April 15, 2005

Contra Contraception--The State of Illinois

A link at Mere Comments (the Touchstone blog) sent to me by my good friend Tom. Those of you in the state of Illinois, in a position to do the most good--please respond. The rest of us, please pray. Daily, it seems, there is some new assault on the right to practice our faith as we see fit. This is simply another, more egregious, more obvious problem.

Moreover, we need to pray for this Bishop, brave enough to directly accost the powers and principalities that dominate our present society. Here is a man who has heard John Paul the Great's teaching and has responded with the best possible tribute to our Holy Father. For that, we should be thankful.

Pope John Paul the Great, pray for us. Through your intercession, continue the work you started in your life among us. May we all be blessed by your continued heavenly support and may we someday come to walk within a culture of life. Amen.

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(Relatively) New Blog

I am dismayed to note that I have not made much previously of a wonderful new Catholic/Poetry blog, and more should be made. Lofted Nest features some very fine poetry and some interesting commentary. See particularly the poems for St. Philip the Deacon and the Elegy for Pope John Paul the Great.

Obviously written and run by people who truly love good poetry and God. And their point about people who write poetry and yet do not read it is exactly right.

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April 13, 2005

A Trip to the Dallas Museum of Art

I never did report on the wonders of the Qing dynasty exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. And I'm not sure I will at this point, because first I must report on the final hall we looked at in the museum, an example of the "emperor's new clothes" school of art.

Walking down a series of steps we encounter a fluorescent light bulb stuck in a bale of hay, along with several other meaningful and profound statements. My companion's comment on the matter I thought apt (he could say it being a native son), "After all, we are in Texas."

Nothing could have prepared us for the walk through the door into the next gallery which was an exhibition by a single artist an "installation" called, I think, Stations of Dissolution. The first thing that greets you is a large black inset pool or black reflective box that looks like a pool. In this same room there is a kind of brick-lined hole in the wall.

Wandering down the connecting corridor and looking at photographs and sketches on the wall, you emerge into what seems to be a very minimalist living room scene complete with impaled dead stuff fox on the floor--transfixed by large quartz-shaped crystals with remnants of other crystals scattered around. There is a pot-bellied stove and the same brick-lined hole in the wall along with a rocking chair. I also seem to remember a shot-gun--but I wouldn't swear to that.

After the initial surprise of the thing, the only reaction one could muster up is amusement that the creative directors of a museum who would buy and display such rubbish and think it art. Modern art has abandoned all pretense at art. Much of it exists merely to shock a reaction out of an audience. Despite what they think, the primary purpose of art is not necessarily to inspire an emotion. While great art may well do so, it isn't the primary purpose of the endeavor. Nor is its primary purpose selfishly oriented. That is, it isn't about "expressing oneself," at least not exclusively. One must express oneself in a fashion intelligible to other or no expression has taken place. Your whole purpose is undermined. This little exhibition was an exercise in self-undermining. Will I remember it? Probably, but it will take an act of will to recall it so that I can hold it up as an example of what not to do as a creative artist. Just as with experimental novels delivered unbound so that the pages can be shuffled and read in any order, this is a kind of creation doomed to failure, and rightfully so. It was even more risible than the piles of brick and sand and the mirrors covered by pebbles.

(On the other hand, Dallas residents who can afford to do so should certainly hand over the money for the magnificent exhibition of Chinese Artifacts as well as some of the great antiquities available throughout the rest of the building. I'll try to write a bit about the Qing dynasty exhibition (From the Forbidden City) in a day or so.

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Brush Up Your Shakespeare. . .

Context is not everything, but it certainly changes a lot:

Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been
William Shakespeare

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov'd was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem'd to me
But hope of orphans and unfather'd fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

I thought about this in the context of my own wanderings toward and away from God. I really like the image of the labyrinth as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. If I keep walking it, I will make it to the center; however, along the way I will have a great many close approaches after which the vagaries of human nature causes me to turn away. Then I am walking directly away, for what seems like a long time before the path switches and I'm on my way back. Human nature is flawed. I think many of us have an approach/avoidance encounter with God. I might get close and then I get scared. I turn away because the cost seems to great--I will be deprived on one or another illicit pleasure. Then, I'm back on track.

This may be why the emphasis of the reign of Pope John Paul the Great appeal to me so much. "Be not afraid." Approach God boldly, as any son who knows that his father loves him will approach his Father. Ask for what you need. Don't be afraid, the only thing you have to lose is your fear. This message resonates in me. In a previous post, I called it marching orders. That's how I view it. I need to break through the labyrinth wall and stop following its arbitrary dictates. Of course, I do not do this alone. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished on my own. Only with God as my shield and help will I be able to withstand the blast that would destroy so strong a wall as makes us the labyrinth in which I walk.

