Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas!

The Angel appears to the shepherds, San Isisdoro, Leon, Spain

Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis supra gregem suum et ecce angelus Domini stetit iuxta illos et claritas Dei circumfulsit illos et timuerunt timore magno et dixit illis angelus nolite timere ecce enim evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum quod erit omni populo quia natus est vobis hodie salvator qui est Christus Dominus in civitate David et hoc vobis signum invenietis infantem pannis involutum et positum in praesepio et subito facta est cum angelo multitudo militiae caelestis laudantium Deum et dicentium gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
Luke 2:8-14

Giotto, the Nativity. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Meme

Ivory Nativity, Salerno (eleventh century).

I've caught another meme, this time thanks to Jeff. Of course, Guillaume le Fou, who has too much time on his hands now that he has abandoned civilization for Long Island, got to it first and has been terribly clever, though he was not as quick on the draw as Crystal.

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate? Hot Chocolate says "winter" to me in general, but doesn't connote "Christmas" in particular. I do enjoy egg nog on Christmas Eve, before we go to bed, still dressed up from Midnight Mass. Bourbon and nutmeg are essential ingredients.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree? When I was a child, he sat them under the tree. This is actually the first Christmas I shall spend in loco parentis with Filio imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, and I understand Santa will be wrapping presents.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? Hmm... This year we didn't put up a tree, because we're going to Utah for Christmas. At my house we always went for colors.

4. Do you hang mistletoe? I considered just wearing mistletoe on the top of my head, but since I
mperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis seems willing to kiss me without it, I think I won't go through the bother.

5. When do you put your decorations up? Last year, at the beginning of December. This year I put out some Advent candles and an Advent calendar, but I haven't had time to buy a wreath for the candles and we're about a week behind on opening the wee doors on the Advent calendar. My life is like this. Don't even ask me about my dissertation.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)? Stuffing. I would support the genetic engineering of a turkey that could hold thirty cubic feet of stuffing, and damn the consequences.

7. Favorite Holiday memory as a child: I remember getting up on Christmas and dying with anticipation. The door to the living room where the presents were would be closed, and I would have to wait for all the houseguests -- my great aunts, my grandparents -- to get up and have their coffee. I, the youngest child, bounced off the walls. Then the door would be opened...

I also remember my grandfather telling me he had awoken at night during Christmas Eve and had seen Leprechauns dancing across the bed. I have no idea what that would have to do with Christmas, but it seemed to add a nice bit of Irishness to the Santa magic, so I was very pleased to hear it.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? You mean that he was at the Council of Nicaea? I think I figured that one out when reading for my PhD orals exams. I already knew about the North Pole, elves, and reindeer, and strangely was not tested on that information by my orals committee.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? No. Be patient.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree? As best as possible. I look forward to slowly acquiring a set of meaningful ornaments with my family.

11. Snow? Love it or Dread it? I grew up in Utah and Christmas is sadly lacking when there is no snow. I even like snow in New York -- for the first couple of days, until it turns every color except white.

I remember one Christmas there was a heavy snowfall and Santa had brought cross-country skis to my father and brother. My brother and I put them on and skied around the neighborhood under the moonlight quiet and the softly falling snow.

12. Can you ice skate? I haven't done it since I was a child, in a rink now long demolished. I enjoyed it, but I never learned how to skate backwards. Now I need to wear braces on both my ankles when I play basketball, so I'm not sure how long I would be able to skate without incurring injury. I would like to go to the rink in Rockefeller Center or Central Park sometime, though.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? I remember an exceedingly cool and big helicopter for my GI Joe. It was yellow and the propellers would move when you pushed a button on the side. I also remember my mother gave me a tweed jacket, black turtleneck, and beret one year. I looked like a thirteen-year-old French existentialist.

14. What's the most exciting thing about the Holidays for you? The general excess of food, drink, gifts, and laughter with my family. Apart from that, and despite the craziness, I enjoy midtown New York at Christmastime. The tree and the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the shop windows that I look at from a distance to avoid the crowd, the brass bands playing Christmas carols on Fifth Avenue... I'm a sucker for it all.

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert? I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but I will never turn down pumpkin pie. When I'm in Spain, marzipan candy.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? Our huge Christmas breakfast. Eggs, sausage, bacon, steaks, rolls, champagne, Bloody Marys... Then we are comatose until dinner.

17. What tops your tree? An angel, if I recall correctly.

18. Which do you prefer - giving or receiving? I love presents in general. I love giving things, especially when I hit on the perfect gift. I like getting presents as well -- not so much because I like to have stuff, but I love the surprise of seeing what someone has gotten for me.

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song? Adeste Fideles. It's a great tune and in a great language. I enjoy "Angels We Have Heard on High," because it's lovely and also has nice rousing Latin bits. Of course, "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night" are gorgeous, especially when sung by a good singer.

