Thursday, December 08, 2005

random notes

Today's the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, so here it is. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1598-1664. The painting is late for me, but in my period there was still a lot of debate on the Immaculate Conception (Both St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Thomas Aquinas objected on theological grounds, Duns Scotus promoted it).

On the infamous Vatican document. A Jesuit friend of mine mentioned that it only affects diocesan priests, not religious orders such as the Jesuits or the Franciscans. Also, for a good explanation of the types of Vatican documents there are and the authority they carry, see Nathan Nelson's blog.

Another short list:

1. Ave Maria, gratia plena.

2. It is too cold in NYC today.

3. The sheen of desire, the embrace of calm.

4. I don't know what GI Joes are like today, but I'm sure they were better in the seventies. Life-like hair and kung-fu grip, what more could you ask for? Even if the hair rubbed off and the rubbery fingers disappeared.

5. Every pearl you buy means untold suffering for an oyster. Join the Oyster Liberation Front (OLF) today.

6. My dearest, imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, has a bad cold today. Please pray for her recovery.

7. The Jazz actually won last night... Against Atlanta... oh...

8. Dominus tecum.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Puritas Ecclesiae

Gregory VII, reforming pope, 1073-1085.

A professor I teach for who is an expert on the medieval papacy remarked to me that what is happening in the Vatican right now can very easily be understood from an eleventh-century perspective. I had already been thinking this, and a bit of history can be a helpful tool in understanding a deep-seated way of thinking that can still be found in the papal curia.

The tenth-century Church was in a state of crisis. The papacy had become a tool of ambitious Roman families, and the weak and irreligious men they installed on the papal throne brought the institution to its nadir in prestige and influence. Elsewhere in Europe, the fractioning of political power after the dismemberment of the Carolingian Empire was mirrored with a fractioning of ecclesiastical power, with many churches and monasteries falling into the hands of local nobles. A spirit of reform, however, began to grow; first in monasteries like Cluny or Gorze, then brought to Rome by Emperor Henry III and his ecclesiastical advisors, and finally imposed on the Church as a whole by reforming popes such as Leo IX, Gregory VII, and Urban II.

The reformers were concerned mainly with two great problems: simony (the selling of ecclesiastical offices) and clerical celibacy. One great goal was libertas ecclesiae, the independence of the Church from secular influence. A great many discussions of clerical celibacy that I come across in the press mention that its origins are to be found in the desire to keep sons of priests from inheriting church property. Indeed this is a factor from the point of view of libertas ecclesiae, but there was another goal that was more deeply psychological, which is puritas ecclesiae, or purity of the Church. This was as much a liturgical concern as any, and had much to do with the worry that impure hands would handle the precious body and blood of Christ. It went hand in hand with libertas ecclesiae, since Churchmen wished their ministers to be cleanly differentiated and independent of the laity, many of whom were regularly involved in bloodshed and sexual impropriety. One writer complained that it would be unacceptable for a priest or bishop to swear fealty to a lay lord, invoking the image of the hands that handled the sacrament enclosed in the blood-stained hands of a bellicose noble.

The reform strengthened the Church and created the conditions for all the glories (and excesses) of high medieval Christianity. At the same time, the concern for purity made the clergy entirely a class apart, more deserving, it would seem, than the laity of the title of holiness. This separation could be seen sacramentally. Only a priest could take communion in both forms, wine and bread, while the laity was restricted to the bread (how this began is unclear, according to one story the clergy was worried about drops of the blood of Christ sticking in the laymen's thick beards). Priests would take communion at every Mass, whereas the laity would take it very rarely, and often their Eucharistic experience revolved around seeing the host elevated over the screen that separated them from the priest. The screen was symbolic of the different expectations of purity for the clergy and the laity.

Of course, many things have changed, especially after the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reforms that followed it. Now lay Eucharistic ministers like myself can stand next to the priest on the altar and offer the consecrated wine to the faithful. The screens and rails are down and the liturgy recognizes that "the Church" is the whole body of the faithful. Still, the shock of such radical changes is not easy to absorb, and we can see this in the defensiveness about clerical privileges in this and the previous papacy. At a time of uncertainty about what clerical status means, the sex abuse scandal was overwhelming. This scandal is not essentially about the actions of individual priests, but of an institution that seemed to be more concerned with hiding the crimes of members of its own caste than with protecting its flock. Devout lay Catholics respond by demanding more input in the administration of the Church and more accountability from the hierarchy.

I have no doubts about the sincerity of Benedict and much of the hierarchy in addressing the issue and finding a way to keep more children from being abused. What is interesting is how much of their reaction is motivated by a concern for purity instead of accountability -- for puritas ecclesiae. Since married clergy is not so much a problem, it seems that the only possible response was to cruelly and unjustly scapegoat gay priests. There has been a great deal of discussion of the Vatican document about homosexuality and the priesthood. I have read the document and I can't see what "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" could mean except that the person in question is gay. The fact that many people in the hierarchy -- bishops and leaders of religious orders -- can interpret it in different ways is a hopeful sign that it will not be imposed in a draconian fashion, but I think the intention is clear enough. For whatever reason, there is a concern that homosexuality among the clergy is a stain on its purity.

