"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Statues, Icons, And The Mythology Of Jesus–The Community Of Plaster Of Paris

Patricia Lacey was a devout Catholic, one of the few girls in New Brighton who looked forward to High Mass, Sunday School, Catechism, and the homilies of Father Brophy.  She couldn’t get enough of Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, and his disciples; and every Sunday when Father Mullins read the stories from the Bible about Jesus’ walking on water, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves and fishes, blessing the Samaritan woman, and entering Jerusalem on an ass, she was happier than she had ever been. 

These stories  actually meant something.  They were wonderful tales about courage, heroism, love, ambition, promise, and defeat with a purpose.  The story of Jesus, born to poor carpenter and his faithful wife, hunted down by the Emperor’s emissaries to be killed, but saved by these same men who, after seeing a miraculous star in the heavens, worshiped the divine child, hid his presence from Rome and allowed the Holy Family to escape to Egypt, is a fairy tale with import. 

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It was different from the other stories like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Bears her father read to her.  These fairy tales were lovely and comforting to be shared between her and her father, a world of dark forests, wicked witches, and good families ; but the story of Jesus, his friends, the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman legionnaires suggested something the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen never could.   She could not begin to understand the complex metaphors and allegories of the Gospels; and for the time being would simply enjoy the stories themselves – Joseph’s carpenter shop, the magnificent Jewish temple where the young Jesus preached, the Via Dolorosa where the adult Jesus walked, burdened with the cross onto which he would be nailed and die.
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Patricia never outgrew her love of the fairy tale, mythical nature of the story of Jesus; and even as she became and adult and matured in her thinking and her faith, she still wanted to hear the stories of Jesus, told now by the Stations of the Cross and in the paintings of Giotto, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo.  She loved the image of the crucified Jesus – so sensual and masculine, so beautifully suffering, so vulnerable and attractive.  She loved the statues of Mary, all so demure, proper, pious, and loving.  Patricia tried to imagine being a mother of God – loving him as her own child, but also as a divinity.  She couldn’t, so only wanted to love that profoundly male, needy, and lithesome figure she saw on the cross.  She was his mother, his lover, and his worshiper – all made possible by that sculpted figure above the altar.

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The other saints arrayed around the church – St. Maurice, the patron saint of the parish, St. Thomas, St. Timothy, and St. Mark – were peripheral to her very personal faith.  As she grew older and studied the Bible, she began to appreciate their relevance and importance; but for many years they were distractions.  Jesus was the central figure, the hero of the myth, the ultimate victor, a man who did not just save the girl but the whole human race.

Later, she realized how her romantic myth of Jesus was only one part of the story.  Early Christian theologians debated the nature of Christ and whether he was all man, all divine, both or some other level of being.  They parsed the works of the Evangelists and the letters of Paul to extract meaning and purpose, they factored in Jewish, Roman, and newly Christian politics; and finally by the time of the Council of Nicaea, under the stern direction of Constantine, they finally agreed on doctrine and theology.  Of course there would always be re-interpretations, disputes, and continuing debates, but by 325 AD, the various theological threads were well-knit.

Most Catholics, Patricia Lacey included, had no need for theological underpinnings.  While it was interesting for her to understand how the central, problematic, and highly questionable doctrines of the Holy Trinity became Church doctrine, it was irrelevant to her belief. Jesus was the Son of God, the Redeemer, who died for our sins and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, will welcome the dutiful into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that was all that was necessary to know.

So every Sunday and every day during Lent Patricia visited St Maurice Church.  The plaster-of-Paris statues and the saints depicted  in the many paintings on the walls of the church, the sacristy, the vestibule, and the residence were her family and community.  Although she did not pray to all of them, or revere them in the same way she did for Jesus and his mother, she greeted them, addressed them, and talked about Jesus with them. 

Each parish had a different array of saints.  There were far too many in the Catholic pantheon to all be represented, so each church had its own family.  St Mary’s, for example, the Polish cathedral on Broad Street featured statues of  Saint Wojciech, Saint Jadwiga, and Saint StanisÅ‚aw; St Joseph’s, the Italian church in the North End had many statues of St Francis – as a boy, a young man, and a saint.

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St Maurice had not particular ethnic identity, so the statues were traditional, common, and familiar; but it’s neutrality mattered little to Patricia.  The community she belong to was fungible – saints could come in and out, sit and be seated, and leave for another venue, and the order would never be disturbed.  Christ was at the head of he table and the saints were only invited guests.