On the other hand, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" scares the hell out of me.

20. Candy Canes? No, not really. It's nice to see them around, but I can do without them. They always went uneaten in my house when I was a child.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

feast of St Ambrose

St. Ambrose.

This is not really a responsible post. This is just me checking in. You see, I have been tremendously productive with the charters this week, but it has left little time for blogging. So I will just link you to other people who have been writing worthwhile posts.

I will say little more about dear St. Ambrose. As usual, I leave you with the Franciscans at American Catholic for more information. I was going to write about St. Nicholas yesterday, but Crystal scooped me with a great post on St. Nick's final resting place. What she didn't mention was (I believe I'm remembering right) Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. So next time you recite the Nicaean creed, remember that Santa Claus was involved in its creation.

I haven't been to Bari, but I have been to Milan and I have seen the tomb of St. Ambrose. He's a bit thin, but all in all he looks pretty good for someone who's been dead for 1,600 years.

The tomb of St. Ambrose in Milan.

Speaking of relics, there is a post in dotCommonweal on a boycott of Ebay called by some Catholics who were distressed by the sale of relics on that website. Really everyone, we've been trying to regulate all of this since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Buy your relics from an authorized dealer.

Guillaume le Fou has written a wonderful post about a woman who probably should be a saint, but isn't. I don't know about her relics. Jeff has written a great piece on Iraq, which should be required reading.

That's all for now, I must get back to my charters. Enjoy the links.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

reading charters with one's heart

Leon, cathedral. Photo by Trepanatus.

Let's face it, the charters I read are not always the most exiting documents. Sometimes they're as dry as week-old toast. So, my imagination takes over and usually I turn the charters into conversations. The boring and legal charter of Alfonso VI #131 becomes, in my mind, the following conversation:

Alfonso: "Dude, I'll give you one tenth of all the cows I own in Somoza if you pray for my victory over the Ishmaelites."

Bishop Pedro of Leon: "Cool."

Sometimes I get a whole scenario from one bit of text.

For example, Alfonso breaks me up. He (his scribe, really) dates one charter as: "Regnante et imperante ego me medipso in Toleto et in Legione," etc. That's like saying "Reigning and commanding me, myself, and I in Toledo and in Leon," etc.

I can just see him having dinner with Queen Constance.

Alfonso: "Hey Connie, you know who's king?"

Constance (familiar and bored with this game): "Who, Al?"

Alfonso: "I am!"

He laughs, she sighs. A pause.

Alfonso: "You know who else?"

Constance (stifling a yawn): "Who, Al?"

Alfonso: "ME!"

He can't contains his giggles. Another pause.

Alfonso: "You know who else?"

Constance (distracted, picking at quail bones): "Who?"

Alfonso: "Myself! Isn't that a riot?"

Constance: "Are you going to eat that last quail leg?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Portuguese manuscript from 1189.

Crystal posted on David Hart and Voltaire, commenting in passing on one of the cities most dear to me, Lisbon. This led me to think of the beautiful, sad Portuguese song known as the fado. I found a decription of fado on the NPR website in an interview with my favorite fado singer, Misia:
Songs of longing and despair are a national tradition in Portugal -- a musical tradition called fado. The word comes from the Latin fatum, meaning fate, destiny or doom.

Fado emerged from the brothels and taverns of Lisbon about 200 years ago, and were first sung by lonely sailors. Today the songs are mostly performed in restaurants and special fado clubs.

I have seen Misia a couple of times in Spain. She has a strange, ethereal beauty, with pale skin, and black hair in a Lousie Brooks cut. Dressed in black, she stands still as she sings, moving only one arm in a slow, expressive arch like a ballet dancer. You can listen to the interview and hear some of the music on this site.


The fado is spine-chilling in its nostalgiac beauty. It's different than the firey, Mediterranean flamenco. It is cooled by the Atlantic breeze and filled with the longing one feels looking at the westward ocean, so different from the welcoming mother sea that warms the Eastern shores of Spain. Portugal is much, much different.

You can see an interview in Spanish with Misia here, and a 1961 video of the great "Queen of the Fado," Amalia Rodrigues here. Misia's website is here.

Friday, November 17, 2006


The Arca Santa in the cathedral of Oviedo, Asturias, Spain.

I have been neck deep in charters for the past two weeks or so, typing entries into my database magna cum furia. I feel like I have been making progress, but my blogging has suffered. Oh well.

I have decided that a chapter or at least part of a chapter of my dissertation will be on forged charters. They are, content-wise, some of the most interesting documents I have studied. I will be presenting a paper at the Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo next May on one of them, but there are several that are just... just...

