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

Monday, August 31, 2015

‘One Flesh’–Sex, The Gospel of Matthew, And Adolescence

Rainey Vann always squirmed in his seat when he heard Father Brophy talk about ‘one flesh’ which he did as often as he could.  On the pulpit, in a snap visit to catechism class, or in the sacristy to the altar boys, the old priest always recited Matthew 19:3-6
Jesus said, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh
One flesh…How impossibly erotic and exciting for a young boy. As soon as the priest said the words all Rainey could think about was that soon-to-be delirious moment of ‘sexual union’, his flesh and the hoped-for coupling with Nancy Blithe.

Of course he was too young to know exactly what sex with Nancy would be like.  Up until now it had been only hearsay, what went where and how, how to get a girl excited, and what to do then.  That’s the wonderful thing about sex, he thought many years later. Even before you know what it is, you want it; and you never stop wanting it, no matter how old you are.  But those years before you have it when you can only imagine what it must be like to touch soft breasts, to breathe a woman’s breath, to taste her lips, are the best.

‘Anticipation trumps execution’, a German philosopher once said when elucidating an obscure metaphysical point. Rainey thought it described his early adolescence; but ‘Imagination is really what trumps execution’ was even more accurate. Nothing could ever match those few years where girls drove him crazy and he didn’t understand why.

Father Brophy went a bit overboard with the boys of St. Maurice.  Not that he was ever out of line as priests are today. He kept his hands to himself, and expressed the joys of sex in only the most appropriate ways.  By referring to Matthew he felt that he was on safe ground; and he would have been if he had stuck to the idea of the indissolubility of marriage; but he could not help but dwell on the sexual act itself. 

Brophy had spent years parsing Matthew and the other evangelists to fully understand the relevance and import of Jesus’ words.  Fueled by his own sexual passions and celibacy but also as a Jesuit intellectual, Brophy risked the censure of his Archbishop when he broke Pauline tradition and explored the material and spiritual nature of sex.

If Jesus had meant to speak only of marriage and its theological importance, Brophy argued, he would never have chosen such physically descriptive terms. He understood that the sexual bond between a man and woman was both human and spiritual; and that no other act of intimacy could ever duplicate or replace it.

Although Jesus was explicit in his condemnation of adultery and fornication; and although he saw marriage as the replication of the divine (Father, Son, Holy Mother) and therefore indivisible, he also understood that sexual consummation between men and women –‘joined in one flesh’ was more than just a procreative act.  It was an act which reaffirmed both humanity and divinity.
Image result for images middle age paintings christ
  Christ Pantocrator, Hagia Sophia www.conservapedia.com

That one word – ‘flesh’ - acknowledged the unique potency of the physical act.  Sexuality features in the Upanishads and sexual expression depicted at Khajuraho:
“A woman’s lap is a sacrificial altar; her hairs, the sacrificial grass; her skin, the soma-press. The two labia of the vulva are the fire in the middle. Verily, indeed, as great as is the world of him who sacrifices with the Vâjapeya (“Strength-libation”) sacrifice, so great is the world of him who practises sexual intercourse”7 (Brhad-Âranyaka Upanisad)
              Khandariya Mahadeva Temple www.thinkingparticle.com

One of the Hindu stories of creation is that Brahma split himself into two – male and female, the two essential life essences of the universe – and unlike Christianity and Judaism which are fundamentally male, Hinduism incorporates the two sexes equally.

The Chinese concept of Ying and Yang has a sexual basis;
Some Taoist sects during the Han dynasty performed sexual intercourse as a spiritual practice, called "HeQi" ("Joining Energy"). The first sexual texts that survive today are those found at the Mawangdui tombs. While Taoism had not yet fully evolved as a philosophy at this time, these texts shared some remarkable similarities with later Tang dynasty texts, such as the Ishinpō. The sexual arts arguably reached their climax between the end of the Han dynasty and the end of the Tang dynasty. [However erotic art continued to flourish through the 19th century](www.wikipedia.com)
 Image result for images chinese erotic drawings
                     Chinese Erotic Pillow Book www.1stdibs.com 
Rainey Vann forgave Father Brophy for his obsession with sex once he understood the seriousness and honesty of his research.  In fact Vann kept up a friendship with the priest until he was in his late 90s.

Brophy was in his fifties when he began to study Matthew, and after so many years of celibacy, he had forgotten what it was like to be an eleven-year old boy and to be aroused by only a word.  He had always been quite eloquent about the spiritual nature of sexuality. “God could have created a far less powerful orgasm”, he said, “if he only had procreation in mind.”

He never regretted his celibacy, and was very critical of the sexual abuse that was epidemic in the Church.  Not only did these priests betray children; not only did they disregard Christ’s admonitions about the perils of the material world; but they engaged in spiritually empty and therefore meaningless sex.

