Quick Sacred History Quiz

Your ways, O Lord, make known to me.

We sing this prayer in the Psalm at Mass.

Why do we keep the season of Lent? The Spirit drove the Lord Jesus out into the desert. He fasted and prayed for forty days.

The prophet Elijah walked through the desert for forty days to reach God’s mountain. Jonah gave the Ninevites a forty-day warning of God’s wrath. Moses dwelt in the cloud on Mount Sinai and conversed with the Lord for forty days. When the Lord flooded the earth, it rained for forty days.

Six weeks. Can we learn the ways of God in six weeks? Let’s get started.

In six days, God made the heavens and the earth. On the seventh, He rested. (Maybe if we study His ways hard for six weeks, then on the seventh, we will find rest.)

In the beginning, God made the land and the seas and all they contain. Then what happened? Sin. Disobedience. Estrangement from the Creator. It got ugly. Brother killed brother.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved (Genesis 6:5).

The innocent blood that had been shed cried out from the ground. The good world that God had made needed to be cleansed.

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Fast First from Sin

Maybe we could summarize our first reading at today’s Mass this way: Fast first from sin.

Hunger does not please God in and of itself. Hunger for justice pleases God, and bodily hunger offered justly pleases Him.

If we hunger for truth, then we will worry more about treating people right than we will about giving up chocolate. Giving up chocolate can please God well—provided I do the penance cheerfully and with greater love for my neighbor.

Some people try to give up coffee for Lent, and they wind up holier and healthier for it. Some people try giving up coffee, and by 9:00 a.m. on the first day, everyone within thirty paces wishes they hadn’t.

We have to strive for a higher life, so our Lent must include some bodily mortification. The more we deny our cravings for physical things, the more we learn to crave spiritual ones. But the greatest Lent a person can keep would actually be more simple: uninterrupted kindness, patience, and ready generosity, without a single thought given to what I will eat or drink and when.

The Lord gave us Lent to help us learn how to forget ourselves and focus on God and others. It would be a shame to waste this gift with nonstop fretting about “When will I finally get to have what I gave up?!” Better to give up giving things up than to have a Lent that is more about chocolate than it is about God and other people.

Tsetse* and Viv

He has his place in the DDYDB Hall of Fame for a reason.

I lived the 24th year of my life in communion with T.S. Eliot, communion of the most intimate kind. The countless hours I spent in the Mullen Library at Catholic University, researching papers on “Four Quartets” and “Murder in the Cathedral,” rank among the happiest of my life.

Eliot’s poems still stand in my mind like a mansion, full of familiar rooms decked-out with beauties, with many more as-yet-unopened doors down the hall. One can live a life inside the work of T.S. Eliot, a long and vigorous life.

…Anybody see “Tom & Viv?” The movie came out in 1994. But I am slow on the uptake sometimes.

Anthony Blanche from “Brideshead Revisited” plays Bertrand Russell: one of the most truly absurd spectacles I have ever witnessed. Bertrand Russell has not fared well over time, in my opinion. But the sight of Nickolas Grace in a powdered wig, fondling a pipestem–even I find this sight offensive to the memory of the silly atheist.

Willem Dafoe portrays the Englishman from St. Louis. The New York Times reasonably opined that this was an odd choice. Willem Dafoe has enraptured me on a number of occasions, “Platoon” and “The English Patient” pre-eminent among them. But he was born to play T.S. Eliot about as much as I was born to play the Green Goblin.

Dafoe makes a wild gambit of trying to capture Eliot’s unique Amero-English manner of speaking. But anyone who has passed some time listening to recordings of the poet reading his work immediately perceives that Dafoe’s attempt amounts to an inconsistent, laughable sham.

Here’s the thing. This movie emerged as part of the T.S.-Eliot-Was-Really-a-Dreadful-Villian Movement. His poor wife had unruly high spirits. He styled himself a martyr for a decade of marriage, then put her away in a lunatic asylum. He repressed all his emotions, lived in a retrograde fantasy world, married her for all the wrong reasons, chose fame over love, left us a prissy and impenetrable body of work, etc., etc.