Protestants criticized the Catholic church for its ‘idolatry’ – the statues, paintings, and icons filling churches were distracting at best and corrosive to faith at worst.  Martin Luther rejected such venal displays of adoration and reformed the church to his liking – a stripped down, severe, un-ornamented place of worship signifying the same simple, direct, unmediated relationship between believer and Christ.   Images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints would detract from that singular, powerful, and unique individual relationship between man and God.  Protestants were in this regard very much like Jews and Muslims for whom God has no physical image, no physicality at all.  He is too universal, almighty, and all powerful to be illustrated.

All of which is why Patricia remained a Catholic, and unlike her highly-educated intellectual Catholic friends who eschewed any imagery – they needed no help to understand, respect, and believe in God – she had statues, crosses, and paintings throughout her house.  She would stand before each of them daily, speak to them, ask about them, tell them about her life as though they were real members of her family. 

She was more Orthodox Christian than Roman Catholic in her love of iconography.  Bulgarians, Greeks, and Macedonians regularly kiss the icons on the church walls; crawl under and over the sarcophagi of the bones of Orthodox saints, bless themselves many times over as the priests open the iconostasis and emerge into the sanctuary.  The Orthodox Church would have been a better spiritual match for Patricia, but she was quite happy where she was.  The actual members of the family didn’t matter – only the family itself.

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Catholic statuary and iconography have gotten a bad name – cheap, plastic knockoffs of the saints are on dashboards and in lighted bedroom grottoes.  Inflated camels, wise men, Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus Nativity scenes are common in working class neighborhoods.  To severe Puritans, such a display of ‘incorporation’ is heresy.  Catholics have become a tribe of pagan idolaters.  Not so for Patricia for whom the statues, statuettes, and paintings were as holy as the saints who were depicted.

If there were no images to reflect upon and talk to, then the whole complex theological structure of a Church comprised of and based on saints and their lives would be lost.  She would lose a vital, living  link to Paul, Thomas, Augustine, John, and Mary.  Whether the statues were kitsch or Michelangelo, they were the holy persons they represented.  The quality of the art made no difference whatsoever.  In fact, once one began to judge statuary and iconography based on its artistic merit, faith had already begun to be eroded.

So her Upper Northwest friends snickered to themselves when they walked in to Patricia’s house – a garish, lowbrow display of tacky statues, pop paintings, rosary beads, scapulars, and miraculous medals.  While to some it was surprising that after a New England upbringing and an Ivy league education Patricia turned out to be no different than a South Philly Irish Catholic, to others who knew her better, her love of the trappings of Roman Catholicism – the mystery of the Mass, transubstantiation, confession, the nature of the Trinity and all the statues, icons, and religious accouterments – was real, fundamental, and essential. 

Why does this matter? What does the peculiarity of Patricia Lacey have to do with anything? In an era of progressivism where community is defined only in secular and political terms, spiritual communities are overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant.  Social justice and human progress will result only through human efforts.  A secular, social Utopia, a heaven on earth with no God, is all that matters.

Patricia’s community – her statues of Mary and Joseph, her crosses, her paintings of the saints, the illustrated stories of the Passion, the Temptation in the Desert, the marriage at Cana – were the only community she needed.  She could make of them what she willed, speak to them as she would, never hoping for a response.  Hers was a devoutly spiritual faith expressed in very simple way; and in that, she understood the nature of faith, devotion, and spiritual love better than most.

Monday, May 25, 2020

After Living An African Nightmare Corona Was A Piece Of Cake–Lessons In The Relativity Of Risk

Risk is what you make of it.  Some people are daredevils, snowboarding the double-blacks above the tree line at Aspen, acrobatic turns off sharp rock outcroppings, full speed through the glades and accelerating downhill.  Others attempt to climb Meru or K2 without oxygen and limited supplies.  Still others have serial adulterous affairs.  All these adventures are risky – broken limbs, concussions, pulmonary edema, and divorce are all common.  Yet those addicted to risk see life in no other way.  Without risk, says Ivan Karamazov’;s Devil, life would be boring, stultifying, and intolerable – ‘all one never-ending Hosanna’.  I am a vaudevillian, the Devil says, on earth to cause mischief, to stir up the pot, to make life interesting.

