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March 2009

“a lessening of the desire for life”

Over at the Inside Catholic blog, Zoey Romanowsky has a nice weekly feature which I’ve been meaning to mention, “Flannery Friday,” in which she posts a quote from Flannery O’Connor. Usually it’s from one of O’Connor's letters collected in The Habit of Being. I especially liked this week’s entry. It’s from a letter to the friend who is kept anonymous in the book and known only as “A” but who has since been identified as Elizabeth Hester. She entered the Church during her correspondence with Flannery but left a few years later. I won’t steal Zoey Romanowsky’s idea by reproducing the whole quote, and you should go read it, but I was struck by this sentence:

“I don’t think any the less of you outside the Church than in it, but what is painful is the realization that this means a narrowing of life for you and a lessening of the desire for life.”

I think most Christians have an A in their lives, probably more than one. We pray for them, but many of us are hesitant about trying actively to persuade them. Or at least I am, unless the person clearly wants the dialog: too often such efforts are counter-productive or misunderstood, especially in a culture where corrupt and/or misguided evangelists have to some degree poisoned the atmosphere.

And yet what I want to communicate is something like what Flannery O’Connor says here. I don’t want to defeat you in an argument or dominate your will with mine; I don’t want to bully you into thinking and behaving in certain ways simply because they are the ways of which I approve. And lurking behind it (or maybe quite out front) is the uneasiness that the other may take any challenge as disapproval or rejection, although “I don’t think any less of you outside the Church than in it.” I want you to have life. I don’t want you to settle for a life of disappointment that ends in death. I want you to have a desire for life that can’t be satisfied with anything less than the absolute—perfection in eternity, God himself.

Absence of belief means a gradual narrowing of possibilities. For most people youth is a time of seemingly endless possibility, but because one is not infinite, some of these possibilities must be passed over. And even if one is not disappointed in the narrow set of things which is all even the most fortunate person can attain, time will see to it that those things are taken away, if not by circumstances or personal fault then, with absolute certainty, by old age and death. This makes even an apparently and mostly happy and successful life a tragedy in the end.

...a narrowing of life... Life without the hope we have in Christ is a sort of funnel-shaped tunnel closed at the end, wide at the mouth but getting more and more narrow as you go, until final it comes to a point beyond which nothing can pass. Life as a Christian is the opposite. It may seem narrow at the opening, it may exclude some things one might have enjoyed, but for the spirit it gets wider and wider until it finally opens out into eternity.

As if to illustrate the point, Betty Hester eventually committed suicide, twenty-plus years after Flannery herself died of the disease that kept her in discomfort and pain for much of her life. I suppose Flannery was probably praying for her as long as she was alive, and I wonder if she offered some of her own considerable suffering for her friend, and possibly kept suicide from being the last word between Betty Hester and God.


This Is an Azalea

The other day when I posted a picture of the shy and modest spiderwort I mentioned that there are so many azaleas around here that I almost stop noticing them. Here’s what I was talking about.

Take that, Woodward.

I call the picture above “an azalea” because that seems to be the custom around here—people use the singular for the bush more than for the single flower, perhaps because you hardly ever see a single flower. That is not my azalea, by the way; I don’t know whose house that is. The only azaleas at our house currently are babies, planted six or eight weeks ago, and just a foot or two high with no more than a dozen or so blossoms. Last Sunday on the way home from Mass I asked my wife to take a few pictures of azaleas for my blog. The ones here just happened to be good specimens that we passed. I like the next one for its variety.

The azaleas usually start blooming in late February and early March, and are now beginning to wind down. We’ve had heavy rain for the last couple of days, and azalea flowers don’t handle that well; these bushes probably now look like they’re covered in wet toilet paper.


My Finest Moment as a Slacker

Related to the previous post: when I was a sophomore or junior in college, in the late ’60s, I had to take a couple of psychology courses—a social science requirement or something. One of them was something like Psych 102, not the first course but not very far along, either. In an early attempt to harness technology for educational purposes, the lectures were recorded and delivered via what I think was “closed circuit” TV, a term which seems to have disappeared. At any rate the classroom had desks and a TV, but no teacher, and we sat and watched the lectures on TV.

Well, after about 1.6 of those, I thought the hell with this and left.

I never went back to another lecture. I browsed around in the book, thought it looked like pretty simple common-sense stuff, and put it aside. For the rest of the semester I didn’t do anything at all except keep track of when there was going to be a test and go take it. I made a B.


Students and Not-Students

I’ve known several people who report having dreams like the one described in this cartoon from xkcd (click for larger version if you can’t read it).

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it may have been in a comment discussion: this sort of dream seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon, but I have never had one anything like it, though I know several people who do, regularly.

There are people who are natural students, and people who are not. The natural students basically like school, or at least are very conscientious about it, and care a lot about it. I am a not-student. Of the many hours I have spent in school (first grade through Master’s degree) I probably hated over 90% of them. That was where I received my training in daydreaming, in travelling away in my mind to a more interesting place, which is one of the few things I was ever very good at (not to mention having a natural aptitude for it) but which unfortunately does not facilitate the acquisition of more useful skills. And I never really cared that much about grades, which my record amply shows. In most subjects I could do all right without working very hard, so that was all I did, shrugging off the occasional D in math or something.