What the hierarchy needs to do is to learn to relinquish this idea of purity. It was useful in the eleventh century; it is harmful now. We the laity are not illiterate brutes with our hands dripping in blood (any more than they are: they vote too). We have our place at the altar, let us in. Let in gay men, married men, women. Let us all work to heal our Church.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Septem res

The Seven Liberal Arts, from the twelfth-century Hortus Deliciarum.

Fayrouz sent me this assignment, which I have slowly but whimsically completed. Of course, clumsy as I am, I have messed up the formatting. Sorry, everyone.

Seven things I plan to do:

  1. Get a PhD in Medieval History sometime in the next four years.

  2. Play for the NBA. This is less likely than plan #1.

  3. Order the expensive wine for once.

  4. Cover the imperetrix pulcerrima Africae Occidentalis with jewels and the finest silks of the mysterious and alluring East.

  5. Sigh, and wistfully pull the cord on the old chain saw one more time...

  6. Own an emu.

  7. Travel, travel, travel.

Seven things I can do:
  1. Read a charter in Visigothic script, given enough time and good light.

  2. Blather on and on.

  3. Google efficiently.

  4. Panic with great elegance.

  5. Insult someone in English, Spanish, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Gaelic.

  6. Make damn good lentejas, soliciting golden opinions from all sorts of people.
  7. Procrastinate with an almost otherworldly intensity.

Seven things I can't do:
  1. Juggle.

  2. Appreciate Nascar.

  3. Convince the guard at the White House of my sincerity.

  4. Dunk without a trampoline and a basket only four feet above the ground.

  5. Rap in Latin (but I'm trying, I'm trying).

  6. Get this probation thing off my ankle with only a pocketknife.

  7. Watch reality television without feeling that civilization has fallen apart and that the barbarians are not only at the gates, but in the control room.

Seven things I say most often:
  1. &%#@*!

  2. What?

  3. Groovy.

  4. Row, damn you, row, they're gaining on us... and they're armed.

  5. Si lo pones ahi, va a estallar.
  6. &#^$%!
  7. No, it's only blood.

Seven people I want to pass this tag to:
  1. Guillaume le Fou.
  2. Mi primo.
  3. Eon de l'Etoile, the mad 12th century heretic of Brittany.
  4. The laughing cat.
  5. The old man who punched me on Broadway.
  6. Cleopatra, asp-bitten and pale.
  7. Frank O'Hara, wherever he may be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I am too busy to write anything now, as I am slogging through pages and pages of notes trying to see if I have something similar to a dissertation topic. I liken myself to a paleontologist who has discovered a thousand interesting small bones but has yet to find out whether or not they make up one dinosaur. Still, I wanted to alert anyone who may come upon this blog to the fascinating meditation by Juan Cole on the death of Syrian-American producer Moustapha Akkad in the terrorist attack in Jordan. Just go to the entry for Tuesday, November 15. Apparently Akkad was planning a film about the great 12th-century Muslim leader Salah ad-Din, or Saladin.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Worst Sort of Men

Philip IV "Le Bel" of France. Ruthless, sometimes a real bastard, but at least he knew what he was doing.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld: the worst sort of men. Small-minded, corrupt, arrogant, cowardly bullies, yet at the same time driven by ideology. A fearful combination. On one hand, they are men of huge ambition: they really believed that through one simple invasion they could turn the entire Mideast into a peaceful Western democracy, a market for American goods, a base for American military and a voice of support for American policy. Yet the means they used were petty and corrupt, too easy -- means that would appeal to a privileged underachiever like our president, whose place in college was guaranteed by legacy, who avoided service in a war through family influence, who was bailed out of business failures by his father's friends, and who entered politics thanks to a war chest compiled by large corporations who knew a good puppet when they saw one.

So support for the war was achieved the easy way: on the international front by the reckless breaking of a consensus that had been in place for fifty years, and on the domestic front by deception, intimidation of adversaries (e.g., Joseph Wilson), and the appropriation for themselves of a national tragedy that belonged to all Americans. These men who had avoided war themselves sent soldiers into battle without an exit strategy, sufficient numbers or enough equipment. They refused the dead to be photographed so that the cost of the war is not on the front page of the paper. They callously and glibly spoke of going into war "with the army you have," when they were the ones responsible for the state of the army we have and the fact that we unnecessarily went into war. Playing GI Joe, they landed on aircraft carriers and said "bring 'em on." Once we found ourselves in the middle of the disaster they created, a place where there are no easy answers, they botched a vital reconstruction by handing out no-bid contracts to cronies and threw gasoline on the fire of the insurgency by resorting to stupid brutality in Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. They created a dangerous mess that could only be cleaned up through the utmost delicacy and honest recognition that any solution will be prolonged and involve sacrifice. These are virtues that the men of this administration lack to an almost pathological degree.

