Sunday, May 15, 2011

( Not ) Churchgoing: Thoughts on a Very, Very, Rainy Sunday Morning.

                           " A serious house on serious earth it is/ In whose bent air all our compulsions meet/ are recognized and robed as destines/ and that much never seems to be obsolete/ since someone will forever be surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious."   Philip Larkin "Churchgoing".

                            Even though these reflections are entitled   "The Decaf Drinking Papist"  ( Kudos to any reader who catches the reference! ) ,  no-one reading the  first few submissions to this web-site would have guessed that its author is in fact a Catholic. But that he is. At least, he tries, with very mixed results, to be one. This is not the place for a long autobiographical reflection on love/ hate relationship with the Catholic church.  That will have to wait for a future installment.  Instead, I want to reflect on  something good Catholics are supposed to do every Sunday morning, and which some even more serious Catholics try to do every day, but which this writer failed to do.

                             I speak of the simple act of going to church. Back in my Charlottesville days, I attended church, pardon the expression, religiously. Sometimes, I attended a tiny red- brick in down-town Charlottesville called "Holy Comforter", ( An "low church"  Episcopalian friend  said she was puzzled by the name:  " Joe, are comforters holy relics in Catholicism?".   I explained that  it was a reference to The Comforter -  the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. This explanation did not bring any enlightenment.   " I thought that holy spirit stuff was  something Pentecostal types do.")  More often, I attended the University parish church, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

                           Saint Thomas had been designed by an avant-garde Jesuit back in the late sixties, and it showed.  At Saint Thomas, the roof of the church did not swope up, it swopt down, to symbolize God taking flesh and coming down to dwell among us.  There were stained glass windows symbolizing, in very abstract ways,  the various liberal arts and professions, with inscriptions  beneath the windows quoting such very non-Catholic writers as John Galsworthy (!)  The principal decorations were abstract sculptures, fashioned from driftwood.  Out in front of the building was amassive stainless steel statue of a thoughtful, squatting Saint Thomas, which non -Catholic passer-by often mistook for a statue of another religious figure; The Buddha.

                           I spent too long in Charlottesville- long enough to witness the complete redesign of the church by more traditionally minded Catholics.  While  "Saint Thomas of the hubcaps"  remained, the other changes were far- reaching, indeed. The old- avant garde church was converted into a parish social hall, and a whole new  building was constructed next to it, in quasi-Romanesque style. Now the roof swooped up, quite spectactularly,  while stained glass windows were now dedicated to the various and sundry patron saints of the liberal arts and professions.

                           Despite all these changes, one constant remained; the extraordinary quality of the homilies. Saint Thomas, though originally designed by  "Jebbies", was staffed largely by Dominicans. Though the one US unversity under Dominican supervision, Providence, leaves much to be desired,  most of the US Dominicans are bright, articulate men. In fact, the  Black Friars are only surpassed by the Loyolas as far as intellectual attainment goes, and in Charlottesville, we usually got the cream of the crop, shipped down from the justly celebrated Dominican House of Studies. in Washington, D.C.  In addition, like a few secular universities,  Virginia  boasted at least one pretty articulate, polymath, Jesuit on its faculty. a teacher of church history. The Dominicans, as well as the Jesuit  (and his occasional Jesuit graduate students ) did almost all the preaching at Saint Thomas, and the results were usually quite stirring, and much more intellectually stimulating than almost any homilies I had heard previously.  It was like a continuous retreat for academics and well-read professionals.  In short, despite its flaws,  I loved going to Saint Thomas, even back in the days when it looked liked an ugly Unitarian assembly hall.

