Monday, January 31
An exhaustive list of the all-too-numerous historical, architectural, theological, scientific, astronomical, artistic and topographical errors in Dan Brown's monumentally stupid (but "well-researched"!) novel Angels and Demons. Since Danny Boy could never make a mistake, obviously the Albino must be to blame.
Is it just me, or does this animation of a horrid modern church building project (shaped, oddly, like a flounder) resemble something Powered By The Cheat?
DOUGAL: Wow, Ted, it's like a big tide of jam comin' towards us, except its a big jam made out of old women.
TED: Once again, you've made me look like a complete idiot in front of real people. Thank you so much.
TED: (After singing My Lovely Horse) So what did you think about it in general, then? (Father Jack pulls out a shotgun and shoots Ted's guitar.) Right.
DOUGAL: I know! Well lure them into a giant bingo game!
TED: And how are we going to do that?
DOUGAL: We'll print up some bingo cards on our printing press and...oh.
TED: Yes, it's the lack of a printing press that lets us down there. Or bingo balls. Or a PA system. Or in fact, any bingo paraphernalia at all.
DOUGAL: Darn. So near, yet so far.
MRS. DOYLE: Are you looking forward to your lunch tomorrow, Father?
TED: Hmmm? I suppose so.
MRS. DOYLE: You do like pheasant, don't you Father?
TED:Pheasant? I love pheasant.
MRS. DOYLE: Well there's a little clue. The thing you'll be eating likes pheasant as well.
TED: Dougal, how did you get into the Church in the first place? Was it like "Collect 12 crisp packets and become a priest?"
TED: (on phone) Hello, is that the Yin dynasty? Family, sorry, the Yin family.
JACK: I LOVE MY BRICK!
It's nice to have a nun around. Gives the place a bit of glamour.
DOUGHAL: As if magic, I can create a crowd of invisible ducks.
TED: It's banned in most European countries, which means it's good.
Wednesday, January 26
It's so easy!
"Your life has a special purpose, even if that purpose and a plan to achieve it are not yet clear to you."
"In Pray and Be Rich, Dr. Briley unlocks the Bible’s secrets about wealth, its use and abuse."
"Pray and Be Rich is based on years of Dr. Briley’s research and life experiences. Within the Bible he discovered a pattern of distinctive principles about success – found in the Bible and nowhere else."
I'm at a loss as to what to call this. Gnostic materialism? It has all the earthly short-sightedness of Liberation Theology, but none of the Marxist concern for others -- all the predestination of Calvinism without any of its level-headed gloominess. It turns out the purpose of life is to be happy forever in this life, I guess. Poor monastics.
"In frequent prayer, visualize yourself as a success, enjoying the substance of things hoped for and reaping the rewards of *****your work*****. Do NOT, as many mistakenly do, picture yourself doing the work itself. Focus on the end, not the process. See the result, not the routine, or you may discourage yourself by making the effort seem tiresome."
Apparently, monetary salvation is not by faith ALONE....
Tuesday, January 25
Flannery O'Connor is one of those great Catholic writers I have never gotten around to reading. Whenever I mention her name I get an interesting response--not necessarily a pleased response, but certainly an interesting one. Either she's really, really great, or just downright weird, or possibly both. As a Southerner (more-or-less), I could see how she could be both, as in Dixie, the two are not always mutually exclusive. Incidentally, the Midwest is far weirder than anyone immediately presupposes: the place is just crying out for someone to either pull a Lovecraft on it and turn it into a creepy American Gothic horror-movie set filled with sinister Amish and bare skeletal tree-branches, or perhaps instead something Faulkneresque-by-way-of-Bergmann, with lots of decaying emigrant churches and Lutherans in Volvos. The place could easily get a mythology on par with southern belles, cowboys, and pitchfork-wielding Puritans, in the right hands. But I digress: what do my Learned Dear Readers think of Flannery? So good or no good?
Monday, January 24
'I did what I could to get answers. I put questions to countermen at various papaya outposts and got strangely specific but unsubstantiated reactions, among them "Eighty-five percent of all the people in the world love papaya" (the bun man at Papaya Kingdom) and "The relationship between the hot dog and the papaya is very good" (the juice man at Gray's). I also talked to Peter Poulos, the owner of Papaya King, which, I learned, was the original papaya store in New York. He said that his father had traveled to Florida decades earlier and had come back fired up with the idea of introducing New Yorkers to the tropical delights of papaya juice. The outbreak of other papaya stores, he said, was an attempt to copy Papaya King's success. The romantic paens to the papaya were his father's own words and cadence, and the other stores duplicated them. The other stores' references to royalty were meant to fool customers into thinking all the papaya stores were affiliated, like some tropical fruit juice House of Hapsburg.'
--Susan Orlean, "Royalty," in My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, 2004
More Queen Christina: Funny, I just discovered Greta ("I vonn to be alone") Garbo was in a 1933 movie called Queen Christina directed by a chap named Rouben Mamoulian. Naturally, it's about everyone's favorite uppity woman of baroque Rome, though, sadly, the whole thing deals with her Swedish period. The plot looks like utter historical rubbish and the whole Catholicism thing seems to have fallen through a crack in the floorboards (she abdicates to marry the Spanish ambassador!), but, then, given that poor Chris looked more like Max Klinger than a thirties starlet (mascara being scarce in 1620s Stockholm), one can't expect too much from Mamoulian and co. Also, the flea cannon is conspicuous by its absence.