They have been assisted by a congress controlled by a party driven by its extremists and so hungry for absolute power that transparency, bipartisanship and common decency have fallen by the wayside. The party that attacked the previous president for lying about a personal matter is now suffering investigation or indictment at its highest levels. Any opposition or even discussion meets with the same argument that Cheney used to debate Sen. Patrick Leahy over Halliburton.

Bush himself is still something of a mystery. Does he believe what he says? How much of a puppet is he? It seems he is sincere in his weird, twisted, and megalomaniac version of religion. At the same time, while incapable of listening to criticism or imagining himself mistaken, he is not as steadfast as his supporters believe him to be. His behavior in the Harriet Miers nomination show him for what he is: an opportunistic coward. He thought he could avoid a battle by nominating a crony with no judicial background. He could only imply to the right and to the center that she was the woman for all seasons. When his own people revolted against him, he abandoned his hero-worshipping nominee as fast as he had named her. It was easy for him to be steadfast when the media and congress were behind him and the magic words "nine-eleven" could silence any adversary, even decorated war veterans. Now that he has run into adversity we see how much "character" he has.

These are the worst of men. Much worse than the Democrats, who are bad but are essentially merely pathetic and not dangerously insane. My friend Guillaume le Fou (whose brilliant blog everyone reading this should check out, leaving comments berating him for not posting more often) sums up the problem well: "The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans have a vision. It's a scary vision, but the Democrats have nothing." A scary vision, benefiting the privileged, destroying freedoms, and ignoring our most important problems. It would be nice if the Democrats could at least try to see if vision is possible. Barack Obama, anyone?

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I have been too busy moving into a new apartment to blog, so I'm going to post an old writing exercise from three years ago, dedicated to Imperatrice pulcherrima Africae occidentalis. It's about memory. I refer to Donald Revell, the great poet and teacher with whom I was fortunate enough to take a workshop at the University of Utah.

What I Have Forgotten

For Romell

What I have forgotten… a theme that can’t help begging the question. If I have forgotten it, I can’t possibly state it here. Donald Revell would not approve. He’d say claiming to state, in a poem, something that one has forgotten would be dishonest. So to imagine what one has forgotten one would have to engage in some Zen-like exercise in order to imagine what is not there, to achieve the blankness of lost memory, the pure white cleanliness of the tabula rasa or the lightless black of a totally closed room. It is said the accustomed eye can detect a single photon; we must imagine a room without even a particle of memory. Tough.

Perhaps that’s the wrong approach. Loss of memory leaves at times a track, a sfumato trace that hints at itself without arriving at definition or identity. That maddening feeling that a song title or film director’s name is on the tip of one’s tongue, on the Zeno Express: the train that is coming but never actually arrives at the station. A powerful knowledge of absence with tantalizing hints that are never enough.

Plato, despairing at the impossibility of ever learning something new, at the mind ever apprehending something that was completely unfamiliar but that would eventually fold into its landscape, decided that all knowledge was remembering. Souls would transmigrate, learning was the rediscovery of what one knew in a previous incarnation. It does beg the question, too, of the first bit of knowledge, but still it gives credence to the déjà vu feelings that spark up in everyday life, and when a woman one has just met seems knowable down to the core of her being and one feels also instantly known, it is reassuring to think we are just remembering, that what we are experiencing for the first time, apparently, is just what we have forgotten, rising to the surface of the sea of our existence after so many lifetimes of tired wandering.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Saturday somewhere

Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile, someone I've been spending a lot of time with recently. At least, I've been reading his charters searching for clues to a dissertation topic.

It's been a terribly busy and difficult week for me, my nerves are worn, and my dearest love, Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, has had to put up with quite a bit of my nonsense. I have a lot of work to do, but one must blog. So, here's a list:

