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July 2011

Young Heron

I was amused (and complimented) by the remark a few days ago from our resident film and theology expert that "almost anything Mac posts including pictures of herons tells us more about the meaning of life" than the political commentary I had linked to. It reminded me that I have another heron picture I've been meaning to post. This was taken on the same morning as the one I posted a couple of weeks ago. Most likely this bird is the offspring of the other. I thought at first glance that it was some smaller species of wading bird, because the coloring is a little different, but the general shape and proportions are the same as the adult, as well as features such as the eye and beak. So I think what I happened upon that morning was the mother heron taking her baby out for a feeding lesson. 


The adult was about 15 feet or so (5 meters) to the left, out of the picture. This morning I saw what was obviously a heron, but smaller than an adult, fly out of the woods and light in a dead tree which is very popular with birds in the area, especially larger ones. I figure there's a fair chance that it's the same juvenile or one of its siblings, as there can't be that many families in the immediate area.

I'd like to get a good picture of an adult in flight over the water, as they're majestic and graceful...though one would really need a movie to capture that.

UPDATE: Thanks to Janet Cupo for pointing out that this is not a juvenile great blue heron, but a juvenile or immature tri-colored, also known as Louisiana, heron. The picture of the juvenile tri-colored here leaves little doubt. So it seems I was not watching a family picnic.

Duruflé: Requiem - Sanctus and In Paradisum

Weekend Music

Here are two sections of the Duruflé Requiem that I heard last night as part of the Requiem Mass I mentioned yesterday (see here). I was only going to post one, but I couldn't make up my mind. I thought I remembered my recording, which I haven't listened to for many years, having an orchestral accompaniment, but the choir last night was accompanied only by the cathedral organ (not that I'm complaining). It turns out there are are three different orchestrations, including one for organ alone. (More facts about the work in the Wikipedia entry.) These YouTube clips are of that version, so closer to what I heard, but last night's choir had women rather than boys.



A note about the liturgy: I am not a liturgical purist, much less an expert. I found quickly upon entering the Church that I really didn't have a lot of interest in the finer points, or even many of the fairly broad points, of liturgical practice. I've never really asked for much more than some reasonable level of good taste (and as we all know that is still more than we can expect in much of the contemporary Church). And I've never been especially drawn to the old Mass, which I've experienced only a few times. Last night's liturgy was of course an impressive and colorful spectacle, but the strongest impression I came away with was of its wholeness and coherence. It was all of a piece; nothing was out of place. The music was beautiful, but not essential to that wholeness. I question whether the new Mass can ever have that kind of integrity. No matter how carefully and tastefully done, and I have been at some that were very well done, it retains a certain choppy and awkward quality. I haven't tried to figure out exactly why that is; it may have something to do with the Latin.

The cathedral was full, by the way, with no higher a percentage of old people than you would expect at any such event.

Ain't That America

A 15-pound (6.8kg) hamburger.  Your horror should be tempered by the knowledge that it's meant to feed ten to fifteen people, but still.... And of course there must be a contest to see if anyone can eat the whole thing by himself. 

Note the word "Mallett" on the guy's t-shirt. That surely is a reference to what used to be the men's honors dorm at the University of Alabama, in which I resided during my freshman year. (I moved out into an apartment after that.) Sometime later the program ceased to be associated with that specific building, but continued as something called "the Mallett Assembly," and I think it still exists.

A Companion to Brideshead Revisited

As anyone who's read this blog for a while knows, we are big fans of Brideshead Revisited  here. I am not using the royal or papal "we"; I'm referring to others as well as myself--for instance, Janet Cupo, who has pointed out to me this wonderful site. It is an exhaustive companion to the novel, basically a set of extremely precise annotations explaining...well, just about everything that might be outside the everyday knowledge of the average reader, especially the American reader (along with some that are not, but that's ok).

For instance, on page twenty-one of the American edition of Brideshead, which is the opening of Chapter One, we find a reference to female visitors to Oxford drinking "claret cup." When I encounter this sort of thing I wonder only briefly what a claret cup is; I gather it's a drink containing claret, and go on reading. The Companion, however, not only explains what it is but gives us a recipe:

21 claret cup
an iced summer drink made principally from claret, brandy, citrus, and sugar. A typical recipe of the time was : 
1 quart Bordeaux wine, 2 tablespoons brandy, half a cup of Curaçao, sugar to taste, 1 quart mineral water, mint leaves, a third of a cup of orange (or orange and lemon) juice, cucumber rind, 12 strawberries. Mix all the ingredients except the mineral water, using enough sugar to sweeten to taste. Stand on ice to chill, and add the chilled mineral water just before serving.
The original idea was to hand the cup round "with a clean napkin passed through one of the handles, that the edge of the cup may be wiped after each guest has partaken of the contents thereof." (Mrs Beeton)

If I counted correctly, there are sixteen entries for page twenty-one. Some are things most people would know--for instance, what a gable is. Others are things of which one might have a vague notion, which can now be clarified: fools-parsley and meadowsweet are plants, obviously, but what sort of plants? And some things were for me almost totally obscure, like Eights Week, when the claret cup drinkers run wild.

