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March 2019

Shtisel, Again

I've now watched both seasons of this Israeli TV show, and will repeat and upgrade my recommendation. It's one of the few TV series that I would want to watch a second time.

Its portrait of the Shtisel family includes a number of subplots, and it occurred to me a couple of days ago that one of the major ones shares something with Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, as Robert Gotcher described that book in a post in our 52 Authors series.  The struggle between father (Shulem) and son (Akive) Shtisel involves Akive's talent for art and desire to pursue it. And it didn't hit me, until someone (in the show) stated it explicitly, that any representational art at all is of dubious morality from a strictly Orthodox (Jewish) perspective. 

If you have watched part of it, or when you do watch it, and found/find yourself frustrated with Akive's romantic life, press on: there is resolution. There is resolution of nearly all the running threads of the story at the end of season two, which makes me think there won't be another. Well, better to end too soon than to jump the shark

Aside from the fact that it's just a good piece of work in every way, the series has special relevance and resonance for Christians in this country, and I suppose in Europe, who, in trying to be true to their faith, find themselves swimming very much against the current of the national culture. I've had the impression that there is some tension between the haredim (see Wikipedia) and secular Israelis, and at several points Shtisel sent me off to the Internet to learn more about that. (Not that I learned very much--but it's more than I knew before.)

For that matter, secular culture aside, the whole problem of trying to sacralize every aspect of life in the world is probably applicable to many faiths and cultures. In the next or next-to-last episode there's a situation involving Shulem and a painting that is quite moving in the way Shulem deals with his own conflicting obligations and impulses. It's one of a number of incidents in the series, especially ones involving the often-exasperating Shulem, that had me thinking "You don't have to do that" and at the same time admiring and respecting his integrity. I'd like to discuss it but it would constitute too much of a spoiler, so I'll just leave it as something for you to look forward to. 

Górecki: Symphony #3

Subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." If you were paying much attention to music in the early 1990s, you probably were aware of it, even if you weren't especially interested in contemporary classical music. This recording was something of a crossover hit:

Gorecki3You can read all about the piece itself and its fortunes, especially the fortunes of this recording, at Wikipedia. I bought it, though it must have been somewhat after its heyday, because I don't think I had a CD player in 1992. And I have to confess that I didn't really listen to it very closely. I thought "Well, that's nice (in a slow-moving, almost ambient sort of way)," and was glad that so many people were drawn to it, and at least not put off by its religious imagery. I also confess that I heard a couple of dismissive critical opinions and thought perhaps those critics might have a point, that it is fundamentally a bit on the dull side, and probably over-rated. This idea got a further grip on me because I listened to it in the car, where some significant portions of it are inaudible.

Rob G mentioned here recently that a new recording in which Beth Gibbons (of the band Portishead) is the soprano will be released soon. As I said in that discussion, I can't imagine her singing it. I mean, I guess as classical vocal music goes this is probably not the most demanding, but I would think singers who aren't trained that way would find it pretty difficult. 

Anyway, that conversation caused me to put the CD on, sit in a chair, and listen attentively. And I hereby renounce all my reservations. This is a beautiful, powerful work. I'll leave it to the listeners and critics of the future to decide on its true and permanent place in the scheme of musical things, but I think it's extremely good.

It always seems a little weird to select and recommend music for Lent. Silence is probably more fitting. But if you do want to hear some appropriate music, this certainly qualifies.

Seeing--Like, Actually

Seeing is more than indifferently reflecting (as a mirror reflects all that passes within range). It is a vital process that directly affects our lives. To see, perceive, means to receive into oneself, to submit to the influence of things, to place oneself within their grasp. Necessarily, the will mounts guard over the vision. One protection against precarious things is to look at them sharply, so as to discover their weaknesses; another is to look away, so as to remain unaffected by them. On the whole, we see what we choose to see; the selectiveness of the individual eye is a protective measure of life itself. This being true already on the natural plane, how much truer it is on the spiritual, with its cognizance of others, of the positions we take to the truths and demands thrust upon us. To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, make swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously (in which case our powers of distortion, uncurbed by reason, do their worst). Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Then we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen. Before there can be any change, a fundamental shift must take place in the general attitude. The mind must turn to justice, the heart expand; then only can the eye really begin to discern. Little by little the sheen of the object on which it rests strengthens its visual power, and slowly it recovers the health of truth. 