And...Garbo? Huh? Why couldn't they have cast Ingrid? She's Swedish, isn't she?
On Kissing Bishops' Rings and Women's Hands
O how strong is Man's side,
from which God pulled forth Woman,
whom He made the the mirror of all His beauty
and the embrace of all His creation.
And so the organs of heaven do play,
And all the earth wonders at Thee,
O Mary most prais'd,
whom God has loved so deeply.
--St. Hildegard, O virga ac diadema purpurae Regis
Our age suffers, I believe, from a surfeit of misplaced humility. This comes as no surprise--I believe it was Chesterton who said that in the end most vices are merely virtues run riot, divorced from the intricate web of checks and balances which governs Christian morality. The modern vestment industry banks on it as a clear-cut fact. Priests are too timid to wear the gorgeous pomp of their office. They end up grab the closest Star Trek-looking polyester chausuble within reach rather than make a fuss over mere clothes. Or risk looking like a clerical fancy-pants in the gleaming purple garb of monsignori and canons. They're just regular guys, and want us to feel comfy around them. The fact that they put their pants on one leg at a time seems to automatically disbar the cassock. Most bishops think you're going to bite them when you go for the pontifical ring, and probably they'd prefer the bite. It's understandable, but unfortunate.
I appreciate their pursuit of modesty, but I'm reminded of the jokey saying, "Don't be so humble; you're not that great." You can pick your jaw off the floor now: I'm kidding--but the essence of the statement points to a little bit of truth about the way ceremonial works. The beauty of vesture, of ceremonial and ritual, of hierarchy and splendor, isn't really about the folks at the top, whether it's deacon or bishop, exarch or archpriest. It's about us, and it's for us, to remind us there's more out there in the great universe God created than being just a regular guy in polyester. God doesn't get any holier when I sing magnificat anima mea Dominum, but maybe I do. Or I've got a shot at it, anyway, if God comes through with the grace.
People tend to assume that it's more fun for the priest than the people when a priest processes down the aisle in gold and scarlet--but it's more a millstone than a halo. I've seen cloth-of-gold copes from the Bad Old Days that weighed upwards of forty pounds. Talk about bearing your cross. The alter Christus going to the altar is not bejeweled like a king--or a monstrance--just to show how he's going to lord it over you from the pulpit. Or he ought not, anyway. Sometimes theory and praxis diverge, of course, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Part of it is America never had much for monarchs and gems: maybe we'd be more comfortable with the Solemnity of Christ the President than Christ the King, but however bad earthly kings were, it doesn't tarnish God's absolute heavenly monarchy. The truth is, despite the stereotype of the little cue-balled Monopoly millionaire in his top-hat and silken cravat, the stereotyped plutocratic and aristocratic targets of such plebeian hatred don't exist today. We don't see Bill Gates going around in a coach-and-six with a crown on his head, or President Bush in the gilded robes of the Most Serene Doge. Maybe their power and wealth might be more bearable to the little people if they did. Maybe.
St. Thomas a Becket would say mass with a hair shirt on the inside and silk on the outside: he had the benefit of the hair shirt, and the rude faithful had the benefit of the silk. While kings and dukes might not have worn the hair shirt, at least had the gleam of satin to give back to their subjects.
With today's American aristocracy, we have the hair shirt (or the Ralph Lauren polo) on the outside and the hard plastic gleam of electronic toys on the inside that nobody will ever see. The aristocracy, for all its decadence, at least had the charity to enact their splendid private lives in public in the grand national drama of coronations and parliaments and even such wonderful absurdities as Louis XIV putting on his pants in the morning with twenty courtiers looking on. Somehow I find it somewhat easier to forgive him for Versailles knowing he allowed himself to become a public symbol, a peripatetic work of art. The overweening vanity of the Medicis gave us San Marco, and even pig-faced Henry the Eighth bequeathed the future a monstrous yet remarkable Holbein of himself. Will Steve Jobs be hanging in a portrait gallery some day? Somehow I doubt it.
Once in the depths of high school, I had a little crush on a pale girl with green-grey eyes, and made an idiot of myself opening doors for her. I never think she quite understood the point of such a gesture, but no matter. And I was pretty annoying, anyway. We all are, us males, at that age. But the point remains the same. When one gets down to it, there's cosmically very little difference between kissing the ring of a bishop and the hand of a woman--for the woman's body, the temple of life, is the sign of her office and dignity just as the jewels of a pontiff. The same goes for all those masculine gallantries that today's woman seem to have so little time for. Perhaps it's more humble, not more grand, more puffed-up pompous, to let him carry your bags for you, to let go for a few moments of your life and let him do something for you.
When I take my cap off to a woman, it is a gallantry, yes, but I can't help thinking of a priest doffing his biretta at the start of mass. At least that's what I tell myself when they don't notice it. It hardly matters if they see it--the fact is, the acknowledgment is there for God, and Mary, the ornament of the world, to see.
There's always the danger of pedestals. Woman have been perched atop quite a few in their time against their will, and it's a lonely anchorite life up there for sure. But there's a difference between a pedestal and a step, of artificial exaltation and natural hierarchy, of an idol on a pillar and the divine ladder of seraph and cherub, throne and domination.
And anyway, nobody's on the top rung in this case--the sexes are complementary. Neither one would work without the other, and I mean this in life and culture, not just in terms of the basic mechanics of bringing a child into the world.
