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April 2019

Romano Guardini: The Lord

I did manage to read this book over Lent, as I had intended. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment; in fact it's not that much of an accomplishment. But it's a long book, 600-plus pages, and a fairly dense one. And aside from my disorderly and distracted temperament and habits, decades of giving priority to almost everything else over reading have left me with a deep sense that reading is at best just barely above Doing Nothing, which is to say Wasting Time, which means that I feel uneasy about it, and guilty if I do it for very long.

But enough about my hangups. This is a great book, and I might even be justified in saying that it's a Great Book. I'd been wanting to read it for years, and now that I have I'm thinking of making it a Lenten thing every year. Whether or not I actually do that, there's no doubt that it is worth re-reading. 


It's essentially a commentary on the New Testament, primarily the Gospels and the Apocalypse. I must say that the word "commentary" applied to scripture is not a word that awakens eager anticipation in me. Perhaps that prejudice arises from a few old and as far as I know never-read volumes in the ancestral bookcase in the house where I grew up. Its shelves were filled with volumes going back to the early nineteenth century, and they mostly looked dull, or even forbidding, to me. Some should have interested me: Scott's novels, for instance. Some of the religious titles seemed to capture in a physical way the dullness of a species of Christianity that, after the Enlightenment, was stranded between emotional evangelicalism and liberalism.

So I'll dump the word "commentary" and say that this book is a very close and impassioned reading of the text. The best way for me to communicate that is to give some examples. If you've been reading this blog during Lent you've seen some: this, this, this, this, and this.

I left roughly two dozen book darts attached to the pages (book darts?) , sometimes pointing to a paragraph or two and sometimes to an entire chapter. There would have been more but sometimes I didn't have the darts handy. Here is one such passage. It appears late in the book, in a chapter called "The Great Sign in Heaven," in the section on the Apocalypse. That section was for me one of the most enlightening: it produces from the text a kind of order which is intelligible--to a degree--without attempting to reduce it to simple allegory or to pin the content of the visions to specific earthly things. 

But aren't we distancing ourselves from the simple meaning of the Gospels and the pure reality of Jesus? Isn't this after all more like mysticism and metaphysics? We must not be intimidated. The simple meaning of the Gospels--what is it? The pure reality of Jesus--which? The Gospels are anything but simple in the sense meant in the objection. Jesus is not at all the pure figure which criticism suggests. Behind these tenets stands a dogma--a shadowy, modern, man-made dogma--according to which Christian essence means pious humanism. The Gospels, however, know nothing of the sort, and before they can be made to read so, piece after piece must be eliminated on the excuse that it had crept in under foreign influence or was the product of collective elaboration. What then would be the significance of Revelation, or of faith? Then we human beings would be taking it upon ourselves to decide what is or is not divine. Then redemption would lose its power, for this self-doctored Christ would no longer redeem, but would only confirm our will. No, only one attitude towards Revelation is valid: readiness to hear and to learn. 

That last sentence serves very well as a description of Guardini's approach throughout. Here are a couple of fairly brief intro-to-Guardini pieces, one in the National Catholic Register and one in Crisis. I note this observation in the latter: "the textbook Thomism devised as a bulwark against the errors of Modernism left him cold." I can certainly sympathize with that. The primacy given to dogma among many of Thomas's disciples is not necessarily wrong, but it does sometimes give an impression that correct doctrine is the only thing that really matters, whereas it is a necessary-but-not-sufficient thing. Doctrine and devotion may be different things, but they are not in opposition, any more than flesh and bone are in opposition. Either without the other is...well, the images summoned by that idea convey the magnitude of the error pretty well, with no need for more words.

I've long felt that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Bendedict XVI was at least very high among the wisest of churchmen in our time, perhaps the wisest. And he was greatly influenced by Guardini. Maybe that means I'm now a Guardinian. Pope Francis also is said to follow Guardini in much of his thinking. So does that make me also a Bergoglian? Well, I wouldn't have said so, but it's okay. My reservations about Pope Francis have to do with his governance of the Church, not with his theology. At least not necessarily--it isn't always clear exactly where he stands. 

Literally the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened

In our universe, anyway. 

1024px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Le_saintes_femmes_au_tombeau_(1890)_img_2I had never seen this painting or so much as heard of the artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, until it was included in the Holy Week edition of Magnificat. (See this for art historian Elizabeth Lev's discussion of it.) 