--Romano Guardini, The Lord

I said I was not going to discuss current events and controversies during Lent. But this passage is uncannily applicable to those. 

Amaryllis 1-5-2013 12-25-27 PM 1900x1527This picture has nothing to do with this post. But suppose you associate red with someone or some group you hate and/or fear.


I Guess I Need to Read War and Peace Again

Because I didn't get out of it anything close to what Gary Saul Morson does in this New Criterion piece, "The Greatest of All Novels." 

Tolstoy had an amazing capacity to understand “particular moments” in all their unrepeatable complexity. Where theorists, and even other great novelists, saw a smooth curve, he detected the infinitesimal deviations from it. This ability explains his unsurpassed realism in describing the human mind. Isaac Babel expressed what so many have felt when he remarked that if nature could write directly, without a human intermediary, it would write like Tolstoy; in a similar spirit, Matthew Arnold declared that “we are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” Tolstoy himself stressed his ability to see the infinitesimally small movements of consciousness that others overlooked.

I don't dispute that by any means. But it's not what I noticed in the reading or remembered after. I think I was so occupied with keeping track of the people and their movements that the subtler aspects of the book more or less passed me by. Another reading really would be in order, though I'd like to re-read Anna Karenina first--I only read it once, forty-plus years ago. 

I don't like the "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky" false choice, but I have to admit that Dostoevsky is more appealing and interesting to me. Perhaps that would change on greater acquaintance with Tolstoy.

Greene: Lord, Let Me Know Mine End

Because my wife and I are chronically and apparently incorrigibly late almost everywhere we go, we did not go to our usual Ordinariate Mass yesterday morning. It's on the west side of Mobile, and we live twenty miles to the east. It takes us most of an hour to get there. The Mass is at 9:30, and at approximately 9:25 we had just reached downtown, with ten to fifteen minutes yet to go. So we decided to just stop where we were and wait until 10:30 for the Mass at the cathedral. And I'm glad we did, because I heard this music for the first time.

I like the music, but I really like the text, which is from Psalm 39:

Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to live. Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity. For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with thine ears consider my calling; hold not thy peace at my tears. For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength, before I go hence, and be no more seen.

If you're at all familiar with the Coverdale translation of the Psalms, you may have guessed (if you didn't already know) that this is one of his. Reportedly he is less accurate but he is very often a better poet than the King James translators, who have, for instance, that last sentence as:

O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.

Not nearly as poignant, to my ear.

I thought I was fairly literate about classical music, but can't remember ever having heard Maurice Greene's name before. He was an English contemporary of Bach and Handel and according to Wikipedia this piece is "his acknowledged masterpiece." He's probably well-known to church musicians in the Anglican tradition and to those particularly interested in choral music.

The Intellect Cannot Cope

The intellect cannot cope with such paradoxes, though it somehow senses the reality beyond all reality, the truth beyond all truth. Precisely here lies the danger. The mind must never allow itself to be misled into seeming 'comprehension,' into facile sensations or phrases with nothing solid behind them. The whole problem is a mystery, the sacred mystery of the relationship of the triune God to his incarnate Son. We can never penetrate it, and knowledge of this incapacity must dominate our every thought and statement concerning Jesus' life.

--Romano Guardini, The Lord

I think this basic idea is itself almost a commonplace now, so much so that it can become another means of evasion, of "seeming 'comprehension'".  So that stern "must dominate" is still needed, and always will be. 

What Rules Me?

People, mainly. Those who speak to me, whose words I read; those with whom I associate or would like to associate; the people who give or withhold, who help or hinder me; people I love or influence or to whom I am bound by duty--these rule in me. God counts only when people permit him to, when they and their demands leave me time for him.... Things also rule in me: things I desire, by the power of that desire; things that bother me, by their bothersomeness; things I encounter wherever I go.... No, God certainly does not dominate my life. Any tree in my path seems to have more power than he, if only because it forces me to walk around it. What would life be like if God did rule in me?

--Romano Guardini, The Lord

MemeReadingHe didn't mention animals. Animals also rule me.


