Thursday, August 20, 2009

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux


The Church celebrates on 20 August each year the feast of Saint Bernard, the great abbot of Clairvaux. Eight and a half centuries ago, 856 years to be exact, Bernard fell asleep in Christ, his Sacred Head and Lord. And to this day Bernard remains for us a father, a brother, a guide, and a doctor of the faith.

Before I go any further, however, the time frame of Bernard's life reminds me of a criticism I must level at the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's online commemorations biography of Saint Bernard. It is embarrassing that Saint Bernard is placed, by that resource, in the first half of the 11th century. Of course it is not malicious; it is probably not even ignorant; most likely a mere typo. Sloppy and embarrassing nonetheless.

While we're there, perhaps just another comment or two. 1. Though the biographical blurb does admit the monastic nature of Bernard's life, it is highly unusual and curious that he is called, at the top, not Abbot and Doctor. That's no good. That would be to call him what the Church has always called him. We can't have that. That would also be to admit right up front that one can live a legitimate, even saintly, life as a monk. Instead, we now officially commemorate Saint Bernard for the two things Lutherans can apparently relate to, Hymnwriter and Theologian.

2. Is there any explanation for moving Bernard's feast away from its traditional date, 20 August? Not even Rome, with all the changes that constitute the Novus Ordo, moved Bernard's Day. So the Missouri Synod moved it one day, to the 19th, and has placed on the 20th a commemoration of the great Old Testament Patriarch, Samuel. I would also like to see an explanation for this.

But I digress. I would like, in the brief words I can spare here today, to suggest that Saint Bernard was one of the greatest men of the 12th century, a century of great men. He was probably the greatest. I would suggest that he is not merely a historical curiosity, but is for us today a living father, brother, and teacher. I also suggest that the best way to learn to appreciate Saint Bernard is 1. to read his corpus of writings, including several hundred sermons, letters, and several treatises, and 2. to study the lively world of his own Sitz im Leben. It is a life worthy of a historical novel, and of a Hollywood motion picture. Finally, I suggest to pastors that Bernard's memory is best served when it serves the cause of the Gospel, and that happens when we actually keep his feast, by Word and Sacrament.

I haven't even begun to get into his life here, because I don't want to pick one aspect of it over another, but I must say that in many ways his life and Luther's seem to mirror each other. Separated by four centuries and very differing cultures (the mellifluous flavor of Bernard's style seems almost antithetical to the German taste of Luther's Saxony), they nonetheless are linked in many ways. They shared a similar, though not identical, rigorous monastic training. They both had a deep love and mastery of the praying of the Psalms. They both had a great theological strength and boldness. Both were bold, for example, to address the pope with words of fraternal counsel, one with the authority of an abbot and monastic theologian, the other with the authority of a doctor of scripture and monastic theologian. Both were profoundly influential in their respective centuries. Both had theological and political enemies. Both are unfairly blamed for violent tragedies, the Second Crusade on the one hand, and the Peasants' Revolt on the other. And both lived sixty three years in this world, then fell asleep, one in 1153, the other in 1546.

May Bernard's legacy and memory be renewed among us, and may God fulfil in our time the words of Sirach, "Nations shall shew forth his wisdom, and the congregation shall declare his praise."

Dominican Quote of the Day

"I usually don't find praying a deeply satisfying experience. It is true I hardly ever get a kick out of it, it almost never takes my breath away, but if you are deprived of, say, a decent liturgy for a fairly long period of time you discover an important gap in your emotional life. I might as well say at this point that I think there is a mistaken tendency, more especially in the United States but to some extent in the United Kingdom, to design the liturgy for too immediate a satisfaction."

-Herbert McCabe, OP, God Still Matters

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zadie Smith's On Beauty

At the outset I must make the preliminary statement that a novel like On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, is not for all readers. Smith tends to portray a situation as it happens, with the type of frankness that at times brings the reader face to face with a linguistic and even sexual realism which makes it really unfit for certain audiences. It is, let us say, "rated R," in the least. With that caveat, I must say that over all I enjoyed and very much appreciate On Beauty, for several reasons.

Zadie Smith in this novel masterfully creates the microcosmic world of a modern suburban New England family, with its intrahousehold conflicts, and the relationships of its members with others, mostly within the academic world of an upper class New England university community. As we are led to follow with sympathy each of the lives of this family, and others in the story, we are brought into not only the academic world, with its social peculiarities, politics, and moral ambiguities, but also the socioeconomic and racial dimensions of life in the modern world. Along the way we see competing ideas, on matters as diverse as art, race, approaches to education, and religion, ideas expressed both in conversation, and in the lives of the characters.

