Bored Evil

In Emma by Jane Austen, Emma’s confidante Harriet Smith expostulates when Emma declares that she does not intend to marry: “But you will become a pitiable old maid!” Emma replies:

If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now.

Emma’s confidence in her future prospects of wholesome activity helps to solve a riddle that has been thrust before us by Shakespeare’s “first tetralogy” of history plays.

The last of these four plays presents us with one of drama’s most infamous characters, King Richard III. Part of the speech with which Richard opens the play reads as follows:

Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
…I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

The malevolence of the Duke of Gloucester pushes the limits of believability. He conspires to have his one brother order the other’s execution; then Richard himself sends in the assasins. He marries one widow with the sole intention of eventually having her killed. He has his best friend executed on a pretext. He orders the execution of his two young nephews. He betrays the confederate whose scheme lifted him to the throne. He lays plans to marry his young niece, in order then to have her killed.

In other words, Richard III is, as his own mother puts it, an “ill-dispersing wind of misery, a cockatrice whose unavoided eye is murderous.”

Sinon tricked the Trojans into bringing the horse into the city
But there is no denying: The most clever, the most intelligent character in the play is: Richard. And there is no denying that the strongest, most adventurous character in the play is: Richard. Richard III outclasses many of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes for intelligence and courage.

Hence the riddle: Why does the brilliant, daring hunchback disturb the peace like he does?

To explain it by his “ambition” only begs the question. Yes, in Henry VI, Part Three, he declared:

…since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.

But he has no particular designs upon the use of royal power. He does not dream of regal exploits. Rather, he dreams solely of winning the crown by his superlative talent to deceive…

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

Act III, Scene vii of Richard III presents what may be the most bitterly ironic farce in the history of drama: Richard poses as a pious retreatant in the company of bishops. His accomplice Buckingham leads the Mayor of London and other grave citizens into the courtyard. Buckingham begs the prayerful, ‘virtuous’ Duke to assume the throne in order to stave off the chaos of an ungoverned state. Richard glibly protests. But he finally gives in–to the elation of the besnookered citizens!

Can we explain the chaos of destruction that Richard visits upon the realm by this: His is a genius that wants employment. Bored brilliance and strength of will menace the world like no other force of evil.

Advertisements

The Holy Nation

The Virginia State Capitol, near VCU

Moses asked the people of Israel a question: “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”

When Moses asked this question, it was rhetorical. The Israelites knew the answer: “There is no such nation! The Lord has chosen us and made us a light to the Gentiles!”

Moses asked this rhetorical question some three and a half millennia ago. What would we say, if he posed the same question to us now?

What would we say if Moses asked us Catholics of Franklin County, Virginia, or the Catholics of whatever city or county: “What nation has so just a law as the Sacred Tradition entrusted to the Catholic Church?”

I guess we would say, “Well, we Catholics are proud, patriotic Americans. We thank God for the American rule of law, and we wouldn’t have things any other way.”

Fair answer. But: Is it enough for us Catholics just to blend in peacefully? Hasn’t the Lord given us something that no one else has–and aren’t we supposed to do something with it?

I don’t mean that we should be presumptuous. In many places, we are surrounded by good and gracious non-Catholic Christians who deserve our admiration. At Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount, we are no holier a motley crew of sinners than any other church community in these hills.

But, at the same time, we cannot deny our spiritual birthright. Our church is not one ‘denomination’ among many. Our parishes form tiny little branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, founded by Christ, governed by the successor of St. Peter, and endowed with a unique inheritance.

Our Catholic inheritance of spiritual, moral, intellectual, and artistic riches outstrips the patrimony of any other group of people on the face of the earth.

Franklin County has its proud heritage. Virginia has its proud heritage. Our Protestant brethren have their proud heritages. But: You could put Ben Franklin himself, with Jubal Early and Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Billy Graham—you could put them all together in the Virginia State House, or the front steps of Monticello, or in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or in Westminster Abbey in London or Geneva or wherever—you could sit all those luminaries down in one grand room, and it would be a thoroughly impressive group.

But if St. Francis himself walked in, or St. Therese, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or Michelangelo, the whole group would be eclipsed. If St. Augustine walked in, or St. Paul, or St. Peter or John, or our Lady, all these luminaries would bow their heads in respect.

And then there is the Blessed Sacrament. Franklin County, Va., abounds with wonderful and beautiful things. But there is only one place between Roanoke and Martinsville where you can be in the same room as Jesus Christ Himself. There is only one tabernacle with a sanctuary lamp burning. Our non-Catholic neighbors, good as they are, would be better off if only they knew that Jesus is here with them in the Blessed Sacrament.

So…Are we Catholics humble sinners who presume to be no better than anyone else? Yes. But: If we take stock of all that the Lord has given to us, we have no choice but to shout out like the Israelites: “There is no nation on earth like ours!”

Shakespeare’s Early Histories

Rivals of his later masterpieces? No. But the “first tetralogy” about the War of the Roses swims with scenes of consummate badassery and characters that make Mr. T. look like Mr. Rogers.

