I came up with the idea for a comic strip about the adventures of Jean Calvin and his reptilian companion, Bob, in the afterworld, a bleak and lifeless place where they only occasionally encounter other wandering souls. Once I got the characters down the dialogue began to write itself. Here is one early attempt:
I don’t know if you saw this remarkable story the other day, but it is one of the only hopeful things I have seen in the recent barrage of depressing news:
Residents of Mosul have watched helplessly as extremists ruling the northern Iraqi city blew up some of their most beloved landmarks and shrines to impose a stark vision of Islam. Next up for destruction, they feared: the Crooked Minaret, a more than 840-year-old tower that leans like Italy’s Tower of Pisa.
But over the weekend, residents pushed back. When fighters from the Islamic State group loaded with heavy explosives converged on the site, Mosulis living nearby rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground and linked arms to form a human chain to protect it, two residents who witnessed the event said on Monday.
They told the fighters, if you blow up the minaret, you’ll have to kill us too, the witnesses said.
The militants backed down and left, said the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the militants.
Read more here:
If anyone says that Miles Davis was not a freaking genius, let him be anathema:
Constrictions Of My Own Design
I have written of my realization that I have, for the last twelve years, constricted my horizons, based upon the entirely reasonable assumption, in light of a series of serious health problems, that I was not going to live long.
I have been freed from that delusion. I could die typing this or I could live until I am 100. No one knows, and it is foolish to assume anything, still more to worry about it.
I have shed that crippling idea, but it still affects how I think. For example, last week I noted that raspberry bushes were growing in a spot where I cut between two yards on my mail route. Raspberry brambles bear fruit the second year. ‘Hmm’, I thought, ‘If I live until next summer I can eat raspberries here.’
Not that that is not more reasonable than assuming that I would live, but I doubt that is a normal reaction to new brambles.
And I long assumed that I would never live to see my grandchildren.
Now, that seems a distinct possibility.
But I have realized something else: my horizons have been self-limited for a long time in a wider area as well. That is, I have assumed, for a very long time, that the world would end, or at least civilization may collapse, sooner rather than later.
Don’t get me wrong. Aside from my very brief sojourn as a charismatic evangelical this has never been a huge part of my faith. Indeed I shied away from obsessive interest in prophecy. But it was the backdrop to life.
This has affected me in many ways, all of them bad, yet another way that the Calvinist construct of a sadistic kick ass sort of god had infected my view of the world.
But if one grants the scientific evidence that the world is billions of years old, and animate life a relatively very recent event, and humanity a blip of a few hundred thousand years?
We do not know the future, any of us. The apocalyptic passages from scripture are the hardest to understand.
But what we do know of time indicates that humanity is very young, in its childhood, adolescence at most.
So maybe the attempt to build ‘Christendom’ instead of living the Way of Christ, which assumes the Kingdom is within, not of this world, was the product of a bunch of two year olds. And the religious wars that followed in the wake of the Protestant revolution were the acts of ten year olds. Or three year olds.
The world wars were the work of fourteen year olds, the Asshole Year, judging not only from my own experience but from watching my own fourteen year olds.
Maybe we will grow up, learn from our mistakes like most of us have done.
Hey, it is possible.
A Young Church?
Which would mean that the Church too is very young.
I mean if you were to gather a person from each century since Christ appeared, each of which lived to 100 years, they would fit comfortably in your living room.
A couple of thousand years is nothing against the backdrop of what we know about the age of the universe, or even the age of humanity.
In this scenario, the scriptures certainly are revealed truth, but one must factor in the reality that revelation is always mediated and twisted by the limitations of the one to whom truth is revealed.
Why would we expect the early Church to get everything right? Did not the Jews, the ones chosen to receive divine revelation, pretty much make a mess of it, and portray the I AM in their own image, a warlike aggressive being, quick to anger?
And did not St Peter strike down Ananias and Sapphira, proving that he still thought like a Son of Thunder?
What if we are just now beginning to understand Christ? What if Vatican II marked the Church entering something like adolescence? Or maybe something like the age of reason? Or even the end of infancy?
As with most things bigger than our little corner of the cosmos, we really do not know very much, even about the most fundamental facts about our situation in the universe or in history.
