Tag Archives: Jesus

Logan: Meridian of Blood

logan

Wolverine at sunset

 

 

This post is about the latest X-Men film, Logan, directed by James Mangold. This is not a movie review in the traditional sense, and more in the nature of a commentary, a long one, and an appreciative one at that. There are spoilers throughout.

 

I.

The story begins along the U.S. – Mexican border in the vicinity of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, which is Spanish for “the pass.”  The story ends at another pass on the U.S. – Canadian border. In between these two points the characters cut a red river that flows north through our broken world.

The plot is very simple.  An older and unhealthy Logan, one of the few remaining mutants in an America of 2029, learns that he has a daughter of sorts, Laura.  He attempts to take her and a seriously ill Professor Xavier to a place called Eden, which serves as a clandestine border crossing into Canada.  Canada is apparently beyond the reach of the corporation that wishes to exploit Laura’s powers, which are the same as Logan’s.

As Logan journeys north, it seems as if James Mangold is taking the viewer back in time, asking if the Biblical Eden can be rediscovered.   Or, alternatively, a northern journey may represent an ascent, from Hell to Heaven.  For the place where the movie starts is surely hell. The border is a world of ugliness, blight, crime, illness, drunkenness, and death.

The country empties out but grows pretty with horses as we enter America’s plains, but is still gaudy and dangerous: casinos in Oklahoma City and menacing robotic semis on the highways. The people are fewer, but better: we meet a kind country doctor and a welcoming farming family.

The final act takes place along the pristine border between the U.S. and Canada. It is very scenic, and almost devoid of man and his creations. Logan is successful, and his daughter and her friends make it across the border into a primeval Eden. Logan dies there, one of many casualties on both “sides” of the fight.

The cultural references are overtly Western, and clips from the movie Shane are viewed by the characters.  Laura quotes from Shane at the end, and we are apparently left to understand that Logan was Shane, Laura was Joey, etc. Logan was just too tainted by violence to enter the promised land, like Moses dying outside of Israel for his sins.

But when the credits roll, there is an unsettling turn. The viewer is treated to Johnny Cash singing the apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around,” with its references to the Alpha and Omega, the Kingdom Come and the Beasts of Revelation.   What exactly was the message?

 

II.

bmm

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

From Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. By Cormac McCarthy

I will propose an interpretation entirely different, provocative, but I think more in accord with what was actually shown. I would suggest that Mr. Mangold’s work is not to be taken at face value, and in a way, he gives his game away in a recent interview:

What I mean by “forced into cinema” is that I am a big believer that we have gotten way into dialogue as the delivery mechanism of meaning in movies. If anything, I tend to find that my results are much more pleasing – at least to myself – when I view dialogue as the delivery system of lies in a movie. What we see is the truth, and what we hear is misdirection.

(emphasis added)

Myth vs. Man: James Mangold and Scott Frank on Logan

Creativescreenwriting.com March, 3, 2017

There is a monster lurking behind Logan, under the Shane exterior, and it is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. McCarthy’s brutal epic is a revisionist Western, and devoid of any  nostalgia for America’s frontier.  The novel was loosely based on the actions of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries who were paid by the Mexican government to bring “order” to the frontier by terrorizing the Indian tribes along the U.S.-Mexican border in the 1850s.  How? They scalped them. They eventually came to a bad end, killed at a border crossing by the same tribes that they had preyed on.

Mangold and his collaborators are too subtle (or careful)  to overtly reference Blood Meridian, a movie that many have been trying to make for years, and has been deemed un-filmable. I think too strong a linkage would have invited criticism for the presumption of borrowing from what some critics consider to be one of the finest American novels of the 20th century. And in a superhero movie of all things too! It is ironic that some have compared Logan to a Cormac McCarthy book, when there was one seemingly hiding in plain sight all along.

It is particularly interesting that the only other well-known mutant used from the comics, aside from Wolverine and Xavier, is Caliban, an albino, hairless creature. Mangold also made an interesting casting choice by having Stephen Merchant, an unusually tall actor (at 6’7), to play the role. Caliban was of ordinary height through most of his tenure in the X-Men comic book series.

caliban

Caliban the cowboy, as portrayed by Stephen Merchant in Logan.