1. The kindness of strangers.
2. Fourteen quail eggs, with a pinch of dust from a cathedral floor.
3. The Rule of St Benedict (more on this later).
4. At this moment: Notre Dame 7, USC 7. Go Irish.
5. A sensation of heavy waxiness in shoulder, accented at times by birdsong and a light feathering of despair.
6. Poet Liam comes out of semi retirement (for links to my poems, check out my website) to opine on the Nobel Prize for literature: Yes, Pinter does deserve it, but will someone please tell the Swedes that Americans write poetry while John Ashbery is still around? Yes, plenty of American writers have won, but none of them have been poets, despite the many brilliant poets that the country has produced, from Anne Bradstreet to Alexandra van de Kamp. Come on, guys, help us out here. If one of us could get the Nobel Prize, maybe Americans would actually start reading poetry.
7. At this moment: Notre Dame 7, USC 14. Damn.
8. Awoken at night by the clanging of metal sheets, I looked out of my window and saw men in robes carrying dark, curious objects down Amsterdam Avenue. Illuminated by flashes of lightning (occasionally) and flashes from paparazzi cameras (more frequently), they emitted small, weak sounds, like the tired bleating of consumptive sheep.
9. They are counting the ballots from this week's election in Liberia. Let us pray for peace, stability, and prosperity for the people of that country who have suffered so much.
10. Good wine, held on the tongue.
11. For a home, Sancte Joseph, ora pro nobis.
12. At times, it's not like that at all. At times desire rears up for its own sake: washed down, beaten back, thrown across the pond like so many shattered watches, it feels the cold light of dawn at precisely the right moment. Or not.
13. Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Bill Frist, moral values.
14. De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.
15. My favorite list: the Chinese encyclopedia of Borges.
16. Another game, final score: Penn 44, Columbia 16. Pathetic and depressing but not unexpected.
17. Storm clouds are gathering again.
18. If only we could snatch it from the air, like a lazy fly. Then there would be much uncorking of bottles and tales of past heroics. But up here the breeze only suggests, and only in its best moments.
19. Touchdown Our Lady. Notre Dame, 14, USC 14. Who will win?
20. Must leave for a prayer and a haircut.

Friday, October 07, 2005

News on Gay Seminarians

St. Francis, one groovy saint, painted by Giotto, one groovy painter.

There's fresh news on the status of gay men in the priesthood. Of course, as usual, the actual document has not been released, and we have to rely on "a Vatican source." Still, the information is very detailed and looks like something that has been intentionally leaked to head off rumors. There is good news, bad news, and good news.

The good news is that there will be no absolute ban on gay men in seminaries. This will be a great relief to gay men who feel they have a vocation to the priesthood, and seminary faculty and administrators whose ministry is to prepare and not exclude those men. It is also good news to the rest of us Catholics, since we do not have to feel that our Church has denied us ministers for bigoted and reactionary reasons.

The bad news is that there are still conditions under which gay men are not to be admitted to seminaries:
  • If candidates have not demonstrated a capacity to live celibate lives for at least three years;
  • If they are part of a "gay culture," for example, attending gay pride rallies (a point, the official said, which applies both to professors at seminaries as well as students);
  • If their homosexual orientation is sufficiently "strong, permanent and univocal" as to make an all-male environment a risk.
Although this is presented more as a guide than a rule, it is still terribly insulting to gay Catholics. It implies that homosexuals are somehow less capable of celibacy then straight men (despite certain scandals). In fact, according to this document, if their orientation is "strong, permanent and univocal" (whatever that means), they can put "an all-male environment" at risk. Has anyone ever suggested that straight priests whose heterosexual orientation is "strong, permanent and univocal" avoid working in all-female environments, such as convents or certain parish offices?

The prohibition of priests participating in "gay culture" is also problematic. While recognizing that certain priests may be gay, they deny they right of these priests to negotiate their identity as gay men in our society and they imply that their identity is something to be hidden away and closeted. It also restricts the ability of priests to participate in their community in areas with a large gay population and thus minister effectively to gay Catholics.

The news on the whole, however, is as good as we can expect from a hierarchy which is this defensive about its power. If the document follows the line described by the Vatican source, it means the most intransigent, homophobic and exclusionary voices in the hierarchy have lost their battle. Although the document may be insulting in the conditions discussed above, it does not take the fatal step of declaring being homosexual as intrinsically sinful, and thus it is a building block upon which to slowly eradicate homophobia from the Church. Also, the document allows a certain about of maneuvering room for seminary officials, saying of the three conditions:
Whether or not these criteria exclude a particular candidate is a judgment that must be made in the context of individual spiritual direction, rather than by applying a rigid litmus test...
As long as there is the space for applying criteria on a case-by-case basis, there is still autonomy for different seminaries and different orders to approach this question in a more sensitive manner, allowing officials to follow their consciences and preventing an exodus of the best seminary officials from the field. If the Vatican document comes out as described by the source, it will be very far from a step forward. It will, however, not be such a step backwards as to cause irreparable damage to the Church.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Values of William Bennett

This is an early twelfth-century ivory from León in Spain. It is not a picture of William Bennett. Why? Because no matter what, I want this site to look good, and Bennett is one ugly hypocritical racist pathological gambler.

Bennett made the following remark on his radio show:

"If you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose -- you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Of course he was criticized for saying this, and he responded. His quotes were taken out of context, he says. Does this mean that he was making an observation about the racism inherent in our way of collecting and presenting statistical data? Is there any other way these words could have a context that could show them to have redeeming value? And even if there was, did Bennett apologize for saying something that could be misconstrued in an inflammatory way?

No, no, no. Bennett did not apologize. Rather, he said, “I think people who misrepresented my view owe me an apology." He didn’t really support aborting every black baby in this country, although he thinks it would work (I suppose any kind of abortion is a problem for him). His argument was against the idea that “the ends justify the means.”