The first pages led me to think that On Beauty was going to be a story of a young man, his relationship with his father, his crush on a young woman in England, and his broadening outlook on life. Soon, however, the story begins to pull the reader successively into the lives of other members of the Belsey family, as well as those of the Kipps family, and others, so that one is hardly sure after a while if the real point is to tell us about the pain of a woman trying to deal with her husband's infidelity, or a man's struggle to gain relevancy and legitimacy in the harsh publish-or-perish world of academia, or any number of other fascinating facets of the life of the Belseys and the Kippses. In retrospect, On Beauty is really a fictional display of contrasts, and of how contrasting ideas, and forces, behave when forced to face each other, how they differ, and how they resemble each other.

One of the most fascinating elements of the novel, to me, is the racial, along with the socioeconomic, how the realities of modern America, and in some ways also Great Britain, clash with our popular perceptions. How well does a black man from the inner city relate with a black man from a well to do suburban academic community? How well does a Haitian immigrant, struggling to make a living, relate to either of these? All three are Black Americans, yet their lives are so different that race, as important as it is (and it is extremely important to each) can seem almost negligible as an indicator of how well they identify with each other. Oddly, in some ways race seems to become more important in the self identity of the young suburban upper class black man than with the other two, and this is a man who has never had to struggle for his survival. A half black, suburban man, yet he adopts the mode of speech common to the inner city street rappers with whom he is trying to identify, and he ends up taking on the cause of the Haitians and their grievances, even joining in their demonstrations, though he knows very little about the actual history of the conflict in Haiti. I don't mention this to condemn this character, just to raise an example of one of the surprising, perhaps counter intuitive realities that often obtain in the struggle that each man must face for identity in the modern world. To put it simply, race in America is hardly as black and white as it is often made to appear. Do I, for example, a man who grew up on 31st & Cherry on Milwaukee's North Side (what a friend once called "31st and the Hood"), have more in common with the middle class Lutherans who run the seminary in Fort Wayne or with the men and women who make up the working class in the core of the city, those with whom I've worked and lived my whole life? Conversely, there are black men in the Black Clergy Caucus of the Missouri Synod who, at least over time, have become better able to relate to each other and with bureaucrats than with the folks in the pews. None of this is necessarily to condemn anyone in these comparisons, just to observe that it behooves us to recognize that things are not always as they appear.

Along this line, one of the more amusing episodes to me is when the young inner city black man, Carl, whose chief passion is rap, hip hop, and what he calls the Spoken Word, shows himself to be quite into Mozart, especially his Requiem, after having seen a performance, and studied its history on his own. In a conversation with Zora, a young lady from the Belsey family, who has had a life of education and privilege, he tries to get her into a discussion about the Requiem, especially the Lacrymosa, about which he has become completely excited. Zora can barely figure out what he is talking about, and could care less.

Others in the story struggle between faith and atheism. It has always been easy and natural for the Belsey family to make fun of the Kipps family, even to have a sort of contempt for them, the Belseys being enlightened atheists, for the most part, and the Kipps family being known mainly for a backwards and puritanical Christianity. Then their lives actually clash with each other, and that no longer becomes so easy or convenient. Likewise, however, the Kippses are not the pious Christians their reputation would have the world think. In the end, the two family patriarchs are both shown to be equally guilty of marital infidelity, and each equally incapable of relating to his own family. Things are not always as they seem.

This, in fact, is a key hermeneutic to Howard Belsey's approach to art, and art history, as the focus of his career seems to be to challenge the conventional wisdom of historians of great art, especially of Rembrandt. He cannot manage, however, to complete his book on Rembrandt, though it has been substantially finished for some time. (This species of frustration is not entirely unknown to me.)

