23 February 2015

John 8:6

Gabriel has an educative and interesting post on the recently killed Coptic martyrs.  I'm not going to go after the (perhaps?  a bit?) neo-jansenism of The Josias kids - they mean well.  And I've been there, looking for clear and hard lines everywhere.  We all need a bit of that, no doubt, in an age of no lines.

There is a story circulating of late, about the man portrayed as having darker skin in the icon of the martyrs found on the Coptic Church site.  It goes like this:

He was a Chadian Citizen who accepted Christianity after seeing the immense faith of his fellow Coptic Christians to die for Christ. When Terrorist forced him to reject Jesus Christ as God, looking at his Christian friends he replied, “their God is my God“so the terrorist beheaded him also.

 In other versions of this story he is from Ghana.  I have also read from sources not citing anything that he may have been an Eastern Orthodox Christian from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria from either Ghana or Kenya.

But this story (and all we have at this point are unsubstantiated narratives) of the man from Chad (or Ghana) who claimed, in his last moment, the God of his friends captures me.

To bring this back, a bit, to the Josias and their concern for the parameters of the Church -- as I have written many times now, I can't really make heads or tails, intellectually, of where the true Church is exactly.  Unless we have amazing intellectual faculties, we hedge our bets.

I believe, without equivocation, that if God actually intended for there to be visible and sacramental unity among Christians (don't quote me John 17, things are rarely that simple), then the see of Peter is the plausible place of unity in Christian history and in meta-Christian experience and in the logic of scripture and tradition for that unity to occur.  It so happens that events like the killings of these Copts, and their friend, compels me to hope that God did intend as John 17 would suggest at first reading.

But when it comes to my intellect, to that sea of difficulties (a thousand of which, according to Newman, does not equal one doubt, but I flirt with despair far more than he did, it seems) I must say, if I am honest, that there is no Christian communion that does not elicit from me an intellectual-guttural "there is no way in hell that can be true" response.  With regard to Roman Catholicism, it is not universal papal jurisdiction, or papal infallibility, per se, but rather the teaching on contraception that is incomprehensible to me, from an intellectual perspective.  Even the annulment process/praxis, which kept me from Rome for so many years, does not bother me really, not anymore.  Every Christian body has its bureaucracies, and most of us moderns have to pass through some of the inane and the fine print to get to Christ, if we can get to Him at all.

I won't list my "difficulties" with other communions.  Just trust me that they are there.

When I joined the RCC on the feast of St. Francis in 1998 I did so despite many intellectual difficulties.  My sponsor, and dear friend, Chris Lentz, once told me to stop giving myself a "mind fuck" - I think of that admonishment often.  I joined the Church because I loved the people who had held me up in a very dark time - especially Chris, and Henry, and Danny.  And the Loomes who fed me and housed me when I was sick, and taught me and gave me work.  And the folks around that world, the John Boyles and the Larry Hundersmarcks and the Fr. Hughs and and the Fr. O'Rourkes and the Louise Zwicks and all those folks.

I remember, when I told my parents that I was converting to Catholicism, telling them that I felt like Ruth - "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."

I would later remarry, and leave the community I was in then, and end up leaving those people, and their God, as it were.

I never felt right with that.

When my wife and I were trying to have children, we decided that we had to settle down religiously.  We went to many Catholic and Orthodox parishes, and a few Prot ones.  We did not feel comfortable in any of the Orthodox parishes, but one Sunday we were at a Catholic parish (something close to a big box one, even though it was in the city), and the priest spoke about how the closest thing he had ever experienced to Pentecost was being in Texas Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys rushed onto the field.  That day that priest lost a soul for a decade+.

He wasn't the only reason.  I was away from those people whom I had loved so much, and I was lost.  And I was young and intoxicated by the exotic.

But I can say without hesitation that during those years I was at Loomes and living in that Catholic community of sorts I would have died with those people and for their God.  Their witness to me was one of such great love and friendship, such life and hope and fellowship.  I've not experienced anything like it since.

There is a line from Dom Marmion, before he was a made man, that I cling to:

I prefer the hearing of confessions to any other duty. I never found any difficulty as yet although I have a great many penitents, even from other parishes & from Dublin. I believe that very much less “geny” is required than is generally thought; great kindness & patience are everything & the principle sacramenta propter homines ( et mulieres) : of course you must know that if a man steals a pound he must restore it, & that murder, drunkenness etc, are sometimes mortal sins; beyond this, you very seldom get a “casus.” …

(from here)

"sometimes mortal sins" - God I hope Marmion meets me at the gate, and doesn't think me as smart as I think I am.