We are told it's a matter of power, that men have all the power, and women get it by being men. The Church has had both abbot and abbess, monk and nun, both worthy and powerful in their own way--when will our secular age come to recognize the virtues of a uniquely feminine species of authority, terrible as an army with banners? I suppose the skeptic will say the Church doesn't have it in Her to permit it. But some of those medieval abbesses were truly terrifying creatures--and glorious, still. And it's not just abbesses--it was a skinny little twentysomething girl in a black-and-white habit who bossed the Pope back to Rome, wasn't it?
The dignity and genius of women of which the Christian faith speaks is not a pedestal, but a broad and glorious plane. It may grow gloriouser still as feminine strength and intelligence continues to spread from the microcosm of the domestic into the macrocosm of the world at large. Women acting as men in politics and science and the arts, as in the derelict feminism of the 1970s, will do nothing for the world--it just means more men, rather than bringing the complementary and receptive balance of the domestic family to the world at large. But women being women out there in all those varied fields will bring something both new and very old into the bloodstream of civilization.
How's that for a broader pedestal?
If man can be said to have a headship of the family (and St. Paul says he does), it is the headship of Christ washing the feet of the apostles and dying on the cross rather than Archie Bunker with his beer and his dingbat. The little ceremonials of day-to-day homage that once marked the public life of the two sexes are the cultic acts of his unique dignity, and hers. Ladies, I kindly ask you, help him fulfil his mission. It's a small humility to suffer, isn't it?
'That's right. I was not one of those children who love dinosaurs. To me they always seemed a crashing bore compared with the medieval dragons, whose images were accompanied by wonderful romantic stories of courageous knights and beautiful ladies. My first introduction to dinosaurs was accompanied by a stern admonition: no stories, no fantasies; this is science. These creatures are (were) real. They existed a long time ago, so long ago that there were no people around to have any adventures with them, much less make up stories about them. So I tuned out of the dionosaur lessons, concentrated on King Arthur, and grew up to be an iconologist, a historian of cultural images, instead of a paleontologist.'
--W.J.T. Mitchell, The Last Dinosaur Book, 1998.
Queen Christina's Amazing Flea-Be-Gone Miniature Cannon, sandal-wearing Anglican vicars on horseback, and more courtesy of Zadok the Roman. The frisky old girl (above) seemed to have a thing about firearms--after all, who in Rome has never seen the fountain in front of the Villa Medici, supposedly made out of a gunstone she shot off of Castel Sant' Angelo across town on a whim. No wonder the Pope had her temporary apartments put in the Tower of the Winds--as far away from his quarters in the Vatican as humanly possible. He probably didn't want to get beaned crossing the courtyard...
Sunday, January 23
...a dwarf and a dullard...
'Certainly, some Saturday-night programs were pitched so low that they even shamed the rest of the marginally intelligent television schedule and made anyone watching feel even more pained by their lack of social alternatives, adding insult to injury: it's bad enough having nothing to do, but you feel even worse when you find yourselve spending Saturday night watching something as asinine as "Holmes and Yo-Yo." [...] But real marketing genius showed itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when ABC scheduled two hours that made up perhaps the ultimate Saturday-night schedule: "The Love Boat," followed by "Fantasy Island." [...T]he first [show was] a series of fey paens to romance on a cruise vessel, and the second a run of baroque [?] morality plays staged by a dwarf and a dullard on a deserted sandbar [...]. It was like having a nationally-broadcast consolation prize for having no such love or social intercourse of one's own to propel one out of the house.'
--Susan Orlean, Saturday Night, 1990.
Friday, January 21
Alright, here's the plan, finally! For those of you who will be in Washington, DC this Sunday, we will be meeting at Paul VI's tiara (Number 6 on this map) in the crypt of the National Shrine after their Noon Mass (1:15 or so, I should think), and going from there to lunch at Ellis Island Restaurant (located here). So, if you want to come a bit later, you can just meet us at the restaurant.
If you'll be joining us, please drop me an email or a note in the comments box, so I have an idea of who will be there. Also, if you'll be at the March on Monday, drop me a note so I can keep an eye out for you; and of course, if you see the giant blue Notre Dame Right to Life banner, drop by and say hi!
Wednesday, January 19
St. Thomas, incidentally, is is patron saint of architects:
CHENNAI (ICNS) – The tsunami waves have subsided, but a miracle is being talked about across Chennai. It is the story of how St Thomas’ miraculous post kept the invading waves away, sparing the newly renovated Santhome Cathedral. The Cathedral, the world’s second basilica built on an apostle’s tomb, has been giving shelter to hundreds of tsunami victims ever since the waves ravaged many buildings across the coast.
But even though the killer tsunami waves devastated the Chennai coast, Father Lawrence Raj, the parish priest of the Santhome Cathedral Basilica, says “the sea did not touch our church.”
The reason? “We believe the miraculous post of St. Thomas prevented the sea waters from entering the church,” says Father Raj.
The church that sits at the site where St. Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, was buried after his death in the year 72 is located a few metres from the sea. While all the buildings on either side of the church were hit by the tsunami waves, the Santhome Cathedral remained unaffected.
Local people now say it is the St. Thomas’s miraculous post that has kept the sea away on December 26. According to Father Raj, the legend is that when St Thomas planted the post at the top of the steps leading to the Cathedral, he said the sea would not pass that point.