 

I would suggest Caliban is an allusion to the similarly tall (nearly 7 feet), hairless, albino character of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who critic Harold Bloom described in Shakespearean terms as an Iago-like villain. Caliban is not intended to be Holden,  this visual is just a bread crumb Mangold has tossed out to the careful observer.  Under this theory, Pierce and his mercenaries are the Glanton gang.  Instead of bringing order to the border, they are delivering order to America by bringing mutants under control. Pierce and his Reavers, like the Glanton Gang, meet a bloody end at a border crossing at the hands of those they victimized.

This theory explains why so much of the action in Logan is set in Mexico or along its border with the U.S. And why there is almost no similarity between the film and its supposed inspiration, the 2008 Marvel comic series Old Man Logan.  That comic involved a west to east journey across America, had no Mexican element, and was a typical superhero slugfest. In the end, Logan survives and plans to rebuild the X-Men and take on the villains who have conquered America. The only point in common is that both feature an older Wolverine.

Who is Judge Holden then?  Its our friend Logan, the unkillable, immortal, killing machine. Like the Judge, everyone that comes into Logan’s orbit eventually seems to die. Logan was the last of the X-Men, like the Judge was the sole survivor of the Glanton Gang.  In particular, Judge Holden appears as the younger cloned version of Logan, the X-24.

Hey, but Logan is a good guy! And he is. In a way he is “the Kid” of Blood Meridian, the least worst, most self-aware of the cutthroats, who has aged into a wiser form by the end of that book. But in his potential for death and destruction, and his method of violence, Logan is a god of war, like the Judge. And it is Logan’s clone, X-24, that kills Professor Xavier and many others in the film. Because Logan, and superheroes generally, are not the saviors we make them out to be. Mangold has Logan deliver the indictment himself, as he verbally shreds the mythologized exploits of the X-Men as portrayed in the films meta-version of the X-Men comic books.

Mangold was upfront in his interviews about wanting to de-mythologize the superhero genre, as has already been done for Western in movies like Unforgiven or his own version of 3:10 to Yuma. In more recent Western, cowboys are not Knights of the Plain. They are survivors, opportunists, and flawed all the way around. And because they rely on violence, often indiscriminate killers as a result.

And this is why the Shane references are a misdirection on Mangold’s part. Because unlike Shane, Logan brings death to those he means to help. This is demonstrated with the fate of the Munson family, who are a stand in for the Starret family of Shane. Laura is not Joey, Joey is the doomed son Nate Munson. Logan draws the Reavers to their home, and is powerless to stop his clone from killing this version of the Starrets.  He even gets a bunch of local bullies killed, as he provoked them with an earlier display of violence, and they show up in time for the X-24 to off them too.

Many reviewers, while praising Logan, expressed discomfort with the level of violence. You are supposed to feel this way. The violence in Logan is the most extreme of all the X-Men movies, and nearly all superhero movies.  It deliberately mimics the level of violence in Blood Meridian.  You are not supposed to revel in it, and I have to say I am a bit disappointed in some who hold up the young Laura as some sort of female empowerment figure. If  superheroes really existed, they would leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake that dwarfs anything done by ISIS.

 

III.

Logan is not the first effort to de-mythologize the super-hero genre. Alan Moore did this with Watchmen, which was later adapted into a film. Moore’s caped crusaders are very human and fail to achieve anything.  The ending offers only an illusion of hope, which is better described as “progress.”

Logan differs from Watchmen in that there is a real message of hope at the end. I am not the first to note the religious sensibilities of the film.  As I watched, I found myself counting how many times Logan fell down or laid down and lost consciousness in the last act. Three, I believe.  And the choice of death was quite interesting: impalement on a tree, with a final stab in the side from the X-24.

In his review, Mr. Vishnevestky notes that Logan is certainly no Christ figure. I agree, he is far more a Peter, futilely hacking away with his sword at an endless stream of enemies, or a good thief, worried about money and material things. But whether thief or Peter, in the end he embraces love and submits to death.

 

Atheists sometimes complain that Christians wind up seeing religious symbols where they do not exist. And its true to an extent, but also not true.  If you want us to stop seeing them, then stop using them. Even Palpatine can’t stop himself when talking about his mentor in Revenge of the Sith, who used his powers to save those he loved from death: “He saved others, he could not save himself.” Actually that’s Matthew 27:42.

What Palpatine said was: He could save others from death, but not himself.”  Big difference, right?   Perhaps George Lucas is a closet Christian, and wanted to sneak in an allusion to Lazarus and Jesus. I do not know.  And I don’t presume to know Mr. Mangold and his fellow screenwriters’ religious views, but as  I discussed in a prior review, it would not be the first time non-Christian Hollywood directors explored Christianity in an indirect way.

