Monday, November 24, 2008

Bona Mors

This morning as I got off the 10 bus at Water & Wisconsin I saw police and emergency vehicles on Water Street between Wisconsin & Mason, and the whole block closed off. I soon heard via rumors on the street, which were verified later, that a woman fell from a building to her death. She fell twenty floors from the top of the Associated Bank building on Water Street. One recoils from just the thought of a life ending in such a way. The police kept the block closed for about three hours, for the sake of their necessary work and investigation, yet the thought occurs to me that perhaps closing the area to the public is appropriate if only because it seems somehow inappropriate to tread on such a scene so soon after a tragedy of this sort. Of course the city goes on, but along with everything else I did today at the bookshop, I thought of this woman who is most likely unknown to me.

The Christian prays for a happy death, bona mors, that is, a death for which he is spiritually prepared. How is one thus prepared? I think that one way to put this into Lutheran perspective is to approach the question of how to meet our Maker upon death the same way we approach the question of how to meet Him in the Holy Supper. In the Catechism, Luther teaches that "Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, Given and shed for you for the remission of sins." Likewise, in preparation for the eternal feast of the Lamb of God in heaven, fasting and bodily preparation in our brief stay in this world are very helpful and praiseworthy. Such things ought to be encouraged. Yet to what precisely do we credit our being prepared for the day of judgment and the life to come? Faith. Faith in general? No. Faith and trust in what the Gospel teaches us of Christ, the God-man, namely, that in His Passion and sacred death, His bona mors, He shed His precious blood for you, pro vobis, for the forgiveness of your sins.

Christ's death is the sacrifice for the sin of the world. At the same time, I would urge the reader to consider, it is the supreme example for us. He walked to His death knowingly, prepared, and unflinching, like a lamb to the slaughter. His is the good, noble, and happy death, in the best sense.

I said that the Christian prays for a happy death, but is this really in our normal thinking today? One way to make it a more explicit part of our life of prayer would be to pray the classic Litany often. In the Litany we pray, "A subitanea et improvisa morte: Libera nos Domine." Okay, more often it looks more like this, "From sudden and unexpected death: Deliver us, O Lord."

When we hear of a suicide, our reaction ought not be dismissive self-righteous judgment or anger. First, we ought to remind ourselves that not all suicides are of the same type. There are suicides in which a person walks to his death quite soberly, willingly, and seemingly prepared. He is actually the one who is definitely not prepared. For he lacks faith in Christ the Savior, and has preferred to take his life into his own hands, which in this case includes taking his life. His life was just as tragic as his end. And our compassion for those who do not know what it is to trust in Christ should move us at any and every stage of the life of such people we come across, to get involved with them, to give our life over to their eternal benefit.

There is, I believe, a second type of suicide. Namely, the man who is driven to his foolish deed by the devil and or the old Adam in him. Among this second group there have been Christians. They in no way died in a way which can be called worthy, or well prepared. There is nothing defensible or praiseworthy in such deaths. Yet we ought not hastily conclude that they denounced their Lord, and were without His grace and mercy.

I know nothing about the woman who fell from a building downtown today. Reports say that the police are viewing it at this point as a suicide, and not a homicide. Let it serve, however, to wake us from our spiritual sleepiness, that we may live our lives immersed in the grace of our Baptism, that is, that the old Adam in us may by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and a New Man daily come forth and arise. I capitalized New Man, for Saint Paul sums up the Baptismal life in his epistle to the Galatians thus:

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

a gas price update

My sister, Fatime, found gas on the North Side of Milwaukee Saturday for $1.79 a gallon. Let's see if we can beat $1.79.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christmas Decorations

Earlier this evening, when I stepped out of the bookshop where I work, and onto the street, I noticed that many of the Christmas decorations that the city had been putting up were now lit up for the first time. It's quite a striking image, looking down Wisconsin Avenue at night and seeing all the lights, the wreaths, and the stars above the intersections.

Is it liturgically appropriate a week and a half before Advent begins? Of course not. I do believe I would make an issue of such decorations taking place now if we were talking about the inside of a church. And while you and I know that we are about to enter into the season of Advent, which, among other things, is a time of penitence, prayer, and of preparing for the Christmas feast with repentance and fasting, we can also simultaneously admit that we are now, culturally speaking, in what we might call the Christmas Shopping Season.