I have occasion to attend Mass at times at the mental health institute I work at.  There are folks there who have murdered and done other horrific things.  I don't know nor do I guess much regarding their culpability - though mitigations seem pretty apparent.  There is something liberating about going to Mass with "crazy" people.  There is a very heightened sense that we are all here desperate, and massively fucked up.  It is quite a different experience than one gets at a suburban big box RCC parish, the new GOP at prayer, since ECUSA has gone to the Dems.

I think of this man from Chad, or Ghana.  He knows nothing of the Pope - the Coptic Pope or the Roman Pope.  But before you Orthodox get your spiritual willies wet neither does he know (presumably much of) anything about ecumenical councils, or iconography, or liturgy, or asceticism (until that moment, perhaps).  He knows that his friends love.  He knows that their faith creates meaning.  He knows, somehow, that their Christ is a name to cling to in death.

There are all sorts of ways to parse a martyr, or would-be martyr.  There is the ontology of martyrdom.  The epistemology.  I don't know that we should leave it to just that.  There is also the aesthetics - the form of it, right or wrong or muddled.  And the telos.  Copts (at least from what I have experienced of them), seem to me especially suited to the aesthetics of a Christian death.  I have seen it in the resignation of their wonderful hospitality.  In the simple dance of their manners.  In their brightness and love without guile.  One does not see this sort of form in Mormon martyrdom, or in Islamic ones, or in the colonial martyrdoms of 19th century Protestantism.  The dying we see in the infamous video is a liturgical and sacramental dying - it is an apostolic form.

And then the telos.  That man from Chad or Ghana, if he did claim the Christ of his friends, first, at his last moment, ends his life in the bosom of the faith of Peter, and Andrew, and especially (by form of death) Paul, and all of Christ's disciples.  He is another happy thief, another lucky spiritual bastard adopted at the last.

Working, and sometimes worshiping, with people very sick in mind, has led me away, little by little, from my previous aggravations that most people understand little about the faith (or lack thereof) that they profess.  Knowing your faith is such a crapshoot.  The vast majority of people in this world will never read the theology, or a tenth thereof, that most of the readers of this blog have.  At best they will need to be to be reminded of basic tenants.  Even the damn American middle class, for all of its entertainment addicted decadence, generally doesn't have the intellectual capacity to understand a solid explanation of Palamas' energy-essence distinction, nor will they remember the difference between what went down at Vatican I and what went down at Trent ten minutes after you describe both to them.  That is a poverty, to be sure, but one we live with, whether we like it or not.

Many of these patients at the Masses at my institute, I believe, would die with their friends, and perhaps for their friends' God, given the chance.

And so, perhaps, in these increasingly violent times it will come to who dies with the most compelling form.  And who makes the most genuine friends.  I don't know. Perhaps not.

I know that I have been to Mass with folks who cannot possibly understand an iota of the Baltimore Catechism, or of most any homilies (save some of the priest who serves at our chapel, a man of some sanctity, it would seem), but who, if the occasion arose, would say, some of them, I'd bet, "me too" if the madmen came to kill those who claimed Christ.  If that day comes, God grant us all a cruciform form; that of Peter, and his friends.

05 February 2015

untitled poem

I have learned that
The sound of each snowflake hitting
A canvas hood is not unique.
Muted tap, tap, tap, tap.
Geometric individuality
Means nothing at the moments of their deaths.
with earth muffled by snow,
Standing still in that relative truce of sound,
I hear that each of my breaths
Is different -
Something between a "to each their own tune" and a "variations on a theme."

Not always so.
Two decades ago there was a uniform cadence of breaths,
A pneumatic confidence that never questioned itself.
As predictable as the next pop song.

In tonight’s quiet white cocoon
Some draws are clean and some start at sputter,
Some exhalations bring relief,
Some get cut short by that mysterious disappearance of air
(the angels' share of breath? is there nothing that angels leave alone?).
The length of time spent on each rising of the chest
Varies with no obvious repeating rhythm.
More paucity than pattern,
These breaths are not sure as they once were.
Agnostic hymns set to respiration.
The reassuring sameness of the soft taps on the hood
of my coat pleases me.
But, following a sigh, I step forward
From my place of standing meditation,
having remembered that there is time to consider.
I bend down into the furnace shed.
I strike the head of an old hammer up against the lever
To open the heavy metal door.
One Dickensian black belch later
Heat and smoke burn my lungs
I shovel the ash through the grate,
Then even out the coals.
My eyes water.
Tonight it will be hard oak going in.