Homosexuality within the Church could never be condoned, he said, because sex between men could never fulfill the Biblical – or for that matter Tantric, Hindu, or Taoist -prophecies of male-female sexuality.  It was divorced from Creation, the Fall, procreative intimacy, and spiritual generation.  Christ did not condemn homosexual acts per se , but his focus on the family, the indissolubility of marriage, and the male-female sexual unit made it clear to his disciples what the point was. 

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            Boucicaut Master www.blogs.getty.edu

Rainey Vann had an assigned seat to Nancy Blithe in History class which was held right after Religion.  Rainey always found it hard to concentrate when he sat next to her, especially in the warm weather when she wore sleeveless blouses; but concentration was impossible if Father Brophy had talked about sexual union and the flesh during one of his pop visits.  All Rainey could think of was touching Nancy’s warm, soft breasts so available next to him.  The wisps of hair under her arms were inviting.  Her rounding hips irresistible. 

Father Brophy had accomplished more than he intended.  He had made sexual intercourse even more alluring and eventually more satisfying than the young or even adult Rainey Vann could ever have imagined.  The priest had added a new dimension to sex.

To be honest, Vann was never completely faithful to his wife; and had had many affairs; but the lesson he had taken away from the sacristy was not about fidelity, but about the ineffable and indescribable sexual intimacy between a man and a woman. He hoped the Church would be forgiving, for he was never a sexual wastrel, nor a dismissive husband; and in his later years he more fully appreciated Christ’s teachings about marriage. 

In his seventies, he abjured sex entirely.  At his age there could never be any ying and yang or tantric complementarity. He would be reaffirming his virility, fooling himself that he was keeping Death at bay, and offering nothing but temporary companionship to the women he slept with.  Besides, who was he kidding? What woman would want him?

He was too harsh on himself.  His new celibacy was very Pauline. Especially in one’s later years, the only worthwhile focus is on death and dying; or as the Yiddish expression goes, ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’.  Which is where Father Brophy’s second lesson kicked in.  “Listen to anyone who matters”, the old priest had said. “You will understand Jesus’ words a lot better.” The first chapter of John made a lot more sense after having studied the sophisticated cosmology of the Upanishads.

Image result for paintings st paul evangelist middle ages

Sex had been important to Rainey Vann all his life – more so than most of his friends, he realized. They ranged from the promiscuous to the indifferent; but few loved sex and women as Rainey did.
America is a sexualized culture; but it lacks depth and perspective. Sex is a pastime, an entitlement, a diversion, and eventually a means to a family; but sexual adventure soon loses its appeal, marital sex becomes routine, and in old age men wonder what the fuss was all about.

Not Rainey who drove up to Connecticut for Father Brophy’s funeral.  Thanks to him, he could grow old without sexual regret; and only because of him could he finally prepare to meet his Maker.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Checking On What Makes Us Human

Before Harold Blythe had fully opened his eyes in the morning, he thought of his age and knew that yet one more day had been scratched off the calendar.  As he stood over the toilet bowl, he wondered for how much longer his urinary tract would keep working.  After all, he had been pissing for more than seventy years, and eventually even the best-designed systems fail.  His heart, for example, which had beat for hundreds of millions of times per year or almost a billion times in his lifetime. What a miracle of biological engineering! Or his kidneys which had flushed waste from his system for decades, day in and day out; or his liver which eliminated all the impurities he ingested and kept up the job with little variation in performance.  And this was all without counting his brain which was more powerful than the best of computers and had been processing information ever since he came out of the womb. All would fall apart eventually.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet)

Harold was no Hamlet, but every morning as he timed his stream, assessed his steadiness over the bowl, and ran his tongue over his teeth, he wondered about the human condition. Actually his human condition – the working order of his organs – and then the human condition.

He thought first of Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego in Anna Karenina, who wondered at the cruel irony of Man who was created with intelligence, wit, insight, humor, and talent; lived for a few decades, and then spent the rest of eternity in the cold hard ground of the Russian steppes. Why did God even bother, thought Levin?  And if he took the time to create mankind, why did he play such a bad joke on him?

On most days Harold’s angst passed quickly enough, only a fragment as he made his bed tea and gone completely by the time he settled in with his morning newspapers; but recently the angst was lingering.  As he smoothed the last wrinkles out of the bed cover, he thought, “I just did this.  How could a whole day have passed without me knowing?”. As he measured his tea and poured the boiling water, his déjà vu continued. “Perhaps if I make coffee a few times a week, it will break the rhythm”, he thought; but to no avail.  Whether it was coffee or tea, it was there every morning just like the one before.

“You have the mind and body of a fifty-year old”, said his doctor when he shared his concerns. “What are you so worried about?”