Okay, it is a bit silly that Milwaukee's Christmas parade is taking place tomorrow morning, that is, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The culture around us does not quite get it. It is off kilter. To all of those who love to complain about this every year, I say, I get it. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that the modern secular culture, in which we must subsist, does know the Church's song, they just no longer know its meaning. It sings the same tune, though on the wrong accents. I am not saying that is enough. In missing the point of Christmas traditions and trappings, the culture goes off track in ultimately disastrous ways. It, the world around us, needs the loving witness of the Church. And one way we can make that witness is by seizing the opportunity afforded by the traditions which are still built into our culture, like the way even some of the most secular minded in our country, and even public institutions, such as local governments, love to out do each other in the trappings of Christmas. (Christopher Hitchens, who can speak from the perspective of having lived in both the English and the American worlds, observes in one of his essays that Americans have an odd love and nostalgia for the classic Christmas, so that we end up embracing a style that is far more Dickensian than one will find in England itself.)

What I find harder to swallow are the complaints of some Christians about how early the secular culture is celebrating Christmas, when these same Christians are often guilty of ending their celebration too early. If we insist that there is a four week preparation for Christmas, then let us keep the festival (once it does officially begin) for a full twelve days, through Twelfth Night, and lead it right into the Epiphany season. (We can do this with various home devotions and traditions, and we can do this by going to Mass, and if our pastor doesn't have daily Mass at Christmas, we can ask him for it.)

But until then, I love seeing the Christmas lights decorating the Avenue. They give me something warm and cheerful to look at as I wait for the bus.

gas at $1.89

Lately I have been going through a season that has not exactly been the most prosperous time of my life. In and with these challenges, however, there has been blessing, even material blessing. For example, I found gas here in Milwaukee yesterday for $1.89 a gallon. I love it. We filled up for under $20.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Note on Starke's Hymns

Over at the blog of Seminarist Josh Osbun, who is presently in his year of vicarage, he has begun a survey of the hymns of Stephen Starke. I offered a comment there, and I'd like to share it here as well, for what it is worth. I recommend his blog to you, and along with his post on the Starke hymn, "All the Earth with Joy is Sounding," I offer for your reasoned consideration my word of criticism of this hymn.

I appreciate the discussion you are having here on hymnody. You suggested a Starke Appreciation Month. The Synod could almost have a Starke Year of Appreciation, with all the hymns that made the cut in the LSB.

As you suspect, there are some who fail to be fans of the hymns of Stephen Starke. As one such Lutheran, allow me to say a respectful word from that particular perspective. A few quick points:

1. You state of those critical of Starke, “I'm not convinced that these people have actually taken the time to read through all of them.” While in my opinion there is an inordinate quantity of Starke hymns in the new hymnal, nevertheless, I must say it does not take very long to read them. When the LSB fell into my hands, as with every other serious minded theological thinker of our synod, I took it upon myself to acquaint myself with it. It is not as enjoyable as reading a Tolstoy novel, but on the bright side, it doesn’t take as long either. And so, indeed, I can testify that it is possible to have read these hymns, and yet remain unconvinced of their genius, and that they ought, for example, to outnumber the hymns of the Blessed Reformer in the hymnal.

2. Those of us who are not fans of Starke’s hymns are not personal in our criticism. There is nothing personal going on here. I am sure that the Reverend Stephen Starke is a good man, a great guy, a fine pastor, and indeed probably even a man worthy to whom to introduce your mother.

3. Not only is my criticism not personal, it is also not very bitter. In other words, I do not hate, or utterly condemn these hymns. I merely think they are inferior to the classic hymns of our Lutheran tradition, and unworthy of the public worship of the Church.

4. A true appreciation of how badly these hymns tend to compare with the great hymns of the Church can only happen when you not merely read them, but in fact hear them sung. A discussion on music is really best set aside for another time, though.

5. You highlight in this post the Starke hymn 462 in LSB, “All the Earth with Joy is Sounding.” I would draw your attention to a concern I have about the third stanza. Jesus, this stanza teaches, “shared in our humanity.” Theologically it would be far better to say that Jesus “shares in our humanity.” Praise be to Christ forever, that He never stopped being a man, and never will. I fear that Starke has inadvertently slipped into a confusion, in this stanza, between Christ’s humiliation and his humanity, for he implies, or at least it can be all too easily inferred, that the incarnation is essentially part of the humiliation when he in the next part of the stanza contrasts it with the line “Crowned with radiant exaltation.” As I say, it is no doubt inadvertent, but he ought to have thought through this stanza much more thoroughly. Nor did anyone along the line catch it, for it seems you don’t stop a Starke hymn from getting ahead in today’s Missouri Synod.