I like the painting in part because I've always found the story of the faithful women at the tomb particularly touching. The gospel accounts are inconsistent about their identities, except that all four include Mary Magdalene, whose story (insofar as we know and speculate) is also particularly touching. 

The question is always: "Where were the disciples?" If I'd been one of them, the answer would have been "Off somewhere moping." And probably drinking.

But wherever the men were, it's strongly implied that the women were there at least partly because they wanted to prepare the body properly for burial. That is, they were going about the work that was, I assume, considered theirs, and probably a somewhat lowly task. If so, it put them in the position of being the first to learn of the most important event ever. That would constitute an excellent lesson in a principle that Jesus mentioned more than once.

By Our Own Powers?

Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality.

--Romano Guardini, The Lord

I admit that there's a part of me which is sympathetic to nihilism when it opposes sentimentality of the "arc of history" sort. 

Goodbye, Andy

Those cognoscenti who have been reading this blog since its earliest days may remember that back then I sometimes mentioned our two dogs, Andy and Lucy (who were not named for the Twin Peaks characters, as I had not seen the show when they were named). If I remember correctly, we also had three cats at the time. Over the years the numbers have fallen. The oldest of the cats, Jessie, died quite a few years ago, probably not long after the blog began--I've lost track of the time, but I think I mentioned the death here, though I can't find a post about it now. Another, Oreo, not too long after that, and at a comparable age, disappeared and was presumed dead. She had been showing definite signs of decline. And Milo died in 2014. I wrote about that one here. Somewhere during that time we acquired another cat, the result of a moment of weakness on my wife's part when someone offered her a beautiful snow-white kitten, but I don't think we ever had more than three at one time. 

For over fifteen years dealing with those dogs has been a big part of my life. Every day began and ended with taking them out for a short walk, usually the hundred or so yards down to the bay. It got tiresome at times, but it forced me to get up and out of the house, and I witnessed many, many pleasant scenes as a result: the moon over the bay, the mysterious ambience of morning fog.

Lucy was a medium-sized mixed breed dog, 55 or 60 pounds, very nice looking with a thick red-gold coat, very sweet, but a continual problem in one way or another. She died fairly suddenly in 2015, age 15 or maybe 16, going quickly from more or less normal to more or less paralyzed in the space of a few days. 

Andy was a bichon, a little fuzzy-haired dog something like a twelve-pound poodle, but more than anything like an animated teddy bear.

Andy ColorAndyrunning4-764997Young and exuberant

Now he's gone, too, "put down" (I hate that term but there is no good one) to spare him more of the pain he was in. He had been declining for several years, growing progressively more blind and deaf and arthritic. The twice-daily walks to the bay ended, because he didn't want to go that far. As I think I mentioned here, I began to see my treatment of him as some sort of test for me, that my treatment of him would somehow affect the way I would be treated if I suffer the same kind of long decline. Superstitious, I know, but I think I did reasonably well on the test: not perfect but not so bad.

He had always been a lot of trouble in various ways--chronic skin problems, for instance--and now he became more so, and in some not very pleasant ways. Since last summer he'd gotten progressively worse, and over the past few weeks rapidly much worse. Then last weekend he stopped eating and drinking. The vet thinks he was having kidney failure. By Monday night he was alternating between naps of an hour or two and spells of obviously pained yelping and trembling. I had hoped he would die naturally, just go to sleep and not wake up, but that wasn't happening. And so the deed was done Tuesday afternoon, and now he's buried on the hill behind the house.

I'm not a truly devoted pet lover, dogs or cats. And my wife is even less so, especially where dogs are concerned. Most of ours have come to us either because our children wanted them or in some half-accidental way. Andy was ours because of a good deed gone wrong. My wife knew someone who had bought this bichon puppy but changed her mind when he started chewing on the furniture. My wife suggested to her brother that his two young daughters might like a puppy. Yes, they would, and so the transfer was made. But one of the children proved to be allergic to him, so they didn't want to keep him. And the original owner didn't want him back. So he came to live at our house for the rest of his life. 

I got pretty attached to him. He was, as I say, a lot of trouble, but he was merry and lovable. He wasn't an hysterical yapper like a lot of small dogs. He somehow managed to be the alpha dog even with much bigger dogs: with Lucy, for instance. Once when we were at the bay someone came along with two standard poodles who were at least five times his weight, but whom he bossed around as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He amused, exasperated, delighted, and comforted me. As he got past middle age and wasn't much interested in running around anymore, his favorite place was wedged between me and the arm of my favorite chair. His happy place, my wife called it. It was a pretty happy place for me, too. 

