Archive for May, 2014

Zita’s Return



Our friend Ben Hatke’s book The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, the third of his graphic novel trilogy, has been released and is now available. Here is the trailer for the book:

And here is one place you can get it:http://www.amazon.com/The-Return-Zita-Spacegirl-Hatke/dp/1596438762

Ben’s art, and storytelling, are winsome and colorful. My kids all love his work, and we look forward to his next project. And I can’t be the only reader who thinks that space gypsy lady looks suspiciously like Ben’s wife Anna…

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In Fair May….

9May Flowers on gold foil

Francis Strikes Again

Well, he did it again. Pope Francis has once again publicly dissented from the Creed of market capitalism. Also from the creeds of libertarian Catholicism and Americanism.

In an address to UN bureaucrats the other day Francis, among other things, said “A contribution to this imagesequitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” (The line that has been getting the most attention in the secular press has been highlighted). Most news stories began with something like “Pope calls for redistribution of wealth.” But the Catholic News Agency’s headline says “Pope urges UN leadership to resist ‘culture of death’ ” The Register had the same headline, all framed in terms that are comforting to politically conservative Catholics. I am sure the response to this latest from the pope will echo the other uproars over the pope’s pronouncements, with some in the Real Catholic Corner openly criticizing, others explaining it away, others searching for the ‘gems’ hidden in the obvious.

Nothing Francis has said is outside the Catholic social tradition, though he has a way of distilling the inherent radicalism of that tradition in a way that few popes have.

But the idea that the State is inherently evil, even if it is a necessary evil, has no basis or support in Catholic teaching. “The State” is just the term we use for the human community at a certain level of population and development. It is a natural institution, like the family. Like the family, it is often dysfunctional, but the alternative is worse.

You can read the whole speech here:


A Punch in the Gut

The other day, which felt like summer, I was talking with a patron about what a relief the warmth and the green are after that epic winter. As I turned to leave she said “Have a great day!” I answered “Oh, I certainly will.” And immediately realized that I should never say that. I thought of the many times in life when everything is altered by some sudden event – a phone call in the night, sudden affliction, someone running a red light. Heck, I thought about my knee suddenly buckling a few weeks ago. Then I thought that thanks be to God, such events are rare. And immediately realized that there are people in the world for whom such sudden disaster is the norm, for whom every day comes with a punch in the gut. Isn’t that why we are not to judge others? Because we have no idea of what anyone else is going through at any moment, what dramas or burdens they carry? Every life, however humble, is epic, a cosmic struggle, literally. That is why I hope for the salvation of the world; for God sees every struggling heart -and every heart is struggling- and He sees with the eyes of Love.

Jackson’s Folly


I picked up Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug for the kids the other night. I made it through about 30 minutes before I could take it no more. All I can say is that I immediately thought of Mystery Science Theater 3000: I hope Joel and the ‘bots come out of retirement just to riff on this movie. Everything was overblown; every hairdo, every action scene, every detail. And I add Jackson’s portrayal of Beorn to my list of his unforgivable sins.


Painting by Kathy Fleming….

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Fr Dwight Longanecker did it again the other day. In an article looking back fondly to a more muscular Christianity he mentioned the time that St Nicholas smacked Arius at the first Council of Nicea. This, along with some choice quotes from Scripture and various saints, ‘proves’ that while we are not going to attack anyone – though it seems from the article that this is more from fear of the Law than anything else-  in fact harsh and violent attacks on error are the marks of the really zealous Christian, while kindness and nonviolence are the signs of a ‘milquetoast’.

But can St Nicholas’ angry act really be taken as some sort of vindication of violence? I think not.

But first, one must understand just who St Nicholas is to Orthodox and other eastern Christians. Although devotion to St Nicholas was as prominent, historically, in the western church as the eastern, his identity and presence have eroded over the centuries, and to modern western Catholics, reduced to The Santa Guy. But to eastern Christians the saint is beloved, familiar, a kindly grandfatherly figure. The only thing like it in the west is devotion to St Joseph (and I know from many conversations that understanding of St Joseph is undeveloped among the Orthodox. There are few if any Orthodox churches named after him, for example).

The spirit of St Nicholas is a benign one; he was noted in his life for his kindness and charity to the poor, and his presence in the lives of the faithful is a comforting one.

So what about punching Arius?

