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February 2008

A Movie You Should See

Landscape in the Mist, by Theo Angelopoulos.

It may be too slow-moving for some people. And there are one or two scenes of devastating pain, one in particular. But it is the story of every human life, revealed in the lives of two people.

In the beginning was the darkness. And then there was light....



I finished up my lunchtime emailing and web-browsing and before getting back to work clicked over to a news site just to see if anything major had happened in the last couple of hours, and I see that William F. Buckley, Jr. has died. I'm not surprised; I had read that he was devastated when his wife died not so long ago. I can't say that the man himself had a great deal of influence on me, but the magazine he founded had a fair amount. Perhaps I'll write a bit more on that in the next day or so. Meanwhile, a brief prayer for his soul.

A few years ago he wrote about selling the sailing yacht on which he apparently spent a fair amount of his time. In closing, he described it as an exercise in giving up things, in preparation for giving up everything.

Update: If you want to get an idea of his influence and the affection and respect he inspired, take a look at National Review's blog—scroll down to Kathryn Lopez's announcement at 2/27 11:13 and read upward.

Update #2: Via Ross Douthat, here is the passage I was thinking of.

I'm having trouble parsing that last sentence and am wondering if there is a misprint in it, but the sentiment is clear.



Ryan C. let me know of the existence of Luminarium, an excellent site devoted mainly to English literature from medieval times to the 18th century. It includes, or links to, works, biographies, criticism, and anything else that seems relevant. There’s a book store with links to Amazon for purchasing books by or about the authors, and even a poster store. And it covers all the major writers and most of the minor ones, including several I hadn’t heard of. (Yes, I know, that doesn’t mean much. But I had managed to miss, for instance, William Alabaster.)

The site’s editor says it’s a labor of love, and she wants to keep it a free resource—to that end you do have to put up with Google ads on the right sidebar.

Note: some of the author home pages automatically play MIDI tracks of historically appropriate music, so if this bothers you, you may want to mute the sound on your computer.

And one question: where’s Traherne?

Ryan also apprised me of another online repository, Renascence Editions, which has English works printed between 1477 and 1799.


Cardinal Dulles on the Magisterium

You know, it’s funny how blog discussions go: who’d have thought that a very brief post linking to an article about people who have trouble deciding between their interior decor and their children would have ended up going deep into the question of how we evaluate the authority of a controversial teaching of the Church? Toward the end of that discussion I suggested that there are probably some good books on the subject: this recent one by Cardinal Dulles seems a good candidate.

I’ll just ignore the fact that the first review is from a teacher at Ave Maria University and the book is published by Ave Maria University’s publishing company.


Sunday Night Journal — February 24, 2008

Desire and Expectation

Somewhere in a recent discussion here about music the blogger who calls herself Pentimento noted that popular music is especially focused on emotions of desire and longing that are particularly useful for a consumer society. The first part of that statement is something I’ve noticed for a long time. I’d never thought about the second part, but I suppose it’s true. And if it is useful for a consumer society, that’s because the emotions are so powerful and universal.

Some more-than-fifty percentage of popular songs deal with romantic love, and a large number of those deal with incomplete or unhappy love: the one I love does not love me, or has stopped loving me. (The cruder ones, of course, of which there are very many, only deal with lust.) But the overall spirit of the music is not so much romantic as Romantic, in the 19th century cultural sense.

Once I was a few years into a happy marriage, these songs of romantic love ceased to work on me in the way they once had: I had what the singers claimed to want, so their plaints no longer meant to me what they had once meant. But I continued to like the songs just as much, or almost as much, because the yearning never went away. Even though the lyrics no longer applied directly to me, the emotional content of the songs did, very much. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I did the same thing with much popular music that the Church has always done with The Song of Solomon: I made it allegorical, redirecting the erotic longing toward the spiritual. Even if (or maybe especially if) our personal circumstances are happy, we are still, if we’re at all reflective, conscious of a still-unsatisfied longing, a desire for some sort of perfect happiness that simply is not available to us in this life.