What is implied here is the idea that there is an intrinsic, not merely statistical, connection between race and crime. It has nothing to do with the structure of society, but with the color of one’s skin. This is foul racism, pure and simple.

It is not surprising to find such claims coming from the right in this country. Although the Republican party PR machine has done a good job of taking advantage of the fact that the only thing the Democratic party really does for Afro-Americans is to show up at their churches every four years, the Republican party is still the party of Trent Lott, suppression of the Black vote, and a policy war against the poor in general and the Black population in particular. Bennett, however, is a great symbol of the stench that lay under the perfume of their “moral values.” I don’t care if he wants to gamble away his money, but he shouldn’t do so while hypocritically decrying the moral decay of the nation. More disturbing are his views on the origin of crime. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the following important moral values: the fight against racism, poverty, and war. You want Bible quotes, just let me know. Just don’t go asking a scumbag like Bennett for advice on values.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Vatican & the seminaries

Pope Innocent III, the great early 13th- century pontiff who understood his own time well. For the action figure, click here.

My cousin has asked me if I was planning on commenting on the report that Vatican officials visiting American seminaries will be looking for evidence of homosexuality among the seminarians. I certainly was, but was waiting to read a bit more on the issue. The officials will be asking some 56 questions about each seminary, ranging from queries about the seminarian's sexuality to those about their spirituality and orthodoxy. The question of homosexuality arises, apparently, from the sexual abuse scandal that has damaged the Church so seriously in recent years.

A wider question is whether or not the Vatican plans to ban gays from the priesthood altogether. One prelate, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, is awaiting a Vatican statement on the issue and has proposed that homosexuals should not enter seminaries. Since Archbishop O'Brien is coordinating the visitations, perhaps his idea should be seen as something more than one churchman's particular opinion.

It remains to be seen how this will affect American seminaries and the American Church as a whole. Were the archconservatives at the top right now to be successful with their purge, it would be a great injustice, both to gay priests and to the rest of us, depriving us of the excellent pastoral care of a number of dedicated and devout men. If the percentage of gay priests is as high as some suspect (as much as 50%), and if all these men were to pack their bags and leave our Church, it would exacerbate an already critical shortage of priests. Adding gay men to the list of people who are called to serve but are not allowed to (women, married men) by a short-sighted hierarchy will leave the sacramental structure of the Church in a desperate crisis.

Another disturbing aspect of this issue is the scapegoating of homosexuals for the abuse scandal. It is disturbing because it is utterly false. A homosexual is no more likely to abuse a small boy than a heterosexual is a small girl. It is especially disturbing because the hierarchy continues to refuse to admit its own responsibility in the manner. What made the abuse scandal so horrifying was not only that there were sick men who abused children, but that their superiors covered up the crimes and gave these men the opportunity to abuse other children.

Perhaps mandatory celibacy is part of the problem, although I believe that many good priests (and brothers and nuns) are quite capable of living according to their vows without turning into sexual predators. Celibacy makes sense for members of religious orders, if not always for parish priests. No, I believe that the greatest problem here is a clerical culture that sees the laity as fundamentally inferior, to be taught and to be put up with, but never to be listened to or taken seriously. This obviously creates an "us/them" mindset in which the clergy sees any cleric, whether he be a bad administrator or the worst of sexual criminals, as one of "us," to be protected from "them." While I think a clerical culture had its place in the history of the Church, in a world with an educated laity that demands more participation in the decisions of Church administration we need less division between clergy and laity, not more. The clergy has to trust us and see us as partners, not as children who need to be disciplined and whose role in Church affairs stops at the collection plate.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that all the clergy is like this. In the most dynamic parishes (like mine), enlightened priests work side-by-side with knowledgeable and dedicated laity to create a true sense of community. If only this could be understood by those a couple of levels up on the totem pole!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Black Death

Just a quick additional post to let everyone know that mice infected with the bubonic plague are missing in New Jersey. If this were a serious problem, I wouldn't make light of it, but apparently the risk is minimal. You can get the plague from squirrels in the Rocky Mountains. Still, if you are in Jersey and you do suffer from black swelling and stinking bumps on your thighs, do go to a doctor or at least a priest. Who says knowledge of medieval history is not useful?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Beatus and Katrina

More from the Beatus of Liebana. This illumination is, of course, the four riders that appear with the opening of the first four seals in the Book of Revelations. I believe this is from the manuscript that King Fernando I and Queen Sancha of Leon gave to the Church of San Isidoro in the 1040's.