So indeed, I find your last comment, “It is impossible to sing this hymn quietly, unless you just don't believe the words and the message,” to be a bit incredulous. I look forward to any thoughts on how I might be out of line.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Of God, Continued

One of the key points of doctrine in the first article of the Augsburg Confession is that of the Unity of the Divine Essence. Namely, that there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God. He is eternal, He has no body, He does not have parts. He is infinitely powerful, which seems closely reminiscent of the creedal claim that He is almighty (compare immensa potentia with omnipotentem), wise, and good. He is the maker and preserver of all things. That is, He is the Creator.

There is a Calvinist tradition of devoting a great deal of theological emphasis on treating the attributes of God to compensate for an uneasiness with the dirty business of the Incarnation. Let us be clear, this is not what is going on in the Augsburg Confession. In this article we confess the unity of the God who is the Creator. This is vitally important, for too often modern Lutherans see talk of God as Maker of all things, visible and invisible, and conclude that it is the Father that is being discussed. We confess, however, a God who is One. When we look upon Christ, who is shown for us as having been crucified, we see the Creator of the world. We have, in so many words, a confession of the triune God, and of Christ, which takes a firm stand against gnostic notions of God, and of the world. This was just as relevant in the 16th century as it was in the 2nd and 3rd. And it remains relevant today.

More to follow.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Augustana: Of God

A couple of posts back I began a discussion on the Lutheran Confession with the first article of the Augsburg Confession. So before I go on to the second article, let us make a comment or two on Article 1.

When we say, "Our Churches," we are making claims, not merely about individual isolated parishes, but for a whole jurisdiction. These "Churches" are dioceses, whole cities or areas, which work together for the sake of the Gospel. One of the benefits of this way of thinking of "churches" is that while they do comprehend the "congregation," they also potentially include much more. For example, schools, universities, seminaries, other non-parish ministries, such as prison or military, or even missionary church planters, etc. Though Lutherans in the Missouri Synod tend not to think of monastic communities as legitimate part of the church, I would suggest that they too are included. It is significant and instructive that the early Lutheran divine, Martin Chemnitz, addressed some of his writings to both the heads of parishes (pastors), and the heads of monasteries (abbots).

Another thought: there is a wonderfully Lutheran mode of confession that takes place in this article, and you will see it quite often in the Book of Concord, not everywhere, but quite often, for example in many of the articles of the Augsburg Confession, and it is developed most explicitly in the Formula of Concord. Namely, there is a confession of the truth, and a corresponding condemnation of false teaching, thesis and antithesis. The first paragraph is governed by the "docent," the second by the "damnant." Preaching the truth of the Gospel in the midst of today's spirit of acceptance and ecumenicity gone awry requires that we make clear not only what the Gospel is, but also what it isn't. So, for example, Luther shows us in his Small Catechism that it is vital to learn of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives by first seeing that we cannot, by our own reason or strength believe in Christ, etc. (In that case, we see a beautiful example of Luther's brilliantly unsystematic way of writing, so that he can accomplish both positive and negative teaching within the same sentence.)

A couple other lines of thought are merited by Article 1, which we will explore a bit tomorrow, the Second Last Sunday of the Church Year (and commemoration of Saint Gertrude.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Lutheran Bishop Hospitalized in Jordan

Thanks to a note posted at Father Kent Schaaf's blog I just learned troubling news about Bishop Andrew Elisa, bishop of the Lutheran Church of Sudan. Bishop Elisa has been having trouble with his balance, and now with speech, due, evidently, to a swelling in his brain. I encourage all to go to the web site of Lutheran Heritage Foundation, not only because the Reverend Robert Rahn's summary of Elisa's situation will be found there, but for a couple other reasons as well. 1. You can log in, and sign up to get email updates. I just did so myself, and I can tell you that the initial sign up is easy, but you will have to wait a day or two apparently to be able to "manage e-communications," in other words, to sign up for the updates on Elisa. 2. Note well: The LHF is taking donations which are earmarked specifically for Bishop Elisa's medical expenses. It is very easy to do this.

In his report at the Lutheran Heritage Foundation web site, the Reverend Robert Rahn, being the type of Lutheran he is, bless his heart, repeatedly refers to Elisa as "Rev. Elisa." Therefore let me clearly state, so that all who may read this may understand, that the Most Reverend Andrew Elisa is not only a priest, but is in fact the Bishop of his Church.