So I go to these movies, and watch the hero sacrificing himself and/or dying and coming back to life, and having a happy ending. You cannot get away from it, whether its Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows or Flynn Rider in Tangled.  I could make a very long list.  And our stories were not always this way. Before the Incarnation, the choice for Drama in the West was either Tragedy or Comedy, death or absurdity.  And it was believed these forms were god given, from the muses Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy).

But now things have changed. Just like the Roman roads were put to use to spread the Word, so are all mediums curved towards His purpose, whether you want it or not. So it’s not really Hollywood’s fault that they keep inviting an inconvenient guest into their movies.  While we live on our surface, Jesus is living rent free in that space inside your heart. Like a good general, he is the master of your interior lines, and can meet you on whatever ground you choose: the workplace, films, books, etc. All your bases belong to Him.

And he is there to welcome us, but first you must become like a little child to receive him.  So we are left with a message of hope, as Laura and her fellow children return to Eden, or Heaven. If the studios have any decency, we won’t see any sequels with a grown-up Laura dealing death and destruction. You aren’t supposed to return from the Undiscovered Country.

So, goodbye Laura, and don’t ever come back.

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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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The Mystery of America

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General George Washington at Prayer at Valley Forge, by James Edward Kelly

 

“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” said my friend.

But the body politic is not my body.

I am the Mystical Body, the E Pluribus Unum,

A heavenly internationale of brotherhood.

 

I am the head and your people are my bones, flesh and blood.

They are the sign of my kingdom to come.

As I wait, I listen to your hymn, a divine prelude,

Of endless skies and graceful harvests.

 

You are my brave little solider, forged for a purpose.

A nation of Joans that fear the fires,

Yet always answers honor’s summons.

Heed only my word, and do not listen to the flames.

 

But you are mischievous children,

Stealing my praise and carving it on coins,

Playing like caesars, while you play innocent with me.

You would eat your cake and keep it too if I let you!

 

You are a sign of contradiction, a teacher’s pet,

Strutting about in your coat of many colors,

Proclaiming my commands,

While forgetting your lessons.

 

I know all your tricks, my clever copycats.

You plucked my eyes for your stars,

And drank my blood and water for your stripes.

(My back was striped too)

 

When you leave me for those cold toys,

I grow angry, but then you surprise me,

By running back with great hot tears,

And my love I cannot deny thee.

 

You are my last child, the one that stayed young

For so long.

Do not forget me as you grow old…

…if you must age, but do not grow cold.

 

For your gates are mine, you poor, miserable ones.

I would free you from sin to see and breathe my glory.

I am standing at your door and knocking,

But only the flame bearing virgin is there to greet me.

 

Yet your mercy is a bother to all the world.

While the elder brothers seek your death,

You give scandal and stay the sword hand.

I love this shameful weakness best.

 

So there will always be a room in my unruly house for you.

And a place at my table, my darling child.

When I ring the bell, I hear your running feet from a long way off.

I will come out to meet you and gather you inside.

 

There I long to hear you pray the blessing,

The words you know by heart.

My youngest child of the nations, forget me not,

And never shall we part.

 

 

 

 

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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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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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A Quiver Full of Glory

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St. Therese as Joan of Arc

Three sisters stand around a table.

It is quiet but for the the tap tap tapping

shoe of the little one.

Three glasses in a line across the table. A very large one in the middle.

A smaller one to the right, and a child’s one to the left.

The eldest pours water into each.

“You see, each is full of glory.”

The three little sisters grow up to be Sisters

who do not wear shoes.

In time the youngest becomes the greatest. She stayed little.

She says: “When I die, I will work even harder. I will rain down a shower of roses from heaven.”

And she dies. Everyone looks up.

 

It is now my time to die.

The old rose-bush is cut down by the gardener.

The withered branches, leaves and flowers go into the bonfire.

The thorns crackle as they burn.

One rose remains.

I am planted in the garden of Our Lady, one of many.

Red rose martyrs, innocent whites, mystics in blue.

A flower is small, quiet and still. Obedient.

A flower knows how to listen,

and accepts the light and water without complaint. It grows.

It is a place of rest.

In the cool of the day the Child Jesus plays in the garden.

Sometimes he plucks me with some others, and makes a crown for his Mother.

On some days a bouquet. When they are done playing he puts me back in the soil.

A flower does not protest.

One day the Child Jesus brings a friend to the garden, a young lady in armor.

“Gather your arrows” he says,

And presents her with a bow and quiver.