                                And then, in 2004,  I came back to Michigan, and started attending the suburban church of my youth.  I will not name it here, but only describe it.  It is a smallish suburban church, designed in the well intentioned but unispired style of the sixties, to all outward appearances almost indistinguishable from the Holiness and Episcopalian churches a few blocks away. It boasted two priests and a deacon. I will concentrate on the priests. The chief pastor when I came there was a young fellow- younger than myself, with a mildly interesting background. he was a  fellow Michigan State grad, who had even gone to the same almost famous residential college I had gone to,  James Madison. There he had specialized in political theory, just like me, and minored in Russian studies, unlike me. Also  unlike me, he never had to drop out for finaincial reasons, instead graduating on schedule with pretty good grades. All of that Straussian politcal theory apparently helped inspire him to find a vocation outside of the secular world, and to enroll in Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. After graduating from the seminary, he served a number of different suburban parishes, and ours was his latest. Simultaneously, he served as chaplain at a Catholic high school a few miles away.  At our parish, this very -well read ( he loaned some excellent books to me.) and very bright young man ( We occasionally had interesting conversations) , busied himself with his pastoral duties, endlessly planning parish festivals, consoling the bereaved and / or baffled. and organizing Bible studies discussion gropus with names like  " Learning From Andy: What the Andy Griffith Show Can Teach Us About The Christian Life. "
                              The other pastor. ( our church had need two pastors for some time.) was a Jesuit from India , who taught marketing at the business college of the University of Detroit Mercy. He boasted an advanced degree in Biblical studies ( including archeology) from a university in India, as well as an advanced degree in economics. He always spent a chunk of the years visting his family in the old country, including his aged mother. Every Mothers day, he would serenade the mothers in the congregation by singing an old Indian pop hit ( he did it in English), called  "Mother of Mine".
                                
                              Their preaching styles were very different. The young priest specialized in short, punchy homilies,  which often presented complex ideas in entertaining and even edifying ways. Ocasionally he showed his James Madison education by quoting Kierkegaard or telling anecdotes about great Russian writers. More often, he soecialized in pithy parables , which seemed to be taken from Paul Harvey broadcasts or old copies of Guideposts.  He was a popular priest,and most of us hated  it when the diocese transferred him to three church parish down river.

                             The Jesuit had a different preaching style, indeed.  Almost every homily was a long, often prolix, commentary on all three of the days readings, in which he displayed his knowledge of Biblical archeaology and sacred languages, often  with obessive detail that baffled the  congregation. In short, this Jeuit was constantly under the impression that was preaching to Jesuits, rather than a typical American suburban audience.

                               Even though the Jesuits frequently tried  my patience with his prolixity, and even though the young priests inspirational anecdotes were sometimes saccharine, I usually liked going to church.  For one thing, we have a pretty good music minister, who makes sure that the music at our church isnt usally as bad as the happy clappy guitar srumming junk too often found in Catholic Churches nowadays. For another, I volunteered to be a lector at the church.  So, two or three times a month, the congregation  would be treated to my less than dulcet tones as I read some passage from a Pauline epistle or the Old Testament.
                              
                              However, my mothers view of things was different.  She almost always found the young priest patently insincere, and the elerly Jesuit a long-winded bore.  Besides, the music and decor of our little suburban church simply lacked holiness .  She preferred an  older ,larger,  more majestic, suburban church from the old neighborhood, which had been built  back in the twenties, when all thechurches were fortresses of the Church militant, with gorgeous, slightly florid stained glass windows, pretty, if slightly  kitschy frescos, and an array of holy statues. The priest was a late middle-aged, earnest Polish American bore, who droned on (at short length) about how " our parish" was  a "church community". ( He seemed to repeat this inspired theme in every homily). She loved it. The sermons were short, brisk, and othodox. I hated it. However, it was this parish that she preferred, especially after I was relieved of my duties as a lector, for reasons that remain opaque to me. ( Most of the congregation complimented me, despite my odd vocal tones. )

                    It was a hard winter in Michigan this year, and I found it hard to trudge to my suburban church in the snow.  Besides, Mom did not like the way things were going at the church.  I finally starting attending again, rather fitfully, early this spring. The Jesuit is gone; retired  to India. The young priest, as I said , has been reassigned. Our new chief priest is a gentle, warm- hearted black man who has produced award -winning documentary films for the Catholic Church,  and who has  a in "Intercultural communication" from someplace called The Union Institute.  I've heard him deliver homilies several times. He seems very fond of the word " paradigm" and very fixated on the " Kemetic" culture of ancient Egypt.  He is an articulate fellow-  a great communicator in fact-  whose homiles sometimes  have a checkered relationship with the facts. Only the other day, he made the remarkable observation that "the Jews" were "an oriental people" : which " of course "  meant that they  " believed in Karma." I kid you not. That is exactly what the sweet, well meaning,  chap said.  After the service, a parishoner..a silver haired,  fur -wearing lady went up to the priest and said  " Your homilies are so wonderful: I learn so much!"

                                  Today  was rainy, very rainy. Mom made delicious apple pancakes, with hot buttered syrup. I watched Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and a few of  the morning political talk shows. I asked her if we were goiung to brave the deluge and drive to church. Her reply was that we would honor God by cleaning up the house. On reflection, she has a point.  Despite what that old British agnostic and misanthrope Philip Larkin said, one does not always  need to go to "serious house on serious earth", to feel serious on a Sunday morning.  Perhaps this often confused Catholic will get back into the church-going habit someday; he is just not sure when.

