsessed to the same extent that a doctor is obsessed with preventing and curing disease, or a parent is obsessed with making sure their child is properly fed and clothed.

But is that obsession? Or is it Charity? Our power to lie creates a dream world where Charity has been slandered as Obsession. We should acknowledge that Our God is a jealous God, so it may be right to say that He is obsessively Charitable.

So these radioactive superpowers, as enticing as they are, come with a price: death. When talking about elements,  the term “half-life” is a term used to describe the amount of  time it will take for half the atoms in a given element to decay. It is important to know the half-life of substances that emit harmful, ionizing radiation, like plutonium.

I find the term useful in thinking about sin and our life span. For example, what is the half-life for the original sin you carry? Half your life. Even though you have been redeemed, and can be forgiven your sins, you will not be completely free of the effects of sin until your life ends. Your body is going to die because of that heavy plutonium apple our ancestors bit into a long time ago.

But for your soul, its a bit more complicated. Because of original sin you do not have “life to the fullest.” Rather you have a half-life from being stuck in the dream world of sin.

You can choose to march in place your whole life, and die just as poisoned as when you were young. Or you can sample a variety of uranium, polonium or other poisonous fruits and become even more radioactively sinful on the inside as you age.

Or you can accelerate the process of decay of sin. How? Its a simple formula, He must increase, I Must Decrease. The more you walk in the Lord’s path, the lighter the burden of original sin becomes. Prayer, fasting, receiving the Sacraments and various forms of self-denial all help. The more you cooperate, the more is given to you.

And to cooperate, you need to take off that mask and costume of pride and lower your defenses. For a Catholic, this unburdening means regular confession.

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It doesn’t work with the mask on

From long personal experience, I can tell you that you can pray and go to Mass all you want, but you won’t begin the process of healing until you avail yourself of this sacrament. In going to Confession, you get to step out of your Darth Vader outfit for a while, and breathe the pure air of truth from a personal encounter with the Lord. It works, and long ingrained habits of sin can begin to be broken.

To close the post on a fitting note, I will return to Chesterton. There is a story (it has never been definitely confirmed) that an English newspaper of his day had asked a group of authors for essays about “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton allegedly sent back a famous two-word response:

“I am.”

This may seem harsh, but things are much easier when we can acknowledge we are part of the problem. One is less inclined to judge (people that is, not actions) and more likely to forgive. You won’t give your heart to some ideology or party, which is merely the sum aspirations of a group of people no better than yourself. You won’t pin your hopes on some worldly utopia, for how could a mass of men under sin ever build such a thing?  Or even stake your soul on democracy and majority rule. Jesus may have been the Elect One, but he did not fare so well in elections. The only time he appeared on the ballot, he lost in a landslide to another, one with a pretty poor resume.

So in the end, you die, and in death God performs life saving surgery on you. The mask of pride falls away, and the real adventure begin. Because, as  Georges Bernanos wrote, sin has forced you to live on your surface all your life.  And as you dive into the limpid, pure water of your soul you discover the hidden depths you never knew existed:

We observe how much that is foreign falls away from us and how what belongs to us is set free. What we are being led into is again, not something foreign, but in the highest sense natural, although one cannot say we had expected it to be this way rather than some other way. When it arrives, it is simply the right thing, that which is far and away the best.

Whoever arrives in heaven has to introduce himself. This introduction, however, is not one-sided; those who introduce themselves are at the same times the ones introduced. God has been waiting for us, just as we waited for him. And now that we are those who have been received, there is no longer any talk of sin and unworthiness. Confession lies behind us. Now there is only the augmentation of grace…

The Book of All Saints

 

 

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