“Numbers don’t lie”, Harold replied.  The clock kept ticking; and despite his wife’s citation of actuarial tables which predicted many more years, he knew he had only a few left. Ten, twenty, what did it matter? He had far fewer years left than he had lived even if he made it to 100 like his mother.  A drop in the bucket.

"Resistance is impossible!" he said to himself.  "If I could only understand what it is all for!  But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to.  But it is impossible to say that," and he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life.  "That at any rate can certainly not be admitted," he thought, and his lips smiled ironically as if someone could see that smile and be taken in by it.  "There is no explanation! 

Agony, death....What for?" (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
Harold Blythe was no Ivan Ilyich either, but wondered – like most men, he supposed – about what it all meant.  Ivan Ilyich had constructed his life to keep out the unexpected and the unfamiliar; and he ignored the niggling bits that came through the cracks.  So the disease that struck him came as a complete surprise.  Things were not supposed to turn out this way, he thought.  He resisted, denied, and fought till the end, going through self-recrimination for his stupidity and ignorance, periods of guilt, and moments of terror and panic. 
Harold often quoted the Yiddish expression “Too soon old, too late schmart”.  The Jews knew what Ivan Ilyich meant when he said, “If I could only understand what it is all for”; but no matter how he hurried up and re-read every philosopher and major literary figure on his bookshelf; studied the Bible, the Vedas, and the Koran; and meditated in the garden, he always came up empty. Tolstoy himself backed into faith as he describes it in A Confession.  After years of pondering the absolute, he simply concluded that if billions of people believed in God, why shouldn’t he. 
Harold checked his eyes at 10 o’clock when he went for a walk. No matter what the correction in his lenses, the street signs were still blurry around the edges.  It took seconds for his eyes to refocus from near to far; and more and more floaters drifted across his field of vision.  They too were wearing out. 
There would come a time when all human organs would be replaceable – bionic eyes, livers, hearts, and kidneys.  As long as these prosthetics were properly maintained and replaced at regular intervals, we could live forever.  What an interesting thought! Did that mean that God would also disappear? Or would we get so bored with life that we would unplug ourselves not many years past our present pull-date? 
For the first time in his life Harold had bought a new car.  He was used to buying used, and as the cars began to rattle, cough, and shimmy, he identified with them. Listening for engine-knock, transmission noise, or sticky tappets was no different than registering joint pain, palpitations, or tinnitus.  

Ivan Ilyich

        The Death of Ivan Ilyich

His new Camry had no character. It didn’t grow old with him. Things did not fall apart, and ever since Edwards Deming taught the Japanese quality control, their cars lasted forever.

All of Harold’s friends were falling apart as well.  Age was indifferent to character.  Many were not unlike Ivan Ilyich and defied balky joints, imbalance, and increasingly flaccid muscles; and like Ivan stared blankly at the hospital walls when the wheels fell off.

Others were quite accepting of this natural fate – too much so, thought Harold. It was better to be resolute and defiant.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at the close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light…(Dylan Thomas)

Still others whinged, whined, and complained.  Their infirmities replaced Shakespeare, Kant, and Merton. “The brain is not a liver”, Harold said to them.

Of course it is, he knew; and Harold checked his mental functions every morning just as he did every other. Ironically he worried less about senility than he did failing kidneys. Alzheimer’s erased the fear of death; and he – like Ivan Ilyich – would trade in all his memories of skiing at Gstaad, summering on the Vineyard, or sex with Lisa Martin for that.

At one point in his life Harold worried very much about losing his marbles. If he couldn’t remember the past, then the past never existed; and if the past didn’t exist, neither did he.

His father, a doctor who treated patients at the St. Jude Convalescent Home in New Brighton, told him that distant memories are the last to go. “Old people forget where they put their teeth, not their love affairs.”  Some consolation then, many years ago, none now. People with Alzheimer’s lived long enough for even love affairs to disappear.

“So far, so good”, his wife said to him one morning at breakfast. “You’re still here.”  She did not share his concern about the measure of a man or about the flickering light at the end of the tunnel.  “Today”, he replied; but no wifely levity could derail him from tracking his downward trajectory.

“Horny toenails”, he laughed as he prepared to cut them one morning. “What next?”

That was a turning point he later realized.  It wasn’t so much Tolstoy’s irony about a short life that made sense, but the ridiculousness of it all. “Horny toenails”, he repeated. “Horny toenails.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

Immigration - We Are All Foreigners And Very Much Alone

Immigration is a hot topic, and it should be.  The world is fracturing along formerly unpredictable lines, and refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants are finding ways to enter Europe and the United States previously unheard of.  From a humanitarian point of view many if not most of these immigrants deserve refuge.  It is hard to imagine what life must be like for a Syrian family living through a civil war, or a citizen of Libya or Somalia where no government exists to protect or care for them.  It is easy to empathize with Salvadorans and Hondurans who head for El Norte because their countries remain trapped in cycles of mismanagement, venal governments, lawlessness and disease.