Let me share with you an experience in which Bishop Elisa made an impact not only upon me, but several others as well. Not long ago, during one of his trips to Fort Wayne for his course work at the seminary, I saw Bishop Elisa show up at Mass at Zion Church, and so after Mass, I walked up to him, and invited him to come to my house for dinner. I am not completely sure how feasible, or desirable, it would be for a politically unconnected man like me to get a Missouri Synod president or district president to come to my house for dinner. Bishop Elisa, however, sees himself more as a churchman than as upper management. Nevertheless, I was not sure he would have the time to spend with someone like me. To my delight he did not say no. Instead, he gave me his number, and asked me to call him later that day, so we could set up a night that would work for both of us. Of course, after we made our dinner date, I then got, I suppose, ten or a dozen of my local friends to agree to join us. About a week later, Bishop Elisa enjoyed my wife's cooking, and we all enjoyed learning from the Bishop's experience in Sudan and his spiritual wisdom.

He later told me that, while often church leaders will take him out to a restaurant, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this, he found it refreshing and somehow ideal, to gather in a home with a group of Christians such as we had that night. My wife learned early in our marriage how to make a nice pan of baklava in the Albanian way. It is sine qua non for the Albanian diet, not daily, mind you, but on special occasions. So we had baklava and coffee for dessert, and the Bishop was pleased with this almost more than anything else. He asked me if my wife made the baklava because we found out he loves it so much. It turns out that Sudanese and Albanians share, with other peoples in that part of the world, a love of baklava.

Aside from my personalization of this story, which I wanted to do to demonstrate something of the character of this man, please know that Bishop Elisa is a bishop who is fighting for the Gospel as it is purely taught in the Lutheran Confessions, in the midst of a hostile environment. By 'hostile environment' I mean not only the Muslim government in Khartoum, but other, more subtle enemies as well, such as modern Lutheranism, the modern ecumenical zeitgeist of the LWF and the WWC. He is a man spiritually wise enough to also see the dangers of Western materialism. His concern is for the spiritual care of his people, the ongoing need for catechesis, the training of seminarians, the availability of the Sacraments in the country (if there ever were a place in which a church could rationalize a need for violating the Confessions by establishing a "Specific Ministry Pastor" program, it would be the Church in Sudan, but in Bishop Elisa we have a man who will have none of this), and in these simple, non worldly, yet not so easy goals he faces great challenges. By God's grace he has accomplished much. By God's grace Bishop Elisa's church will continue to grow, and to continue the struggle in this world. I find him and his church to be a great example for us in the U.S.

Please pray for Bishop Andrew Elisa, pray for his church, and consider doing what you can for his medical expenses, and for the ongoing work of his church, whether personally, or as a group within your school or parish, or indeed as a parish.

Now that Fr. Schaaf's post has forced me out of my writing funk, I will attempt to get back into my other material this weekend, which is on deck.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Early Vintage Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is, in my view, one of the finest writers of modern literature. With her art Oates has delved masterfully into the experience of Modern America, not shying away from its more dark, cruel, even violent dimensions. She has been criticized for the violence in her writings; I have even read criticism which claimed that the violence of her stories makes for an ultimately distorted picture of America. I disagree. One of the geniuses of Oates is her ability to place the reader inside a character, so that as we read we are seeing life from the perspective of the protagonist, however tormented he or she may be. And so we are caught up in the manifold facets of modern life in a fragmented world. This involves misery, violence, redemption, love, and contentment, not necessarily in this order. In other words, it is indeed realistic.

Odd as it might seem to make this claim, at times Oates reminds me of Fyodor Dostoevsky. His setting was nineteenth century Russia, much different from mid to late 20th century America, yet he, likewise, artfully takes the reader into the mind of the protagonist, as troubled, and violent, as that journey can prove. I can’t recall where he said this, but Dostoevsky once wrote, “They call me a psychologist. That is not true. I’m only a realist in the higher sense. That is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.” Thus he “portrays” the odyssey of a character, not as a one or two dimensional stick figure, but as the struggle of a real life, with all its dimensions. I think that what Dostoevsky says here of himself can also be said of Joyce Carol Oates.

In her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, Oates describes the doomed relationship between Karen and Shar, two troubled people, drawn to each other in a swirl of love and violence. If my comparison between Oates and Dostoevsky in the previous paragraph seems a bit unusual to some, my next comparison may seem even more out of place. I want to propose it nonetheless. Oates likely had no such thing in mind; I am just making an observation about what I am reminded of when I read this novel. Namely, With Shuddering Fall reminds me in some ways of The Idiot. Karen, the protagonist, is like Prince Myshkin. Both are physically weak, spiritually sensitive people, who get drawn into and caught up in the violence of what seems to be love in their lives. Myshkin does not merely witness the violence of Rogozhin, but suffers greatly on account of it. Likewise, the violent storm of Shar’s life ruins Karen. She ends up going mad, having to stay for a time in a hospital for the insane, just as Myshkin ends up with nothing left to give to others, and goes mad.