In popular music, the outstanding expression of this great yearning for me is Van Morrison’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks. I’ve never been able to put into words the emotion it arouses in me, although I did find in C.S. Lewis a description of it: it’s a painful yearning that is sweeter than pleasure. (The passage is in Surprised By Joy, which for some reason I don’t have a copy of, so I can’t quote it exactly.) It’s sweet because it promises something far more wonderful than anything we can hope to encounter in our earthly life; it’s painful because we can’t have what we yearn for. It’s like a fragrance that brings back a memory of some enchantment lost in the past.

Sometimes we find the yearning more or less consciously expressed in popular music, or at least removed from its connection with romantic love. It always interests me when I encounter it in places where I don’t expect it. I think the most surprising of these may have been in an interview with the leader of the heavy metal group Emperor. I came across it a few years ago when I became curious about the phenomenon of death or black metal: heavy metal music, mostly Scandinavian in origin, which celebrates death and violence. Emperor was one of the most notorious of these bands: some of its members were involved in the burning of historical wooden churches in Norway, and at least one murder. I can’t easily locate the interview now, so I have to rely on memory, but it included an observation to the effect that their band speaks to the longing in everyone for something transcendent, something greater and more wonderful than anything offered by ordinary life. I can’t help wondering if someone like this is really in much worse spiritual trouble than the hedonistic bourgeois who anesthetizes the longing with pleasure and shopping.

I know several people my age or older, which is to say that they’re either within sight of the gates of old age or have already passed through them, who are afflicted with the yearning but who do not have the faith that promises that the yearning will be fulfilled. I see some of them becoming more frightened of age and death, or more bitter toward life, or both. It was only life in this world that ever held any promise of giving them what they desired, and now they know it never will. That is very hard to bear.

I certainly have had my share of those hopes, and many of them have been disappointed: for instance, I never had any intention of spending thirty-five years in a line of work which doesn’t interest me that much and which I’m not all that good at. But I’m happy to have been able to earn a decent living from it, and now I only hope that I will be allowed to keep at it until I can afford to retire with my mortgage paid. But whereas one who has no other hope can only expect more of the pain of disappointment, I am now finding that mine is disappearing. And even though I certainly have far fewer years remaining than I have already lived, I look to the future with hope, albeit it with the awareness that I probably have some very difficult trials ahead of me.

Some of my favorite pop music is made by people who have no religious belief (that I know of) but an acute grasp of what it means to yearn for heaven in a world which cannot supply it. Tom Waits is one of the first of these who comes to mind. Melancholy is everywhere in his work, and bitterness common. It seemed in one recent album, Blood Money, in which one of the gentler songs, “Lullaby,” has the refrain

Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes; go to sleep

that he might give way to bitterness altogether, but there are moments of something like desperate prayer in the one that followed, Real Gone:

Since you're gone
Deep inside it hurts
I'm just another sad guest
On this dark earth

I want to believe
In the mercy of the world again
Make it rain, make it rain

But the world is not merciful, except for brief periods, and never finally. You have to look elsewhere for that. I want to offer these people the words of Traherne which I’ve quoted before (this time I’ll modernize his archaic spelling):

We love we know not what: and therefore every thing allures us. As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between them: so is there in us a world of love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance, by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self drawn with the expectation and desire of some great thing?

To feel the desire, and to believe that the expectation is not in vain: these are the foundations of peace and joy in this life. Without them, the best we can strive for is resignation.


This Plant Is Not Very Smart

This is an azalea, one of many in our yard.

Every year, we have some warm days in February. Every year, the azaleas bloom enthusiastically. Nothing will convince them that the warm weather is not here to stay. And almost every year we get a freeze in late February or early March that reduces these blossoms to something that looks like wet brown tissue paper.

They never learn. Oh, well, they’re pretty while they last.

(staff photos)


Sunday Night Journal — February 17, 2008

Newman’s Dream of Gerontius

I mentioned a week or two ago that one of my aims for Lent is to get to know Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (not Gerontion, as I keep mistakenly saying—that’s Eliot), based on Newman’s poem of the same name. Thinking I ought to familiarize myself with the poem first, I hauled out my ancient (1955) Poetry of the Victorian Period and sat down with it. (I was not, by the way, precocious enough to have been reading Victorian poetry in 1955, at the age of seven. This is a college textbook and was still in use in the mid-‘60s when it belonged to my college roommate, from whom I seem to have stolen it.)