The solution of course is far from simple.  If the United States opened its doors to all, it would be flooded.  A recent mining of Google searches in Iran showed that even there where America is considered the devil incarnate, the most visited sites are those which advise on how to emigrate to the United States. Most of the world lives under dictatorship, authoritarian rule, poverty, and corrupt governance.  Of course most people would choose to leave if they could.

Image result for images iranian women


The various aspects of the debate are well known – the economic cost-benefit of open borders; the erosion or refreshing of cultural values; etc. – and immigration is certainly the most contentious issue of the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Xenophobia is well-understood.  Human nature has always been territorial, self-interested and self-protective; and ethnic groups, geographical regions, nations, and empires have all been based on consolidating homogeneous populations and increasing their power and influence.  The ‘Other’ is an understandable, hardwired threat to such settled homogeneity; and despite those who insist that Man is perfectible, and society can emerge from its current antagonistic era into a more harmonious and tolerant one, we remain at odds.

Image result for images DNA

Such isolationism, however, is not only a product of genetically programmed survival instincts and the vagaries of environmental resources.  It is more fundamentally related to a fear of being alone.

A close friend of mine had lived in Greenwood Park for almost forty years. “I will die in this house”, he said; but far from any morbid sentiment, it was an expression of his very settled and emotionally comfortable life.  The neighborhood, the larger community and its schools, police station, parks, playgrounds, and cross streets were his ‘womb’. Life was too unpredictable, the future too unknowable, and life after death too uncertain for him to deliberately upset his familiar and comforting world.

Image result for images neighborhood parks


As he got older, he became more nervous about change.  As soon as he opened his eyes in the morning he thought about the fence the neighbors were putting up, the new sidewalks on Pennyfield Place, the closure of the A&P, and the increased traffic on Mayfield Avenue, all of which were encroaching on his well-preserved emotional enclave.

To most people such changes were no more than minor irritants and if anything a sign of the economic growth of the area.  Home prices were rising, cultural and social amenities increasing, and life was easier if not better than ever before.

Yet John Peters didn’t see it that way. Everything familiar in his life was a buffer and kept out the unwanted, annoying, and intrusive.  As he grew older his sense of aloneness became more and more acute.  “We are born alone and we die alone”, he said, “and the middle doesn’t count.” He was never one to engage with others within the lines.  He had no personal interest in anyone in his neighborhood, but relied on them to remain the same.  It was only Susie Barnes who picked up her newspapers in bathrobe and mules at 5:30; Henry Hankins who puttered in the garden on Saturday morning; Fairly Axum who parked exactly under the shade of the maple tree; and Betty Eggers who always greeted Paco, the Mailman.  It was Grover’s Corners.

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While his world remained ordered and peaceful, Peters could read, write, and think without distraction.  It was actually less a matter of intrusion and more a sense of extended calm. He had the sense that he lived in the middle of a pond which was always still. Breezes were always diffused by the thickly-wooded slopes around it.  Snow fell perfectly horizontally and quietly.

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After years of a particular intellectual curiosity – why things were the way they were – he in his later years was only been interested in what they meant.  Everything he read had personal relevance. Was the moment of everyone’s death as epiphanic as it was for Ivan Ilyich? Was life as ironic as Konstantin Levin thought? Was it true that we are created with intelligence, wit, creativity, and passion; live a few decades, and then cruelly spend eternity in the cold, hard ground? Was Ivan right in challenging the returned Christ for having deceived Man with empty promises of salvation while refusing to provide him bread?

Image result for images death of ivan ilyich


John Peters’ intellectual world was as circumscribed as his neighborhood.  He wanted no extraneous ideas disturbing the construction of his final understanding.  He wanted nothing odd, nothing unusual, nothing foreign. He kept his pursuit pure, homogeneous, and perfectly attuned to his needs.

Everyone at one time or another realizes that we all are unknowable.  Because each of us has our closed inner rooms, so does everyone else.  There will always be a personal core that most defines us; and however we may appear to others; or even however we imagine ourselves; everything but the contents of those rooms is irrelevant.  Looks, demeanor, attitude, posture are all constructs either deliberately affected or composed by our genetic preferences.  They are incidental. 

If personality, character, even being resides in this unknowable region, then we are truly alone. Our desire for family and community are to provide the same metaphysical buffer zone that John Peters constructed for himself.   So it is no wonder that we want to keep strange people out.

“Life outside”, Peters said, “is like an amusement park. I like the roller coaster and the merry-go-round.  It’s fun to eat cotton candy, caramel corn, and ice cream. I especially like to go at night when the Ferris wheel is all lit up and the sparks from the bumper cars light up the cow pasture.  People are all having fun and so am I; but there’s no place like home.”

Image result for images amusement park at night