The priest saw from the terrace of church the angry sea in action, as it surged across the road and flooded the huts in front of St. Thomas post, which is an innocuous looking log of wood, mounted on a cement pedestal.
The belief goes that a village in the Mylapore area was flooded when a huge tree trunk fell across the river. The local king brought a royal pachyderm to lug it away, but the task seemed impossible. Then, according to legend, St. Thomas came along, removed the girdle from his waist and handed it to a bystander and asked him to yank the log with it. He did so and the log was moved easily.
A mural in the Cathedral museum illustrates this incident. Father Raj says the current post is believed to be from that same log of wood.
Hundreds of homeless survivors who have been staying in the church ever since the tragedy hit them have prayed to St Thomas for saving them.
“It is St. Thomas who has saved me. This church was untouched by the waters because of the miraculous power of the St. Thomas post,” said K Sebastiraj, a fisherman who sought shelter in the Santhome Cathedral.
Tuesday, January 18
Higher! Longer! Solemner!!!!!
This post is blatant begging. You all have heard, by now, of our efforts to solemnize liturgy at Notre Dame. Indeed, the readers of this blog came through to supply our Mass with a fine ring of sanctus bells.
Now we're looking at getting some club vestments as an option for priests to use at the Masses we sponsor, continuing in our goal of revivifying Catholic customs and classic examples of beauty. Well, that is, with a little help. We ourselves are pooling financial resources, but we need small donations from a number of contributers. If any in the audience feel so moved, please email andrew_na (@) hotmail.com ASAP. We hope to obtain something along the lines of the above or, dare we hope, the one below it.
Monday, January 17
Tight End: St. Thérèse of LisieuxI can just see her with those funny black paint stripes under her eyes and a golden football helmet...and a Carmelite habit. Hmmmm...
Though diminutive and timid, the "Little Plower" has done more than anyone to show that a "little way" of self-discipline and obedience can go pretty far. She's spent her best years behind bars; but don't let that fool you - she has definitely been the inspirational, feel-good-story of the game since her novice season.
Oh well, I may just have to order one in anticipation.
And yes, I'll do something other than a plain text page as soon as I have a few spare minutes.
~My Dorm Rectress, in a phone message to hall residents.
WTF? Since when did he get canonized? (Not that some people wouldn't like to...)
Sunday, January 16
American Gothic - Notre Dame, Indiana
Saturday, January 15
A knight of the Papal Order of St. Gregory
Everything you wanted to ever know (and more, if you can imagine that) on the chivalric orders of the Papal court, accompanied by scholarly essays and some graphics blatantly borrowed from the Vatican website.
Apparently Prince Ruspoli is dead, a part-time actor, hedonist, orientalist and Dolce Vita denizen. As some of my older readers may remember, a (though perhaps not the) Prince Ruspoli and his feverishly imaginative brother feature in one of my more uproarious adventures from my year in Rome, involving my accidental gate-crashing of an attempt to strike a blow against the Nefarous World Conspiracy of Masonry. Presuming this is the same fellow, I'm amazed at his life story, that such a...gangly old fellow given to frequenting crankish traditionalist political rallies could also have been the same aristocrat in his prime who hung out with Brigitte Bardot, the Rolling Stones and Picasso, and also had a pet raven. I can't state for sure if this is the same person, actually, as I don't know if everyone in an Italian princely family gets to be called Prince or just the oldest guy. If it is, well, I suppose truth is stranger than fiction, and if not, well, every good fiction has an evil twin in it somewhere...
Thursday, January 13
The Church does not reject what is modern in art [...] and gives great freedom to the artist who undertakes a work of sacred art, but she does emphatically reject degraded art (which for convenience sake we term here "modernistic art," using "modern" for good contemporary art). This art--which is over subjective, often bizarre and extravagant, sometimes coarse or even barbaric, the product of undisciplined sentimentalism and mere ephemeral whim, idiosyncratic--desires to pass off as beautiful the deformed and the grotesque and "loses itself in the wild forest of cubist and abstract art." [fn: Cardinal Constantini, Osservatore Romano, July 23, 1942.] This errant art arises from false ideas about originality, modernity and progress. True modernity, based on the honest desire to make the arts more effective in the service of religion makes use of diversity of style and fashion without becoming its slave, employs the living art and living creative intelligence of our own day as the great artists of the past used the art and intelligence of their day. [...]
Pius XI in his discourse at the opening of the new Vatican Art Gallery (October 28, 1932) spoke of "so many works of art indisputably and forever beautiful...which bring to mind, by an irresistible force of contrast, certain other so-called works of art, that seem to recall the sacred, only to distort it to the point of caritcature, very often of real profanation. An attempt to defend this is made on the plea of the search for the new [...]. The new represents no new progress if it is not at least as beautiful and as good as the old." The same enlightened Pontiff declared: "The so-called modern art in religion must not disfigure the House of God. Sacred art has no foundation or reason for its existence unless it represents spiritual ideals. Works of art that are foreign to the Christian tradition must not be admitted into places of prayer."
Matt's Moderately Useful Fact of the Day
According to one of my professors (who should know) if you're ever stuck in a falling elevator, you should lay down on the floor with something beneath your head and with something else covering your face. This should help you survive impact. The business about "jumping" right before impact doesn't work...unless, of course you're Superman and can jump as high as the elevator fell, which isn't likely outside of a science fiction film. And there's of course the matter of the elevator ceiling you'd have to crash through.