Peter Beaumont, a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber, disagrees completely and recounts the indescribable thrill of life-threatening risks.
So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."
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Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:
Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.
Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:
So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.
For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.
So it was for Randall Peet, an economist by trade, a Program Officer at an international development bank, and a world traveler by preference, personality, and instinct.  He avoided the easy assignments.  While his colleagues were happy enough to work in Senegal, Ghana, Namibia, Cape Verde, and the Gambia – seaside countries of relative calm, accommodating people, and reasonable health, Peet welcomed the chance to go to the worst places on the continent.  The crime and civil disorder of Lagos, the post-war civil chaos of  Angola, the volatile ethnic tensions in post-genocide Rwanda and Burundi, and the Tuareg unrest and ISIS terrorism in the Malian Sahara were features of the all-inclusive Club Med-style travel package he selected.

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It was not that Peet had a death wish or some irrational desire to challenge God or Fate, to prove his macho mettle, or to collect war stories for his memoirs.  He was simply like the climbers up K2, the skiers at the top of the Colorado mountains, or the men who love women – life without the risk of loss, failure, injury, or even death would be devalued, rendered mediocre and bland.

And so it was that  Peet had his share of scrapes and near misses – caught in the middle of a bloody coup in Ouagadougou; shaken down by armed Congolese militia thugs in Kinshasa; lost and down to the last jerrycan of water in the Sahara saved only by a camel caravan plying between Sijilmasa and Timbuktu; sick, dehydrated and prostrate from bout after bout of salmonella poisoning from bad meat, bad fish, and bad water; pulled unharmed from the wreckage of his Mercedes driven at freeway speed down the new trans-African Chinese road and thrown like a toy into the Sahelian scrub after hitting an unseen sand drift that had covered the road; and carjacked in the Atlas Mountains.

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Not surprisingly, Peet was unfazed by Corona and surprised at the hysteria the virus was causing.  Tens of thousands in Africa die of malaria, tetanus, AIDS, dengue, hepatitis, and typhoid every year. Infant mortality is high, maternal health fragile and poor. Only a few years ago before the advent of antibiotics, an infected finger even in the developed world could mean death; pneumonia was fatal, and tuberculosis a slow, painful, breathless end. As late as the early 19th century life expectancy was under thirty.  Tolstoy wrote about soldiers’ indifference to the Russian cannonade at the Battle of Borodino because of a sense that a heroic death at 35 was far better than an ignominious one from an infected insect bite back home.  Risk was not only ignored, it was dismissed. 

Although many will die of Corona, many more will die from cancer, heart disease, traffic accidents, yearly influenza and pulmonary ills; and yet our  first reaction is a flummoxed panic, to run indoors, to put on mask, gloves, and protective clothing, and stay put.  Despite the fact that Corona is not everyone’s disease, it is being taught that it is.  Only the immunologically compromised will get seriously ill or die, 20-25 percent of the rest of population will contract the virus and show no signs of illness, and those who do exhibit signs will be sick for a few weeks and recover.  Is this a recipe for panic? Basis for a universal protective algorithm? Where is the equanimity, the spiritual resolve, and the defiance?

Whether risk-taking is hardwired in our brains and linked to pleasure centers; or is a higher-order cognitive process which factors meaning, purpose, and being, the tendency today is to avoid it. Taking avoidable personal risk is considered anti-social, pre-evolutionary, and dismissive of human potential.  In our times a long, productive, unblemished, purposeful life is honored.  Yet in the final accounting has not the mountain climber had the more fulfilled life? Or the libertine? Risk is no simple matter, and the most evolved of us understand, embrace it, and take it.

The world is portrayed to children as a fundamentally dangerous place, and in order to survive, they must avoid all risk.  While much of this interdiction has a social reason behind it – one’s risk inevitably involves others – and therefore are valid; the effect of a society bound and determined to regulate behavior and to eliminate risk is to neuter the risk-taking impulse altogether.  Not only does eliminating risk squeeze the juice out of life but it cripples us when, as in the current Corona virus crisis, we must face it.

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Long life has made us fearful, timid, and restrictively careful.  Better high jungle gyms and seesaws, illicit and dangerous liaisons, and good food and wine than soft landings, faithful marriages, and a proper diet.