Pope Francis’ continued urgency in calling us to an encounter, not with ideas or doctrines about Christ, but with Christ Himself, takes on new meaning in this apophatic light.
Sectarian Catholicism and True Faith, Again
One of the first things I learned when I began studying systematic theology way back in the early 80s is that God is inconceivable, and that human language cannot grasp the truth of God’s essence, that God is always more unknown than known.
That is standard teaching in the conservative Catholic seminaries in which I was formed, among the first things one learns when studying Dogmatic Theology.
But once that is taken care of, the next four or more years are spent trying to tie down the Mystery, define and categorize It.
So we were taught apophaticism, but then went on to the dissection of the ineffable and the affirmation of the certainties of our religion.
But the seed was planted, so that when I was stripped bare, deconstructed, and knocked around by the dissonance I encountered when realizing that my ‘religion’ was mostly humanly constructed, I was able to cling to the core, the encounter of a being within Being.
And to my relief Christ indeed proved to be the rock, the solid foundation.
Apparently way back in the mid-70s, I did not just react emotionally to information about Christ. I encountered Him.
Or He found me.
I know, that sounds like the construct of my Calvinist ancestors.
But it is not, because the most dominant thing in the human universe is Mercy.
And the font of being is Love.
I did not know that Michael Novak had an Official Portrait, but apparently he does. It hangs on a wall of the library of Ave Maria University in Florida.
The image is a remarkable thing. There, in the background, are the steel mills of Johnstown Pennsylvania, where Mr Novak’s father worked. To Novak, the fact that Slovak immigrants could work hard and send him on his way to college and fame and fortune is proof positive the America is great. Never mind that those mills are long silent and young Johnstownians today do not have the option of a high paying low skill job.
They’re flipping burgers with the rest of America.
Rising from the steel mills instead of smoke is a wraithlike John Paul, balanced, visually, by the phallic Washington Monument. Mr Novak wears a flag pin, proving that he loves America. In his hands he holds a white book with a gold ribbon in his hands. What is this book? I believe it must a copy of Centesimus Annus, the papal encyclical that Novak believes he inspired, which has been distorted by neoconservatives since the moment it saw the light of day.
I don’t know how much input Michael Novak put into the iconography of his portrait, but the thing cries out for revision. Instead of the mills there should be an image of an Iraqi city, burning. Replace the ghost of the pope with Dick Cheney. Maybe there should be images of Johnstown’s homeless and unemployed.
The Washington Monument can remain.
I only became aware of this remarkable portrait because Artur Rosman used it in an article for his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, which asks the timely question “To What Degree is First Things Responsible for Iraq?”
The question is long overdue; to my knowledge none of the neocons has taken any responsibility for that debacle and its aftermath, clearly foreseen by Novak’s beloved John Paul.
For some reason my laptop will not let me cut and paste, but Cosmos is in my blogroll; give it a look.>
I dreaded turning sixty, and when that birthday was looming a year ago I got even more melancholic than usual.
Understand that when I was a boy sixty was old.
And not just because I was young: people died younger. My paternal grandfather died in his early fifties. My mom’s mom died in her early 60s. Her dad around 70. My eldest grandparent was my father’s mother, who was in her mid 70s.
But I am aware that before that generation my ancestors, at least those who survived childhood, lived for the most part long lives, into their 80s and 90s.
I cannot help but speculate that moving from farm to city, as my grandparents and parents did, and beginning to eat store bought, processed food and drink homogenized milk and work in more stressful and unnatural environments – I have worked in factories- shortened their lives.
And I have written here about realizing that I had spun a very narrow narrative, that I assumed, after my Bad Year of health crises and subsequent ills, that I was soon to be gone from this world. I did not make long term plans. I was resigned to living in pain the rest of my short life, and about the only optimistic part was that my life insurance would help my bride and the kids climb out of debt.
It is not like I did not experience joy, or find pleasure in my family or in beauty. If you read what I write you know that. But the underlying reality was doom.
I wrote on Facebook that when I turned sixty that I would wear black clothes and dark John Lennon glasses. It wasn’t a joke. I bought black t shirts and shades. But black is too hot for a fiery man like me, even in winter months, and I found I do not like looking at a dark world.