Especially one that purports to be a donation from King Alfonso VI to the cathedral church of Oviedo in 1075. It may be based on a real document that is now lost, but this charter is probably one of the many forgeries created under Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo in the early twelfth century. The best part of it is its long narrative telling how the Arca Santa (Holy Ark) was found and opened in the 1030's by then-Bishop Pontius. It emitted a light so brilliant that it blinded the bystanders. It was then re-opened in 1075 in the presence of the king, and there was a great treasure of relics (I did a quick translation from the original Latin). There were relics...

... of the Wood of the Lord, of the Blood of the Lord, of the bread of the Lord, that is, from his Last Supper, of the tomb of the Lord, of the holy earth where the Lord stood, of the dress of St Mary and of the milk of the same virgen and mother of the Lord, of the robe of the Lord that was divided up and of his shroud, relics of St Peter the apostle, St Thomas, Bartholomew the apostle, of the bones of the prophets, of saints Justus and Pastor, Adrian and Natalia, Mama, Julia, Verissimus and Maximus, Germanus, Baudulus, Pantaleon, Cyprian, Eulalia, Sebastian, Cucufatus, from the robe of St Sulpicius, St Agatha, Emeterius and Celedonius, St John the Baptist, St Romanus, St Stephen the Protomartyr, St Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius, St Victor, St Lawrence, saints Justa and Rufina, saints Severandus and Germanus, St Liberius, saints Maxima and Julia, Cosme and Damian, Sergius and Bacchus, St James the brother of the Lord, St Stephen the pope, St Christopher, St John the apostle, the robe of St Tirsus, St Julianus, St Felix, St Andrew, St Peter the excorcist, St Eugenia, St Martin, saints Facundus and Primitivus, St Vicent the levite, St Faustus, St John, St Paul the apostle, St Agnus, saints Relix, Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrix, St Petronila, St Eulalia of Barcelona, of the ashes of saints Emilianus the deacon and Jerimiah the martyr, St Roger, St Servant of God the martyr, St Pomposa, Anania, Azaria and Misaele, St Sportelius and St Juliana, and many others the number of which only the knowledge of God can touch...

The Wood of the Lord is, of course, the cross. It is interesting how many relics of Jesus and Mary there are -- most relics are from a saint's body, but the bodies of Jesus and his mother are in heaven. So the relics are either contact relics -- clothes or other objects that have touched the holy bodies -- or things such as blood or milk that are produced by the body. Other relics of Christ get even stranger -- there was talk in the Middle Ages about relics of Jesus's baby teeth and even his foreskin.

Most of the relics are bones. This is quite a collection, although I wouldn't trust Pelayo too much. At any rate, many relics are just mere slivers, so maybe there were a lot of good slivers in the Arca Santa.

Our typical reaction as moderns to relics -- even as modern Christians -- is that they disturbing, morbid, even sick. Keeping body parts on display and venerating them! I suggest we open our minds. Medieval people were more honest with themselves about death and less separated from their own bodies than we are. We keep death at a distance, send our old off to homes, pursue youth with all our money and all our time. Good Cartesians that we are, we think of our bodies as something we live in, not as something we are. People in the Middle Ages knew death was as real and as present as life, and as natural. Their dead were close to them and memory of the dead was intensely important. Their bodies were part of their selves, bodies that would resurrect on the last day. A body part of a dead saint was an actual physical object you could touch that you knew would one day be in paradise. Having that relic in your church did not mean that you had the cast-off shell, the shuffled-off mortal coil of the saint, you actually had part of the saint him/herself with you, and he or she would protect you and stand by you.

Is it sick and morbid not to forget the dead, not to be amazed at the physical? Perhaps we can learn from attitudes that appear distasteful when we don't understand them.

Monday, November 06, 2006

sententiae et clamores endorses...

The Sistine Chapel. You want to elect a pope, put on a red beanie and vote here. For the US midterm elections, go to your district polling place tomorrow.

It's time for this blog to make its endorsements. True, very few people read this blog and those that do are clever enough to make up their own minds without getting my opinion, but since blogs are supposed to be the new journalism or something, I am providing endorsements, though they have come too late to be put on anyone's brochure. Oh well.

S & C endorses:

1. Voting. The system is messed up and both parties are full of corrupt morons who seem incapable of doing anything except insult our intelligence, but the less people vote the more they know they can get away with it. Not voting is not an effective protest: are you not voting because the system is not working or because you're catching up on the "American Idol" programs on your TiVO? Vote, and if you really can't stand the Republicans and Democrats, vote for some strange small party you've never heard of or hand in a blank ballot or write in Mickey Mouse. Just let them know you care enough to show up at the polls and that you're paying attention.

2. Vote Democratic in House and Senate races. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised at this. We have been under the rule of one party for far too long, and the scandals and incompetence that have been the result abroad (Iraq) and at home (Katrina) are the natural consequence of unaccountability. This congress has refused to question the administration on just about anything and in the new military appropriations bill, they have even closed the office of the Auditor in Iraq. It doesn't matter if your congressman is one of the moderate, sane ones, or an honest Christian man. There has been no oversight and that has to change. Yes, I could complain about the Democrats, too, but this is urgent and they're the only alternative right now.