The most remorseless b–slapper of them all?

Not the vengeful Earl of Warwick, who instantly transformed himself from Edward IV’s ambassador to the champion of Edward’s foes, just because the king embarrassed him in front of the French court.

Richard III, who slew his in-laws, his brother, his nephews, his two best friends, and his wife? No…

…Queen Margaret of Anjou takes the prize for steely fifteenth-century malice. (She slung the bitter imprecation we recently recalled.)

Check her out in Act I, Scene 4 of Henry VI, Part Three. She reduces the Duke of York, pretender to her husband’s throne, to tears. Margaret’s henchman Clifford murdered York’s youngest son–just a little boy–in the previous scene. Margaret has offered York a napkin to dry his tears, a napkin drenched in his own son’s blood!

Also: admire the young Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) skill. He could really act, when he had lines to say that were a little less silly than the Two Towers and Return of the King screenplays…

Samaritan Well

Perhaps you will find this brief essay for Saturday of the Second Week of Lent interesting, or even edifying–even though it was written by the most annoying person in the world…

Jacob's Well
…A little groggy today, since it took the mighty Rams until nearly 1:00 a.m. to send the ‘Noles home to Florida. Robby Robinson took a page from Rich Chvotkin and yelled, “He blocked the shot! He blocked the shot! He blocked the shot!” about seven times, and then “Rams win! Rams win! Rams win!” about twenty times. It was awesome.

…Here’s a homily for the Third Sunday of Lent:

Last week we talked about what salvation is. If you missed last week, I’m sorry. We talked about our father Abraham, Dairy Queen ice-cream treats, Mount Tabor in the Holy Land, and Sophia Loren movies.

Anyway, we do not know yet what heaven is like, but we know that it involves being personally united with God forever.

If we hope to have communion with God in the end, then we probably need to have some kind of communion with Him now, right? Some kind of practice or spring training for the Big Show, so to speak.

Here is an easy question: How do we develop a friendship with the Lord now while we are still here on earth? Easy… You got it: By praying.

Has anyone ever heard of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Everybody know that the Catechism is divided into four parts, for the four pillars of the Catholic faith?

Part IV of the Catechism concerns prayer. This part of the Catechism begins with the gospel reading about the Samaritan woman at the well.

To pray is like going to a well. Someone who prays opens up his soul to God like a thirsty throat opening up for cool, refreshing water.

When we open up like this, when we go to the well of prayer, we find Christ waiting for us there, like the Samaritan woman did. Upon meeting Him, we discover three amazing things, like the Samaritan woman discovered.

Continue reading “Samaritan Well”

The Hogan Schism

Anniversaries today:

1. The Incarnation of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

2. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the Gospel of Life.

William Hogan
3. The destruction of the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom.

4. The first Holy Mass in the English-speaking colonies of the New World, said by Father White.

So let us take a few steps down the road of American Church history.

Since we have recently been discussing the punishment of ecclesiastical malefactors, let us recall to our minds the episode called the “Hogan Schism.”

When I visited the church of St. Joseph in Philadelphia years ago, someone there explained that the church’s unusual architecture—which serves to hide it from view—was the result of anti-Catholic riots in the 1800’s.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia endures some rough times as we speak. May justice be done, and may God comfort the innocent. But perhaps things are not as bad as they were back in the diocese’s nascent days…

Continue reading “The Hogan Schism”

Do Journalists Have No Shame?

No respect for our precious language? No reverence for holy things?

…If anyone uses the word ‘iconic’ in my presence–actual or virtual–to refer to anything other than that which pertains to AN ICON

…he will receive a clerical beat-down that he will NEVER forget!

Please! Let’s have some restraint here. Words have actual meanings, people. They resemble tortilla chips at a cocktail party: No double-dipping! Use them to mean what they mean, and only what they mean, please!

One uses the word iconic PREPOSTEROUSLY when qualifying a bike design, Ralph Mooney’s steel guitar, a radio tower, a 747, or a wine label logo. I could go on and on and on. Journalists use the word ‘iconic’ even more often than they use the passive voice and almost as often as the verb ‘to be.’

May the Lord preserve us. Allow me to recommend George Orwell’s 1984 as a cautionary tale.

The Ambition of James and John

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think the most remarkable thing about this famous exchange is the gentle way in which the Lord deals with the whole situation.

We know that James and John were as close to Christ as any of the Apostles were. Along with St. Peter, James and John accompanied the Lord up Mt. Tabor, as we read on Sunday. And, as we will read in a few short weeks, these three accompanied Christ into the Garden of Gethsemane. And, of course, it was St. John, alone among the Apostles, who stood with our Lady at the foot of Christ’s cross.

We can assume from all this that the desire which James and John had to sit beside Jesus in His kingdom was not crass ambition. James and John were not worldly men. They had heard their Master declare that He was going to assume His throne by way of a cruel and ignominious death. When Christ asked them if they were prepared to drink from the same chalice, they proclaimed that they were ready to do so. We have no reason to doubt that they meant it.