Wednesday, January 12
The Unicycle Diaries. This extremely independent film about the formative early years of dictator Benito Mussolini was made on a shoestring budget of $500, five Abyssinian Maria Theresa thalers and some pocket lint scrounged up by producer Burt Flintenmeyer (of Schulenburg, Minnesota) with the assistance of the Upper Midwest Primo de Rivera Fan Club. While supposedly based on a movie treatment once optioned by Fellini, it was later discovered to have been written by the Italian director's cousin Fredo, the justifiably forgotten auteur of the seventeen-part Taxicab of the Living Dead series, concerning the adventures of a jovial zombie (played by Italian comic Totò) in Naples.
Filming took place during one week in 1994, with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan doubling for the Tuscan hill country. This surreal treatment of Mussolini's young adulthood imagines him unicycling through rural Italy in search of a job as a human cannonball after his socialist aspirations go belly-up. It closes just as he leaves the circus behind and hits on the idea of becoming a vicious though comically inept dictator in a silly fez, though he has to pay his way there through waitressing. Largely devoid of recognizable jokes, its tin-ear for humor actually caused more trouble than it was worth. One irritating trope concerned the similarity of Benito's last name to a species of Canadian cervidae--indeed, Mussolini's spiritual guide throughout the film is a hand-puppet named "Benny the Moose."
Benny the Moose considerable copyright problems and led to Flintenmeyer being sued by the estate of Captain Wallaby, a well-known children's TV host, in June of 2004. After a surprisingly short run in 1998 at a film festival run out of a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, it was closed down after complaints that the cast list credited the bald actor Telly Savalas with the main role, when he had died nearly six months before production on the film began and had never even been in the same state as Flintenmeyer, much less expressed interest in the production.
The man playing Mussolini was never identified, even after a long search by FBI agents through the dark underword of professional dictator impersonators. Some suspicion fell on Gary Bellgauer (of Hart, Ohio), who does a double-bill vaudeville act of Khruschev and Pinochet, but it turned out rumors of his premature hair loss was greatly exaggerated. The disaster at the film festival is thought to have hastened the premature death of the empresario, the infamous Marty Flamsteed, still crushed from the Tangle Plywood fiasco of a year earlier.
Tuesday, January 11
What is the theological significance of saying the priest (or anyone, when appropriate) is an "alter Christus," as opposed to an "alter Jesus"?
You have to spot-clean your bridesmaid's dress before the ceremony because the bride's 7-month-old brother spit crackers on you.
Of 8 bridesmaids, 2 junior bridesmaids, and the flower girl, only 2 of them aren't sisters of either the bride or groom.
I recently got an email from a Catholie youth director who has started a great blog, "Catholic, Young, and Minister." I'm particularly interested in her blog because I was very involved with youth ministry during high school (and probably will be again once I graduate and get back into parish life), but was also very frustrated with the politics that go on in parish life.
In a parish Confirmation class, one can end up with everyone from homeschooled latinists to the kids who keep sneaking off to smoke/make out/etc. (not to mention the homeschooled latinists who keep sneaking off...), and knowing what to do with these kids is a challenge, to say the least. Not to mention dealing with their parents. Not to mention the low pay.
So anyway, check out her blog. I think it will resonate with anyone who's been involved with youth groups, or in parish politics in general.
P.S. If anyone out there has a youth program that really works, I'd sure be interested to hear about it.
WORSHIP! Your inner Bombshell is the beautiful Audrey Hepburn. Like her you've been blessed with a "certain something" that no one could describe accurately. You are more reserved than other bombshells, and that shows in your gentle, graceful nature. You like doing
things for other people and love volunteering for your favorite charity. Yours is a rare gift in this day and age. You don't need to show a lot of skin to be sexy, all you need is your eyes. To see Audrey at the top of her game, watch the movie "Breakfast at Tiffanys."
Who is your inner bombshell?
brought to you by Quizilla
Monday, January 10
Wednesday, January 5
--P.G. Wodehouse, Uneasy Money.
You can't stick lighted matches between the toes of an English
butler. He would raise his eyebrows and freeze you with a glance.
You'd feel as if he had caught you using the wrong fork.
--P.G. Wodehouse, The Old Reliable.
Last night, my family and I watched five episodes straight through of the wonderfully funny old British TV series, Wodehouse Playhouse, an anthology of adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse's short stories made back in the seventies. P.G., if you never heard of him (shame on thou) wrote over 70 novels and 300 stories over a career which took in a good chunk of the twentieth century and chronicled the inspired lunacy of a circle of comically naive upper-class-twits, spunky girls, boisterous (and sometimes wicked) aunts and their clever servants, in an edenic Jazz Age England. Everything's funny in P.G.'s world, from the innocently amoral plots, centering on crazy capers in country estates involving stolen cow-creamers, hasty engagements, old Etonian spats, fascists in soccer shorts, and banjo-playing men-about-town, to the very language he uses, which pops with an inspired mix of slang and comic metaphor.
P.G. actually lived to see the first few seasons of Wodehouse Playhouse (and narrated the introductions!) and Jonathan Alderton, who plays the lead in each episode, does a brilliantly bashful, rubber-faced job of inhabiting Wodehouse's Drones Club gents, Mulliners, Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, young country curates, golf enthusiasts and transplanted Brits in Hollywood, whether he's trying to turn a girl's head (by, for example, memorizing some awful obscure poet named...er...Tennyson) or get out of a nasty emotional entanglement, or possibly both. Anyway, three seasons are out on DVD, so drop by your local literary or videographic emporium, pick up a copy, and sit down with a big glass of Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo and join the fun!