    

Friday, May 13, 2011

Just Call Him Newt

                 One would have thought that the whole Donald Trump misadventure marked the ne plus ultra of political stupidity in this campaign  season. The Donald, with his bottomless vulgarity and seemingly matchless egoism, was, in many respects, the weirdest 'serious' presidential candidate since the great demagogues of the thirties, if not the weirdest since the  eighteen seventies "free love" feminist, Victoria C. Woodhull.

     Then the Donald's ludicrous misadventure suffered three successive fatal blows. The first came when  Obama produced his birth certificate, thus providing proof positive to anyone  but a paranoid lunatic or a Worldnet Daily true believer ( but I repeat myself.), that he was, in fact, born in the USA.  The second was a self inflicted wound  by the real estate robber baron himself, when he displayed his intelligence and good taste by letting loose  with the " F-bomb" before an audience of proper, pious, Republican ladies. The third came during his nauseatingly smarmy and meretricious  reality TV show, Celebrity  Apprentice. Trump was about to make a terrifying command decision, Should he fire Hope or Nene? Then, the broadcast was interrupted  with the news that Obama had made a real command decision, and that he had sent Osama Bin Laden off to whatever reward he may deserve.

                                 The cumulative effect of these three events was to reveal Trump's presidential campaign for the squalid exercise in self- promotion it actually was. Now Trump can go back to his true calling, strutting like a peacock to impress b- list celebrities, enriching  his divorce lawyers, and using eminent domain to try to cheat   widows and orphans out of their estates, so he can build  still more casinos and luxury high- rises.

                                 Of course, Trump's fall left a vacuum. Where would the GOP find a presidential candidate as nauseating? Yesterday, they found their answer. Like Trump, he is a grotesque vulgarian. Like Trump he is self-promoting egoist. Like Trump, he has an enormous head of luxuriant hair ( though it is probably his own.) Unlike  Trump, he can actually lay claim to possessing a modicum of intelligence, and even abilities as a policy theorist.  He in fact, has a doctorate  in African history, from a reputable university. ( Tulane).  He is none other than Newton Leroy "Newt" Gingrich, PH.D, and he wants to party likeit is 1994.

                             There have been many strange careers in the annals of American politics, and that of  Newt is, perhaps, the strangest of all.  Looking at his many adventures over the years, one is tempted to recall what the sixth Marquess of Salisbury ( Or was it the fifth? I get all those able, worthy, pious members of the Cecil family mixed -up sometimes.) said about another extremely ambitious chaser after the glittering prizes, Iain McLeod. The old gentleman shook his finger at McLeod  during some now forgotten Tory party debate and cried out, " Too clever by half! "

                             Whether the aging Tory Grandee was wholly fair to McLeod is a matter for dispute; what is not matter for dispute is that those words apply all to well to the " newtster" . In  primary school, Newt won all the prizes, and made everyone aware of the fact. His secondary education culminated in a well researched, and it must be said,  intelligent, doctoral dissertation on educational policy in the Belgian Congo. Its thesis was that the Congo colonial overlords sowed the seeds of their own destruction by doing such a good job educating the future Patrice Lumumba's and Moise Tshombe's

                             Newt probably dreamed of teaching at  a top-tier university; he ended up teaching at a community college in Marietta Georgia. However, his ambition demanded more. In the seventies, he ran twice  for congress, as an ecologically minded, liberal to moderate Republican, and failed both times.
He leaned  his lesson well, and soon shifted to the right. His new found conservative ideology and the not inconsiderable political skills he had acquired in his first two unsuccessful campaigns finally  helped propel  him into congress, where he soon acquired a reputation as a bomb throwing grenadier for the Reagan revolution. His often grandstanding methods provoked  the wrath of even such a good-natured politician as Tip O'Neil. Soon, he had become powerful enough to engineer the destruction of O'Neils somewhat oilier successor, Jim Wright. Then, he was clever enough to maneuver himself into the role of Republican house leader.

                            Everyone knows the sequel. Gingrich spotted the many weaknesses of the Democrats, who had ruled the House of Representatives since 1954. Determined to erase the Democrats majority, and help his own party seize power, he devised the famous or (infamous) "contract with America", and got all of the G.O.P. house and senate candidates to sign it. Clinton was going through a bout of  unpopularity, and a combination of Clinton's negative coat-tails, a House banking scandal, and the G.O.P united front helped trigger the biggest midterm election landslide since the Democratic sweep of 1958.