He did indeed either punch or slap – the stories differ- Arius at the Council, as Arius was expounding his doctrine that Christ was a created being, albeit the first created being, and one instrumental in the creation of all things. But instead of the rational soul, Christ had in its place the Logos. Thus, in one formula both His divinity and humanity disappear. Nicholas fumed, then could take it no longer: he assaulted Arius. The Council was shocked, and stripped Nicholas of his bishopric and expelled him from the Council. There are various stories of what happened next, ranging from a dream that Nicholas had, in which Christ and the Virgin appeared, presenting him with the symbols of his bishopric, to a shared dream of the same by all the Council Fathers, to a couple of concerned friends finding him in his room, wrapped in the Virgin’s arms, her mantle enveloping him.

Whatever happened, Nicholas was restored, Arius condemned. And those prone to defend violence have never stopped invoking his example:

kicking-assGOC punches Ariusstnicholas001

And so on.

But is this justified? The story is that Nicholas was ashamed. As noted, he was known for his gentleness, and his act must have been quite a shock, not least to himself. Anyone who has lost his temper and behaved badly can understand Nicholas’ grief and shame.

If indeed the Virgin wrapped him in her cloak isn’t it obvious that this was not in approval of violence, but to comfort him in his sorrow for what he had done?

Why is it so difficult for those who profess Christ to understand that violence is not an option in resisting error? That the Church’s use of violence has been a blemish on her reputation to this day?

And that by joking about it you look like you belong in the Neanderthal Rite?

The words of Christ to his apostles when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on their enemies applies, unfortunately, to His Church throughout history: ‘You do not know of what manner of spirit you are.’


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I have recently been writing here about humans and their freedom and their fate. I concluded that in the End the incomprehensible Being we call ‘God’ gives everyone exactly what they want, that what we call ‘hell’ is really just the cosmic Asshole Corner, where God just gives up and leaves the assholes of the universe alone.

The problem with this: how can one say one is a near-universalist, expecting all but a very few to make it, when to all appearances there are lots of assholes in the world? Doesn’t that mean that many will perish? And if many perish how can God be considered good, or even competent as a redeemer?

Simple: most assholes are not malevolent. They are scared. Or scarred. Or angry.

Even as a small child I learned that sins of weakness are not as bad as sins of malice. It is pretty clear to me that those who act badly out of woundedness will embrace mercy when that-which-we-call-God reveals himself/herself/itself/themselves as pure Love.

Basically, all the poor who are assholes will find God.

As for the rich assholes: well, Jesus did say “Woe to you rich.”


Art: “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, by John Everett Millais

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Discovering the Root


Rusted Root in the 90s.

The other day I came across a yard sale on my route. As I do when I have the time, I stopped to check it out. And found a bunch of CDs for $1 each, from the collection of someone whose taste is as eclectic as mine. So I walked away with Rachmoninov, Miles Davis, BB King, Natalie Merchant.

And two by Rusted Root.

It embarrasses me to report that while I considered this band to be ‘new music’, as I first heard of them on the far side of forty, these albums are twenty years old. But all I had heard was their one minor hit ‘Send Me On My Way’ and ‘Ecstasy’, which got some airplay on the alternative station.

But the first album, When I Woke, from  1994, is fresh sounding, and, well, new to me. Although ‘jam bands’ have a notoriously difficult time capturing the energy of a live performance, this studio album makes it abundantly clear why Rusted Root is famed as a good concert band.

I was most taken with this song:

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*   “May” is the most beautiful word in the English language. I never realized this until a few days ago, in the wake of the Terrible Winter.

*   Number of 24-count boxes of hand-warmers I used last winter: three. Total number of hand-warmers used the previous 29 years of carrying mail: zero.

*   But it is over. The world is abloom, beauty is poured out on all of us, the good and evil, the wise and foolish, just poured out like mercy on us. I have always loved the Spring, but never have I been so swept up in the glory of the season, never so elated to see  green things rising from the dark earth, rising up and blooming in a holy riot of color.

*   I like to take the back roads on my twenty five mile trip to work and back, when I can. The road meanders through the rolling countryside, past the Conservative Mennonite farms. In the winter it is dark both ways, and the road is often covered by drifting snow, but from early Spring to early Winter I take the slower and prettier route. There is a white oak, about a mile outside of town, that is the biggest around; certainly the largest between here and Wooster. It is majestic, and it most often surprises me; I will be driving, lost in thought, when suddenly it appears. I always cross myself, instinctively. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that some of the branches on the east side of the tree had been cut off. I assumed that maybe they were in the way of the electrical lines, but a few days later all the branches had been chopped off, leaving the trunk standing there huge, like an obscenity. Any day what is left will come down. None of the branches appeared to be rotted, but then the top of the main trunk is too high to see from road. I cannot think of another reason to kill this tree, which is well over two hundred years old. But it is a blow, after the loss of so many other trees dear to me.