From one perspective both of these may seem like tragedies. In the case of The Idiot, however, I think we have a beautiful picture of the self sacrifice of a Christ figure. And in the case of With Shuddering Fall, Karen finally goes back home, finding a peace and contentment in the embrace of the communion of the Church. It is a beautiful, almost musical, resolution to the theme of communion introduced elsewhere in the story. For Karen has been seeking, all along, a sense of communion, and meaning, in her life. And ultimately, the contrast is drawn between the communion she finds in the world, a communion of violence and death, and the communion to which she comes back home.

The descriptive final chapter, along with all that leads up to it, is the reason that With Shuddering Fall is my fiction recommendation of the week. Please be aware, though, that there is language, and certain violent scenes, which the young should avoid, and which others may want to avoid as well.

What Karen experiences in the Holy Mass, after she is released from the insane asylum and moves back home, is described so beautifully and sensitively by Oates, that I simply must share it. In, through, and despite all of the irreverence and distractions going on in the church, note how the whole interplay of the human and the divine affects Karen, and how reconciliation and communion is received and perceived. Note the interplay of what is happening at the altar with her wandering thoughts; Karen’s experience is so imperfect, so real, and ultimately beautiful.

We should note also that what Oates portrays liturgically is the traditional Mass, which has a transcendent quality that is almost completely lost to the modern Church. The novel was published in, if I recall, 1964, so at the time she did not even know the modern horrors in which the Novus Ordo often manifests the Church’s liturgy. Therefore she evidently was not trying to make some sort of ecclesial-political statement, but merely describing the liturgy as she knew it.

Perhaps most of us do not appreciate what is going on in church the way Karen does because we have not come out of the tragic and scandalous circumstances she has. Yet I think that Karen’s violent odyssey is in some way iconic of the rebelliousness of which we are all guilty. And so her return to sanity and communion also has something to say to every child of the Church. Note also how the communion Karen experiences in the liturgy, even though she does not go to Communion yet, since she has not yet been to Confession, is mirrored afterward in her father’s words of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Joyce Carol Oates has kindly granted me permission to post the concluding portion of the novel here, and I thank her very much for this. All of what follows this sentence is from With Shuddering Fall, namely, from chapter 23:

Sunday morning in church: Karen knelt on the hard kneeling bench, hands clasped up before her mouth, eyes lowered. When the Herzes had come into church-some of Karen’s brothers and sisters had come to late Mass just to be with them-Karen had felt eyes turning discreetly upon them as they marched up the aisle to the Herz pew. There were gangling men and red-faced, smiling women, a dozen children of all sizes, Celine walked proudly with Albert (who was not catholic but hinted at becoming one), old Herz himself with a new winter overcoat on top of which his thin neck and head were balanced precariously, turning to nod at acquaintances. Most interesting of all this clan was Karen, who walked beside her father without looking at either side. She wore her black coat with the high, proud black fur, and the same black hat she had worn for several years-a familiar sight that disappointed many women who watched. Once seated, taking up a whole pew, they scrambled to kneel with a flurry of rosaries and prayer books and children’s mittens. One of the smallest boys stood immediately on the kneeling bench and had to be forced to sit down. There was a sudden scuffle; a furious look; children were urged to change places and adults or older children placed between them. Then they fell to prayer.

Because it was nearing Christmas there were greens at the front of the church, decorating the little side altars. The scent of fir branches and the heavy, luxurious odor of incense mixed, a pleasant smell, faintly hypnotic. The church was a little cold. Somewhere a baby began to gasp, preparing to cry. People hurried in out of the snow, stamping their feet. A murmur of voices came from the vestibule. Children sniffed hard; people coughed expectantly. The priest-an old man with shocked white hair-appeared at the side entrance to the altar, craning his head around to look for something. He made a signal: a boy on the other side of the church got up, scrambled out of the pew, genuflected, and with hands tightly clasped and eyes lowered, hurried up to the altar. Karen remembered when her brothers had helped serve Mass. It seemed a long time ago. She remembered the pained apprehension with which she had stared at them, as if by the strength of her hope alone they could be protected from error…How strange it was, Karen thought, that her brother Ed had once been before the congregation, when now he sat so comfortably back in the pew, his heavy fingers holding a prayer book at which he would not glance-a grown man, a man with children, to whom the transformation from a white-surpliced altar boy to a grumbling, big-stomached farmer was no surprise. Beside Karen her father sat, fumbling with a rosary. The black beads were worn smooth and looked like flat, oval seeds. His nose had started to run because of the sharp cold and he wiped it, sometimes with a crumpled handkerchief, sometimes with the back of his hand. Clearing his throat, he made the loud, important, gargling sound Karen had heard other old men make in church.