                           Gingrich was now the first Republican Speaker of the house since  Joe Martin, and arguably the second most powerful politician in America. Gingrich was an odd sort of speaker, the sort of man who was brimming over with clever ideas, but also afflicted with a kind of incurable charlatanism. Too clever by half, in other words. Gingrich's over weening ego soon became a national joke. He was sincerely angry that he didn't get a seat on Air Force One comparable to that of the President. He had mercilessly criticized Jim Wright for profiting off a book deal; it transpired that he was profiting off a book deal of his own. He even had a grandiose on line course  on  "'restoring American civilization",  in which he cast himself as a champion of, and restorer of American civilization.
                           
                         While he secretly made a pact with Clinton to stream-line government and balance the budget, he was a bitter candidate of Clinton in public. He was especially critical of Clinton's extra-marital dalliances. The problem with this  was that Gingrich was throwing all his stones at Clinton while living in glass house of his own.  this champion of domestic morality went through a messy divorce. He even visited his first wife in the hospital, ( She was being treated for cancer.), and handed her the divorce papers.

                           Soon, several of Newt's erstwhile Republican  lieutenants in the House tried to organize a coup. Fortunately, they proved to be a gang that couldn't shot straight. However, Gingrich's scandals caught up with him, and the once powerful  Speaker resigned his office trailing clouds of disgrace.

                           Gingrich then began a prolonged stay in the political wilderness. He co-wrote a number of mildly interesting historical novels, and tried to establish himself as a policy guru. Gingrich may be vain and unprincipled; he is not stupid. In fact,  some of his policy ideas won plaudits from his old adversary Hilary Clinton. When the Obama epoch began, Newt tried to gain headlines by vociferously criticizing the President. He even began to make noises like a would-be presidential candidate.

                        And now, at long last, this oddly gifted  but profoundly flawed man has made it official . He wants to make a bid for the most glittering prize of all.  Gingrich might well be able to score debating points against Barack; Nixon after all, outpointed Kennedy.  However, like Nixon he will, almost certainly, lose all the debates with the glistening, charismatic, imperially slim, President.  Yes, Gingrich  is a clever man. However, it is the wrong kind of cleverness.  One of the neo-conservative intellectuals likes to quote  a saying of his grandmother's. Whenever that elderly Jewish lady encountered someone who was too smart for his own good, she would simply shake her head and say "smart, smart, STUPID!"  Gingrich may  be the king of the smart, smart, stupids.  The man named Newt  will get a book deal out of all this, and he will make some of his fellow  Republicans look dumb in debate. However, there is no conceivable scenario in which this man who is so fond of alternative historical scenarios can ever be president of the United States.

   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Little Reviews (1): The Sixth Wife

                  Katherine the Queen :The Remarkable Life of  Katherine Parr,  The Last Wfe of  Henry VIII, by Linda Porter  St. Martins Press.
         The Tudors and their colorful  continue to fascinate us.  Granted, Henry the Seventh , after a promising beginning at Bosworth field, turned out to be an colorless, if efficient, ruler, : but virtually  all of his successors  were a colorful lot, with an aura of glamor and myth clinging to them. From television  ( The Tudors) to movies ( Elizabeth : The Golden Age) to novels middle-brow ( The Other Boleyn Girl) and high- brow ( Wolf Hall ), their stories have been told and retold. Yet  still, some nooks and crannies remain largely obscure. Now, light has been shed on one such almost forgotten figure.
          As almost everybody knows, the wives of Henry The Eighth were an unhappy lot.  The first, a Spanish Princess, could not produce a male heir and was discarded. The second was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery.. The third finally gave both to the son  he always wanted, though she died in the attempt and  the poor fellow grew up to  to be a sickly, short-lived weakling. The fourth, a German Princess, proved too plain for Henry's taste and was discarded as well. The fifth proved to be a strumpet and was executed on not so trumped -up charges of adultery.
        
            And there was the sixth, the least known of all. The now decrepit (and obese ) Henry, worn out from his lusts, sports, and gluttony's, needed a companion in his dotage and found one, in the person of one Katherine Parr. When she is mentioned in most  history books, the impression one gets is that she was a rather boring, respectable widow lady , from the lower nobility, and that she managed to make sure that the dying years of the monarch were tranquil ones. However, such an impression would be highly misleading. At least; the first half of the sentence  is misleading. She did give the old monarch some measure of happiness; but she was far from boring, as a new biography manages to show.