Someone recommended this Israeli TV series a week or two ago. I've now seen most of the first series (there are two). It's really good. Very much recommended. It can be compared in a very broad way to Detectorists, in that it's a quiet, low-key story, warm and generous but not sentimental, devoid of cheap spectacle. The comparison doesn't go much further than that. Shtisel doesn't have much outright comedy, though it has its moments of humor. And the milieu presented in Shtisel is, obviously, vastly different: a very Orthodox ("haredi") Jewish community/subculture in the midst of modern Jerusalem. But if you like Detectorists I think there's a pretty good chance that you'd like this.

Here's the only trailer I can find. It's misleading in a couple of ways, mainly in the music. The series actually has a very beautiful, quiet, effective soundtrack. Whatever that is playing in the background of the trailer is not in the series. And that voiceover intro is a little obtuse.

There's just one thing that bothers me about it: those hats. What's the deal with those? The way they sit so high on the man's head always strikes me as discomfiting, distorting the figure's proportions, and slightly ridiculous, as if the hat is too small and might fall off. I don't know whether there is some significance to them or they just happened to be what was worn at the time when the group's dress code was formalized.

Ash Wednesday Notes

I've been wanting to read Romano Guardini's The Lord for some time. This past Christmas I received it as a gift but had not so much as opened it, so I decided to make it my Lenten reading. If I had looked first and seen that it's 625 pages long I might not have chosen it. Sure, to average fifteen pages or so a day doesn't sound like it would be a problem, but it's probably not especially quick reading, and I know from experience how missing just a few days can completely wreck projects like this. Well, I'll proceed. I read twenty pages today and am greatly impressed.

After noting the failures and crimes of various figures mentioned in the genealogies of Jesus, Guardini says:

He entered fully into everything that humanity stands for--and the names in the ancient genealogies suggest what it means to enter into human history with its burden of fate and sin. Jesus of Nazareth spared himself nothing. 

In the long quiet years in Nazareth, he may well have pondered these names. Deeply he must have felt what history is, the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his heart that he might answer for it at the feet of god.

I'll probably be posting less during Lent, though "less" may mean shorter posts, not fewer. We'll see. Either way I'm going to make a big effort to stay away from current events, politics, and so forth, and to concentrate on the permanent things. But before I drop that stuff:

For at least ten years I've been writing that secular liberalism or progressivism or whatever you want to call it is a species of religion, and that the so-called culture war is essentially a conflict between two religions. Other people may have been saying the same thing then, but if so I didn't come across their writings, and I thought I was saying something that was not the  conventional wisdom. Now suddenly I'm seeing it everywhere--for instance in this piece by David French. It has become in fact a pretty conventional observation. Although it's pleasing to be vindicated, I'm not entirely happy about this development, as the idea is central to the book for which I'm now trying to find a publisher, and which now has that much less to be said for it. Oh well. 

I'm also thinking I may sometimes post pictures without words, partly in an effort to quiet my always-chattering mind a little, and to encourage silent contemplation, on my part and yours. But also I like posting pictures, and haven't been doing it for a while. They're pretty conventional, I know, and very limited in range. Most are taken within a hundred yards of my house. But I am continually amazed by the world.

I'm a little shocked that spring has come around again. The cypresses have been leafing out for a couple of weeks now. They're one of my favorite spring colors.


This was a notable Ash Wednesday. I went to Mass at the cathedral in Mobile, and for the first time in many years I did not hear "Ashes." Griping about it had become an annual custom for me, and I'm glad not to have to work on stifling that irritation, though I guess rejoicing that I didn't hear it is almost the same thing as griping about it. I had been working on treating it as a penance, with not much success. Anyway, as my wife said, the great thing about it is that you don't have to actually hear it--all you have to do is think about it to get it stuck in your head.

At that Mass Fr. Michael Farmer delivered the best Ash Wednesday homily I've ever heard. This is something close to an accurate transcription of it in its entirety:

Today we enter a period of deeper devotion, a time of fasting, prayer, and penance. Start doing it. 

"Terrifying and enraging"?