Upstairs in the choir loft the organ suffered a fast, tentative run. Notes fled past one another up the scale and disappeared. There was a scuffling sound of people arranging themselves, then silence. Karen sat back and with her empty hands folded on her lap watched the backs of heads before her, a small sea of nodding, alert heads, bescarfed and behatted and bare, all the way up to the white gleaming altar banked by fir branches. The church began to fill.

From above, music. From behind, the sudden scrambling to feet that meant the beginning of Mass. The priest and the altar boys walked up the aisle, blessing the people. They stood, and as the priest passed, solemnly murmuring, his white hair vivid as if with rage, they crossed themselves and genuflected with humility. As if from heaven, the straining voices of the choir penetrated the rich, chilly air, and beneath them the old organ trembled with a dignity so profound it threatened to lose control of itself. Somewhere downstairs, a lone elderly woman began to sing along with the choir in a high, sharp, discordant voice, as if she were with malice parodying the music. As the priest and the boys passed to the front of the church there were final coughs, a hurrying to seats. Everyone was standing.

Karen was submerged in the thin splendor of the ceremony as if in a dream. The priest sang the Mass, though he had nearly no voice, and the sound of the persistent, cracked Latin somehow reassured Karen. Now I am home, she thought. Now I recognize what I have come back to.

The church grew steadily warmer. As the altar light shone richly upon the priest’s vestments the purple turned lighter, deeper, commanding all eyes to it. Karen stared at the priest’s back as he bowed his head. Purple: the color of penance and expiation. Humility before oncoming mysteries. There was no fear there, nor was there hesitation or doubt: the priest’s words, as smooth as an eye in a socket, would never stop. The Latin pressed through the old man’s wavering voice, as if it were an unleashing of sound stored up for centuries. Before its brittle splendor everyone must bow, kneel, forget himself. Impossible to remember an individual past when the Mass, with a blast of music and a whining, wrestling interplay of voices and the merciless Latin itself, cut through all pasts, erased all pasts. Karen awaited, trembling, the moment at which her individuality would die. She saw the long tortuous nights and the days filled with self-pity and guilt sucked away, absolved of their reality-just as Ed was absolved of his childhood and need no longer think of it. The voices swelled with grandeur and love and pride in themselves. The organ, operated by an old woman, pedaled skimpily after them. Karen touched her father’s sleeve and he turned to glance at her, surprised. She saw that his face was sallow and flecked with small black dots of dirt, but that streaks of tan still remained from the summer and from his past. His eyes were shrewd and calculating and oddly kind, for they smiled at her first, and then his lips allowed themselves to smile. Then he looked away and rubbed the beads of his rosary between his fingers. That rosary is as old as he is, Karen thought clearly.

The congregation limped through prayers, murmuring the unfamiliar Latin in waves of clarity and incoherence, like breathing. The priest’s voice rose sharper, signaling his anger. On Karen’s left her pregnant sister-in-law, squinting in her prayer book, tried to follow the Mass with moving lips, sometimes running her forefinger slowly under the lines. She held struggling secretly on her lap her youngest boy, who reached up to the shadowy ceiling of the old church with clenched white fists. Beyond her the other relatives knelt, heads turned this way and that, eyes scanning the pews before them or fixed stonily on the priest and his hands. Karen saw them with a peculiar flash of warmth. Their feelings toward her had at first puzzled Karen, but now she saw-suddenly-that their polite, easy discretion, their hints of reproach, expressed only through looks or finger tapping or impatient scoldings of nearby innocent children, simply disguised their love for her. That was it: they felt love for her. Not for Karen herself, she knew, for they had never had much patience with Herz’s youngest, spoiled daughter, but for the Karen who had suffered to prove to them the justice of their universe. They could not but love her, who had strengthened their faith in the vague beliefs they mouthed and heard mouthed to them in the ceremony of the Mass: the sacrifice of the Mass was a distant, calculated ritual, and the perfunctory humility of the priest was for their eyes alone, but Karen’s sin and penance and expiation had been real enough, and showed, probably in her eyes or somewhere in her face, the crushing justice of a moral universe. For this they loved her, though their love was nothing personal; for this her father would begin-if he had not begun already-to cherish her as before. Karen saw it with excitement. That was true! That was true! She understood them, she was with them and at the same time a little apart from them, and had not lost herself in the experience. About her the music kept on in its appointed path, straining upward. The priest cried, Kyrie eleison!