I was, to be honest, expecting the poem to be a little on the dull side, and hoping the music would make up for it—after all, Newman’s reputation doesn’t rest on his poetry. Well, I was quite wrong about that. This is a very fine work, vividly imagined and skillfully executed in a variety of forms. Weighing in at around 900 lines, it could serve as a sort of miniature substitute for Dante’s Purgatorio. It describes the journey of a soul from death to purgatory, with just the barest hints about the eventual destination of heaven, and the hell which was escaped. Newman was sixty-four years old when he wrote it, and I suppose must have thought he was describing something he might soon face, although as it turned out he had to wait another twenty-five years to discover whether his vision was accurate or not.

And I do wonder whether it was based on a vision. I suppose it need not have been, as there is really nothing in it that imagination and Catholic faith could not provide, but it certainly is convincing, particularly the description of the process of dying. It is not the physical symptoms as such that dismay Gerontius, but

‘Tis this new feeling, never felt before…
That I am going, that I am no more.
‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment,…
This emptying out of each constituent
And natural force, by which I come to be…
As though my very being had given way
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on naught….

The poem is in two sections, a short opening of 170 lines which brings Gerontius to the moment of death, and the longer remainder which describes what he experiences between death and the moment when he is taken by his guardian angel to Purgatory, which Newman, interestingly, conceives as a lake. There are a number of passages which would be of interest to those who followed the speculations here over the past week or so about the condition of the soul after death. In particular, there is a passage, too long to quote here, in which the angel tries to explain to Gerontius how he can be a disembodied soul and yet experience perceptions: it’s a sort of trick, akin to phantom pains in an amputated limb, provided so that the soul will not be in total isolation.

Although Gerontius must still be purified, he is on his way to heaven, and when he wonders if it’s proper for him to ask questions of the angel, the angel replies, in a few words that sum up what it might be like to be no longer fallen man:

…You cannot now
Cherish a wish which ought not to be wished.

What a happy state that would be. And I can’t think of many more sweetly hopeful lines of poetry than the closing quatrain in which the angel bids farewell to Gerontius until his time in purgatory is done:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

I come away from the poem convinced that although the details are imaginary and conjectural, something like it must be true. I say that not only, in fact not even firstly, because it accurately renders Catholic doctrine, but because it simply feels too perfectly an extrapolation of the evidence in every human heart. Considered coolly, the desire of the heart and the consciousness of our own faults do not suffice as evidence of heaven and purgatory, but yet there is something to be said for the argument.

The more I reflect on these things, the more it seems to me that our longing is at the very least a very odd fact. If we are truly the products of a purely physical process, how does it come about that we see things which are far more than that? And make no mistake: we all see them, every one of us. Some of us believe they are real, some believe they’re imaginary products of our emotions, but all of us are aware of them—aware, for instance, of love, to pick only one example. How can chemical processes come to dream of something beyond chemical processes?

Some hold that as a theologian Newman is a bit muddled, but no sensible person will argue that he is not a genius, one of the finest minds of the 19th century. Among other things, he is a supreme master of English prose whose work is studied for its literary value alone. Does the fact of his genius hold any weight as an argument for the truth of his beliefs? Not necessarily; genius is no guarantee against error. But it is another very odd fact about the world that there is a long line of geniuses—looking backward from Newman I think immediately of Pascal, Dante, Aquinas—who believed the Christian faith with all their hearts, not as an insignificant passing notion held without much thought, but as the object of lifelong close attention. Is there any system of thought, I wonder, that is now generally considered to be false, but has been held in substantially the same form by many of the world’s greatest minds over a period of two thousand years? I can’t think of one. That doesn’t prove it’s true, but it’s a point worth pondering.

Here is the poem, if you care to read hundreds of lines of verse online. The site which hosts the poem looks like a great resource.