But that was my mood.
Meanwhile, everything was falling apart, or so it felt. I began a long deconstruction, a stripping down, accompanied by an epic winter. I became disillusioned with a lot of what I had thought was religion, and critical of the subculture of a certain type of American ‘orthodox Catholicism’, even though I had never been anywhere but on the margins of the Real Catholic Club, a sort of pet Catholic bohemian radical.
But it fell apart.
Human construct after human construct crumbled, until I was just being beholding Being.
And I awoke.
Some friends may think I have lost my faith, but in fact I lost everything but my faith.
And I felt a surge of creativity, both artistically and intellectually. Everything seemed to come together, even the parts that were falling apart.
I realized that the source of much of my back and neck pain was anxiety, added to by the constant clenching that extreme cold inspires as a natural reaction, and I realized that there are exercises I can do to help strengthen my muscles.
Concurrent with this came clarity about a lot of personal things. I realized that I have books brewing in me: memoirs, things theological, erotic, philosophical, poetic.
But I do not have time for major projects. I came to understand that for all sorts of practical reasons it makes sense for me to retire later rather than sooner. Put these two realizations together and it is clear that while I do not have time to write a book or paint large paintings I can write sketches and chapters and jot down ideas, and I can do small paintings and drawings.
I do not know where this will go. It may all be worked into a novel, or there may be several books brewing.
Or maybe I will sum it all up in a poem.
But to that end I have begun writing elsewhere, anonymously. I will still write here, the sort of ‘Catholic stuff” that has appeared here since 2005. And I will continue writing here on social and political issues. Another presidential race is brewing and it will be hard not to offer my satirical take on it. Heck, the Republicans oddly chose Cleveland, one of the blackest and poorest cities in the US, for their convention. It’s just an hour away and I may pay a visit.
Though it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that this round of Americana is going to be uglier and dumber than ever.
So Caelum et Terra, which has been losing readers since I veered from the Real Catholic Club’s weird religion, will continue.
For the more personal and speculative, though, I have another venue.
And a plan.
Sixty, which I had dreaded, turned out to be a watershed, a hill from which there is a broad and hopeful view.
And tomorrow I turn 61.
Our Red Pope
Pope Francis recently warmed my heart again when he responded to a criticism that his socio-economic analysis smacked of Marxism. He did not back away from this but said instead that communism had stolen it from the Church. While I am thankful that he did not back down, it is also unfair to the Marxists. They did not so much ‘steal’ it as find it by the side of the road, where the bishops had tossed it while they dined with emperors and presidents and bankers.
But every movement for justice and equality, for the people and for the universal destination of the earth’s fullness, is part of the long bright shadow cast by Christ.
Sectarian Catholicism vs True Faith
So much of what is called ‘Catholicism’ is mostly humanly constructed and ephemeral. The various sectarian Catholicisms may be rooted in a love of beauty and attachment to some historic form of the Faith that moved the soul. But whenever anything relative is held as absolute you have wandered into idolatry territory.
Again, Francis calls us to the primal encounter with Christ, not the embrace of ideas about him.
I have recently become aware of how grateful I am for my background in scholastic philosophy and Roman Catholic moral theology. If that is all you have you have a pretty crappy religion, but they are sure good to have in one’s repertoire .
Same Shit, New Flies
I saw a new right wing magazine the other day, The Whistle Blower, from NewsMax. The cover blared “The Truth About America’, but it was no expose of our historic sins, but rather a triumphalist apologia for American exceptionalism.
One article was called ‘The Land of the Self-Made Man’.
I thought about that expression, and it is clear that what is meant is the ‘self-made rich man’. I mean imagine how ridiculous the term ‘self-made beggar’ or ‘self-made slave’ is.
But of course any such phrase is delusional, in denial of our fundamental interdependence, not only biologically but spiritually and economically.
Individualism is an illusion spun by hubris, the original sin of America, watered and manured with the cursed spirit of Calvin.
Dilbert would be so much better if the underlings wore postal uniforms. The pointy headed boss would be a dead ringer for the worst boss I ever had if he had a goatee and was twice the size of everyone else.
Painting by Ohio artist Michael Hoza