3. Vote intelligently in other races. Yes, I want you to vote for Democratic governors and for Lamont if you're in Connecticut and progressive dog-catchers, etc., but I will only insist you vote Democratic for the US Congress. After that, just vote intelligently. Don't listen to the ads. Go to the candidate's websites and see how they really stand on the issues. Who endorses them? Google them and read up on them in reasonably authoritative media. Do not reward these bastards for lying to you about their opponents.

Enough punditry. I will be glad when this is over and the ads stop and I can concentrate on eleventh-century Leon and the now 3-0 Utah Jazz.

UPDATE: The Jazz are now 4-0 and Carlos Boozer has been named player of the week for the Western Conference. The eleventh century is still where it should be, between the tenth and twelfth centuries. All these things are good signs (knock on wood). Have you voted yet?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Feast of All Saints

Tapestry from the Communion of Saints, Cathedral of Our Lady of Los Angeles.

The Feast of All Saints is an ancient feast day, going back to at least the fourth century and celebrated on the first of November since the ninth century. From the Franciscans at American Catholic:
The earliest certain observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is an early fourth-century commemoration of "all the martyrs." In the early seventh century, after successive waves of invaders plundered the catacombs, Pope Boniface IV gathered up some 28 wagonloads of bones and reinterred them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope rededicated the shrine as a Christian church. According to Venerable Bede, the pope intended "that the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored in the place which had formerly been dedicated to the worship not of gods but of demons" (On the Calculation of Time).

Bede is the guy in the middle of the group of saints in the picture, by the way.

"Some 28 wagonloads of bones." Cool. Also cool is the fact that the reading for today is from the Book of Revelations:

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”

All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne,
worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me,
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”


I'm sorry, did you want more profound commentary than just "cool"?


Speaking of saints, there was a great article by James Martin, S.J., in the Times today. He comments on last month's canonization of Mother Théodore Guérin. Mother Guérin founded a religious order and several schools in what was then the wilds of Indiana. She did this fighting tooth and nail with her bishop. Father Martin mentions she was not the only saint who was at odds with the Church hierarchy during their lives:
Many people think of the saints as docile, but Mother Guérin is not the only saint to have found herself at odds with local bishops, church officials or even the Vatican. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the behest of church officials. The writings of the great theologian Thomas Aquinas came under suspicion during his lifetime in the 13th century. And Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was jailed during the Spanish Inquisition over complaints about his ideas on prayer.

Somewhat more recently, in 1871, Mother Mary MacKillop was excommunicated — the church’s severest punishment — four years after founding a religious order for women in Australia. One biographer wrote that the bishops of the day were intimidated by Mary’s “independent spirit and steely character.” In 1995, Mary MacKillop was beatified, the final step before canonization, by Pope John Paul II.

Of course, one could think that canonization after death is the way the hierarchy appropriates and domesticates its dissidents, but I would think rather it is all a part of the continuing dialogue between individuals and the institution in preserving the Church. When either of those two parts of the Church act as if it is the whole Church, problems arise. The institutional Church has realized this at certain inspired moments, like Vatican II. Martin comments on this:

The church’s long history of “faithful dissent” offers both hope and perspective to Catholics in our time. It echoes the call of the Second Vatican Council, which, in 1964, declared that expressing opinions “on matters concerning the good of the church” is sometimes an obligation for the faithful.

An obligation. Of course the leash has shortened since 1964:

But, as some saints knew firsthand, a sincere intention is no guarantee that everybody in the church will listen — even today. Members of Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization founded in response to the sexual abuse scandals, are sometimes barred from meeting in Catholic parishes. Local chapters often gather in nearby Protestant church halls. Who knows which future saints are lurking there?

Read the whole article, it's good. And then get to Church, it's the Feast of All Saints.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

grumpiness and politics

Today is the feast of St Wolfgang of Regensburg. That has little to do with what I plan to say, but the fifteenth-century painting of St Wolfgang and the devil by Michael Pacher is very cool.

I am too busy to write much and will be grumpy until election day. Just to continue with what I wrote in the last post, this "op-art" from the New York Times chronicles a number of election problems across the country. Make sure to click on the graphic. Meanwhile Hendrik Herzberg in the New Yorker, in addition to providing a scathing and correct evaluation of the Bush administration, explains some reasons why it is so difficult for massive discontent with the Republican congress to be transformed into something that is not a Republican congress.