Granted: You could comb Eliot’s entire oeuvre (including Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) with a hard-bristle lint brush, and not a single warm fuzzy would come off. Eliot longed for an “Ignatian” spiritual life–by which he understood “Ignatian” to mean intensely Counter-Reformation Spanish, dark, and penitential. Even beginning to understand anything Eliot ever wrote requires considerable effort.

But: Are you going to make a movie about him, portraying him as the basest unfaithful hypocrite, and leave the door to his poems closed, from the opening credits to the final copyright line? How can you possibly think that you have given us anything even approaching T.S. Eliot when your dimestore psychoanalysis of him comes up with nothing more substantial than, “Poems do not express emotion. Poetry enables one to escape emotion?”

Please! One line of this man’s poetry has more to it than this movie! You have got to be kidding me.

How about reading the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost (all of which Eliot had done by the time he was, like, six); how about meditating on every chapter of St. John of the Cross while simultaneously learning the complete lineages of every landed family since William the Conqueror; how about scraping out a single correct Petrarchan sonnet about something; how about doing this, and then making a movie in which you turn T.S. Eliot into an idiot?

Then I will give you the time of day. In the meantime, spend a few hours in a library, please. Amazing what you might learn.

…Every year, I try to read Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” on or around, of course, Ash Wednesday.

This year the music of the poem impressed me the most. I think he’s trying to evoke the desire for time to end in a blissful moment of eternal peace. Eliot makes his words move with the sound of days passing, one after the other, veering between easy rhythm and deadening monotony. The image of leopards crouched over the poet’s bones, which then begin to sing: unforgettable.

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* In his youth, Eliot was called ‘tsetse’ or ‘tsetse fly’ because he signed himself TSE (Thomas Stearns Eliot).

Word Origins

Everywhere on earth, the Catholic Church keeps a forty-day season of penance to prepare for Easter. The Lord Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, so we do, too.

The question is: What do we call this season?

In English, we call it Lent. This word refers to the lengthening of the daylight hours which occurs as the season unfolds.

Most Catholics, however, do not call this season Lent.

In most languages, the name of the season comes from the word for forty: Cuaresma, Quaresima, Carême, Quadragesima.

Here is the interesting thing. We do have an English word like this, a word referring to a period of forty days. Know what it is?

Quarantine.

The time has come for us to quarantine ourselves. Sin has infected us. And this particular contagion can spread like fleas at a dog convention.

We need solitude. We need a quiet place apart to spend forty days getting over this disease. We need to remove ourselves from anything that could worsen the infection.

This forty-day quarantine will help. We have the best Doctor anyone could hope for. Under His care, we can and will recover. We will emerge from this quarantine in good health on Easter Sunday.

Noble Lent?

Is it more noble to act virtuously for its own sake–as opposed to doing it for a reward?

Not sure. But God does not hesitate to promise a reward.

Give secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Pray secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Fast secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Maybe it is not noble. But we have the right to regard our humble, hidden acts of charity, religion, and penance as deposits. When we give something away quietly, we actually pay the sum to heaven. When we pray, we pay heaven. When we make a sacrifice, it’s a payment.

Maybe it doesn’t seem so noble to think this way, but it is what the Word of God says.

And these secret deposits in the heavenly bank—we do not make them out of noble selflessness. To the contrary: Christ says that we can and should expect full repayment.

God deals justly with us. We pay earthly cash by giving things away, we receive heavenly cash in return. We say earthly prayers humbly and quietly, we receive heavenly praise and glory in return. We renounce earthly goods without letting anyone know, we receive heavenly goods in the sight of angels.

Lent seems like a pretty good deal. Too good to pass up. A chance for some easy money. Make a few quiet deposits now, and the return on the investment…big-time profit.