I stand in awe of the labor and erudition on display here. There are even entire separate sets of annotations for the English and American editions. I have only one small complaint: it's rather unattractive, looking like a typical site created with FrontPage or something of that sort from the early days of the web. But that's insignificant in comparison to what it has to offer. The author's name is David Cliffe. I haven't been able to discover on the site anything more about him than that. But I thank him for this wonderful resource, and Janet for pointing it out to me.

Sex Is Just a Problem, and That’s All There Is To it

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2011

As almost anyone who is at all interested in the matter knows, the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ancient Christian ban on artificial (barrier or chemical) methods of avoiding pregnancy came at the end of a decades-long struggle for their acceptance. The pope took his stand in opposition to a Vatican-commissioned committee which had been appointed to study the question and make a recommendation, and his teaching was widely rejected. The ensuing bitterness on the part of the proponents of birth control was a major factor in the doctrinal wars that followed Vatican II and are still not completely over, though the more extreme progressive forces, those which would have turned the Church into a form of liberal Protestantism, seem to have been defeated.

At the time I came into the Church, in 1981, the bitter diatribe of an older Catholic, usually a woman, against Humanae Vitae was a regular part of the life of the Church, not only in progressive publications like the National Catholic Reporter but also in parish life. I vividly remember a talk given by a woman whose name I can’t remember now, but who was at the time (early ‘80s) visible in the liberal-feminist Catholic world. She was ostensibly discussing the moral theology of the question, but by the time she finished was practically jumping up and down in her fury against the Church’s teaching. I still hear this voice sometimes, though more often it’s second-hand, as someone of a younger generation recounts the hardships of his parents, the acceptance of artificial contraception having long since become a non-issue for most Catholics.

Around that same time, a new generation of Catholics, some of them converts and some of them orthodox younger Catholics, were beginning to believe that the Church had a point, after all, on this question. They—we—were appalled by the doctrinal and liturgical devastation wrought by progressive Catholicism in the 1970s, and by the breakdown of marriage and family life in society at large that had followed the sexual revolution, of which the birth control pill had been a major enabler, and were open to the traditional teaching. (My wife and I, as converts, felt that there would have been something dishonest in becoming Catholic if we were not going to follow this difficult teaching.)

So-called Natural Family Planning, NFP—meaning, in general, all the methods of avoiding pregnancy which do not rely on blocking the result of the sexual act itself—appeared to these young couples as a great gift from God. Very few felt themselves prepared to deal with the arrival of a new baby every two years or less, nor did they want to violate the Church’s teaching. But neither did they want to abstain from sex for long periods of time. NFP seemed to solve the problem, and was embraced by a significant number of these younger people (though not, as everyone knows, by Catholics at large, the vast majority of whom were hardly aware that the Church still taught what it had always taught, and would have reacted, if they had known, as if they had been told to treat a fever with leeches).

Now we have come to another stage in the debate, a stage in which those who embrace the teaching have struggled with it and are in some cases asking the same questions that their parents and/or grandparents asked: is this teaching really binding? Do we really have to live with this hardship?

Coincidentally, I have, within the past week or so, come across three very impassioned discussions of the matter on Catholic blogs. There is this post by Danielle Bean at Crisis (249 comments as of the time I am writing this), and this one by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register (138 comments), and this one by Daniel Nichols at Caelum et Terra (202 comments). I’ve read all the comments only on the Caelum et Terra post; the others I only skimmed. The CetT discussion goes off into the casuistic weeds at several points, and to read them all would take quite a while, but the comments from someone who signs herself “AnonymousBadCatholic” are worth seeking out, as they tell a story which illuminates the heart of the problem: a couple who intended to keep the Church’s teaching but have found themselves unable to do so.

What we hear frequently in these discussions is the disappointment of those who have tried to follow the teaching, and have found themselves in serious distress of one kind or another because of it. Some have responded with bitterness and decided that the teaching must be wrong, some have made compromises which trouble their consciences, some have resigned themselves to abstinence. Many feel that practicing NFP has strained their marriages seriously. Many seem to have a sense of betrayal that NFP did not prove to be as easy or as effective or both as they had been led to believe.

I do believe NFP has been, for many people, a manageable response to the problem. But that is not the same thing as a solution. There is no solution to the problem of sex.

The inescapable fact is that sex has a very clear biological function, which is to make babies, but that the activity is so pleasurable that people want it far more often than they want to have a baby. There are a limited number of ways to handle this—I don’t say “resolve”—and none of them is completely satisfactory.