Amy Welborn had a post the other day in which she described going to an Ordinariate Mass. She mentioned that the ad orientem (priest facing the altar and away from the congregation) celebration "inexplicably terrifies and enrages some." It does seem to, and I'd go further: the entire traditional Mass, as it was celebrated for hundreds of years (at least) before Vatican II, and of which the Ordinariate Mass is essentially an Anglicanization, terrifies and enrages some Catholics. And that's a really odd thing. 

I entered the Church in 1981, and of course had been sort of scoping it out for a while before that. But prior to the mid-1970s I had given it very little thought. Very, very, little. It had hardly any presence at all in northern Alabama where I grew up, and to the extent that it was ever a topic of discussion among my friends in college and for some time after it was only as an object of mockery. Then as someone contemplating conversion, and a bit later as a new convert, I was if anything more pleased than otherwise that the liturgy was in English. The whole idea of having it in Latin seemed at best very strange to me.

I mention all that by way of illustrating that when I did start to pay attention to the Church I had absolutely no opinion on the liturgy, much less any sort of attachment to what I soon learned was the way things had been done pre-Vatican-II, still less any desire to reinstate it. But I was at first puzzled, then downright bewildered, by the hostility to it shown by so much of the contemporary Church, from bishops on down. And the hostility was not confined to the liturgy itself: it extended to the people who lamented its loss and wanted it back. 

By "contemporary" just now I meant "as of 1981," but the basic syndrome is still very much in evidence. It isn't as almost uniformly prevalent as it was, and as we all know Pope Benedict was very much in favor of making the old liturgy, now known as the Extraordinary Form, available to those who wanted it. Still, for all of the nearly 40 years that I've been Catholic most of the hierarchy have openly despised it and regarded its adherents as, to use James Hitchcock's phrase, "malicious troglodytes." At best they've been treated as pathetic souls who can't handle the modern world and are desperate to return to the supposed safety of the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time much was being made of the Church's need to be open to movements such as feminism which were actively attacking it. Why, I wondered, if these could be listened to respectfully, could not at least that much consideration have been given to faithful Catholics who only wanted to continue worshiping as they had been doing? 

The more I saw of it, the more puzzled I was. I understood and if anything favored the liturgical change. But I could not understand the contempt and anger with which the old form was so widely regarded. 

This really hit home to me at some point in the late 1980s, when my wife and I met a delightful old lady (probably about the same age as I am now) who attended Mass at our parish. She had snow-white hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was intelligent and friendly and informed, and we often chatted with her after Mass. But I began to notice something odd about her. Whenever the subject of the liturgy, or almost anything related to the current condition of the Church, came up, she changed. She lowered her voice, glanced around nervously, and began to talk in hints as if there was some terrible thing that she didn't dare mention.

Eventually I came to realize that she was a traditionalist who had been completely disoriented by the upheaval of Vatican II, and was at least entertaining a lot of fairly dark and paranoid thoughts about what had happened. I don't remember much that is specific now, but I think she at least flirted with sedevacantism, and with theories of Masonic conspiracies and the like.  And I remember remarking to my wife that the woman had been driven a little crazy by the Vatican II fanatics. She had been treated as a crank, and she had in some respects turned into one.

Why? Why were sincere, faithful, good-hearted people like her treated with such contempt by the shepherds of the Church? I didn't understand it then and I still don't. 

And why does the ad orientam posture, even in an English liturgy, provoke such sneering opposition? The description of it as the priest "talking to the wall" is pretty telling, for reasons that are obvious to me, but obviously not obvious to those who use it. 

It makes me wonder whether those traditionalists who see Vatican II as a deliberate attempt to sever the Church's links with its past and turn it into something else altogether have a point. Well, I think they do have a point, actually, although I don't think what they see is the product of consciously evil intentions, but rather of various mistakes, which have been thoroughly explored by critics. In any case the desire of Vatican II progressives to stamp out liturgical traditionalism seems at the very least evidence of an unhealthy sense of disconnection from the past. And there's an obvious implication: suppose you think that much of Catholic tradition should be disowned and discarded, and that you would not want to be a Catholic if it were not. You'll be upset if you see evidence that the tradition is very much alive, and that the attempted severance of the past may be reversed.


I was going to illustrate this with some lurid thing about the smoke of Satan entering the sanctuary, but everything I found was so unpleasant (what did I expect?!?) that I decided to re-post this picture of the chapel where we have our Ordinariate Mass.