Ghosts of Kennesaw + Why

Another link between Atlanta and NYC: Two identical names get a lot of public use. Robert Fulton (steamboat inventor) and Johann DeKalb (Lafayette’s protégé, a German who fought in George Washington’s Continental Army). Both of these last names get barked out by countless municipal employees and traffic reporters in New York and Atlanta: Fulton and DeKalb counties in Georgia, Fulton Street in Manhattan and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn…

…William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding three armies, marched south from Chattanooga, Tenn., bent on wreaking destruction. The war had entered its fourth year. The pre-war South no longer existed. The city of Atlanta had grown almost four-fold since 1850, full of sweaty factories cranking out the war machine.

Uncle Billy

Uncle Billy: 43 years of age, under the command of the highest ranking U.S. military officer since Washington, 41-year-old Ulysses S. Grant.

One hesitates to refer to this duo as the Two Towers, a la Sauron and Saruman. But without question the Union command stood united in the spring of 1864 like it had never been.

Can we imagine these two stony, understated, and straight-talking generals–a new breed, really, with no courtly trappings to speak of–can we imagine the two of them having a mutual understanding between them: “Okay. Enough. Let’s finish this thing off for the old ape” (the president).

Joseph Johnston, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood, and Co.: They had no thought of prevailing against Sherman’s armies. Outmanned and outgunned more than two-to-one.

But, imagine this! ‘If we can only hold them until the presidential election in the fall. If we can only get Lincoln knocked out of office, then it’s a whole new ballgame.’ (American politics hasn’t changed too much in 37 election cycles.)

Anyway, Polk (our old friend the Bishop-General) baptized Johnston and Hood as Sherman made his way south towards them. Grim? Fatalistic? No. Praise God. We all die, after all.

Johnny Reb had been renewed and rejuvenated by Johnston’s attentions to him, especially when an extra whiskey ration came down the line following a huge early-spring snowball fight…

…Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park attracts more visitors than any other Civil War site, 200K more per year than Gettysburg. But a lovely morning reveals that the Kennesaw count may be inflated by Cobb-county soccer moms slipping away to get some exercise on the short and scenic trail up the mountain.

This sunny Atlanta suburb, though, has a lot of ghosts.

I beheld that which I cannot describe, and which I hope never to see again. Dead men meet the eye in every direction…To look upon this, and then the beautiful wild woods, the pretty flowers as they drink the morning dew, and listen to the sweet notes of the songsters in God’s first temples, we were constrained to say, ‘What is man, and what is his destiny, to do such a strange thing?’*

The Fighting Bishop breathed his last here, felled by a shell as he reconnoitered. The battles on the mountain and in the nearby plains came to a draw. But Sherman kept out-maneuvering Johnston and backed him up to the Chattahoochee. Jefferson Davis did not like Johnston’s “retreat,” nor his lack of a clear plan. So Richmond suddenly put Hood in command instead.

…Taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming, I now provide, for anyone interested, an explanation of the four reasons why I love the Civil War (special hat tip to the dearly departed of Smith Mountain Road)…

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Dateline Atlanta

Yes, Atlanta has a Flatiron Building, too.

And a Five Points. In fact, Atlanta’s Five Points lives–it’s the center of town–unlike New York’s long-gone Five Points.

…The sun came up oh-so-sweetly over the Georgia hills this morning, and the following words of William Tecumseh Sherman haunted my mind:

The scene was enchanting, too beautiful to be disturbed by the harsh clamors of war, but the Chattahoochie lay beyond, and I had to reach it.

…Sherman ordered the women of the Roswell Manufacturing Company mill deported north, charging them with treason because they were discovered making Conferate army tents. (The mill had been built here after the Cherokee made their way west on the Trail of Tears.)

Outrage over the mistreatment of the women ensued in the North, as well as the South. But Sherman’s subsequent triumphs served to make people forget the episode.