Where I’m From

Over at the Crunchy Con blog, Rod Dreher describes his perfect Valentine’s Day dinner:

On the menu: to start, a dozen briny raw oysters, slurped from the shell and washed down with cold Chablis. Then a bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. A simple salad with warm, crusted goat cheese. Halibut in an herbaceous cream sauce. Lightly steamed broccoli dressed only with salt and lemon juice. And to finish, tarte Tatin with whipped cream. With strong black coffee, then a fine grappa, followed by a long, long walk through the cold night fog.

I suppose I would enjoy that meal if I actually had it, apart from the oysters, but the only things on that list that really turn me on are the coffee and the walk. Maybe there was a time when I might have learned to enjoy sophisticated food and wine, but it’s well past; I’m really not even interested now.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of reverse snob, but when I think of food that I really love, the first things that come to mind are low-class stuff like barbecue and catfish. Thinking about that after reading Rod’s post, I discovered that my favorite restaurant has a web site.

I grew up about a quarter of a mile away from the building in that picture. My family owns the land it sits on. If you could see through the leftmost corner of the building as it’s pictured there, you could see our house. I don’t know why they chose to use a picture taken on a dull, grey winter day, but the sight of it fills me with nostalgia. It’s funny what the fact that a place is home can do for it; a wider view of that area would show huge expanses of flat bare red-dirt fields and winter-brown pastures but it’s beautiful to me. I wish I were about fifteen years old again, wandering around in the pastures and fields and woods with a .22 or a shotgun, pretending to hunt but really just enjoying the walk, with a chance to start my life over again and not make so many mistakes.

I live about 300 miles south of there now. Time to make a trip up north and have some barbecue and hushpuppies—as far as I’m concerned there are no other hushpuppies.

By the way, here’s the thread I mentioned at Crunchy Con.


Interesting Music (& Culture) Discussion

I’m a little late in linking to this, as the discussion seems to have petered out, at least for the moment, but I thought I’d mention it for those (if any) who might read this blog but not Touchstone’s. It’s a post by Anthony Esolen responding to an article on the question of whether it’s possible for our culture to produce a great composer. Read it here. (I assume the Rob G who comments very wisely in it is the Rob Grano who comments here. Right, Rob?)


Sunday Night Journal — February 10, 2008

Love Not in Vain: The Open Secret

Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
and I could not help but cry
All my love's in vain

—Robert Johnson

All the way to heaven is heaven.

—St. Catherine of Siena

Since watching Bergman’s Winter Light recently, I’ve been haunted by a scene in which a woman begs to be given a purpose for her life. Though she doesn’t believe in God, she has nevertheless prayed for a purpose, and believes at first that her prayer has been answered when she concludes that her purpose will be to care for the man she loves. Her lover, a Lutheran minister, has lost his own faith and seems to have lost with it the capacity for love or even sympathy: he rejects her brutally, throwing her into anguish from which she cries out that she is strong and willing to give and to suffer but that she must have a purpose for doing so. Without an object for her love, a purpose for it, it seems in vain.

It’s this continual probing of God even by those who can no longer believe in him that makes Bergman’s films on this subject so profound. The need for purpose is very close to the core of the human soul. If the materialists are right and neither the cosmos in general nor human life in particular have any purpose, then our need for it is a pretty odd phenomenon. We’re pretty inventive in coming up with explanations for everything we see as well as for our own existence, and an explanation, even a materialistic one, is an exercise in the discovery of short-range purpose (“the male robin’s breast is red in order to attract the female…” etc.).

It’s been said that Christianity is a key which matches precisely the intricate lock which is every human heart, and this is nowhere more evident than in this question of purpose. Christianity is certainly not the only religion or the only “belief system” which can give purpose to one’s life, and the provision of such a purpose says nothing about whether the beliefs are true; in fact the evidence indicates that some of those whose sense of purpose is most intense are most deluded. But the purpose of human life—human life in general and in particular, that of every one who has ever lived as well as yours and mine—as understood in Christianity is more closely fitted to the deepest needs of the soul than those proposed by any other system (or so it seems to me—I can’t claim to have examined every system closely).