So I think what we have in this episode is not so much the jockeying of advantage-seekers as it is the craving of genuine love. James and John loved their Master; they wanted to be close to Him always. Christ recognized the love that motivated their ambition.

When the other Apostles became understandably angry that James and John were seeking preferment, we see not just the sons of Zebedee, but the whole lot of the Twelve, in a state of confusion. The Lord Jesus had to calm them all down and set them all straight.

The truth is, it is perfectly natural for us to want to be preferred by those whom we admire. The more we look up to someone, the closer we want to be, and the more we long to be special in his or her eyes.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be at the right hand of Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary: It is the best thing for anyone to want.

What Christ teaches His Apostles is not to want something other than this. Rather, what He teaches us is how we can actually get what we want.

“Your places have been prepared for you by My Father, just like My place has been prepared. You long to sit at My right hand; I long to sit at My Father’s right hand. How will I take my place there? By hanging on the cross.”

Prov’dence don’t fire no blank ca’tridges, boys.

Speaking of sleeping in a casket: How about spending the next seven minutes of your life reading chapter LIII of Mark Twain’s Roughing It?

Click HERE.

Reminds me of the time when Grandpa Simpson told this yarn to Mr. Burns:

Like the time I took the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them. Give me five bees for a quarter you’d say. Now where were we… The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn’t have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones.

Chapter LIII of Twain’s Innocents Abroad also fascinates. He recounts his visit to Jerusalem. To my mind imprudently, he dismisses the authenticity of most of the sites to which he and his fellow pilgrims were conducted.

But he eloquently and adamantly defends the accuracy of the location of the chapel of the crucifixion in the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Wagon Train


(Click here to go to the full 3,752 × 2,380 pixels map.)

Not to be indelicate, but the air today was balmy enough for tromping through places where frog couples are busy making more little frogs.

I found myself skirting the Pigg River and made a captivating discovery.

The Iroquois made a warpath here in their endless seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century battles with the Catawba. In 1744, at the Treaty of Lancaster, Pa., the Iroquois ceded the use of their Great Warrior Path to the white man.

Countless Scotch-Irish and Germans, having made landfall in the New World at Philadelphia, travelled to homesteads in “the backcountry”—Virginny, the Carolinas, and Georgia—along this path.

The 1751 map of the “Carolina Road” (above) fascinates me for a number of reasons.

1. The wagon road that passed along the Pigg River, down the hill from my rectory, also passed through Lancaster, Pa.–my dear mom’s hometown, 350 miles away.

2. The road passed into the piedmont at Big Lick, later to be known as Roanoke, through the pass formed by the Staunton River, also called the Roanoke River.

3. Heading upriver from Jamestown, the river named for King James forks near the land of Thomas Jefferson. The larger fork, which drains acreage from the westernmost reaches of the eastern seaboard, used to be called the Fluvanna, for Queen Anne. (These days, the whole thing is called the James.)

4. The town of Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County, Md., where I lived three very happy years, appears on the map. But the city of Washington does not. (Washington did not, as yet, exist.)

5. Fry and Jefferson made an exquisite map. It depicts all the rights-of-way in use at the time with enough precision to aid in making practical travel decisions. I especially love the way they depicted the mountain ridges–no pretense of topographical accuracy but thoroughly helpful in travel planning.

One more fascinating geographic fact:

As everyone knows, the capital city of our nation is divided into four quadrants. And everyone knows that the U.S. Capitol serves as the axis-forming point. From the Capitol, the Mall divides northwest Washington from southwest Washington, North Capitol Street divides northwest from northeast, and East Capitol and South Capitol Streets likewise divide the quadrants.

Roanoke, Va., also has four quadrants. In Roanoke, the axis is formed by Jefferson Street, and the old Norfolk and Western railroad bed!

(If you hate geography geeks, you are visiting the wrong website.)

Transfiguration

As no darkness can be seen by anyone surrounded by light, so no trivialities can capture the attention of anyone who has his eyes on Christ.
–St. Gregory of Nyssa

…Therefore, we do not dwell on the dismal whimper with which the Georgetown Hoyas ended a once-promising season. Maybe we can dwell on the prospect of the injury-hobbled Hokies making an NIT run.

…Every year St. Joseph gets two days, today (March 19) and May 1. On May 1, our Holy Father Pope Benedict will declare his predecessor to be among the blessed in heaven. That will be the day when we can stop praying for the happy repose of John Paul II and start praying to him…

…Here is a homily for the Second Sunday of Lent:

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. (Matthew 17:1-2)

On the second Sunday of every Lent, we read about the ascent of the Lord Jesus, Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor. The second Sunday of Lent brings precious memories to my mind, because three years ago today, I began a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I got to see Galilee, to climb Mount Tabor, and then make my way to Jerusalem.

When the Lord and his closest apostles went up the mountain, they, too, were beginning a pilgrimage. It was the pilgrimage that faithful Jews made to Jerusalem for the Passover feast.

Continue reading “Transfiguration”