…IMHO, Atlanta has some pretty interesting post-modern towers, like:

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Love’s Labor

Who loves “Love’s Labour’s Lost?” The young king and three of his courtiers vow to fast and study for three years, renouncing so much as the sight of a woman.

But then the princess of a nearby country arrives as an ambassador, along with three ladies. Uh oh.

One of the knights-votary plies his tongue with particular eloquence. This Berowne has doubted the prudence of their vow to begin with:

Necessity will make us all forsworn
Three thousand times within this three years’ space;
For every man with his affects is born,
Not by might master’d but by special grace.

But Berowne likewise despises lovers. He styles himself the consummate scoffer. Until Rosaline arrives (with the princess). Then Berowne steals away and muses to himself:

And I, forsooth, in love! I, that have been love’s whip;
A very beadle to a humorous sigh;
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable;
A domineering pedant o’er the boy;
Than whom no mortal so magnificent!
This whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy;
This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid;
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general
Of trotting ‘paritors:–O my little heart:–
And I to be a corporal of his field,
And wear his colours like a tumbler’s hoop!

Has comedy ever equaled the subsequent scene?

First Berowne walks on-stage to soliloquize about his lovely lady, only to hide himself in the bushes in order to overhear one of the other knights do the same—who then hides himself in the bushes to overhear the king soliloquize about the princess—who then hides his royal self because the final knight steps on-stage to soliloquize his lady.

The king emerges to accuse him. Then the other knight emerges to accuse the king. Finally Berowne emerges and calls them all on the carpet. But he admits that he, too, has left their vow in a shambles.

The others then beg Berowne to give a speech justifying their vow-breaking on some legitimate grounds.

He proceeds to elegize St. Cupid. It might be deemed inappropriate for a priest to post the entirety of the speech on his weblog. A few lines:

O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books.
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaden contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty’s tutors have enrich’d you with?
…love, first learned in a lady’s eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain;
But, with the motion of all elements,
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.

Is he right here? Or:

If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema. (Solemn teaching of the Church)

Yes.

No, really. Berowne has it right. And of course the Council of Trent does, too.

Christ came to restore the beauty of marriage, which had fallen into the trenches of polygamy and divorce. The Lord made the best wine flow at a wedding. He came as the Bridegroom, and He made marriage (including sex) a sacrament of His holy love.

Nonetheless, He never married a woman. He declared that in the Kingdom of heaven, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.

Having sex and making babies (while married): beautiful. Not having sex, for the love of God: even more beautiful.

Responsible married life involves both having sex and not having sex, for the love of God. Love involves having sex sometimes, for some people. Love always involves not having sex, at least sometimes. The natural way of regulating birth works perfectly well, provided both parties know how to pass the time in other ways, when necessary. Did the ladies marry the knights at the end of “Love’s Labour’s Lost?” No. The ladies insisted that the knights keep at least one year of their vow first.

What’s my point? I promised I would return to the subject of the immorality of the disputed elements of the federal health-care mandate. My point: Having sex makes for good health—under the right circumstances. Not having sex makes for good health under a lot more circumstances.

How about a federal mandate for training in chastity, self-control, learning how to live a higher, more intellectual and spiritual kind of life?

Oh, yeah. We don’t need a federal mandate. We already have a divine mandate for that. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Who’s the Mysterymonger?

Our first reading and gospel reading both refer to ceremonies performed by priests. Thank God, none of us suffer from leprosy. But, nonetheless, we go to church to participate in a ceremony performed by a priest, to take part in the “sacred mysteries” of the Mass.

Remember our friend the atheist debater, whom I mentioned last week? I said I have a list of words which the atheist used in order to score his rhetorical points in his college-campus debate with my priest friend. One more word the atheist used and abused: Mystery.

Ok. God gave us eyes. He gave us ears. He gave us minds. He wants us to use them. Healthy skepticism can keep a person out of trouble. “Uh, you want to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge? Are you sure you own it?”

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