Karen put her hands to her face and begged silently for mercy. She knew she was in danger of losing control of herself, of crying-for did not glimpses of Shar’s face flick on and off in the corners of her mind?-did not glimpses of her father’s bloody face, jaws grinding with delicious hatred, rush at her, call her to herself? “What have they done to me!” she thought. But then, as the congregation kneeled and was swept along to new prayers, Karen knelt slowly with them and forced her mind to stay clear. She would not lose control of herself. Wasn’t her family, and perhaps even a sick, perverse part of herself, waiting for this?

She stared at the short old priest and thought, as if she were talking to him, whispering in his ear: “I will not give in to it. I know who I am. I have always known who I am.” As if she were already at confession, already whispering to the strange old man-she had discovered that she hardly remembered him, though he had been in the parish for years-she tensed herself, felt her lips curl upward in the usual disdain and half-mockery with which she listened to her own confessions. “You must remember me, Father. Karen Herz. The youngest girl. I have done enough to end my life at eighteen, or spend the rest of it thinking; nothing in the future will mean as much to me as what is behind. Or I can go on with what they have taught me-they have initiated me into the communion of killers, murderers, who are staring right now at your back.” Here she hesitated; was there not betrayal here? Did the skill of murder have to be learned?

“I can continue with it, with what I have become,” she thought, staring at the old man angrily, “and begin this afternoon, when the dishes are cleared away, with the closest man-that will be Albert. I can wear twenty pounds off him and make his eyes swim behind his glasses and I can make him and Celine tear each other apart if I want. And after Albert, one of the hired men. There are men enough for me to feed on until I lose my youth.” As if he heard her, the priest turned suddenly and raised his hands to heaven. A bell sounded. The priest had heavy white eyebrows, like brushes. Watching his face, Karen went on, “And I can hurry my father to death, who richly deserves it, for I see now that he is a cruel, ignorant old man who has always disguised himself with strength; and now that his strength is gone, all his failings rush out, expose themselves with pleasure! Somewhat like a shell you find by a swamp, turned over on its back and wriggling in the mud, trying by the ferocious charm of its eyes to avoid the stroke of death-which no one cares enough to give it. Father! I can accuse him of my own crime and guilt and with enough hysteria I can convince myself that I had no part in what I did-that the filthy way that strange man made love to me the first time did not have anything to do with that man’s death….”

The altar boys prepared the communion rail. Uneven white cloth, oddly clean; it looked starched. The boys did not have the stately dignity of the priest or the gravity of his old bones, and so hurried with mincing steps, genuflecting hastily, crossing themselves as if chasing away invisible flies. Karen’s sister-in-law hid a big yawn and her dull eyes brushed past Karen’s face. But most of the congregation, including Karen and her father, waited very seriously. They bowed their heads at the ringing of the bell, they knelt, they touched their breasts with their fingers. Again Karen’s mind begged mercy. She felt herself drawn along with the people, teased away from herself-even from the tiny germ of nausea that had accompanied her, secret in her stomach, for months. The past is done, her father might be trying to whisper, and what is the past at such a time? What is the past when we are approaching the transformation of Christ before our eyes? “My Lord and my God!” No one could help exclaiming this, even silently. Here is a real sacrifice, her father might say, pointing up to the altar. You think you have given yourself, you think you have been fed upon-and so in a way you have-but still you are alive, you have health and youth and beauty. Be as bitter as you like, mind your dead lover every night in detail and wrap yourself around him in sleep, and later, when you are married-of course you will be married-deceive your husband each time you give yourself to him! But still you are alive and that is a miracle. You were not crucified and changed into flat pieces of bread-and if Christ were not God, but only Christ, only a man, is His suffering any less? It is more, certainly more; we men do not have resurrections. But you are still alive. Consume yourself with bitterness, destroy your life-but remember that all that you have done is your own doing.

Karen touched her feverish skin. Her father, his beads dangling forgotten, his eyes transfixed upon the altar, did not glance at her. “But he is an ignorant old man!” Karen thought. “Never even finished school! He is ignorant and brutal, a killer, he has no right to my life, and no right to judge it….But he is my father,” she thought, “and I love him.” As the others passed out to communion she remained kneeling in the pew. Everyone in the row but the youngest children shuffled up, following the wavering lines to the communion rail. Karen watched them jealously and fondly. Were these her people? With what did they commune? When she went to communion next week, she would be giving herself to them; she would commune with them, share with them whatever experience they shared-whatever mystery it was. She recognized her home, her place. She knew where she was. “I can accept them but they will never accept me,” she thought. “They know that something is wrong with me, that my mind is wrong, put together wrong. Am I to blame for that? Can I help my mind? It is insane to look for meaning in life, and it is insane not to; what am I to do?”