So what has this to do with the poem above. Every moment away from God, no matter how good those moment are, are times of winter wandering, desperately cold and dry. Every moment away from His love--"What old December's bareness everywhere!" Everything done without Him is a falseness, a kind of betrayal--the richness of the widow's womb after her Lord's decease. And yet, isn't even this the promise of what one receives from the hand of a generous God.

Reading, reading anything, can activate the mind in the way few forms of more passive entertainment can do. Shakespeare speaks of his dark lady or lost love, but the Christian who encounters the great poet hears the lament of one turning this way and that in his journey to God. Because we are Christians, context is everything. Every work of art is a cocreation. Because of this, I think we know instinctively when we have encountered art and when we have encountered playtime, mockery, or idiocy. Even those who stood steadfast against God could not create in His absence, and their diatribes and writings are inevitable expositions of Him. From Huysmans La-Bas to Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, from Joyce's Ulysses to the maunderings of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Heinlein, a gifted writer cannot, despite his own intention, help but reveal the hand of God, because his gift is God-given, and his writing, no matter how overtly directed against God, ultimately shows us who God is, if only as a photographic negative reveals the image.

So, take your pick, Shakespeare, J.D. Robb, Patricia Cornwell, G.K. Chesterton. In the Christian frame of mind you will hear and see things of God. And perhaps one day these things will help crumble the walls of the labyrinth that prevent a direct path toward His glory.

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April 12, 2005

Andrea Dworkin R.I.P

Andrea Dworkin who held views so monstrously silly that, were it not for the serious harm they do, they would provide hours of amusement has died. May she rest in peace.

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My Ten Things To Do List

via Exultet and Summamamas.

I'm afraid my ambitions are rather boring, but they are my ambitions and I can't very well deny them.

(1) See Samuel happily married with family and children all around, or, see Samuel as the first all tap-dancing, all piano playing, scientific Pope detective--his choice.

(2) See John Paul the Great canonized.

(3) Finally, really and truly, make the Ascent of Mount Carmel and realize my place in the body of Christ

(4) Spend a month, two month, a year in Great Britain doing a "literary tour"

(5) Visit Australia

(6) Be able to read medieval Latin fairly fluently

(7) Write a publishable and published book of poetry

(8) Read (and understand) a majority of the Summa Theologiae

(9) See a human being set foot on Mars OR a permanent, more populated space station or lunar colony.

(10) Return to the world the enormous love I have received from so many in a form that will endure and bring people to the source of Love. (Vague, I know, but this is off the top of my head.)

I suppose strictly speaking that 1, 2, and 9 are not really so much things to "do" as to experience. Nevertheless, they are so important, they deserve a place on the list. And please forgive the seeming immodesty of #3--however, as far as I am concerned it is the one that casts all the rest into shadow. My God and my all--to be able to say that and mean it is the best possible goal.

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Losing Trust--Things Modern Poetry Teaches Us--Part I

from "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
T.S. Eliot, 1917

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

. . .

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I have selected the antipodes of the poem, because in them we see the drama of the last century which extends into this one.

As believers we are subject to innumerable challenges. Each of these is God's way of testing us. Testing here means not examining, but rather refining, making us durable--as gold is tested in fire. God does this not to torment me, but rather "to lead us to an overwhelming question." The problem is that too often, like Prufrock, we refuse to ask the question--we divert our attention elsewhere.

God's ways do sometimes seem like a "tedious argument of insidious intent." Indeed, from the point of view of the selfish ego, what God asks of us is insidious indeed. We can see the fear and the crisis it causes in the desires of a million people to reform the Church each in their own image. One group desires ordination for women, another agitates for freedom from contraception, another says that if only we had married Priests we would not have this, that, or the other crisis. Many do not wish to serve the Church as it is. Many do not desire to serve the truth unless they have first recast it in their own image.

But God leads each of us individually to the overwhelming question. He does not ask a gaggle of thousands, He asks me, personally. As a result the events that lead to that question are different for each person. What they call from each person is different.

What is the overwhelming question? I think that the question which has become more pressing and more urgent throughout the last century and into this one, the question that has been prevalent through all of time is "Do you love Me?" The form that this question has taken on more and more is , "Do you trust Me?"

Many of us no longer live in anything recognizable as the neighborhood of our youth. Many have people who live in houses all around them, but there is no communal sharing. In fact, the only contact one is likely to have with one's neighbor is the notice to weed your lawn from the community association, or perhaps a lawsuit for some perceived infraction or another. Some of our priests plunged us into a crisis of trust with the pedophilia scandal. Each day we read headlines that reinforce to us that we cannot be too careful with our money, our children, our possessions, ourselves. In September of 2001 we suffered a tremendous blow against our security which still has many of us reeling. There is nothing to trust. The overwhelming question indeed overwhelms us and we look another way.