Also, the Times reported that the interior department is not pursuing Chevron for undercharging the US government (i.e., taxpayers, i.e., us) millions for offshore natural gas production at a time in which we have troops in a war zone and the deficit is skyrocketing. You'd thing we had unscrupulous oilmen in the White House and a congress that plays dead. I wonder if we can change at least one part of that equation sometime in the next week or so.

Grump grump grump.

Friday, October 27, 2006


English parliament, c. 1300.

I don't have much time right now, but I'd like to throw something out for consideration. There was an article in the New York Times today about how some Democrats are concerned that African-American voters may stay away from the polls, discouraged by past problems when trying to vote.
"This notion that elections are stolen and that elections are rigged is so common in the public sphere that we’re having to go out of our way to counter them this year,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist.
The article refers to many difficulties black voters have had to deal with:

Long lines and shortages of poll workers in lower-income neighborhoods in the 2004 election and widespread reports of fliers with misinformation appearing in minority areas have also had a corrosive effect on confidence, experts say...

She [an African-American woman from Milwaukee] traced her own skepticism to one afternoon two months before the last presidential election when she overheard several young black men saying they were not going to vote because they feared being arrested at the polling station for their unpaid parking tickets. The neighborhood had been flooded with fliers from the Milwaukee Black Voters League, a fictitious group, saying that even minor infractions like parking tickets disqualified people from voting...

Mr. Walters said that episodes of voter suppression that were dismissed in 2000 as unfounded recurred in 2004 and were better documented because rights groups dispatched thousands of lawyers and poll watchers. In addition, the first national data-tracking tool, the Election Incident Reporting System, offered a national hot line that fed a database of what ended up to be 40,000 problems.

“All of a sudden after 2004, these weren’t just baseless or isolated incidents,” Mr. Walters said.

The type of misleading letter sent this month to 14,000 Hispanic immigrants in Orange County, Calif., threatening them with arrest if they tried to vote, was hardly a first. In 2004, similar fliers appeared in predominantly black neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh area, on official-looking letterheads. The fliers said that because of unusually high voter registration, Republicans were to vote on Election Day, and Democrats were to vote the next day.

Fliers sent in Lake County, Ohio, told people that if they had registered through the N.A.A.C.P., they could not vote.

What I always wonder when I hear these stories is whether and how seriously they are investigated and prosecuted. I understand there is a Justice Department investigation of the Republican candidate for congress whose campaign was responsible for the Orange County letters, but usually one hears of the complaints and not the investigations.

There are several things our country needs to do to make our system a true democracy. We need to address gerrymandering and campaign financing in a serious fashion. We also need to prosecute anyone who interferes with someone's right to vote and make them serve real jail time. Jim Crow should have died a long time ago.

Republicans are at the forefront of denying people -- mainly the poor and minorities -- their right to vote. Everything from requiring ID cards to rejecting voter registration cards because of the thickness of the paper they were printed on appears to be nothing more than an attempt to disenfranchise sectors of the population that, when the vote, vote Democratic. The standard conservative answer to these charges is that voter fraud is as big an issue as voter intimidation, and favors the Democrats. I have always believed this to be a red herring, but hey, I also agree on aggressive prosecution of voter fraud when it exists. Just don't use that as an excuse to keep people from voting.

Some countries, such as Australia, require people to vote by law. If they don't vote, they have to pay a fine. I have always found this to be a bit on the coercive side of things, but I must say it's encouraging to see that in some countries the political class is not actively trying to discourage the carrying out of the democratic process. We could learn from their attitude.

I'm not being partisan here. When they get the chance, Democrats are as happy to use funky accounting with their campgain money and to absurdly gerrymander districts as Republicans are. But who stands to win from disenfranchising the least powerful members of our society?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Henry IV, rock star

Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106)

There was a fair amount of discussion on my last post (with great contributions from Crystal, Gabriele, and Guillaume le Fou) about an accusation that Henry IV performed a black mass on his wife's unclothed body as well as whether or not one should trust Wikipedia on this issue. The Wikipedia article containing the salacious detail on Henry is here. I think Guillaume made a very good defense of Wikipedia, but I have to admit that I wish the anonymous editors would footnote their contributions, so one could get to the bottom of all this black mass stuff. The article did have listed as a source a book on Henry by a respected scholar of the period, I. S. Robinson.