In a prelude to a pogrom of mercy,
I look over each log I will burn.
I count them.
Each entirely its own world.
Some with moss, a few with mushrooms,
knots, broken rings, the sinewy scars from poorly placed strokes of the ax,
The irregular weaves of bark;
I move a Woolybear from a log I will burn tonight to one I will not.
[They freeze during winter but thaw to fly in spring,
So to burn one is a sin.]

I say to the wood,
“Curse you for the smoke that burns my lungs.”
“Thank you for the warmth that keeps my children happy.”
Their spring breaths are still sure and ready.

After I fill the flaming hole with arboretorial sacrifice
to whatever lesser deity is patron to folks who cannot afford gas heat,
My lungs insist that they cannot take another second.
I bend and step out – only far enough to escape the smoke.
Before I go back in,
to clank shut the rusty door and crank out the ash,
I stand in solemnity again,
Listening to tender taps on the hood of an always dirty coat,
And from the old furnace, the crackle of wood given to fire.

15 December 2014

Napa religion.

This is utterly disgusting.  Read the whole thing.  Money gets you access to bishops and popes, $75 wines named after the pope (and Franky friend of the poor wants more of it...).  Good grief.  Dana Gioia I'd expect; the poet of Wall Street and neo-cons, whose work sucks.  But hey Joseph Pearce, next time you want to talk about distributism or third ways, stick a bottle of nice Napa wine up your ass.  This is an icon of so much that is wrong with conservative American Catholicism, and a lot of other conservative American Christianities.  What utter rubbish.   Legatus and that swindler Tom Monaghan are behind it, so no surprise. 

Extra pauperes nulla salus.

30 November 2014

Georgian gryphon ephemera.

I apologize for the lack of posts.  Newborn baby with some minor medical issues and a wife recovering from a rough c-section due to placenta previa have otherwise occupied me.

Orthodox Arts Journal recently ran this post about sacred art in Georgia.  The last two photos on that post are these, and the following description is given:
In finishing, I think I have found the ultimate proof of the unrivaled vivacity of Georgian art.  Last year a Georgian artist posted these two pictures on his facebook page of a recently built church.  In front of the church, in the image of the boldness, confidence and daring of Georgian liturgical artists, were two stone gryphons.  Any liturgical tradition alive today that can unflinchingly put two huge stone gryphons guarding a church has me bowing in reverence.

This fascinated me.  A few years back I purchased a Georgian religious medal from an Israeli dealer of sacred artifacts that includes the facade of a Georgian church, as well as a gryphon of sorts.  All I know of it was that it was made in the 1960s in Georgia.  
Here are the images of the medal:

I asked my friend John of Notes from a Common-place Book about the medal.  He got in touch with one of his Georgian contacts and gave me this info regarding the text on the side with the church building depicted on it:

Nikor tsminda
It's the name of the famous church in Racha. I don't know the meaning of the name of the church, "Nikor" is not a personal name and doesn't mean anything in particular.
"Tsminda" translates to "church," more or less. Racha is the mountainous province between Svaneti and Samelgrelo (old Mingrelia).

Google then helped me find the Nikortsminda wiki page here.

The church depicted in the OAJ post does not appear to be Nikortsminda Cathedral, but appears to be a design based on it, including the bell tower on the side.

Anyway, I am intrigued by the gryphons involved.  The gryphon on my medal seems to have the head of a mammal and not an eagle, and instead of back legs has tail feathers, whereas the gryphon in the photo from OAJ seems more like a traditional gryphon.

If anyone knows anything about the association between Georgian churches, Nikortsminda and others, and gryphons, I would love to learn about this.  And anyone with any ideas regarding the unorthodox gryphon on the medal should feel free to speak up as well.

21 October 2014

My son Paul with my father Paul.  Little Paul was born this morning.  

18 October 2014

local ephemera

10 questions - David Wooten

Fr. David Wooten.  MDiv from St. Vlad's.  OCA priest and pastor of Iglesia Ortodoxa de los Santos Apóstoles in Miami.  I've known Fr. David for a fair number of years now.  He and his family (well, what of them existed then) stayed with my family and I once when they were travelling through Memphis some years back.  I think we have read each others' blogs from the very beginning.  Fr. David is a Fort Worth native who spent years teaching Spanish in an urban public high school prior to entering the priesthood.  We share a nostalgia for Rich Mullins.  Fr. David is tenderhearted, academically serious, naturally pastoral, and embodies the best side of Southern gentlemanlines.