“Am I to be your Cupid?” she asks.

“No, my Eros.”

For the Greeks were nearer to his Heart than the Romans.

(He had longed to sail for Greece.

“Come over here and help us,” said the man in the dream.

Another would make the journey.)

And so the Little One gathers the roses into her quiver.

We are a little Communion of Saints. We are sharp,

though we have lost our thorns.

He points, and she draws me from the quiver.

She listens with the ear of her heart for the prayer. Loose!

A rainbow parabola,

The arc of history bends from Heaven to Earth.

That flutter in your heart is me striking home.

And when you pray, or hope, or love, you send me

winging skyward.

For the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence.

 

For the Little Therese, and with apologies to 

Charles Peguy.

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Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

deep_river

This is a review and analysis of Shusaku Endos’s 1994 novel Deep River, his last. I started reading Endo recently, and reviewed his Kiku’s Prayer a few months ago. Endo’s controversial novel Silence has also been getting more attention lately due to the Martin Scorsese film adaptation currently playing in theaters.

Deep River may be interesting for those readers who read or saw Silence, and are looking for more from Endo, or are simply trying understand his point of view. Alternatively, it may be of interest to those who ponder why the faith seems to have flourished in some parts of the world, but not taken root in places like Japan. This is a longish review, and includes details that may spoil the story in case you prefer to read it first.

Deep River follows parts of the lives of five different people leading up to their meeting on a trip to India in 1984. Three of them are elderly Japanese men coming to terms with suffering.  The two main characters are a Japanese man and woman engaged in a spiritual duel of sorts lasting several decades.

The three older men, Numada, Kugachi and Isobe, are to some degree biographical sketches of Endo or the men of his generation. Numada, like Endo, is an author who never quite got over the divorce of his parents, and has suffered from significant health problems later in life. Isobe is a representative of the traditional Japanese salary man who realized he never fully appreciated or loved his recently deceased wife. Kugachi is a WW2 veteran still trying to make sense of his and his fellow veterans’ experiences.

The main characters are Otsu, a Japanese Catholic who becomes a priest, and Mitsuko, an acquaintance from college who wrestles with alternative impulses to destroy and understand him. Mitsuko is trying to find herself, while Otsu is trying more and more to submerge himself into the Man of Sorrows.

In terms of style and structure, this is very different from Kiku’s Prayer. That book was almost a documentary about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 19th century. Deep River is more an examination of the interior states of its characters as they confront modernity and their own suffering.

Endo almost seems to be asking here  whether any of the suffering explored in Silence and Kiku’s Prayer has been worth it, or why the sacrifice of so many martyrs has borne little obvious fruit. The Christians of mid to late 20th century Japan are considered odd by their compatriots, and Otsu is the butt of jokes and mockery by his fellow students. Endo tries to explore this issue, and offers his own thoughts through the words of Otsu and Mitsuke. Western Christians may not like the message.

Endo went to France as a young man to study French Literature. He alludes to this experience through Otsu’s time in a seminary in France. Endo appears to believe that the Scholastic, Aristotelian influenced mode of Catholic Christianity dominant since the Reformation simply does not work for many Asians. I am no theologian, but briefly, a key criticism of Scholasticism is that it is too rigid, too focused on using reason or logic to approach God. A more recent version of it, “Neo-Scholasticism” was the dominant mode of philosophy and theology within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th century. Some European theologians felt that this approach was limiting, and introduced ideas in the mid-20th century, often called Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”)  that relied more on the writings of the Platonic influenced Church Fathers to address the problems presented by Modernism. Please note that this philosophical debate does not neatly fall into “liberal” or “conservative” categories, and there are no good guys or bad guys in this dispute.

Otsu voices Endo’s criticisms of “European Christianity” in a number of passages in which he describes his difficult seminary experience:

For three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve tired of the way people here think. The ways of thinking that they’ve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts … they’re ponderous to an Asian like me.

I can’t make the clear distinction that these people make between good and evil. I think that evil lurks within the good, and that good things can lie hidden within evil as well. That’s the very reason God can wield his magic. He made use of my sins and turned me towards salvation.

Again, its beyond my ability to well articulate Endo’s theological or philosophical view.  He is not a heretic, but I think he views the logic, argument based form of Christian evangelization or Christian apologetics as not suited to Asia, or perhaps modernity in general. I think this is why he focused on the “failure” of several Jesuit priests as a key point in Silence.  Rather, I think he is trying to encourage a focus on the more mystical, experience based approach of God’s mercy as often symbolized in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was the main symbol of faith in Kiku’s Prayer.