Unfortunately the hard copy of the book in the Columbia library was checked out, so I had to rely on an irritating ebook version. Robinson does tell how Henry's Kievan wife Eupraxia (who took the name Adelheid upon her coronation as empress) broke with him and made common cause with the papal forces who were resisting him and his antipope Clement III. He does not mention the black mass accusation, but does say
According to the earliest account, that of Bernold’s chronicle, Eupraxia ‘complained that she had suffered so many and such unheard-of filthy acts of fornication with so many men as would cause even her enemies to excuse her flight [from her husband] and move all catholics to compassion for her great injuries’. The wrongs of Eupraxia continued to be recalled in Gregorian polemics for half a century.
So was it true? Probably not. As I said in the comments section of my last post, Henry IV was a good Christian, just one that believed the pope should have less power than the emperor. Gabriele mentioned that many of our sources are written by Henry's enemies. Robinson:
Her public statements at the synod of Constance and the council of Piacenza have never been taken seriously by modern scholarship, not because scholars could accurately judge the empress’s mentality or the emperor’s conduct, but because of their knowledge of the nature of eleventh-century propaganda. Polemicists were accustomed to ‘pay no heed to what was done or not done' but to use fictions in order to convince their audience.
The eleventh-century struggles between papal and imperial power that we call "the investiture conflict" was brutal and some of the fiercest battles were fought with letters and treatises. Robinson cites a number of letters and chronicles written by pro-papal writers, and if I look them up, I would not be surprised if I found the accusation that Crystal mentioned. In general, public denunciations were exaggerated and made particularly sordid in order to make a greater impression. Accusations such as Eupraxia-Adelheid's were sure to travel across Christendom, sapping Henry's power -- especially sapping him of the religious power that settled like an aura over liturgically anointed Christian kings and emperors.

Wikipedia's article on Eupraxia has another interesting tidbit:
According to the chroniclers, Henry became involved in the Nicolaitan sect, and hosted the sect's orgies and obscene rituals in his palaces. Eupraxia-Adelheid was forced to participate in these orgies, and on one occasion Henry allegedly offered her to his son, Conrad. Conrad refused indignantly, and then revolted against his father.
The fact that Henry might be accused of belonging to the second-century gnostic Nicolaitan sect rings true. Most certainly he didn't and there were probably no Nicolaitans around in the eleventh century, but that was par for the course in these type of polemics. You accuse your enemy of belonging to a long-vanished heresy. Such a crime would make a Christian prince no longer a Christian prince. Also, since Nicolaitans were thought to be antinomian -- that is, believers who are "beyond the law" and able to practice any kind of depravity without sin, the accusation would summon thoughts and images that would both horrify and titillate hearers. You can imagine how they would dwell on the subject.

As Crystal noted, politics have not changed that much in nine hundred years.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


When politicians were real politicians: Emperor Henry IV begs the intercession of Countess Matilda of Tuscany and Abbot Hugh of Cluny.

I have to admit, I have become addicted to Wonkette. Funny and unapologetically catty, it is the perfect medium in which to observe the Republican political class dissolve into a trembling puddle of ineffectual hypocrisy. It is much better that dailykos or a number of other liberal (whatever that word means) blogs and websites, because although it is also obviously left-leaning, it follows the common path of the satirist and gossip: to leave no fool or hypocrite standing, regardless of affiliation. Kos and friends provide a valuable service by giving activists a common ground for uniting and bitching, and sometimes even bring important information into the political sphere. In the end, however, they are partisan in the most limited way, which is that they think political parties (in their case the Democratic party) can carry self-contained within themselves solutions to society's problems and that parties are about policies and ideologies, when really they are about naked power.

I don't mean to condemn anyone who is affiliated with the Democratic party or to say there aren't still honest idealists working within the party. Still, power is a mechanism that runs politics, and when you get together an institution whose goal is to obtain power, it's hard for it to be run for other motives. Ideology and policies are tools to achieve power, not the other way around. Even fanatical ideologues in power do not realize what really motivates them.

Corruption is not related to any ideology, it is related to unopposed power. That is really the reason people should vote Democratic next month. If the Republican party has really differentiated itself from the Democratic party, it is that all their best minds were working on politics, not policy. Their machine is well-oiled and both their base and their politicians are disciplined. Their president has received almost no opposition from congress even as his administration crafts a vision of executive power that is almost limitless. The one-party system of government, however, is beginning to show its cracks. Since a main part of their marketing was a Puritan approach to morality, the parade of scandals is especially glaring. The fact that Republicans always claim that they are the party of "personal responsibility" makes their lack of acknowledgement of their failings and their effort to throw blame in the oddest directions even more pathetic.

It will be interesting to see how much the GOP implodes. The juggling act of different forces in the party has had its tensions--how long can neo-con imperialists, plutocrats, theocratic populists, and fiscal conservatives really continue to believe they all have the same ideology? For a long time, the faithful voting patterns of the religious right has been a key, but the scandals have put their leaders into something of a quandary. James Dobson has tried to downplay the Foley scandal, but Tony Perkins (not the cool Tony Perkins) after first blaming the "culture of tolerance and diversity" (i.e., it's really the fault of people on the left), began to talk about a conspiracy of gay Republican staffers (an interesting parallel to the reaction of some conservative Catholics to the clerical pedophilia scandal -- it was not the result, they claimed, of too much power being concentrated in the hands of one group of people who protected their own, it was rather the "gay culture" encouraged in certain seminaries).