But St. Faustina Kowalska taught us, "Jesus, I trust in you." We have so unlearned trust that it is hard to learn this lesson. We need to remake our entire lives to reify this truth--to manifest it to the world. And there are consequences for refusing to do so. There are consequences for not answering the question. These too are spelled out throughout the poem. The person who refuses to face the question turns gradually inward becoming obsessed with everything about himself. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" Who cares? And yet, are these not the truly overwhelming questions that we face and our children face each day? Aren't we often afraid of how we will be judged when people see us? Don't we go out of our way to make a good impression? Look at the advertisements on television--tooth whitener, hair replacement, "natural male enhancement," wrinkle cream, age-spot remover, the list is endless. If you watch enough television you will eventually see an advertisement that leads to a product designed to improve every part of you. All the while we are posing, "I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach." Why? Because it will cut an impressive figure. People will see me and they will comment on how romantic, ironic, dashing, or interesting I am.

All because we refuse to face the overwhelming question.

But wait, there's more. Elsewhere in the poem we see yet other consequences of refusal. "Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." Our lives are not beautiful, romantic, and perfect. They are the apotheosis of automation, of turning self off and turning autopilot on. Time is measured out in coffee spoons, in the mundane acts of the every day. We are weighed down by our trivia. We are weighed down by ourselves. So much so that, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.//I do not think that they will sing to me." Perhaps some of the saddest lines of poetry ever written. I have come face to face with the ineffable, and because I refuse the question, because I refuse to look into the abyss of trust, I cannot experience it. I hear them singing to each other, but I am not invited to the chorus. Rather. "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea. . . Till human voices wake us, and we drown." We are submerged once again in the expectations and the forces of those who surround us. We are plunged into a sea of selfishness even though we have seen a better way.

What is the solution? "Be not afraid." Follow Jesus' admonition, listen to how our Holy Father of recent memory explained it. Do not be afraid of the overwhelming question. It is overwhelming precisely because it portends changes. Ask it anyway. "Do I love Jesus? Do I trust Jesus?" And then face the real answer as spelled out in your life everyday. For most of us I suspect the answer shall be, "Not nearly so much as I would like," or perhaps a step beyond, "No, I don't really." Perhaps we love Jesus but we have learned too well from our families not to trust anyone. Life experiences show us that humans are untrustworthy, and perverting the principle found in the first Letter of John, we say to ourselves, "If I cannot trust what I can see, how can I trust what I cannot see?" The irony is that it is precisely what we cannot see that is most trustworthy. We can be certain that under ordinary circumstances hydrogen will form one bond in which it tends to "lose" an electron. We can pretty much rely upon the Kreb's cycle. When we move from the unseen to the seen, we begin to doubt. We are children of the enlightenment. We think Descartes got it right with "Dubito ergo cogito ergo sum." But followed its full length we wind up square in the middle of solipsism, not reality.

Be not afraid. Ask the question. Answer it. And if the answer doesn't suit, choose to do something about it. Trust God. To trust Him you must know and love Him. To know and love Him, you must fill every moment with reminders of His presence. Before you start a new task, you can say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Before you begin the day, "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad." Upon retiring, "I love you Lord, my strength." Hear His word, tell the story He would have you tell. Substitute the useless, self-serving self-talk with God-talk. What He has to say is true, eternal, and infinite, what you tell yourself is limited by your own narrow perceptions.

Do not be afraid to ask the question. This our Holy Father taught. Ask and ask again. Ask every moment of every day. Ask when you know the answer to be negative and turn your heart around. "If God be for us, who can stand against?" We need to recover trust. The end of trust is being in the company of the mermaids, being in the presence of God. The end of distrust is drowning in our human surroundings. There doesn't really seem to be much of a choice. The Lord commands us in Deuteronomy, "Choose life." To do so, we must choose Him, completely and without any reservation.

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April 11, 2005


Samuel has been to a couple of roller-skating parties. He loved them. He's done exceptionally well at school and helping around the house and he really wanted to go roller skating.

At the parties, I never felt the need to don the skates because he was with a whole group of his own friends, he didn't really need dad on the rink to have fun. However, on our own, it was another matter. I could only sit so long in the unbearable noise of the place, and he wouldn't have been able to enjoy the whole thing thoroughly.

As a result, I felt that I had to join him. This wouldn't be so bad except that I have never in my life been roller skating. I have done a good deal of ice skating thirty years ago and more--but roller skating was never in my repetoire.

Nevertheless, I donned the skates and after a few wobbly rounds of the rink reacquired my skating stride and figured out how to apply it to roller skates. I did not trust myself in the awkward skates to do cross over or jump turns to skate backward as the kinetics of rolling friction reducers are somewhat different from those of melted water friction reducers.

