M*A*S*H and the Call of Matthew

MASH cast

Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. (Matthew 9:12)

These words of our Lord remind us of our Holy Father. Pope Francis has said that the Church is a field hospital. Which is cool, because then I can be Hawkeye Pierce.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Matthew 9:13/Hosea 6:6) The Lord also said that the true sacrifice He desires is: obedience. Not burnt animals, but obedience (I Samuel 15:22).

We find ourselves in the middle of a “war:” sin in this world. We suffer because we ourselves sin; we suffer because our neighbors sin; we suffer because our ancestors sinned. We suffer because, instead of obeying the kind will of our heavenly Father, we have filled history with many nonsensical undertakings. Not just the Korean War–nonsensical as it may, or may not, have been.

Disobeying God wounds souls. And those wounds need emergency care. They need the care of rough-and-ready medical personnel with generous hearts, like Col. Blake or Trapper. On M*A*S*H, they just listened for choppers and then got to work.

The war is real. The medicine is also real. In fact, in the field hospital of the Divine Physician, it’s open-Heart surgery.  The surgeon’s Heart is open.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

(From T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets)

The sin of the world makes our fever charts enigmatic. That is: we fail to make sense, we sinners. Someone has to resolve this unfathomable mystery, the mystery of human confusion. When we find a way to make sense, we’ll be healed.

Christ can make sense of us. Christ crucified, the surgeon with wounded hands. He treats our disobedience with the merciful medicine of His own perfect obedience.

Radar. Margaret. Klinger… Ultimately they all grew cynical about the war effort. But not in this field hospital. We may have personality quirks worthy of situation comedy. But we’re no cynics. Because the chief surgeon in this medical camp is the infinitely merciful, perfectly obedient Son of God.

Perfectly Consistent St. Francis

Holy Father visiting Assisi today, for the saint’s feastday.

Five years ago, your humble servant also paid a visit (which was my third). My dear mommy appears here, on the far left. Two of the fellow pilgrims pictured have gone on to meet Sister Death in the meantime. May God be merciful…

In front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi
In front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

“Lord, increase our faith.” Increase our faith. Increase our faith today. And for the rest of this Year of Faith. For the rest of the Redskins season. For the rest of our earthly pilgrimage. Increase our faith, Lord.

St. Francis of Assisi had some faith. To quite G.K. Chesterton’s biography: “To this mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” Religion that is not a theory but a love affair.

To believe in God so much that my life is nothing other than my love affair with Him. I think maybe that explains St. Francis better than anything else I have ever read about him.

colorfrancisTo us smaller, worldly souls, St. Francis can appear inconsistent. He caressed the wolf and sang to his friends the sun and moon, as if he were living in the Age of Aquarius. But Francis also fasted and did penance to the point that his body never recovered. He died when he was my age.

Francis embraced the leper and found Christ in every poor man. But, at the same time, no one has ever revered the hierarchical structure of the Church, the sacredness of the male, celibate priesthood, the office of the papacy—no one has ever revered these things more than Francis of Assisi revered them.

In our mind’s eye, we can see Francis dancing with joy through the trees and wildflowers of the Umbrian hills, a man as free as Jesus Christ Himself. But, like Christ’s freedom, Francis’ came from unstinting, self-sacrificing obedience to divine law. The perfectly free Francis never swerved from the path of perfect obedience.

Inconsistent? St. Francis? Again, Chesterton: “What seems inconsistency to you, modern man, did not seem inconsistency to him.”

…In Assisi today, venerating his namesake, our Holy Father quoted St. Francis’ prayer for his own hometown. The Pope used this prayer for Assisi, and for the nation of Italy (which has St. Francis for her patron). The prayer is like an echo of the prayer of the exiles of Jerusalm (first reading at Holy Mass today), a penitent acclamation of Christ’s dominion:

I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies: Do not look upon our ingratitude, but always keep in mind the surpassing goodness which you have shown to this City. Grant that it may always be the home of men and women who know you in truth and who glorify your most holy and glorious name, now and for all ages. Amen.

St. Francis prayed that his city would be a city of faith and service to the triune God. Pope Francis prays the same. This prayer reminds us of our Holy Father’s words in his encyclical on faith:

If we remove faith in God from our cities, mutual trust would be weakened, we would remain united only by fear, and our stability would be threatened. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Heb 11:16)… The intention is to say that God, by his concrete actions, makes a public avowal that he is present in our midst and that he desires to solidify every human relationship. Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common, which he makes possible?*

The doctrine of St. Francis mesmerizes us with its simplicity: We all have one Father. We are all brothers. Simple.

And his doctrine convinces us by the intensity of his own experience of its truth. How do we know that we all have one Father and that we are all brothers? We know it because Christ taught us. How did Christ teach us? By His wounds, which He suffered for us. How do we learn it? By bearing His wounds in our bodies.

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* This same paragraph of Lumen Fidei quotes one of our Hall-of-Famers, T.S. Eliot. In particular, his lyrics for “The Rock.” The long poem packs a punch, especially during these days of widespread federal furloughs.

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).

Hall of Famers and the Holy Name

Many art historians say: El Greco was a pioneer Modern painter.

I have no interest in this thesis. El Greco is an L.R.S. Hall-of-Famer by his own merits. He is the greatest painter ever. He is in a class by himself.

I have to admit that I never noticed that St. Mary Magdalene is in El Greco’s Saint Peter in Penitence. She is rushing from the empty tomb, with the angel behind her. (Just to the left of St. Peter’s right elbow.)

(FYI: El Greco painted this subject at least six times. The Phillips Collection houses one.)

…Had enough Christmas sentimentality? Check out this hard-nosed Epiphany poem by another L.R.S. Hall-of-Famer…

…Speaking of Epiphany, it is a good day to mark your calendars with the most important days of the year. Click here, and scroll down to page 3.

Also, here is a homily for the Solemnity, with a little something thrown in for the Feast of the Holy Name:

When the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, they learned something they did not yet know.

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