Although Mark Foley's behavior was not a result of his being gay, but of his being a creep protected by his colleagues, scapegoating homosexuals will be attractive to many on the far right -- that is, to a large portion of the Republican base. This may seal the 2008 campaign. There are two possibilities: 1) the Republicans nominate an extremist like Sam Brownback, incapable of beating whatever incompetent fool the Democrats nominate, or 2) John McCain's careful act of being a maverick (which he isn't, Bush got just about everything he wanted in his torture bill) to moderates and a conservative to the Republican base (visits to Jerry Fawell's Liberty University, etc.) will fall short of the expectations of the latter who may well support a third party candidate.

Anyway, I've gone on too long. Time to finish up so I can check the latest scandal on Wonkette.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I'm back

A scholar presents his work to a queen, from a late medieval French manuscript.

I have returned to blogdom after a week of wrestling with a report on my research for my dissertation advisor. He wants me to start writing and of course I feel I haven't done enough research and secondary reading -- this is why if one's advisor forgets about one, one doesn't finish one's dissertation until 2047.

This is a hard endeavor. It forces me to really confront my progress and my knowledge of the material, which in the paranoid theatre of my self-esteem is always lacking. I have the little devil on my shoulder telling me that I don't know what I'm talking about, that I can't control the mass of information (well over 1,000 charters) that I am writing about, that my Latin is poor, and that what I write when I feel most inspired is nothing more than a steaming pile of merda tauri.

The oft-feared by graduate students phenomenon known as the imposter syndrome. "When," I ask myself, "will they figure out I don't know what I'm talking about?"

I will probably never get over this. It's part of how I work. Still, I wrote up some twenty pages of whatever and will now return to my routine, reading charters and cheering for the Mets. Checking Wonkette for more bitchy and amusing political gossip. Feeling sad about Iraq. Occasionally blogging. It's nice to be back.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

more on Islam

The Courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

I have to admit, I'm somewhat tired of insisting on the fact that the one billion + Muslims in the world are not all bloodthirsty fanatic savages bent on our destruction, so I'm just passing on a couple of links in honor of the holy month of Ramadan.

Via Chris at Even the Devils Believe, a beliefnet story on how a Florida Muslim organization collected funds to help rebuild Palestinian churches that were damaged after the pope's remarks. The leader of the group said "these churches were protected under Islam. We were upset to see them attacked." has a number of good articles for people who want to learn about Islam. Here's one about the concept of jihad.

Speaking of Faith has done a great program that includes interviews with several Muslims since 9/11:
Mr. Omid Safi: You still hear from a lot of people, why aren't the moderate Muslims speaking out? And, you know, at some level, you just — you feel like, you know, I've lost my voice from speaking out.

Ms. Leila Ahmed (from "Muslim Women and Other Misunderstandings"): I get constantly called and asked to explain why Islam oppresses women. I have never yet been asked, why is it that Islam has produced seven women prime ministers or heads of state, and Europe only two or three or whatever it is?

Mr. Vincent Cornell (from "Violence and Crisis in Islam"): We're faced with this crisis where we have now become the problem, you know, capital T, capital P. The microscope is focused on us, and we are now forced to take stock of what we as a community have done to ourselves.
The current Speaking of Faith, by the way, is very good, although off-topic for this post. I recommend checking it out as well. Have a blessed Ramadan, everyone.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael

The images are by, from top to bottom, Dominico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Andrei Rublev, and anonymous (the tenth-century Girona Beatus).

I have nothing much to add to the visuals today, except to say that the first reading for today is from (pick one) either the weird and cool Book of Daniel or the weird and cool Book of Revelations.

I also insist that everyone read Guillaume le Fou's important post on what's happening right now in Mexico, about which we hear very little north of the border.

Happy archangel day, everyone.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

laxity and delusion

After struggling with so many great ideas and the clash of civilizations and relics and books and religion...

I declare today official silly blogging day.

I accept neither depth nor coherence.

Today is all about the glorious reality that is writing whatever one can pull ex culo and immediately publish on the internet.

What could be better?

I could write pages about mustard, tomes about dust, volumes about mistied shoes. I could seriously type randomly: ashjsdh shdghsdgi.

I can do these things, I have the technology.

I could write nasty poems about the Bush administration in Latin (cur morta est intelligentia?) and then turn that Latin into pig-Latin Latin (ur-cay orta-may est-ay intelligentia-ay?).

I could speak flippantly about my dissertation. For example I could imagine having the chance to meet one of the historical figures I am writing about in order to sort some things out. For example, I could meet Alfonso VII in a bowling alley. I would say things to him like: "Just spin the ball to the right, that way you might get the pin on the right to slide across and hit the one on the left. By the way, did you really order that charter giving the monastery of Sahagun the right to coin money in 1119? No, a smooth movement with the arm..." Of course, I could get testy: "You know, you don't have to tell us you were crowned emperor in every single charter! I've read about five hundred of them now. You come off like a blowhard. Knock it off."