Randall Peet was one of the lucky few who not only understand the nature of risk and the dangers it proposes but the exhilaration of risk.  Randall Peet was a different kind of risk taker.  He was not the aggressive kind; neither the high Himalayan mountaineer who deliberately risks his life for the chance to do what few others have done or the soldier who leads a charge into withering machine gun fire.  He was one who relished being in the vicinity of risk, the environment of risk where danger might or might not happen. 

It was this particular sense of willingness to take potential risks that singled him out from the crowd and gave him a special philosophical resilience.  He was neither a fatalist nor a nihilist, just someone who like Ivan’s Devil appreciated the insecure life.

He was criticized and attacked by progressives who insisted that his demurrals were a malignant indifference to others.  His acceptance of risk with equanimity, however, was only self-confidence – no fear of death, no exaggerated sense of his importance or anyone else’s, and a certain spiritual grounding.  This moral diffidence was not immoral.  If anything it was Stoic; but Peet never thought of his reaction to Africa or Corona in such universal terms.  He had been made this way.  Whether thanks to some strange confluence of genes from adventuring forbears, twists of DNA that muted fear, family rectitude, a solid education, or simply personality, it didn’t matter.  He stood perplexed at the Corona hysteria and the calumny and political hatred it provoked, but not entirely surprised.  America after all was a timorous place.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

“I Vant To Be Alone”–Being Greta Garbo In The COVID Gulag

Admittedly being quarantined during Corona is nothing like being sequestered in a Ouagadougou hotel, surrounded by armed militias during a coup to remove the President; or being in Angola (LA) prison solitary confinement. Under Corona one can leave the premises for ‘essential’ goods, defined differently and quite arbitrarily in different states.  Liquor stores remain open throughout the country as do whore houses and tattoo parlors, but churches and dentists are shut down.  Although police are now surveilling beaches, parks, piazzas, and other public places for infractions, they haven’t yet really cracked down on those who disobey.  They are close – facial recognition software, high resolution cameras, and helicopters can pick out anyone walking closer than six feet of social distance or not wearing a mask – but the full panoply of government means to control antisocial elements has not yet been used.

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Army camouflaged  thugs, loyal to the conservative opposition, locked down the Hotel Independence on the grounds and supposition – correctly as it turned out - that international development ‘experts’ were by nature and conviction progressive in political philosophy and firmly opposed to the establishment of a right wing, authoritarian African regime.  The history of Africa since liberation, these liberals said, is filled with tin-pot dictators, kleptocrats and authoritarian rulers who in the name of solidarity and liberty established what they said was the rule of law, order, discipline, and moral behavior; but since they never had any intention whatsoever of establishing a liberal democratic government, they must be removed from power. So the French, German, English, and American aid workers who based only on the supposition of complicity, were locked in a miserable hotel, deprived of food, water, and air conditioning until the barricades came down, the coup completed, and Sergeant Israel Mnebe Olabuzumda installed as the head of state.

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The two weeks that the international aid workers were ‘interned’ was painful and difficult.  The coup occurred in June, the hottest month of the year, beer supplies had been interrupted, and because the rebels who had taken over the major generating plant for the city had no idea which button to push, the entire city was dark.  Outside the hotel, the goings on were farcical at best - a Punch and Judy show of Big Man wannabees, generals and colonels who had visions of Napoleon but had never graduated fourth grade, family sycophants and tribal bullies who simply wanted in on the spoils, tanks that had never been serviced, and guns that didn’t fire.  Inside the hotel, quarantined, miserable, and hopeless, the expatriates were a sorry lot. Educated, well-off, idealistic, and principled, they were appalled at the indifference of their jailors, their short memories of Western support for majority rule, and the crudeness and grossly imprecise way they went about business.   Being sequestered was one thing, but to be so thanks to a lot of ignorant, thankless goons was far worse.  African progressive development was obviously an impossibility, a liberal dream, and a failed aspiration.

Angola (LA) maximum security prison is anyone’s vision of Hell. It is a place without reprieve, of no consolation or refuge; a place not only with no morality but with a perverse reversal of it.  Since most of the prisoners are violent, murderous rapist and serial killers with no hope of parole, only the severest, harshest, and most inhumane punishment has any chance of keeping them in line.  A significant percentage of Angolan prisoners have been in solitary for years.  Those who are let out because of an overlooked footnote to the Louisiana penal code discovered by a Northern pro bono lawyer,within days commit savage, barbaric killings and sent right back down. 