We are told that one who lives an evil life can repent and reach the same heaven as Mother Teresa. And current articulations of Catholic teaching hold that those who do not directly know or confess Christ may be saved as a result of their desire to live rightly. So we sometimes hear a question that goes something like this: Why bother to live as a Christian at all? Why go to all that bother of going to church and praying and constraining your appetites when everyone except the worst of monsters will probably be saved anyway?

Well, obviously there are several theological mistakes implied in that last question, but I’m going to let those go and answer it as stated: you will be, or at least can and should be, happier in this life if you are a Christian than if you are not. I’m not talking about some sort of prosperity gospel which promises, falsely, that Christians will live in material comfort and be free from trouble. In fact you should not expect, as a Christian, to be any more free from external difficulty than anyone else, and perhaps less so. But everything you do will be richer in meaning than it could be otherwise, and therefore you will be happier, because we are all like that woman in Winter Light, and must have a purpose.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

—Matthew 11:28-30

Here is the open secret of Christianity, the thing that was spoken plainly to the whole world by the Lord himself, but can only be understood by those who have accepted the invitation. The yoke and the burden may in fact be intensely painful in some ways. Certainly the early Christians found them to be so, and it may still be so for us. But when you take them up and start walking with them, you find that though they may bear the body down they defy gravity in the spiritual realm, and lift the soul.

Life itself is almost certain to be intensely painful at some point to everyone. Some amount of suffering will come to all of us, and much to some. But God has given us what may be the greatest gift possible in this life: a meaning for suffering. And not only a meaning, but the choice of making our suffering a positive good by actively offering it on behalf of others. We not only have a purpose for our own lives, but we can choose to make that purpose be the one which is universally acknowledged to be the highest: to give our own lives for the sake of others. And—here’s the best part—we are promised that our efforts will have an effect.

Here’s a little thought experiment: suppose you are standing by an icy river. A gang of thugs comes along and, out of sheer meanness, pushes you in. You are almost stunned by the shock of the cold, and the bank is too steep and slippery for you to climb out. You reach for a branch hanging near the water but you’re too heavy for it and it breaks. You have only minutes to live and will spend them thrashing around wildly in panic, succumbing slowly to hypothermia and/or drowning.

Now suppose you’re standing by that same river, and you see a drowning child. You jump in. You are almost stunned by the shock of the cold, but you reach the child and try to bring him back to the shore. You see that you will never be able to climb the steep and slippery bank, but there is a low-hanging branch which the child is able to grasp, and he pulls himself out of the water. As you are succumbing slowly to hypothermia and/or drowning, you see someone helping the child to safety.

One way or another, sooner or later, we’re all going into that river, and we’re not coming out alive. Would you rather be thrown in, or jump in of your own free will to save somebody else? Which way would you prefer to die?

The secret of Christianity, which is also broadcast news, is that you can make any suffering that comes your way, from the least inconvenience to the worst agony, into a likeness of the second rather than the first scenario. We can take fear and suffering and death, the most terrible facts of human life, the facts which in every other religion must simply be endured, and make of them an instrument of love which will not be in vain.


N.T. Wright Sets Us Straight About Heaven

I haven’t read any of N.T. Wright's books—just a couple of magazine articles—but I know he’s regarded by many orthodox Catholics as a pretty solid theologian (he’s the Anglican Bishop of Durham). Here he is in Time, talking about the authentic Christian conception of heaven and asserting that many or most Christians have it wrong. He touches on some of the things that we were saying here in the comments a couple of days ago, e.g. the mistaken belief that we will be disembodied souls. He in turn seems to me to be perhaps going a bit beyond what we can confidently affirm. But isn’t his point about the new heaven and earth basically valid, and doesn't his suggestion—I think that’s all it is— about how we will exist in the other world seem to point in the right direction?