His absence already makes me realize how conscious I was of his presence, and of course in recent months the need to tend to him in some way or other was always in the back of my mind. It's liberating, I won't deny. It was nice to drink my coffee this morning without feeling the need to get dressed right away and take him out. And we are now free to go away for more than a day without boarding him.

But I miss him. Now we're down to one cat, the snow-white one I mentioned. I'm pretty attached to her, too. MemeOnGreen

She's not young, either. She'll probably be around for several more years, at least. And then that  should be the last of pets for us. 

First Reformed Is A Good Movie

Not great, but in many ways very good, and definitely worth seeing. It's about the pastor of a small church in a small New York town, a part of what we generally refer to as one of the "mainline" Protestant denominations, presumably the Dutch Reformed (I can't remember whether this is stated explicitly or not). Like so many such churches, its membership has dwindled and its once significant role in the life of the area is now literally a thing of the past: it's not much more than a tourist attraction, complete with souvenir shop. "Sorry, the t-shirts are all 'small.' We're expecting more soon. But the caps are great. One size fits all."

Pastors are not supposed to have to engage in petty merchandising of this sort, and the Reverend Ernst Toller is clearly not happy about it. He's a serious man who takes his faith seriously. He reads Merton and I think I also saw Chesterton's name in the stack of books that is glimpsed briefly. Rubbing salt in the wound of his church's (and therefore his) near-irrelevance is the presence of a nearby mega-church which not only has several thousand attendees but subsidizes First Reformed, which is pretty humiliating for a 250-year-old church.

Toller is having a crisis. I started to say "crisis of faith," which it is, but it's not only that. He is deeply isolated and bears a heavy burden of personal guilt. He is also seriously ill. The crisis begins to come to a head when the wife of a troubled young man comes to him for help. 

At this point, if you know Bergman's masterpiece Winter Light, you start thinking of it, and indeed there are so many important parallels between the two films that it doesn't seem possible for them to be coincidental. There is also at least one strong suggestion of Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest.

Those comparisons, I'm sorry to say, are not really to the benefit of First Reformed. I was somewhat disappointed in its resolution. As my wife said, in the end it sort of side-steps the God question, which is not the same thing as leaving the question unanswered, as I think Winter Light does. Still, it is really, really well done, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise. As I said, it's very much worth seeing.

(Craig Burrell seems to think more of the ending than I did.


P.S. I should mention a fairly significant problem I had with the DVD (from Netflix). The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. On our flat-screen TV it was displayed in whatever that standard is (16:9 I think). This resulted in that annoying horizontal stretching of the picture which seemed chronic on flat-screen TVs when they first appeared and made me wonder why people wanted them. I didn't have any way to change this on the DVD player (it's messed up, I won't bore you with the details), and it didn't occur to me till the movie was over and I had sealed the disk in its Netflix return envelope that I might have been able to change it in the TV settings. I guess it says a lot for the film that this problem didn't ruin it for me. 

A Worthless Sort of Christ

It is as though humanity were one of those enormous ocean liners that is a world in itself: apparatuses for the most varied purposes; collecting place for all kinds of passengers and crew with their responsibilities and accomplishments, passions, tensions, struggles. Suddenly someone appears on board and says: What each of you is doing is important, and you are right to try to perfect your efforts. I can help you, but not by changing this or that on your ship, it is your course that is wrong; you are steering straight for destruction.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. if this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.

--Romano Guardini, The Lord

Reflection On the Minimum Required Distribution From an Annuity

I know I'm not completely stupid. There are some fairly complicated things that I understand fairly well. I made my living for roughly 40 years doing things with software that required a certain amount of intelligence. So why does my brain freeze up and refuse to process any financial information more complicated than figuring out a tip? And if any such information does go in one ear and pause and be understood for an instant, it quickly regathers its strength and flies straight out the other ear, leaving very little trace of its passage. 

As my wife says about a number of things, it's weird

It often seems to be the case in marriages that one spouse can and will and does handle the finances, while the other is incompetent and mostly oblivious. Fortunately, that is the case for me. Before we married she discovered that I had not balanced my checkbook for six months and promptly took it over. I've been content with this arrangement ever since. I've often wondered whether there is some providential psychological dynamic which generally insures a balance of that sort. God help those in marriages where both are like me, or where the incompetent one is not also oblivious but wants to be involved, and does not understand his or her limits.