Monday, January 3
Could someone please explain to me what's going on here? Is that a deacon waving a sword and wearing a...helmet? Whatever it is, I wish we did it at my local parish church... Though I think I'll take a biretta rather than plumes.
(Via Don Jim's Biretta Sightings post.)
Am I the only one who thinks this sounds more like a good Mass than a Chinese film?
Sunday, January 2
or, The Long-Expected Bill Moyers and Sandro Botticelli Neo-Platonist Christmas Special
“Oh yeah. Venus on the half-shell.” The girl sitting in the South Bend Airport lounge was talking about Botticelli. She approved. But then she was able to summon a peppily generic enthusiasm about nearly everything. It was an enthusiasm which distanced rather than united, including a vague, excited “oh, that’s cool” for the CD of medieval Czech folk music I had brought along with me for the plane trip. She wasn’t bad looking in a freckled, harmless sort of way: another archetype of the Notre Dame kore in sweatshirt and jeans.
A veiled reference to The Da Vinci Code popped up in the next sentence, though the sacred feminine was curiously absent. Fortunately.
While the Da Vinci Code ruckus had died down on campus at long last, Venus on the half-shell, with her anatomically impossible round shoulders and her flying autumn-tawny mane, had kept following me around for the last couple of months. She’d been dogging my mental steps most of the semester ever since she’d popped up on the projector screen in History 430 sometime in mid-October. And then—
“But I told my professor, ‘Look at her, that’s the face of Eve in Eden before the Fall.’ ” It was Lauren talking, fellow blogger and Catholic Nerd, on the phone, just back from a fall studying abroad in Italy, homeland of Botticelli and his near-identical procession of Madonnas, martyrs, virgins and goddesses with their impossibly white skin, their snub noses, their placid, quizzically hooded gazes. But was his vision of the birth of Venus hanging in the Uffizi the ikon of a proto-Christian saint or a neo-pagan sinner?
We’d both talked art before, so it was no surprise this little philosophical Chinese puzzle-box had come up again. The conversation had taken this fork when I mentioned that my final essay question for Hist 430 was in re Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy, not the mutant ninja turtle) “explain to Pope Julius why there was a naked man painted on his ceiling.” Adam, to be specific.
Face of Eve in Eden. That’s darn good. “Wow, did you just make that up, Lauren? I like it.”
“You better like it. That’s what you said about her the last time I called.”
Wow, I better write that down. I’m good. “Oh. Nice. But, what’d she say?”
“She was skeptical. I think it was something like, ‘Well, if you were walking ’round a Renaissance palace how often would you be likely to see a big painting of a naked woman?’ ” What would your average Joe Schmoe—Messer Giovanni Schmomini, whatever—of the Renaissance think about a big nude chick? Get real.
Lauren thought that what he said was a cheap shot. It was.
I grew up watching Sister Wendy Beckett on public television, a gaunt, graceful, buck-tooth-smiling scarecrow in an imposing black habit that could have come off the set of The Sound of Music. She was a nun art expert: a superstar in some circles. She was an odd, lisping creature who’d entered a teaching order at age sixteen, gone to Oxford, and, her epilepsy worsening, ended up in 1970 as a part-time anchoress in a battered trailer (worth seventy-five dollars) on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery at Quindenham in Norfolk.
She had never seen a TV set before she got on one, and that otherwordliness, that curious medieval otherworldiness even carries over into her private life. She spends seven hours a day in prayer and six months a year in seclusion and survives on a birdlike (or perhaps Catherine of Siena-like) rationed diet of skim milk, crackers, and two potato chips per day.
Her name used to be Sister Michael of St. Peter, but after Vatican II she changed it back. She says, “I did it as a humiliation, and it pleased my dear mother. It's a silly name and I don't like it. But I am silly! I am a Wendy.” Humilitas.
She’d wander the stucco shadows of Urbino or the gilded halls of the Louvre, and stop in front of some grand canvas, the camera framing her lean, black-draped silhouette as stark as a piece of conceptual art. And then she’d proceed to take to bits everything modern man had gotten wrong about the human body in an English-accented voice so acerbically gentle, so subtle that she’d slipped onto PBS without any of the powers-that-be raising the alarm. She was harmless, she was cute, aw, she was old, with those huge silly glasses—
But she was dangerous, in the best of ways.
I remember they had her on with Bill Moyers once, in a big, airy library, sitting on green leather chairs. He was asking her how a consecrated virgin like herself could stand there and talk about naked people in paintings. The Church, that kaleidoscope of history emblazoned with flagellants and penitents, virgin-martyrs and repentant prostitutes, “I am dark but I am comely,” divine guidance and human failure, Adam innocent in the garden and Cain killing Abel, Mary squirting milk across a room for a saint, fanatics kissing rotting relics and murmurs of “thou art dust,” debauched cardinals with robes flaming like bonfires of vanities, saints smearing quicklime on their faces to blot out their beauty and an incarnate God sucking at a girl’s breast, how could She find room under her golden mantle for—
For paintings of nekkid people.
You took our job. We sophisticates are supposed to like artsy nekkid people. Especially if we can make it into a big dirty power trip. Of course, he didn’t say that. But he could have.