To the Edge and Beyond

As part of a substantial rearrangement of our house, my wife and I have been going through our books and forcing ourselves to get rid of those we’re pretty sure we’ll never read or never read again. On Monday I found a little book that I probably bought at a library sale and have never read: My Way of Life: A Pocket Edition of St. Thomas / The Summa Simplified for Everyone, by Walter Farrell, O.P., S.T.M., and Martin J. Healy, S.T.D., published in 1952. It’s literally a little book, about three by four inches and less than an inch thick, but containing over 600 pages of fairly small print. I probably bought it because it was sort of quaint, and not because I really wanted to read a simplified version of St. Thomas. (I used to think I might read the Summa when and if I retire, but the fact is that I probably won’t.)

So, standing in the middle of a room full of boxes and books, looking at this one, I thought “This is probably one I can do without.” But I opened it up and read the first paragraph:

The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it test the strength of his legs. Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.

I’m keeping it for that paragraph, even if I never read another word of it.


Sunday Night Journal — February 3, 2008

The Terrible Severance

We went to a Mardi Gras parade Saturday night in Daphne, a little town just up the road. Standing around, bored, waiting for the parade to start, I heard a small voice say “Hi.” I looked down to see a little girl with long dark hair, four years old or so. “Hi,” I said, then looked around for her parents, because these days you can’t help but be wary of being friendly to a stranger’s child—you might be taken for a child molester. I caught the eye of a young woman who seemed to be the girl’s mother. I didn’t see a father. “Alicia, that’s not your daddy,” she said, but she didn’t seem alarmed.

I’m a complete pushover for little girls, and Alicia was charming, but I’m also usually at a loss as to how to deal with other people’s children. My impulse was to snatch her up and swing her around and let her watch the parade from my shoulders, but I thought that might be too much even for an easy-going mother, and contented myself with allowing Alicia to explain a few things to me, such as the fact that the policeman was riding a bicycle. She wandered away after a bit, then returned and got my attention by beating on my legs. I glanced at the mother again.

“Any male…” she said, with a sad smile.

So pretty little Alicia is one of those millions of children being raised by single mothers, growing up with a hunger for the male attention that is missing from her life. And what will happen a decade or so from now, when Alicia reaches her teens and any male takes on an entirely different meaning? God save her.

But there is hope yet for Alicia; she may get through it all without too much harm. Not so, at least not in this world, for the subjects of a story in this morning’s newspaper. You may have heard of the crime: a father, in some sort of fit of anger at his wife, threw his four young children off a bridge at the mouth of Mobile Bay. It’s been in the news for several weeks. It was two weeks or so before all the bodies were found, the last one having drifted all the way to Louisiana.

The father was an off-and-on crack addict and had been described in all the reporting as being of Asian ancestry. I had wondered about that, because pictures of him showed him looking not particularly Asian. This morning’s story went into the father’s background. It turns out that he was born to a Vietnamese woman and that his father was an American soldier.

Luong, now 37, was one of thousands of Amerasian children—the offspring of American soldiers and Vietnames women—who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. Many had been isolated and discriminated against in Vietnam. Luong was 14 whe he moved to the U.S. alone in 1984 after living in Ho Chi Minh City. He stayed with foster parents, but [his wife] said she doesn’t know the parents’ names or where they lived. Most of his early life remains a mystery to her.

—Mobile Register, Feb. 3, 2008

Chances are good that Luong’s mother was to his father no more than a momentary pleasure. At best, perhaps, they had some sort of affectionate relationship; at worst, it was a financial transaction. But it brought a new human life into the world, a soul that had every right to care and affection from two parents.

Sometimes it strikes me as inexplicably monstrous and astonishing that we can effect this terrible severance, treating sex as a casual thing and completely ignoring its biological purpose, pretending that the conception of a new person is only a rare and weird side effect of it. It’s as if we wander the streets with loaded guns, now and then firing them at people we meet, and then are surprised by the numbers of dead and wounded.

It is not just a pragmatic or worldly question. Damaged and abandoned women and children (and of course some men as well) are, in the long run, not even the worst effect of this coldness about sex. If it is true, as Our Lord himself as well as his followers from St. Paul to Pope John Paul II have taught, that sexual congress establishes some sort of spiritual link between a man and a woman, what must many of our lives look like? To engage in sex and then to walk away from the relationship is in some sense to abort a marriage. This, I suspect, is part of that reality of which, according to Eliot, human kind cannot bear very much.