Here are Fr. David's answers to my ten questions:

1. A friend offers to make all social/vocational/financial arrangements in order that you may spend 3 months in the location of your choosing. Anywhere in the world. Where would you go, and during what season?

FD: My mother’s family is Scotch-Irish and is the only one I know of whose family documents go back to the old country; I’d like to find the places in Scotland where our Gillises lived. Along with the family discovery, there’s hiking, castles, monasteries, pubs, conversations with people in a place that is really trying to decide who/what they are as a people. Probably in autumn, to add the colors, crispness, and early night to the landscape.

2. A friend who has suffered considerably in recent years asks you to recommend a novel that you found moving, and/or which helped frame how you view human life. Which novel would you recommend?

FD: I guess I have to cheat a bit here and ask, “Suffered how?” For those who suffered while minding their business as the world moved around and at times against them, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, (recommended by Owen and several others to me at the same time), takes you through Ebenezer’s life and shows you how life moves on, how there is shining gratitude upon reflection, in spite of suffering.

For those who’ve suffered because of their own mistakes, I’ve recently read and was moved by Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; while it mainly has to do with a priest, it shows a man who comes to grips with his own weaknesses and failures, all the hurt and pain he has caused, reconciles himself to it and in the end (no spoilers) it is shown that his reconciliation of himself to the truth—his repentance, in other words—doesn’t ultimately lead to any happy ending for him, but to an example for another, for his own reconciliation to himself.

3. You may have any (living) musician or group of musicians in the world come perform a concert at the location of your choosing for you and your friends and whomever else you would invite. What musician(s) at what venue would you choose?

FD: Probably for my friends, that would be Asleep at the Wheel, in The Flying Saucer in Fort Worth (it’d be a change from their normal venue of Billy Bob’s).

4. If you had to work with your hands in order to make a living (trade, craft, manual work of some sort) what tactile vocation would you like to do?

FD: Cooking. I’ve always said that, if I could go back and study anything, I’d like to go to culinary school.  I’m hardly a gourmet chef, but I love making what I can, and there are few things more satisfying than seeing someone enjoy something you’ve cooked for them.

5. Describe a garden, or a field, or a forest that was or is important or notable in your life.

FD: That would be the dirt paths between the fields of the horse farms around my Granny’s house in Canyon, Texas.  Flat, brown prairies with barren, gnarled elms clawing the gray sky, it was really the first place I can remember just walking, and there being real quiet, nothing other than the wind whipping through the grass (and the occasional tumbleweed). This was the place I connected to where I came from and which actually seemed to me like a place.

6. You may have a meal and drinks with any living person on earth with whom you have never had a conversation. Name the meal, the drinks, and the person.

FD: I would probably ask Fr. Andrew Louth. I would have a spread of every kind of seafood imaginable, coupled with a couple of bottles of an Albariño wine.

7. Name a painting that has moved you (and perhaps tell us why).

FD: “Dormition of the Virgin,” by El Greco. Besides being an “ecumenical icon” (showing the death as well as the Assumption of the Virgin Mother), I particularly like the care with which the Savior leans over to cradle the soul of His mother, almost like a midwife cradling a newborn.

8. A student tells you that she plans on memorizing one poem, and intends to recite that poem at least once a week for the rest of her life. She asks you for your recommendation for said poem. What poem do you recommend?

FD: Going to cheat a little here, too: In English: “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I chew poems, and that one is delightful to recite. If said lass could speak Spanish, I would add Pablo Neruda’s “Muere Lentamente” to this, but only on the condition that she memorize it in Spanish.  I have yet to find an English translation of any of his poems that I can stand.

9. Describe your ideal quotidian evening? [Nothing special, but as you like things to go.]

FD: Dinner and prayers with family, then the older girls do their chores while we read to the little one, then get her to bed, then read with the older girls after their chores, then finish cleaning up, then conversation and maybe a TV show with my wife, and finally a little work, then my own prayers before sleep. 

10. You are on a nose-diving plane that is obviously going to crash, bringing about your certain death. You intuit that you have between 30 and 60 seconds before you lose consciousness. What words come to mind during this last bit of time you are alive?

FD: I would hope I’d spend my last moments remembering a lingering kiss with my wife, and our children’s laughter. Prayers thanking God for their presence in my life, and prayers begging God to keep them in His care without my presence in theirs.