It came out in his drawl sounding like a Blue Stater caricature of a slightly smug, slightly shocked Baptist minister trying to close down a dance-hall or a Faulknerian Susanna and the Elders. I can’t remember what her exact words were, but she slipped through Moyers’s web of imagined Manichaenism.
The truth was she could talk about everything and anything, sex and sense, death and drama, TV and humanity, with a face straight and serious because she was shut up in a trailer for six months at a time on potato chips and prayer, shaved her head and married Jesus as a teenage virgin. Her chastity was one of praise, not fear, not fear of humanity’s naughty bits like every movie and anti-Catholic ranter would have you believe. She was pure, and for her, the world and all its creatures had retained its prelapsarian purity.
This alien emissary from the pre-modern world could look on human perfection—nekkid or no—and see who and what God had wrought, and see it was good. Or could see when twisting it forms a sham, a parody of God’s good creation. As a writer at Envoy magazine has it:
Such reactions [of prudery from liberals] perplex Sister Wendy. “Why does [anyone] think that anybody should not delight in the creative work of God? ...This suggests that...He’s done these shameful things and we must do our best to cover them up. This is not the Faith.” While Sister Wendy believes that modesty demands a certain “appropriateness,” she doesn't believe we have any “nasty bits.”She, she, the eighty-year-old-virgin, could sound well-adjusted and relaxed and poetic and beautiful and—honest about this strange thing that men and women are and that stranger thing they do, imaging the Divine in the marriage-bed. It was Homo televisificus who was left there as lonely and sexually weird (who, in their right mind, asks an eighty-year-old nun if she regrets never having had sex?) as all those repressed stylites ought to have been in a just world—in Moyers’ case, a world without God.
For others, this frank delight in the human form is a unique witness. It is obvious that her celibacy is not rooted in a fear and repression, but joy. “Im an outsider to sex,” she admits. “The fires of it mean nothing to me.” While she is happy for the gift of sexuality for others, she considers her “solitude with God” a “bigger gift.”
(When Moyers asked her if she thought she had become a paradox as the first cloistered nun on TV, she did not deny it: “Yes, [it is] bizarre. It’s the kind of thing only God would do.” Moyers, a man of the world comfortable in the highest echelons of politics and art, was dumbfounded.)
In the earliest days of the pagan world, sex was everywhere, but the sanctuary of an Etruscan temple, bristling with Priapic accessories, however much it looked like pre-Giuliani Times Square, was an entirely different thing. Sex was a force of nature, was the wheelwork that drove the course of the seasons, and frankly it was something scary. It was depersonalizing—take a look at the Venus of Willendorf sometime, a faceless crone all broad hips and pendulous breasts, a totem rather than a human. Or, in the British Isles, there was the hideous gnomish sheela-na-gig with her evil, almost idiotic smirk, looking all the world like a sexually-depraved ancestor of Spielberg’s E.T. One flick through a book on pre-Christian Ireland, that paradisical pagan island so beloved of today’s free-and-easy Wiccan wanna-blessed-bes would give even Don Juan nightmares. There are worse succubae than Sheela. I can’t talk about them in a family forum. Trust me here. (Rememebr Ungit in Till We Have Faces? Kid stuff. Much worse than that.) The earliest pagans knew sex was something powerful—not necessarily pleasurable, not even necessarily good—and they brandished it in the face of the thousand natural threats that closed tight upon them in the dark prehistoric night.
They were wrong to dehumanize it, and there is a horrible, ugly wrongness to that world you can see in the awkward wooden gods that post-Christian archaeologists have pulled from the depths of Hibernian bogs. It is a far different sort of ugliness than mere modern fornication, though I cannot say which one is worse when you get down to it. At least some of the pagans, in their own warped way, recognized there was more than mere pleasure at stake.
Christianity raised the world from a frightening wilderness populated by capricious gods and made it the work of the one good God. Christianity also took marriage from the natural realm, and lifted it into the supernatural, and something once sacred and terrifying, yoked to the terrifying gods of the world and exposed to ward off the elements, became a sacred and beautiful thing, a veiled thing. Because you veil good things. Who wraps mud in beautiful gauze? You veil virgin brides in purest white. You veil nuns. You veil tabernacles, the home of God on earth. The immodesty of the prehistoric tribesman was out of a desparate fear of power—and it was the modesty of Christ that brought true freedom. No longer did pagans had to throw smoking carcasses on the sacrificial pyres of voracious Aphrodite. The unknown God, the loving God, He had given us His son as a final sacrifice, and we could be free from fear. No longer was sex about power—until, perhaps, our own soft-core neo-pagan days. But that’s another story.