There is no such thing as giving the body without giving the soul. … Man has no organic functions isolated from his soul. There is involvement of the whole personality. Nothing is more psychosomatic than the union of two in one flesh; nothing so much alters a mind, a will, for better or for worse.

—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (and thanks to Dawn Eden for the quote)

It’s the tiresome but inevitable habit of most older people and some younger ones to look back at life and see what they would have done differently. I am not about to get confessional here, but if I could change one thing about my life I would wish to have understood and to have lived by the belief that sex, marriage, and procreation are one indivisible thing, and never to have contemplated engaging in the first apart from the second, and without being open to the third: never, in short, to have attempted to give or receive the body without giving and receiving the soul.

I think these truths are more apparent to women than to men, but I’ll leave that topic for another day.


Music of the Week — February 3, 2008

Leonard Cohen: Ten New Songs

Leonard Cohen was born in 1934, and considering not just the productive life but the physical life of most popular music performers, it’s a little surprising that he was still active in 2001, at the age of 66, when this album was made. It’s even more surprising that he was still doing great work, at least if you think of him primarily as a songwriter, and as a songwriter primarily a lyricist. His singing is down to a sort of mannerism, and he gets even more help than usual from the sighing female voices with which he’s always adorned his music. But there are several songs here that I’d rank with his best, and not a single bad one. Perhaps his gift has fallen off somewhat, as his singing partner, Sharon Robinson, is given co-writing credit, but the lyrics are classic Cohen, so I would guess that Robinson’s contribution was more musical than lyrical.

The album has a mild weakness: the arrangements, also credited to Sharon Robinson. They’re simple and tasteful, which is all to the good, but too slick; the instrumentation is bland and synthetic-sounding, giving the album an inorganic feel which doesn’t suit Cohen’s voice or the songs. That aside, though, anyone who likes Cohen’s older work should not think that this late work can be safely passed over. The standout songs for me are “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” “Love Itself,” “Alexandra Leaving,” and “By the Rivers Dark.” The rivers referred to in the last one are those of Babylon, and the song should be heard with reference to Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

“Love Itself” is reminiscent of St. John of the Cross. The speaker is having some sort of mystical experience, bathed in holy light and love, but then:

I’ll try to say a little more
Love went on and on
Until it found an open door
Then love itself,
Love itself was gone.

Here’s the AMG review.

By the way: Music of the Week is going on a six-week leave of absence: I’m giving up pop music for Lent. I plan to give a thorough hearing to several classical works of a religious nature, starting with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontion, and will probably discuss them here, but don’t want to commit myself to a regular schedule.


My Favorite Moment of the 2007-8 Football Season

The day of the absolute last game of the season seems like a good time to commemorate this scene. It occurred off the field, a minute or two after Mississippi State's last-second come-from-behind win over Ole Miss:

As those who follow the Southeastern Conference at all know, Sylvester ("Sly") Croom was one of the first black athletes to play for Bear Bryant. Over thirty years later he was in the running for Bear's old job but was passed over for Mike Shula. Possibly some old-fashioned racism was involved. I would bet also that there were concerns about adding racial considerations to the already poisonous mixture of difficulties at Alabama. I kind of wish they had taken the risk, though, especially when I see this. So far he's doing well at Mississippi State.


A Young Evangelical's Perspective on the Culture Wars

I've been meaning to add a section of links called Friends and Family. Garrett's Postmodern Orthodoxy will be among them. I'm leaving out his last name as he doesn't include it on his blog, but when or if he sees this he can volunteer it. He uses the word "orthodoxy" in an Evangelical Protestant context; I take it to indicate a broadly Nicene little-"o" orthodoxy.

I really like this take on the culture wars--not surprisingly, as it's very much along the lines of things I've tried to say here. As I suggested in last week's journal, I'm more and more inclined to think the Christian side of what we call the culture war has been essentially an attempt to lock the barn door when the horse has long since fled.