*   Work, which these spring days consists mostly of walking around in beauty, is really more a sort of strolling meditation these days. To the point that I almost feel guilty for taking money for it. But then I think of that long dark winter, so relentlessly cold, so harrowing, and I feel okay: I was not being paid nearly enough last winter.

It all works out, really.


Painting by Vincent Van Gogh

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I have called Michael Matt, of  The Remnant paper and Remnant TV, my favorite Catholic comedian, because he and his confrere Christopher Ferrara have in the past cracked me up. Even here, in his latest video, his use of the term ‘young bucks’ certainly raises eyebrows; the phrase, in its tone-deafness, reminds me of  the time Mr Ferrara said in exasperation at the notion of women’s ordination “What next? Ordaining cats and dogs?” Because, you know, ordination is only for humans. No, I do not favor women’s ordination, but that is an offensive comment by any measure.

Watching this, though, just made me sad:

The man’s distress is palpable, and the ‘catacomb’ stage set, complete with the pile of bones and skulls, speaks worlds about how the Remnant and other ‘traditionalists’  view the world and their place in it. While I have criticized, and goofed on, the folks who call themselves traditionalists, I am not unsympathetic to them and their concerns. Not least, because I know from attending the Latin High Mass that much of their angst is rooted in the experience of the numinous that awed them during the Latin Mass. There is nothing quite like it: cerebral but transcendent, contemplative and serene. In contrast, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy is ecstatic and exuberant, transfigurational and euphoric. I experienced the Latin Mass as a child, in powerful ways, and then later as a returnee. While I have not assisted at a Tridentine liturgy in years, I am pretty sure that the Latin responses, in chant, would come quite naturally to me.

For people who have encountered God in the old rite, its loss was traumatic.

And not least I am sympathetic because I know that in just about every case their anger is rooted in heartbreak, in lives of loved ones lost in the post-conciliar confusion, in betrayal by clerics and trusted authorities, in aesthetic horror at what replaced the calming cadences of the Latin chant, so pure and ethereal. To self-styled traditionalists, the days before the Council were relatively calm and stable, at least in memory. To them, the coincidence of  Vatican II and the crackup of the West is too compelling to deny causality.

For all that, any particular form of the Divine Liturgy is 90% human construct, at least. The Latin Mass and the Liturgies of St John Chrystostom and of St James may be particularly beautiful and moving constructions, and the pedestrian Sunday Novus Ordo Mass may be a particularly banal one, but neither are the Absolute. While a beautiful liturgy may participate in the heavenly liturgy it does not duplicate it.

And for all the criticism, it can be argued that the stripped-down conciliar liturgy offered a flexibility and  adaptability to various cultures that contributed to the explosive growth of the Church in the developing world. It does not seem to occur to traditionalists that much of the banality of the ‘new’ liturgy is a reflection of the banality of western culture, that the Novus Ordo, when expressing a living culture, rich in folk idioms, can be a medium for wedding that culture with the Faith.

Belloc was simply wrong: Europe is not the Faith, and the Faith is not Europe.

Traditionalists, so called, rarely look at the growth of Catholicism in the missions, instead focusing on the palpable decline of faith in the West, which arguably has roots much further back than the Council. If things were so great how could everything collapse, as it did in many Catholic cultures, and collapse so quickly?

Apart from all that, I really don’t understand the big deal about the canonizations: no one is required to venerate a particular saint, and you are perfectly free to believe that said saint was wrong about just about everything. I belong to a church, named after an empire no less, that venerates the likes of Constantine the Great, Demetrios, and Vladimir. I just ignore them.

I must admit, though, that for all my appreciation of John Paul, and my belief in his personal holiness, I thought Mr Matt made some very good points concerning the speed of this canonization and the innovations surrounding it. The idea that this haste may come back to haunt us is not an irrational one.

But I am willing to take the chance that Francis knows what he is doing, given his record.

And yes, that last statement would make Mr Matt’s head explode.


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