I apologize for the very silly previous post. The truth is that I needed to break the ice again and post something. The hurricane and especially its aftermath took over my attention completely. The horror and rage I felt following the news the week after it hit New Orleans seemed to demand expression, but what could I say that wasn't already being shouted from the rooftops? The lack of response, the exceedingly callous behavior of Bush and his administration, the terrible result of appointing incompetent and unqualified toadies to important positions, the lack of foresight and long-term funding in addressing the Damocles' sword over the city of New Orleans, the National Guardsmen in Iraq, the exposure of how deadly the racial and class divide is in this country, the sick irony of an administration that people voted for out of fear failing to protect them from disaster... And I could go on. Global warming, etc. It was too horrible. I guess now we have to see how the thing settles. Have we learned anything? Should we, perhaps, pay more attention to making government work rather than cutting its funding?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Beatus and Elipandus

"The fact that Beatus called Elipandus the Antichrist in the Adversus Elipandum should not be seen as a confirmation that the references to Antichrists in the Commentary are directed at Elipandus. In fact, Elipandus had called Beatus the Antichrist, which indicates that the label was applied indiscriminately, without any specific Apocalyptic meaning."

-from The Illustrated Beatus, by John Williams, p. 114.
I think the 8th-century exchange went like this:
Elipandus: You're the Antichrist.
Beatus: No, you're the Antichrist.
Elipandus: No, you're the Antichrist.
Beatus: No, you're the Antichrist and a dick.
Elipandus: No, you're the Antichrist and a double dick.
Beatus: No, you're the Antichrist and a double dick times infinity,
and you can't get worse than that. I win.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pat Robertson, etc.

This is a twelfth-century representation of Satan from the church at Conques, France. Why? Mainly because I just don't want a picture of Pat Robertson on my blog. Not even a funny one that makes him look bad. Not even a doctored one that gives him wee horns and a mustache. I just don't want to see him here. Now, I'm not equating Satan and Pat Robertson, but...

It’s also de trop to write about him. It’s all over the place. He’s a parody of the right-wing “Christian” preacher who threatens hurricanes, advocates assassination, and prays for Supreme Court justices to drop dead. The question is what, at this point, does it all mean? Is his apology a sign of weakness? Is the White House’s refusal to condemn it a sign of how influential the lunatic fringe of the evangelical right still is? Is Pat Robertson really just a fringe? Does he have the million viewers he claims? Or more? Can someone explain to me how anyone can find this gilipollas anything but absurd and despicable?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

St Dominic and his Dominicans. The Dominicans (Dominicanes) were often referred to as "the hounds of the Lord" (domini canes), a pun that reflected their mission as the guardians of the faithful against the fox of heresy. Dig the fact that the dogs have markings that mimic the Dominican habit.

It's about time I wrote something. August laziness has taken over me and I find it hard to apply myself, but one must not let the blog wither. For awhile I have wanted to address the op-ed that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn wrote for the New York Times on evolution (you can pay the Times to read it or you can read about the article and reactions to it here). The Cardinal seems concerned that accepting the scientific consensus on the subject of evolution would also require the acceptance of a Godless random universe. Of course this is one cardinal's opinion, however close he may be to the pope, and not the opinion of the Church as a whole. It is very far from doctrine. The Vatican astronomer has objected publicly, as have other Catholic scientists. Still Schonborn's opinion is disturbing, because the modern Catholic Church has done well at reconciling science and faith, and a breakdown of that reconciliation in a society that is both technological and religious can create a dangerous cognitive dissonance. This certainly has happened in the United States. The scientist, using his or her method, cannot and should not seek out the hand of God. That can only be done through faith and revelation. The scientist reveals the complexity and beauty of Creation, the believer sees the providence behind that.

Another aspect of this issue is more disturbing. Why did the Austrian Cardinal publish his article in the American New York Times? In a country where the issue of evolution is political dynamite and even the president suggests the teaching of "intelligent design" theory is a reasonable thing to do, one can not step into the public forum and criticize accepted scientific theory without situating oneself in distinct political and religious camps: politically, the far right; and religiously, fundamentalism. The latter group especially is a very odd bedfellow. Conservative Catholics, both in the Curia and here in the US, see the religious right as a great tool to advance their specific goals on abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage (forgetting always the death penalty, war, and social justice). But I wonder if someone like William Donohue of the Catholic League realizes that when he got off the stage at the mega-church for "Justice Sundays," most of the people in the room were certain he was going to hell. Ecumenical understanding has been successful with mainline Protestant demoninations and we should work to further this understanding. But I suspect these right wing groups are more interested in power than they are in Christian unity.

Whatever the fundamentalists are trying to do, it's disturbing to see conservative elements in the Catholic Church push the Church to one extreme in the cultural divide that is tearing this country in half and producing a fundamentalism that is pathologically anti-intellectual (to the point of creating a hostility to science that is difficult to sanely maintain in an industrially developed society), politically apocalyptic (support in many fundamentalist circles for more hardline sectors in Israeli politics has much to do with the hope of provoking Armageddon), and manifestly intolerant of any other views than their own. Even those Catholics who support the entire conservative Catholic agenda -- and many of us do not -- should be concerned at the cost to their integrity that falling into an extremist camp would entail.