So it’s not at all surprising that I’ve never had this dream, while others are regularly tormented by it—my wife, for instance, who was a straight-A student.

I started to call this post “I Was a Teenage Underachiever,” but since I’ve continued to be one for the rest of my life so far it wouldn’t be quite accurate. An underachiever avant le lettre, maybe.


More Slowdive

Two of my favorites: “Alison,” from Souvlaki, with a rather nice somewhat ’60s-nostalgic video; where are the girls of yesteryear? (3:34):

“Waves,” from Just For a Day—no video, just the album cover. This would be a candidate for my favorite Slowdive song. It seems to be about death, forgiveness, and salvation (5:54):

The lyrics are beautiful but a bit worrisome:

Leaving all my sins I turn away
Like soaring birds I watch my sorrows play

That’s lovely, but then:

Don’t you know
I’ve left and gone away
You’re knocking on the door I closed today

That could be taken as a reference to suicide. If it is, then I must say, for the record: to take one’s own life can never make “everything look brighter” or “soothe the pain away.” It can only lead further from the light.

Ok, one more. This one, “Avalyn,” is an instrumental, and although pleasant is not all that good, but I’m including it for the rather striking message at the beginning of the video (5:28):



There are so many azaleas blooming here at this time of year that I almost stop noticing them. Instead, it’s this little flower that represents the real arrival of spring to me. They pop up in the yard and close by, and I always try to avoid mowing until they’ve stopped blooming. This picture is a little larger than actual size, depending on your screen’s resolution—the blossoms are usually about an inch or so across (2-3cm).

Another sign that the real warm weather is here: when I went out for lunch my car was uncomfortably hot. We may get another brief cold spell, but it’s pretty much over now.


At the Old Mass

In New Orleans on Sunday we went to Mass at St. Patrick’s, where there is a weekly Sunday morning Tridentine Mass (note to non-Catholics: this is what’s commonly referred to as “the old Mass” or “the old liturgy”—it’s in Latin and is different in other significant ways from the current Mass in local languages). I want to say two quick things about it:

(1) I don’t necessarily want the Church to return to this liturgy, and if it were available in my area I don’t know that I would go regularly. (My fondest dream, as I’ve mentioned before, is of an Anglican Rite.) However, I am pretty convinced that as an aesthetic object the old liturgy is superior. Although there were several points at which I wasn’t sure what was going on, I had a sense that the rite, considered from first words to last, possessed a unity superior to that of the new liturgy, and that this unity really brings out the elegant shape—the architecture, you might say—of the rite. And it’s also superior in many details—many of the prayers, for instance, had a greater spiritual depth than is commonly found in the new texts.

(2) The standard objection to the old liturgy is that the only people who care about it are very old and “never made the adjustment” to the new one, or “couldn’t accept” it—there aren’t many of them, and soon they’ll die and there’ll be no need to discuss this anymore. This is one Mass at one parish, but if it’s any guide, that’s not true. It was well-attended—I’d say the church, which is fairly large, was well over half full. And grey or white heads were distinctly in the minority. I would guess that a majority of the people there were under fifty, and you’d have to be older than that to have experienced the old liturgy as an adult. There were many who were quite young—college age, or a bit older (and it says something that they had gotten up early enough to be at this 9:30 Mass). There were a number of families with young children. And at some point toward the end of Mass I heard one of my favorite Catholic hymns, the crying baby.

A question for those more knowledgeable about the visual arts than I am, or at least about religious art: if you go to the parish web site link above, there’s a picture of the sanctuary. If you click on the picture, you’ll get a much larger version, probably too big to fit on your screen (it may take a minute or two to load, depending on your network speed). Look at the right panel of the painting behind the altar. I don’t much like this representation of Jesus, and part of the reason is the sort of curvy posture of the figure, which strikes me as somewhat effeminate. One sees it fairly often in devotional art. Is there any particular reason for it—some theological idea behind it, or something of that sort? I know that in icons, for instance, there are definite reasons for things that initially seem oddly proportioned etc. (Note to Janet: see Our Lady’s lantern near the top of the panel.)


Weekend Music (& Video): Slowdive

I’m going to be out of town and away from computers for most of the weekend. So when you want a hit of LoDW, you can listen to and watch these over and over again instead of reading some balderdash from me. They say a lot of what I want to say but can’t, anyway. (Of course you may well have come here for the comments anyway, right?) I’m indebted to my friend Daniel for introducing me to this band some years ago. He included a few of their songs on a mixtape, and since then I think I’ve managed to get hold of pretty much everything they ever released.

I would like to try to describe the way the best of their music makes me feel, but I wouldn't be able to. The closest thing is something we’ve discussed here several times, what C. S. Lewis called Joy but which is better described as an almost unbearable yearning.

I picked these two partly because the videos actually complement the music. Wish they were sharper. Here’s “Shine” (5:20):

“Catch the Breeze” (4:28):