On the lighter side of the whole narrative is the taste of the culture of academia, in which the reader is shown a glimpse, for example, of a type of academic-speak, that is utterly useless in the real world. This reminds me of one of my favorite juxtopositions in the book, namely, two types or modes of speech. The setting is a departmental faculty meeting, and the department head, Jack French, is giving some opening remarks, in which is is attempting to explain why it was important to move the meeting from its originally scheduled day in December to a date in January. After his comments, he calls upon his assistant, the practical and organized Liddy, to basically say the same thing from her perspective. Here is how that meeting begins:

"'There are,' said Jack, bringing his hands together, 'a dyad of reasons why last month's meeting was delayed, rescheduled...maybe in fact it would be more accurate to say repositioned, for this date, for January tenth, and I feel that before we can proceed with this meeting, to which, by the way, I warmly welcome you all after what I sincerely hope was a pleasurable-and most importantly-a restful Christmas break-yes, and as I say, before we do proceed with what promises to be a really rather packed meeting as far as the printed agenda is concerned-before starting I just wanted to speak briefly about the reasons for this repositioning, for it was, in itself, as many of you know, not entirely without controversy. Yes. Now. First, it was felt by several members of our community that the issues to be discussed in that upcoming-now realized-meeting were of a magnitude and a complexity that required-nay, demanded-proper, considered presentations of both sides of the argument presently under our collective spotlight-which is not to suggest the argument before us is of a plainly binary nature-I personally have no doubt that we will find quite the contrary is the case and that, in fact, we may find ourselves this morning aligned along several different points along the, the, the, the funnel, if it can be put that way, of the discussion we are about to have. And so in order to create that space for formulation we took it on advice-without a faculty vote-to delay that meeting, and naturally anyone who feels that the decision taken regarding that delay was taken without due discussion can make a notation of their objection in our online file system, which our own Liddy Cantalino has set up expressly for these meetings...I believe the cache is situated at Code SS76 on the Humanities web page, the address of which I should hope you are all already familiar with-is that...?' queried Jack, looking to Liddy, who sat on a chair beside him. Liddy nodded, stood up, repeated the mysterious code and sat back down. 'Thank you, Liddy. So, yes. So there is a forum for complaint there. Now. The second reason-a far less fraught one, thank goodness-was the matter of simple time management, which had come to the attention of many of you and of myself and of Liddy, and it was her opinion, and the opinion of many of our colleagues who brought the issue to her attention, that at the very least the extreme-if you'll excuse the hackneyed analogy-gridlock of events in the December calendar-both academic and social-was leaving very little time for the usual and necessary preparation that faculty meetings-if they are to have any real effect at all-really require, if not demand. And i think Liddy has a few words for us with regard to how we will go about future scheduling of this crucial meeting. Liddy?'

Liddy stood once more and executed a brisk reshuffle of her bust. On her sweater reindeer were travelling unevenly, left to right.

'Hey, folks-well, basically just to repeat what Jack just said there, we ladies on the admin side of things are rushed off our behinds in December, and if we're gonna keep on with this hoo-hah of each department having a Christmas party as was pretty much decided last year, not to mention that we got practically every one of these kids chasing some kind of recommendation in the week before Christmas, even though God only knows they get warned all through the fall not to leave recommendations to the last minute, but anyhoo-we just felt that it made more basic horse sense to give ourselves a little breathing space in the last week before the vacation so that I for one can know which way my ass is pointing come the New Year.' This occasioned a polite laugh. 'If you'll excuse my French.'

Everybody did. The meeting began."

Now don't get me wrong. My own manner of speech is certainly not that of Liddy's. These are definitely two distinct types, There are others. As many as there are personalities. I do see this episode, however, as, in part, an amusing jab at the out of touch, ethereal, full of itself, manner that is the currency of some academics and bureaucrats.

Smith ends her novel without resolving any of the dilemmas or conflicts. That is not the goal of her writing. She leaves the world of the Belseys and the other characters as messy as ever. For that is the way life is in this world. It is the question that drives us. This is one of the reasons I appreciate this story. We enter the world of these interesting, sympathetic, yet pathetic, characters, and leave them after seeing about a year of their lives. In the process we see a bit our ourselves in them. And we are somehow richer for it.

P.S. The substance this reflection may not be as profoundly eucharistic as one might expect from a raving traditionalist, but how do you like my reference to AP 24?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God

On Saturday, the 15th of August, the Church celebrated, as she always does on that date, the solemn feast of the Dormitio Sanctae Mariae, marking the outcome of the earthly life of the ever-virgin Mother of God, that is, her blessed falling asleep and going home to her Divine Son in heaven. I don't know how common this feast is in today's Lutheran church, but I can tell you that it was celebrated even by the Church of God which is at the tiny, seemingly insignificant parish of Saint Stephen, Milwaukee, where, because of the nature of this feast, the Holy Mass was adorned by the lighting of all the altar candles, and by the lovely odour and sight of incense. (Any liturgy that includes propers from the Apocalypse deserves incense.)