PS: Since I posted the above, I have come across a good article on this subject from Commonweal Magazine.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

We're all in the same boat

In the last New Yorker Republican Grover Norquist is quoted describing the conservative movement this way:
"The guy who wants to be left alone to practice his faith, the guy who wants to make money, the guy who wants to spend money without paying taxes, the guy who wants to fondle his gun -- they all have a lot in common ... They all want the government to go away. That is what holds together the conservative movement."

I think he has correctly identified one of the key impulses behind many people who identify themselves as conservatives. Its mythic equivalent is expressed in the idea of rugged American individualism, its classic image is the lone cowboy or pioneer making his own destiny without either the aid of or the limits imposed by other people. Apart from the most egregious hypocrites who confess to following this philosophy -- the ranchers who "hate the government" but enjoy beef subsidies and ridiculously cheap grazing rights for their cattle, the industrialists who hate the burden of taxation and regulation but love fat government contracts -- there are a number of my fellow citizens who are, I am sure, quite sincere in believing it. They want "to be left alone." They want "government to go away." Unfortunately, they seem to forget that they will not be left alone, nor will they leave alone others. They are social animals, they live in a society and work in an economy in which no action can occur without affecting others. As much as they are "individuals," they are not alone.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
-John Donne

John Donne was a great Christian writer and this is a great Christian sentiment. It surprises me that so many people who identify themselves as Christians and vote for the GOP because they are Christians seem to not want to be bothered with the existence of their fellow man or woman. They want to be left alone. But for Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, and everybody else, the same thing is true. Love, hate or feel indifferent to your fellow man or woman, it's the same. Your life affects him or her; his or her life affects you. We are all in the same boat.

You may want to fondle your gun, but the fact that guns are readily available make it that much more likely that I will get shot. If you don't pay taxes because of Bush's tax cuts, it's my child who will be saddled with debt. You want to make money, but if in doing so you poison the river, I'm the one who will get cancer. Also, if you do make money, there is more than one reason you are successful. Yes, you may be smart and willing to take risks, so good for you. But you also may be privileged and start off with an advantage depending on your social standing, level of education, gender and ethnic background. And no matter who you are, you make money in our society, in our economy. You do so because in this country there are workers for your company, roads for your transportation, consumers for your products, and a social infrastructure you build your success on. You are not a lone pioneer in an uninhabited land. You owe us -- at least you owe us enough to participate in a way of negotiating order in society, that is, government.

And who is the person that is not let alone to practice his faith? Perhaps the one who can't practice it without pushing it on me? I am a good practicing Catholic, and I don't need to force anyone else to make the sign of the cross.

Anyway, I think I've made my point. There is something infantile about wanting government to go away. I think of two-year-olds who want to run wherever their whim takes them and cry when stopped, but also cry when they are not fed. By all means, make government more just, transparent, honest, and efficient, but it's not going away. It's just a question of who it's working for. The whole boat, or the select few in the captain's quarters?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


New Yorkers in July.

I'm fairly tough when it comes to heat. I've enjoyed August nights in Madrid and the blaring summer sun in the deserts of Southern Utah. But there is nothing as foul as sticky New York 95 degree torture. According to the weather, the heat index today will be 110 ten degrees. At this point the weather takes on a malevolent and perverse personality. It is not around you, it is in you. Scorching in your lungs, slimy in your skin, heavy in your muscles. At first it is merely annoying. The gallons of sweat soaking your clothes, the shower rendered ineffective in the instant the freezing water is turned off, the weight of the hot wet air. Then it becomes oppressive and a sense of foreboding clutches your heart. The bright sky and blaring sun are covered with a leaden sheet that seems to press down like a milling stone, crushing every last spark of vitality you still may have. Near-psychotic grumpiness is tempered only by overwhelming inertia. Here in New York City we have already begun our time in purgatory.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Welcome to New York!

Tourists evacuated from a New York sightseeing bus after police were alerted to the presence of "suspicious" men carrying "backpacks."

I don't mean to make light of the dangers surrounding life in New York now. As a matter of fact, horrible things like the searches of innocent people in the NYC subway or the British police's shoot-to-kill policy almost seem reasonable given the threat posed by suicide bombers. But we have to shake our heads and remember that the former is unconstitutional and the latter has already resulted in the death of an innocent man. Both will affect mainly people with darker skins. Also, we should worry when we hear justifications like that spoken by a citizen interviewed on the news last night about the subway searches: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, and anything that protects our security is good." The theme song of authoritarian regimes.

I myself have no greater fear about taking the train in NYC than before, just as 9-11 did not cause me to pause before taking an airplane. Obviously, if there are threats, the police and government should respond, and an attack resulting in one death greaves me greatly. But terrorism at this level does not make me fear for my own personal safety. Millions of people ride the subway every day, and thousands of planes fly without incident every day. The risk does not seem great to me.