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Angola was a horrible place, and the very concept of solitary confinement was redefined there.  Prisoners in the hole were not only deprived of food, clothing, and sleep but abused and tortured.  The trusties of Angola knew how to mete out punishment to these jungle savages; and when and if they reentered the general prison population, they were so addled, frustrated, and maladjusted that it was only a matter of time before they were sent back down.

Americans who had even any brush with authoritarian regimes had cause for worry. It wasn’t so much the SWAT teams on patrol on Florida beaches, or the police helicopter and drone surveillance, or even the break up of incorrectly socially distant patio parties; it was the arrogance of governments and their lackeys, the indifferent arrogation of unconstitutional authority, and the total disregard for civil and individual rights which was at the heart of protest.

Greta Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone”, an apocryphal line in a forgotten movie about the pricelessness of anonymity and personal privacy.   Of course Greta suggested only that she had had enough of men’s attentions and their fawning and ignorant attempts to woo and bed her.  Her screenwriters knew that such a line from such a sultry actress at the birth of talkies, delivered in a voice with smoky, alluring undertones would be a hit and would consolidate the particular romantic image of their heroine.  Yet we take our clues from Hollywood, and the inimitable Greta is our social as well as Hollywood heroine.

Into Great Silence is a film about Carthusian monks who live in an Alpine monastery in complete silence.  In the ordered and regimented routines of the day, there are no extraneous activities and no disturbance.  All monks engage in silent prayer at the same time.  There is no other activity.  Yet their concentration is disciplined and undisturbed because their silent prayers become audible only to them.  The repetition of practiced prayers occludes the distractive element of complete silence. 

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‘The silence is deafening’, said a New Yorker on his first trip to the country.  Silence is as disconcerting and disruptive as the noise of the city to a newcomer.  Silence and noise are relative concepts, each with a spectrum of possibilities.  The loneliest place in the world, it is said, is a big anonymous city.  The noise becomes an irritating reminder that a person alone makes no sound, contributes nothing, exists without connection and context.  Long periods of complete silence in an isolated, hermitic existence can cause confusion, anxiety, and madness.  Complete silence is deafening because the sound of blood rushing through the ears is relatively as loud as Niagara Falls.

His need for silence was a need for social distance.  It wasn’t the din; it was the people making it – his  boisterous brothers; his loud uncle; his incoherent teachers; Father Brophy’s interminable sermons; his fathers poker night.  His irritation at noise, his need for silence, and his months in the convent were all tentative, temporary stops on the road to sorting himself out.  A New York silence – an incorporation individual noises so complete that they became indistinguishable and uniformly loud like the sound of rushing blood heard in a perfectly silent space – was real and metaphoric.  People were insignificant as individuals and even more insignificant as part of the city; but he could pick and choose.  He could make them relevant.

The city was an inseparable and undifferentiated thing until he tired of uniformity and willed a part into being.

COVID lockdown has no upsides, no epiphanies, no personal revelations.  No matter how we may try to imagine ourselves as contemplative monks in a serene order, or as a Hollywood diva who wants remove and solitude, or even a martyr welcoming confinement and torture as a gift to God, we cannot.  COVID has been nothing but a government-enforced deprivation of individual and civil rights, an abrogation of Constitutional authority, and an abusive of power by arrogant elites who finally have found a cause which will both consolidate their individual power and restructure an increasingly conservative American society according to their progressive principles.

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In short, we have been forced into a progressive gulag – solitary confinement enforced by a politically-motivated, arrogant, and abusive, self-interested government.

None of us ‘vant to be alone’.  We were made to worship with others, drink with others, live with others.  And while we are more than willing to sacrifice that social engagement when the cause is right – e.g. WWII – we are unwilling when the cause is flimsy, the risk is questionable, and the rectifying measures dangerous.

The COVID gulag has not only made Americans wonder about government, the ‘truth’ of science, and the nature of authoritarian rule; it has given solitude a bad name.  Confinement in the name of something morally justified, principled, and of national or societal interest is right and proper.  Solitary confinement by choice is honorable; retiring from intrusive, admiring, pesky crowds to ‘be alone’ is pure Hollywood and us.  Trapped by government autocrats and their bureaucratic shills, forced into solitary confinement without logical analysis and justification, has no honor, interior purpose, or claim to morality.  it is wrong, and the sooner we, the prisoners of the COVID gulag are released, the better.