Here are some juicy tidbits from the Mass.

From the Introit:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. O sing unto the Lord a new song, for He hath done marvellous things.

From the first lesson, from the Book of Judith:
O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies. For this thy confidence shall not depart from the heart of men, which remember the power of God for ever...Thou art the exaltation of Jerusalem, thou art the great glory of Israel, thou art the great rejoicing of our nation.

The Gradual, of course, is from Ps. 45, as is the Introit for the Vigil on the 14th.

The Gospel, continuing from Luke 1:
Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

The Offertory is from Genesis 3:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.

The Communio:
All generations shall call me blessed, for He that is mighty hath done to me great things.

In the Divine Office we have the following from Saint John of Damascus:
Today the sacred and living ark of the living God, she who conceived the Creator in her womb, comes to rest in the temple of the Lord, which was not made by men's hands. David her father leaps with joy, and with him the Angels lead the dance, the Archangels celebrate, the Virtues give glory to God, the Principalities exalt, the Powers are glad, the Dominations rejoice, the Thrones keep a feast-day, the Cherubim give praise, and the Seraphim proclaim her glory. Today the Eden of the New Adam receives the living paradise in which our condemnation was dissolved, in which the tree of life was planted, in which our nakedness was clothed. Today the immaculate Virgin, who was soiled with no earthly desires, but reared in heavenly thinking, did not return to dust, but since she was a living heaven was placed in the heavenly tabernacles. She from whom true Life has flowed to all men, how could she taste death? But she yielded to the law laid down by Him whom she conceived and, as daughter of the old Adam, underwent the old sentence, for her Son, who is Life itself, did not refuse it, but as the Mother of the living God, she was rightly taken up to His side.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

a neglected vigil


The 15th of August, of course, is an important Marian feast. Some churches call it by the somewhat vague (and christologically wishy washy sounding) "Mary Mother of our Lord." Some call it the feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin. Some, most famously the Roman Catholics, call this feast the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a usage not unknown in Lutheran churches. To do so does not dogmatize Mary's assumption. Nor, I hasten to add, are Mary's dormition and assumption antithetical. They are not really in competition.

More on these points some other time. But for now I thought I'd point out that this feast has its own vigil day leading up to the feast. Let me share a few of the propers from that vigil mass, as it was celebrated at Saint Stephen's, Milwaukee, this past Friday.

From the first lesson (Sirach 24)
As the vine brought I forth pleasant savour, and my flowers are the fruit of honour and riches. I am the mother of fair love, and fear, and knowledge, and holy hope.

The Gradual
Blessed and venerable art thou, O Virgin Mary, who, without spot, wast found the Mother of the Savior. Virgin Mother of God, He whom the whole world containeth not, being made man, shut Himself in thy womb. Alleluia, alleluia. Mother of God, the life that had been lost was given us through thee, who didst receive thine offspring from heaven, and dist bring forth a Savior unto the world. Alleluia.

The Gospel (Luke 11)
At that time: As Jesus was speaking to the multitudes, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.

The Offertory
Blessed art thou, O Virgin Mary, who didst bear the Creator of all things; thou didst bring forth Him Who made thee, and remaineth forever a virgin.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

a laid back moment at Boswell Books


The Harry W. Schwartz bookshop was a beloved part of Milwaukee, and an important part of my childhood. When the company went out of business a few months ago, the historic Downer Avenue shop was bought out by Daniel Goldin, who had been with the company for over two decades. The new bookstore is called Boswell Book Company, named after the great biographer of Samuel Johnson. Like Schwartz was, Boswell is one of my favorite bookstores in Milwaukee. With an excellent variety of books (I especially appreciate its commitment to books from independent sources and local writers), friendly and helpful service, and of course, inviting seating areas, it is definitely a great book browsing hangout.

So what exactly does it look like when a deacon is enjoying a book at one of his favorite bookshops? I don't know, but above you can see the view from my perspective, when looking up from whatever it is I was reading there recently. It's a good vantage point, I think, because you get to see walls of books, and the Chuck Taylors, probably my best feature.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

milwaukee images

I shall return to actual blogging. I promise. But till then, I call your attention to a picture or two of my hometown, from MKEimages.com.

This one is an image of the Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Building at UWM. It's about a block down from the building in which Ruth and I lived with Father Wiest and family at ULC.

And here is a picture of the Germania Building, one of my favorite buildings downtown.

Okay, just one more for today. Here is my beloved Milwaukee River, looking south toward Wells Street.