After about two rounds, I thought my muscles were going to burn out of my skin. It took getting use to, the stance and the muscles needed for balance, not to mention those required for minimal motion skating, etc.

As I watched Samuel simply run around the rink on skates, falling frequently, I went and sat down frequently. But by the end of the day, I was having a good time, and wondered why I hadn't thought to do this more often. It may be that Samuel and I have a "skating date" much more frequently.

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Finding Neverland

A reworking of reality that never manages to convince--it tries so hard to let us feel that a man living the life of a child is perfectly ordinary, respectable even. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent throughout the film.

For one thing, the story sets off on the wrong foot by distorting the reality of Barrie's relationship with the Davis-Llewellyn children. It does this by giving us the family with four (rather than five) sons headed by the mother Sylvia--the father has died of cancer of the jaw before the story begins. In fact, when Barrie took up his relationship with the family the patriarch Arthur was alive and thoroughly disapproving.

The unfortunate circumstances of the deaths of some of the children also raise questions about Barrie's ultimate influence. Michael drowned at Oxford and Peter ended up committing suicide in 1960.

The film sanitizes this story and manipulates us into believing that all of the events portrayed were acceptable and even respectable, that it was what was best for the boys and that living a life of irresponsible pursuit of other people's children with concomitant neglect of one's own family is a reasonable and even loving thing to do.

While beautifully filmed and acted, there are so many disjuncts with reality and with the truly dark things that permeate this story that the film failed for me. Rather than facing some of the difficulties, we are given the romanticized, washed-clean version, in which divorce is just fine so long as it frees one to pursue his or her personal expression.

Perhaps I read the film too closely. As much as I am inclined to really like Johnny Depp, I found this film disconcerting and disturbing. I do not recommend it.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:12 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack


More wisdom from the poetry of Pope John Paul the Great:

from "Thoughts on Maturing"
from The Space Within
tr. Jerzy Peterkiewicz

Maturity: a descent to a hidden core,
leaves fall from the imagination
like leaves once locked in the trunk of their tree,
the cells grow calm--though their sensitivity still stirs;
the body in its own fullness
reaches the shores of autumn.
Maturity: the surface meets the depth;
maturity: penetrating the depth,
the soul more reconciled with the body,
but more opposed to death,
uneasy about the resurrection.
Maturing toward difficult encounters.

How well and in how few words Pope John Paul captured the essence of some of the changes that we go through as we age. We often speak of youth thinking that it is immortal. No! Youth knows in its bones, in an immediate knowledge that comes only from those who see angels and sense the presence all around them of the mysterious, that we are destined for immortality. Youth sometimes does stupid things to arrive there more quickly; however, it knows with a certainty that fades away as we grow used to our bones and flesh. We are lulled into a sense that all we knew before is false and unclear.

Look to the young, particularly to the very young. In those first inarticulate, nearly incomprehensible words, you will find a world of knowledge, of things we have long forgotten. Samuel used to talk frequently about when "I was heaven before I was born." I think he was trying to convey something of his sense of life. Older and resistant, I'm not sure I heard the fullness of it. I must learn to listen more closely.

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"Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord, All Ye Lands. . ."

Last week, returning from Dallas, I had to attend the evening Mass at my parish. This was something I truly dreaded and looked forward to. I really enjoy evening masses. I find them calming and beautiful, But the evening Mass at my parish is a youth mass, and that can mean anything from dreadful to merely bad depening upon who they get to read, etc.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the evening mass was indeed wonderful . Not calming after the difficult weekend, but vibrant and joyous. I thought Samuel would really like to attend a Mass like this.

Now, I suppose what I experienced last night would constitute a nightmare for most of St. Blogs. But for me, it was the vestibule to heaven. The songs were simple, but faith-filled and orthodox. There were not dubious propositions about who was God and who was worshipping. The music ministry was loud and joyous and the congregation joined in forcefully.

The Gloria was done to a calypso beat and tune that had me believing that I was really born in the wrong place. The recessional was a piece modelled on American Gospel music. The readers were wonderful and Father was in rare form with his homily. Best of all, I was awake, alert, and aware. As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am NOT a morning person. Morning mass intrudes upon my consciousness. I love it, but I'm not really all there for it. In the evening, I'm there. I can hear and see and touch and smell God.

Anyway, this was John Paul the Great's little gift to me. Samuel bebopped and hopped around to the music and really enjoyed the Mass as well. I know that enjoyment is not what the Mass is about; however, when you are a little one, it helps enormously to have some reason for being involved. So, while it isn't high Latin or great chant, it does just fine for me. Just as in San Antonio, I really enjoyed the 2:00 mariachi Mass. See--I was just born in the wrong place for my tastes.

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