            Linda  Porter has already proven herself to be a formidable, learned, revisionist historian of England in the Age of the Tudors. Her first foray in sixteenth century biography, The Myth of  "Bloody Mary", won plaudits from almost all reviewers for finally shattering the historical demonology encrusted around that much  maligned monarch. Now she has turned to the task of rescuing Katherine Parr from her little deserved obscurity.
              
              It is a fascinating tale, after all.  Katherine Parr had already been twice widowed when she was chosen to be the sixth wife. She came from the lower nobility of the north of  England, allied with such formidable families as the Nevilles and the Percy's. The Parr's chose to be loyal to the White Rose rather than the Red, but still did well enough in the Wars of the Roses  to attain a measure of wealth and power. Katherine's mother, herself a formidable figure, made sure her intelligent and pretty daughter had a much better education than was customary for most women of her era. 
              
               Katherine was married twice before she bacame a Queen. Her first husband, Thomas Burough, was a minor nobleman and courtier who has left faint footprints in the sands of history. Her second husband, Lord Latimer played a major role in that complex historical tragedy, the " "pilgrimage of grace ", as an less than successful intermediary betwen the Catholic rebels of the North and the Crown.
               
               After Henry had his fifth wife, the adulteress Katherine Howard ( Henry seems to have had an obsssession with marying women named Katherine or Anne- the only one exception was  Jane Seymour.) sent off to her dubious cosmic reward, he soon realized he needed a new companion, and she ought to be more intelligent, more dependable, and less lusty than the fifth wife. He soon found someone who possessed all these qualities in Lord Latimer's widow. In Ms. Porter's words, " ( Katherine was ) an intelligent,determined but also vivacious woman who very consciously set about establishing an image and role for herself. " Unlike her immediate predecessor she was a woman of dignity and good sense; unlike all of her predecesors she was determined to be an excellent mother to all three of her children- and succcedded admirably at the task. In short, she was a complex woman, both a person in love with finery and pomp and  someone  of sincere religious devotion. She even wrote numerous  pious texts herself, including a volume oddly titled, Lamentation of a Sinner.  ( Her own sins do not seem to have been numerous.)
           
               Katherine was more than a devoted wife and an able mother, she was a ruler in her own right. Henry made her regent of England, tasked with running the domestic affairs of the kingdom when he was away on foriegn business, negotiating with the French or warring against the Scots. In this role, Katherine made an indelible impression on the ablest of her children, Elizabeth.  Again in Ms. Porter's words:

                                       While Elizabeth watched, Katherine governed England. This
                      practical lesson was far more valuable than anything her tutors could have
                      devised, and it left an indelible impression.
     
             The only real danger to Katherine's survival as Queen came when Bishop Stephen Gardiner, an determined foe of further religious reform, tried to paint her as too fervent a Protestant, and even as a sympathiser with the radical religious enthusiast Anne Askew. Askew ended up being tortured on the rack and dying at the stake. Katherine survived, thanks to bother her own political acumen and, as Ms. Porter points out, Henry's very sincere love for his wife.
                                       
                                             In the end, Katherine had been saved because this old man,
                         so often represented as a monster in his last days, sincerely loved his sixth
                         wife. He had grown tired of marital failure and he appreciated what
                          Katherine brought to his wife and family. So she survived.

                 On the twenty-eighth day on January, 1547, Henry died, and Katherine began a very different, if short,  phase of her life. She found a fourth husband in the person of a 'dashing sea dog" named Thomas Seymour and returned to writing the religious texts which had aroused Stephen Gardiner's ire. Her own death on on the fifth of September, 1548, was followed by dignified funeral in the reformed Protestant fashion. It is said that when her body was exhumed almost two hundred years later, her flesh remained  uncorrupted. That is a matter for dispute.What is not a matter for dispute is that she played  a crucial role,  perhaps the crucial role, in shaping the character of Elizabeth the First, the monarch who did more than any other  to shape the power and destiny of England. Thus, in her own modest way, Katherine Parr did much to help shape modernity. That was her greatest accomplishment.
           
                  Katherine Parr's personal motto was " To be useful in all I do." Readers of Linda Porter's book, who promise to be numerous, will find it more than simply useful, they will find it  thoughtful, informative, and entertaining.

                   Verdict: A delightful biography, shedding new light on a much studied , but still misunderstood, chapter of British- and human- history. Five stars out of five.