There is, of course, artificial birth control, including sterilization, as practiced by most people in the industrialized world. But few who give it much thought will deny that its widespread adoption has helped to weaken marriage and the family by weakening and in many people destroying the sense that there is a necessary connection between sex and procreation; I have often heard secular progressives make fun of the very idea. Sex has become trivialized, and while there is surely a great deal more of it taking place now than there was 50 years ago, I see no evidence whatsoever that people in general are any happier for it. I could write at length about that, but let it suffice for the moment that there is ample confirmation of Paul VI’s prediction:

Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

On the individual level, there are potential health effects from the Pill (which I suspect have been under-researched or at least under-publicized—I really wonder about the incidence of breast cancer, for instance), and for all methods the the inducement of a false sense of total control which suggests a resort to abortion in the event of failure; nor does it appear to make marriages any happier, as it was promised to do. And that’s to say nothing of the moral argument.

NFP is workable for many, but, as noted above, there are many others who for one reason or another do not seem able to make it work at all reliably, and for those who have truly serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy it may seem—and be—too great a risk.

Prolonged abstinence, for a married couple who love and desire each other, requires heroic virtue, and it’s not reasonable to expect that of very many people; also, it is likely to be a great strain, to say the least, on a marriage, possibly increasing the temptation to infidelity, at least on the husband’s part.

And then there is the entire rejection of “family planning” in the ordinary sense, what Daniel refers to in the CetT post as Supernatural Family Planning: put it all in God’s hands, make love when you like, and accept babies as they come. Again, this is workable for some couples, but others may find themselves with too many children too quickly. The limits naturally vary with income, health, and psychology. Leaving aside the first two, not everyone is equal in their ability to cope with the stresses of childrearing. But we can assume that many if not most couples will find themselves at some point feeling that they can’t handle another child, though they are still fertile, which brings them round to the dilemma.

What emerges from the conversations on these blogs is confirmation that there simply is no solution: that is, no means by which we can make love as often as we like but have babies only when we want them, and that does not have serious negative physical or psychological or social side effects.

Love and sex are two of the sweetest joys of the human condition. It should not surprise anyone who believes in the Fall that we are never able to enjoy them without limit and without pain. I often wonder whether they will exist in the world to come. It seems impossible that something so very central to physical and emotional human life would simply disappear, as it is presumed to do in purely spiritual conceptions of heaven. Speculation as to what form, or trans-form, they may take, is idle, but surely they will be there in some way, if the phrase “resurrection of the body” means anything. In the meantime, all we can do is muddle through, doing our best and trusting in God’s mercy.


This is not a politics and current events blog, but it seems somehow indecent not to mention the events in Norway, though a conventional expression of horror is inadequate. There are no words to express the dismay one feels at the slaughter itself, and its possible or probable social repurcussions. Pray for the dead, pray for the living, pray that the currents of violence are not strengthened by this event.

It was sadly understandable that many or most people jumped to the conclusion that this was Islamic terrorism. But I can't say I was totally surprised that the killer seems to be some sort of right-winger. In fact I'm a little surprised that there has not been more of a militant right-nationalist reaction to European socialism and multiculturalism.

I don't follow Scandinavian affairs closely, but I have been aware that there is an underground of pagan nationalism with an occasional tincture of fascism and admiration of violence, hearkening back to the Vikings. It came to my notice via my interest in pop music: beginning in the early 1990s, there appeared a form of extreme heavy metal known variously as "black metal" or "death metal" or, more specifically, "Scandinavian black metal." And its most extreme form seems to have manifested itself in Norway, where at its peak it was a violent cultural movement which produced several murders and a number of church burnings, these directed against the ancient and beautiful wooden churches of Norway. The music has become semi-mainstream now, but I've come across bands that specialize in a sort of martial industrial-metal with militaristic/nationalistic lyrics. What I've seen of this movement is strongly anti-Christian, whereas this killer is said to be Christian, but at first glance (let me emphasize at first glance) that seems to be more a nationalist and cultural than a religious position. He also apparently plagiarized a lot of his manifesto from the left-wing American Unabomber. A lone maniac? Perhaps, but, like the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, and the Oklahoma City bombing, with a definite ideological point of view.

The Telegraph is covering the story very thoroughly and all in one place.

Addendum: I was pretty much just thinking out loud when I wrote this. Reading it later, I see it isn't very clear what I was getting at about the death metal scene etc. Insofar as I had a definite idea at all, it was that mostly peaceful Norway has for some time had a violent, though mostly in rhetoric only, underground, and so I was not as surprised as I might otherwise have been by this event. And I did wonder if the killer might have some connection to the death-metal or right-wing martial-industrial music scenes. As it turns out he did not. Apparently he likes techno.