So why are people so affected by this? I think terrorism at this level plays on a particular feature of our Western (and especially American) society: the feeling we are entitled to a life of absolute safety. Don't get me wrong, I do not join my voice to right-wing critics of seat-belts and air-pollution regulations. I see no reason why corporations should profit on our injuries, illnesses and deaths. We need more regulation, not less. I just want us to remember that the level of safety middle-class Americans and Europeans expect as our birthright is very much a historical anomaly. Behind this obsession with safety lies fear. In this period of what Phillipe Aries called "invisible death," instead of availing ourselves of religious/cultural methods of dealing with death (methods dismissed usually as "morbid"), we hide death and risk away. In fact, risk has become so absent from our lives that we have to create false conditions of risk in controlled situations (amusement parks, bungee-jumping, parachuting) just so our animal bodies can still feel alive.

Of course, real death and risk always lie under the surface, because we still continue to die, and we still live in a world that can surprise us. This is the weapon of terrorists. When I lived in Spain, ETA had a different strategy. They singled out individuals and aimed to provoke indignation, division, and hatred. The new style Al Quaeda terrorists (whatever they may be) are preying on something different, our exaggerated and extremely fragile sense of safety. The personal fear that results from these attacks has been exploited and exaggerated by the current administration and its allies, as well as by the press. Orange alert!

We should protect ourselves, but we should never give into manipulation. More than anything, we should always strive to know why we feel what we feel. If not, we open ourselves up to the malice of anyone who understands us better than we do ourselves.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

New York

Heading back from Queens to Manhattan on the 7 train, I was once again struck by the curious and dusty glory of living in NYC. It was dusk (not as in this photo) and the slanting light from the west was ablaze in the Manhattan skyscrapers. Struck once again at how mythic New York is, I put down my copy of Bomarzo and looked out at the city. I love Queensboro plaza. An insane conjunction of subway routes, defying the name of subway, perched on the air itself, twisting in all directions, trains flying above the ground. New York, as I had seen it in TV detective shows as a child in the 70s, and that can never be imitated. The light and the grime are unique, the blue-gray tint of everything, the absurdity of all these people and the greatest city in the world, caput mundi novi ordinis, still filthy and gloriously human.

St Expeditus, the patron saint of procrastinators. The word on the cross he's holding is "hodie," Latin for "today."

I started a post about the new supreme court nominee and then abandoned it. I'm still trying to decide what I want this blog to be. Do I want a specific voice, a constant tone? Probably not, that is nothing like what actually happens inside my head. Still, I do want to be careful. Speaking about politics could send me raging, and who cares about my rants and grunts? I promise not to use profanity. In English at any rate.

Quickly, though, this Roberts fellow is something of a mystery, mainly because he hasn't been a judge very long. The general feeling is that he does not have the ideological stubbornness of Thomas and Scalia, but he is conservative through and through. The left might well mess things up during the confirmation by only concentrating on Roe vs Wade, which admittedly is very important, but which could suck all the attention from more general questions of individual rights. One this that worries me is that James Dobson likes him. He probably knows something that we don't.

Am I too partisan? Yes. If a Republican congressman like the testa di cazzo Tom Tancredo can suggest bombing Mecca without anyone from his own party distancing themselves from his remarks, I will happily situate myself on the other side of the room.

Enough politics. I promise not to make this just another blog stuffed with bile. And least not too much.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


This is an image from a manuscript of Beato de Liebana's commentary on the Apocalypse and has nothing to do with what I am writing about.

I hit a few of my fellow bloggers' sites. Interesting collection. People writing their opinions on politics, companies informing their employees about office matters, bubbly teenage self-expression, advertising, and one blog called "Interracial Romance" that was mainly bad misogynistic erotica about large... well, you get the idea.

Who reads these things? Apart from friends and family, or followers of those blogs that "matter" and are read by journalists hoping for a scoop? Curiosity, a desire for quality, voyeurism? Each of us in our rooms madly typing into space. When I kept a journal, before I started grad school, I always did have an adolescent desire that someday my writing would be so successful that some patient editor would publish my journals after my death. Some of my best writing -- unfocused, impressionistic, undisciplined, but also lyric, lively, and true -- was in my journals. And the deeply private. I am no exhibitionist, there will be no confessions on this blog -- nothing overly salacious, at least. For that you will have to publish my old journals after I die. But maybe there will be something of the music and longing I occassionally happened upon as I scribbled into my notebooks while sitting in cafes and bars. Narcissitic? Of course. That's what it's all about. But maybe somebody will happen upon it and find it worth the few seconds they spend reading a post.

St George

Okay, now both an image and text. What fun. I could get used to this. This a wall painting from a church in Axum Ethiopia, absolutely gorgeous, with brilliant colors.

A photo of me

An Emu


By hitting "next blog" at the top of the page, you go (randomly?) to blogs of people who have nothing to do with you! And I suppose that others will come across mine as well! Be patient, I'm new at this. Do people wander through these blogs day after day, reading the thoughts of strangers. O brave new world.


Okay, so I've finally sucumbed to the depths of internet narcism. Will I even post anything, ever? We'll have to see. Will anyone ever read it? Probably not.