Otsu manages to become ordained, but is viewed with deep suspicion by his colleagues.  He eventually winds up in India, where he ministers to dead and dying Hindus in a solo mission of mercy. He carries the bodies of the dying to the Ganges, the “deep river” of the book, which represents God’s deep and unending love for all people. The final wish of many Hindus is that their remains be placed in the Ganges, either whole or after cremation.  The poor that Otsu serve cannot afford cremation, so he carries them on his back, like Christ carrying the cross.

Earlier, I referenced the “duel” between Otsu and Mitsuko, the book’s sole point of view female character, and really a stand in for all of us. Mitsuko and Otsu meet in late 1960’s Japan, and she is a liberated college student who drinks, studies and sleeps around.  She is given the nickname “Moira” after a character in a French novel she has read. Moira is derived from an Irish version of Mary, and Mitsuko is a sort of “Mary Magdalene” figure.

She and her fellow students are amused by Otsu’s Christianity, and they egg her on to test and seduce him.  While watching him pray one day, she makes a bet against the ugly Jesus on the cross that she will steal Otsu away from him. She seduces him into a sexual relationship, and then dumps him after a few months. Otsu is devastated, but later says that he hears Jesus speaking to him to “come to him,” and he interprets this as a sign to become a priest.

Mitsuko goes on to marry, but finds no peace.  She tracks down Otsu to his seminary while on her honeymoon in France, and his determination to keep his faith she finds unsettling.  She eventually divorces and becomes a volunteer at hospital, where she cares for the sick and dying. Years later she joins the trip to India after learning that Otsu has moved to India.

This dual repulsion and attraction is symbolized by Mitsuko’s interest in the various Hindu goddesses she learns about on her trip, such as Kali

Kali_lithograph.jpg

The goddess Kali trampling her husband, as Mitsuko tramples Otsu, and we trample the Lord

In Endo’s view, we are all, like Mitsuko, Kali to an extent, wounded by original sin, and trampling Jesus with our resistance. The theme of a trampled Jesus was the key image at the conclusion of Silence.

Endo studied the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos while he was a student in France. I have also been reading Bernanos and reviewing some of his work at this blog.  Deep River reflects this influence in the struggle between Otsu and Mitsuko. Bernanos’ stories were ones of spiritual combat, often reflected in a confrontation between a priest and a female character. This was a deliberate pairing by Bernanos; not because of misogyny, but because all souls are feminine in relation to the first and second persons of the trinity. We are part of the Church, which is the Bride to Jesus’ Bridegroom. In his novels, the male priests, in a mystical way, often endure suffering to allow the female character to respond to God’s grace.

Otsu is trampled by Mitsuko in her original sin stained Kali form through her insults, her seduction, and eventual rejection of him. The modern hatred of priests was also a theme of Bernanos’ work, best described in his Diary of a County Priest. There a variety of women slander, mock, and tempt the unassuming, gentle protagonist, a character not too different from Otsu. And despite this almost instinctive revulsion, Mitsuko keeps circling around him, and thinking about her sterile life and the promise of the Christian God.  The duel comes to a head when they encounter each other on the banks of the Ganges at the end of the novel. Otsu offers himself as a sacrifice, and in my view, it leads to a spiritual breakthrough for Mitsuko. The ending is not clear, but my interpretation is that she has been given an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.

The positive feminine symbol that Endo offers in contrast to Kali is that of the Hindu goddess Chamunda, a mother goddess who as described by Endo symbolizing the suffering and abiding of India. Chamunda is not beautiful, and her image is worn down by pain and toil.  She is a Virgin Mary figure who shows the wounds of humanity’s suffering in her image. As Mitsuko thinks about Chamunda, she increasingly becomes drawn to the  river Ganges, which Otsu compares to the deep and all accepting love of Jesus.

In the end, I think Endo is making a plea to acknowledge the feminine, motherly side of God, which bears all suffering, and accepts everyone, regardless of their stated faith. As a member of a very small Christian minority in Japan, Endo had come to accept that God had ways of reaching people of all religions.  This feminine side of God is made present in the appearance of several nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the book, the order led by Mother Theresa. I think the reader is invited to speculate whether Mitsuko, a nurse by training, stays in India and joins the order.   I would also like to think that Endo would welcome some of the developments in Catholic devotion in recent decades, including a new focus on the mercy of God, as described by St. Faustina Kowalska (canonized in 2000), and Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.

 

 

 

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