After Mass there was benediction, and after benediction, while the church emptied, Karen and her father remained kneeling. The old man muttered his rosary, moving his lips: he felt guilty because he had not finished it. His mind, like Karen’s, must have wandered. Karen knelt silently beside him. At the altar the boys put out the back row of high, white, gold-tipped candles. The magic of the Mass had left, quite suddenly, but its odor still remained; incense weighed heavily on the air. In the sharp smell of the incense, in the low muffle of voices and footsteps at the back of the church, and in the vision of her father’s unbowed aged profile, Karen saw her future.

Her father put away the beads with a last contrite rattle; they stood. Karen found a child’s grimy mitten left on the bench and picked it up.

They were the last to leave the church. Out in the vestibule several old women awaited cars, their necks thick and clumsy with wool scarves. Karen took her father’s arm. He looked at her with gratitude-he was old, he did not walk so surely as he had once. And he said suddenly, embarrassed and impatient, “Karen, you are my girl, my good girl! In spite of what they say about you-You are my girl, my only girl, I forgive you anything you did, I love you.”

His words stopped. He was breathing hard, his heart must have been racing. A slow angry flush came over his face, beginning at his ears. Karen stared at the swirling snow as they stepped outside: it turned, white and cold and innocent, like the disorder of her brain. “I love you too, Father,” she whispered. He might have heard. He pulled at her arm. “Over there-there-“ he grunted, pointing at a crowded car. “There they are.” As they approached, a familiar face-one of Karen’s brothers-opened the door to receive them.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Resurfacing, & the Lutheran Confession of God

I have been busy, and have neglected my blog. I am working on a number of things, and will be blogging on them in the days ahead. For one thing, there are books, and writers, that I want to recommend here, such as John Kenedy Toole, Anthony Trollope, Michael Barber, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Where does one begin in a discussion of Joyce Carol Oates? Might as well start at the beginning; lately I have been composing an observation or two on certain themes, especially in her early work. And thanks to the generosity and kindness of Joyce Carol Oates, who recently gave me permission to post a chunky little portion of one of her novels here, I will do just that soon, along with a couple notes. So stay tuned.

Also, Fr. Hollywood has tagged me. I think it will be the first blog tag with which I have ever cooperated. I have been composing an answer & will have that ready soon. Stay tuned for that as well.

Since yesterday was Halloween, which is also the anniversary of Luther's posting of the so called 95 Theses, which kicked off the Reformation, I thought I would kick off a discussion on the Lutheran Confession of the Catholic faith. So we begin, quite simply, with the first article of the Augsburg Confession, with observations to follow. The translation you see below is the work of Gerhard Friedrich Bente & William Herman Theodore Dau, which along with the rest of the Book of Concord, both in translation and in its original Latin and German, was published on behalf of the Missouri Synod as a gift to the Church, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (though its publication was delayed, because of the First World War, until 1921). For the university students, first year seminarians, and others who are interested, please find the Latin below.

Article I:
Of God
Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

They condemn all heresies which have sprung up against this article, as the Manichaeans, who assumed two principles, one Good and the other Evil; also the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all such. They condemn also the Samosatenes, old and new, who, contending that there is but one Person, sophistically and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but that “Word” signifies a spoken word, and “Spirit” signifies motion created in things.

Articulus Primus:
De Deo
Ecclesiae magno consensu apud nos docent, decretum Nicaenae synodi de unitate essentiae divinae et de tribus personis verum et sine ulla dubitatione credendum esse, videlicet, quod sit una essentia divina, quae et appellatur et est Deus, aeternus, incorporeus, impartibilis, immensa potentia, sapientia, bonitate, Creator et Conservator omnium rerum, visibilium et invisibilium; et tamen tres sint personae eiusdem essentiae et potentiae, et coaeternae, Pater, Filius et Spiritus Sanctus. Et nomine personae utuntur ea significatione, qua usi sunt in hac causa scriptores ecclesiastici, ut significet non partem aut qualitatem in alio, sed quod proprie subsistit.

Damnant omnes haereses, contra hunc articulum exortas, ut Manichaeos, qui duo principia ponebant, bonum et malum, item Valentinianos, Arianos, Eunomianos, Mahometistas et omnes horum similes. Damnant et Samosatenos, veteres et neotericos, qui, quum tantum unam personam esse contendant, de Verbo et de Spiritu Sancto astute et impie rhetoricantur, quod non sint personae distinctae, sed quod Verbum significet verbum et Spiritus motum in rebus creatum.