Broken and Beautiful

December 29th, 2020

December 29 commemorates the assassination of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Thomas was a political insider (and allegedly something of a scoundrel in his personal life) whom King Henry II named Archbishop to serve as the crown’s reliable yes-man. To Henry’s dismay, Thomas took the new role seriously, a personal and public transformation that ultimately resulted in his politically motivated murder. Whatever else one may take from his biography, Thomas reminds us not only that deeply flawed humans can become saints, but they are the only ones who ever do.

In the northern hemisphere, with winter just getting started and memories of a dark and troubling year weigh heavy, it’s a balm to remember that each successive day from now until June grows imperceptibly longer. The worst of the weather and the pandemic may yet be ahead, but that’s never the whole story. For all that humanity does to mangle our one and only planet, we remain broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful world. Focusing too often and too long on the brokenness blinds us to that beauty. Eyes open to beauty are vaccines against apathy and despair.

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Any Rationalization in the Storm

December 28th, 2020

December 28 is traditionally observed as the commemoration of the “Massacre of the Innocents” under Herod the Great. The dark episode is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel, and its absence from any other primary historical source – despite Herod’s generally bad reputation among contemporary Jewish and pagan historians – leads many scholars to view the story as a narrative device.

Whether historical fact or instructive fable, it sheds much needed light on the human habit of justifying brute force and lethal violence in service of some abstract greater good. The myth of redemptive violence in the United States, for example, doesn’t mark a partisan or ideological divide. Wars, invasions, and massacres have been championed by left and right. American notions of progress have underwritten the Indian Removal Act, Prohibition, and eugenic sterilization. “The greater good” has been invoked to justify chattel slavery and the bombing of entire cities. Doing bad things with the best intentions is not a quirk of history but an all too human constant.

We often come to admit and regret the large-scale disasters, if only in retrospect. It’s far easier to rationalize away the smaller instances in our everyday lives. Among the challenges of the Christmas season is the temptation to put ourselves into the story as a shepherd, a wise man or woman – perhaps even an angel – and not to recognize Herod’s shadow in our hearts and minds.

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Christmas Regret

December 27th, 2020

Christmas, like life, rarely brings us what we once wanted or imagined we needed. No doubt that explains why so many products of consumer capitalism’s holiday season create and feed a relentless craving for “the best Christmas ever,” a sales campaign designed to insure that, in the words of a song by Over the Rhine, “all I get for Christmas is blue.” Recognizing the chasm between what I thought I wanted and what I truly need is an essential lesson on the regret-laden road to spiritual maturity. Here’s a poem for those on the way.

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“A sad tale’s best for winter.”

December 26th, 2020

Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, is full of contrivances and plot holes, including perhaps the most famous stage direction in history, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” yet it remains among my favorites. The title itself is a mystery. The only plausible reference in the text is young Mamillius’s offhand comment, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” even though the play ends in an unexpected reconciliation. So it is that I associate the play with Christmas, as so much of the Christmas story, as in the stories of our lives, finds joy in sad and difficult terrain: long, hard journeys; no room at the inn; Herod’s jealous rage; the flight to Egypt.

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Prince of Peace

December 25th, 2020

Octavian Augustus, first emperor of Rome, was known by many titles, including Divi Filius (Son of God), and Princeps Pacis (Prince of Peace). An inscription in Asia Minor states that Augustus’s birth “… has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (εύαγγέλιον) concerning him.” How strange, then, to use the same names for a contemporaneous but obscure Palestinian Jew, whose understanding of peace, politics, and power was so radically different. How strange to have so long diluted the scandal of the gospel (good news) with accommodations to an Augustan vision of a peace built on the use or threat of lethal violence. Here’s a Christmas poem calling attention to that contrast in a conscious act against forgetting.

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A World Transfigured

August 6th, 2020

A fragment of an unpublished poem on the Solemnity of the Transfiguration:

Wholly Mystery, whom I dare approach,
and in nearing nearly apprehend
not you so much as the gulf between,
suffer these, my poor petitions,
my tepid desires, as a mother
abides her child’s tedious requests
for one more story, a cup of water
to stave the coming of sleep.

Though what I ask is far less dear
than your presence, doubting
as I do what fullness lies beyond
the unmapped oceans of my ignorance,
hear in my halting words the longing
I long to feel more fully, empty
my heart of all that is not you,
open my eyes to a world transfigured.

Image Credit: 15th Century Ikon of the Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek

Indelibly Marked

May 28th, 2020

In which I review three poets writing in the Catholic vein.

Photo Credit: Luis Sánchez Saturno, The New Mexican

Science, Poetry, and the Imagination

May 23rd, 2020

In light of necessary COVID restrictions, the Glen Workshop, an annual gathering of writers, visual artists, musicians, and anyone interested in what happens at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery, will be held online this year (July 27-31) rather than on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. I’m delighted to be among the presenters this year, a faculty that includes some jaw-dropping names, who will also be presenting on IMAGE journal’s free Summer Stage series which begins next week .

I’m leading a seminar on science, poetry, and the imagination. In addition to reading and discussing some great poems and short prose pieces, we will be joined online by several distinguished guests from North America and the United Kingdom. Registration includes online access to the seminar, faculty presentations, and open microphone sessions. Registration fees have been reduced and scholarships are available. (The scholarship application deadline is June 1.) I’d love to have you join the conversation.

Reflections on the Pandemic

April 13th, 2020

I have two thematically-related, Wendell Berry-inflected essays on living through the COVID-19 pandemic that were posted today. Fill out your reading list here or ponder what limits mean for health in community here.

Image of Wendell Berry from Center for Interfaith Relations via Flickr

What Hasn’t Changed

February 19th, 2020

Last month, in a post on gun violence and the growing understanding of Robert Kennedy, I mentioned the 1963 meeting between Kennedy, James Baldwin, and other civil rights leaders that went disastrously awry. The consequences of that gathering proved varied and contradictory. Then Attorney General Kennedy quickly instructed FBI Director J Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance on Baldwin to uncover information of “a derogatory nature.” On the other hand, it marked a turn in Kennedy’s evolving attitude regarding racial justice. Within a month, President John F Kennedy – at his brother’s urging – delivered his landmark Civil Right Address, from which the 1964 Civil Rights Act took form.

Another product of that evening, at once more immediate and less procedural, was a video recording of an interview Kenneth Clark conducted with Baldwin. In an attempt to ease Baldwin’s palpable post-meeting tension, Clark started by asking the writer about his childhood memories. What followed was an emotionally powerful and stunningly eloquent exploration of the American soul that only someone with Baldwin’s experience and verbal gifts could pull off. Clothing his indictment in his characteristic – if undeserved – compassion toward white Americans, he says, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” and ties the future of America to whether or not its people can “face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long.” He then challenges White America “to find in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n—-r in the first place, because I’m not a n—-r. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n—-r, it means you need it…And if you invented him, you have to find out why.” Read the rest of this entry »