The naked goddess of the Renaissance, however pagan she looked, could probably not have risen from those softly-lapping waves of Cyprus without Christianity to make her body something transcendent rather than a mere engine for fertility rites. To the most ancient of Greeks, let us recall, the whole tale of the birth of Venus started with Uranus getting castrated, a detail we have mercifully forgotten. This softened, beautiful, rounded version of the myth is one which owes perhaps more to the Christian imagination than the pagan. After all, it is to the Song of Songs, not the lyric poetry of Sappho, that Baldassare Castiglione, the Renaissance’s best-selling neo-Platonist Emily Post, appeals in his Book of the Courtier when he invokes the contemplation of Beauty as a road to the Divine:
I name not unto you the fine wittes that are nowe in the worlde, and here present, whiche dailye bringe furthe some noble frute, and notwythstandynge take their grounde onlye of the vertue and beawtye of women. See whether Salomon myndynge to write mysticallye verye highe and heavenlye matters, to cover them wyth a gracious veile, did not feigne a fervent Dialogue full of the affection of a lover with his woman, seeminge to him that he coulde not fynde here beeneth emonge us anye lykenesse more meete and agreeinge wyth heavenlye matters, then the love toward women: and in that wise and maner minded to gyve us a litle of the smacke of that divinitye, whiche he bothe for hys understandynge and for the grace above others, had knowleage of.A gracious veile. I remember once, myself, passing a poster tacked up on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, of Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur—beauty and brains taming the man-beast—and sighing to myself, O Virgin Mother, surely You are even more beautiful than Athena!
The pagans did get some things right, though they never knew how right. (Homo naturaliter Christianus.) The eighteenth-century Hermeneia or Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna—son of the priest Panagiotos Chalkia, and the author of eighteen epigrams, four surviving letters, and two hymns, one to the martyred Seraphim of Phanarios and the other to the Virgin of the Zodochos Pege—explains in elegant calligraphic Greek, spattered with trailing crossbars and accent-marks like cartoon eyebrows the correct ways of applying gesso to an ikonostasis, how to melt a ducat, how to paint the nine choirs of angels and what sort of beard St. Simeon Thaumastooreites possessed.
It also notes how to paint the narthex of the Church with images of the Greek philosophers clutching scrolls of prophesy.
Apollonius; an old man with a long beard, divided into two points wearing a veil on his head, says on a scroll: “I, even I, proclaim one God alone in a Trinity, ruling on high whose imperishable Word shall be conceived in an innocent Virgin. For He will fly through space like a purple ark, and subjugate the whole universe, and will bring it as a gift to his father.Plato, Solon, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plutarch, the wise Sibyl, even the Egyptian Thothmosis, they’re all there, and probably still are. The prophesies sound a little too good to be true, and some spoil-sport folk say the extant Sibylline Books are palaeo-Christian forgeries, but whatever the case, certainly Thomas had room for the Philosopher in his theology. A footnote claims it started in the sixteenth century in response to the Turks, and cites an incomprehensible German article entitled Darstellungen altheidnischer Denker und Autoren in der Kirchenmalerei der Grichen and published in some yellowing scholarly journal back in 1923.
Plato, an old man with a long, wide beard, says: “The old is made new and the new is made old; the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father; unity is divided into three and trinity is in unity.
Botticelli would have approved. But what of his howling contemporary, black-robe Savonarola—in whose profile the crackpot mystical populist Ignatius Donelley saw the face of a bloodstained Mayan pictogram—silhouetted against the fires of his book-burnings? Savonarola, the excommunicated heretic burnt at the stake, Savonarola the blessed seen in visions by St. Catherine of Genoa who lies still incorrupt in her tomb, Savonarola the saint who prayed in cloisters frescoed by Frá Angelico, Savonarola the wicked, Savonarola the Machiavellian politico caught unawares—
Wouldn’t he have burned milk-white Venus if he had the chance?
Botticelli and Michelangelo themselves were among his followers, and while Botticelli was (supposedly) never quite the same afterwards, certainly Michelangelo went on to populate the world with more paintings of nekkid folk. Some say that Savonarola’s blaze consumed inestimable treasure, others claim all that was lost were a handful of unmemorable and undoubtedly smutty paintings and a few wigs. Some may have seen smut when they saw Venus on the half-shell, but what did the Florentines see? What did Botticelli the artist see?
The Florentine neo-Platonists were omnivorous scholars, sometimes too omnivorous for their own good given Savonarola’s fire-and-brimstone, for all his humanist education. But sometimes their far-too-catholic explorations, their Hellenic tastes and their dabblings into odd corners of Chaldean myth unearthed something unexpectedly glorious. They were fascinated by the myths of the old-time Platonists, who had spoken mysteriously of how, at the beginning of time, Beauty had emanated down to the solid, real world of the everyday from the realm of the Forms, and how beauty in earthly things, beauty herself—or himself?—personified, could lead us back to the heavenly spheres from whence it had come. Had some deep archetype of what was to come, some stamp of the blueprint of Salvation History within their souls lead them to this prophesy of the Incarnation? God is Love—Christ is Love—Christ is Beauty, thought the Renaissance scholars in their scarlet silks and their newly-translated parchments.
It even looks like a baptism, and Venus—in the pose of shy Venus, modest Venus shielding herself, veiling herself with her hair—stands atop the cockle-shell we see worked in brass every time a priest murmurs amid the splashes, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Thus, the myth of Venus’s foam-birth—matter fertilized by divinity—became, for Botticelli and his friends, something more than a pretty myth, an excuse to paint a pretty girl. It became in a way, the prefigurement of God’s birth in a chill, muddy stable, and suddenly the Gospel tale, familiar and too-comfortable, was thrown into a wild and radical light.
The human body is a thing of beauty, and things of beauty can be twisted and scarred. Sex can become a pagan power-struggle or neo-pagan self-centered gratification. The human body can be and is defamed daily through smut—but that should not stop us from recalling when we look upon this masterpiece of Botticelli it was made by the hand of God, and dare us to expect more from ourselves. Let us dare to see Eve’s pre-fallen glory—let us dare to see the Incarnation in every face we behold.