I'm working too hard, I guess.

The tape, seal and church sign? Here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

de ponteficis et imperatoribus

Manuel II Paleologos, one of the last eastern Roman emperors.

Everyone has been following the question of pope Benedict and his remarks about Islam quite closely. He has finally apologized, though perhaps not as enthusiastically as some might wish. I myself believe that the pope was not fair to Islam, though I believe in a more subtle way than the press may have suggested when it referred to his quotation of Manuel II out of context. I won't repeat arguments that I have already made on Jeff's and Prickliestpear's excellent blog posts on the subject, and for the most part I would like just to send people elsewhere to particularly good posts on this issue.

Crystal has taken the time to investigate that sad figure, Manuel II Paleologos, one of the last heirs to an empire that once stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia and in his time was reduced to a sliver of territory around Constantinople. Manuel was forced to play the charming and refined Greek supplicant in the courts of Western Europe, begging for aid to save his doomed city, aid that would never come and would be too late in any case.

Guillaume le Fou, in his comment on Jeff's blog, steered me to Juan Cole's post about the mistakes Benedict made in his discussion of Islam. It's good reading for those who continue to insist that Islam is by nature a violent religion. There are a couple of other points he makes in this and in another post that may be good to take into account. One is about how many in the West see Muslims as "thin-skinned":
Some commentators have complained about Muslim sensibilities in this regard. But in my view, this sensitivity is a feature of postcolonialism. Muslims were colonized by Western powers, often for centuries, and all that period they were told that their religion was inferior and barbaric. They are independent now, though often they have gained independence only a couple of generations (less if you consider neocolonialism). As independent, they are finally liberated to protest when Westerners put them down.

There is an analogy to African-Americans, who suffered hundreds of years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow. They are understandably sensitive about white people putting them down, and every time one uses the "n" word, you can expect a strong reaction. In the remarks the pope quoted about Muhammad, he essentially did the equivalent of using the "n" word for Muslims. It is no mystery that people are protesting.
Like with the protests against the Danish cartoons, people seem all-too-ready to both condemn protests they see as showing too much sensitivity and also group every reaction in the Muslim world into one pot. The press helps, of course, by reporting about peaceful, if passionate, demonstrations along with acts of vandalism against churches, threats by terrorist groups, commentaries by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and statements by individuals, as if this entire reaction were orchestrated by one group with one goal in mind.

Of course, Muslim clerics should stress peace and understanding, and many do. Attacks on churches should always be condemned. The Turkish politician who compared Benedict to Hitler is either stupid or irresponsible (note that one politician said this, not Turkey as a country, though I have seen it stated otherwise on blogs). One insurgent group in Iraq, apparently lacking any sense of irony whatsoever, has threatened to attack the Vatican because Benedict may have suggested Islam was a violent religion. Still, why do people in the West refuse to see that many people in Muslim countries have felt used, bullied, and vilified by the West and that regardless of the fact that some Muslims may overreact to what they perceive as provocations, it is our responsibility to build bridges to the 900 million followers of Islam, not burn them. Those who feel we have the right to insult their faith because some of them may insult us are advocating schoolyard politics.

One mistake that Juan Cole made was to say that Benedict should refer to the Church's policy towards Islam as expressed in Nostra Aetate. The first Vatican response actually did quote the same sections that Cole referred to:
' The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ, "the way the truth, and the life" (John 14, 6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (4).

The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth (5), who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes great pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this Sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. '

Perhaps they should make it more clear.

I would like to refer my readers to one more blog. Check out "Charitable Hatred" and "The Pope on Islam" on Catholic Sensibility (I am not the Liam that usually comments on that blog, by the way). The best part is a response from Neil, the poster, to a comment on "Charitable Hatred:"
Regarding Pes' comment, I have read the Qu'ran, which is a very difficult book to interpret. We need to approach it with caution, remembering that some academics - after crude readings of the Book of Joshua, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the story of Cain and Abel - have been quick to label Christianity or all monotheisms as being violent.

To suggest one approach to reading the Qu'ran, Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA would suggest that we must first recognize the context of the Qu'ran, which partially speaks of a time when Muslims in the city-state of Medina were enmeshed in unavoidable hostilities and outnumbered. As he writes, "You would probably expect to find the leader of the community pumping up the fervor so that every member of this community would join the battle and ensure the survival of the community." Consequently, the Qu'ran, written at a time before the UN or international law, at times sounds rather disturbing.

He also writes, "But in fact, I find the Muslim text—whether it is the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet, or the texts of the jurists—often rising beyond these physical contingencies, and dreaming of the more humane, the more supernal, the more sublime, the more beautiful—for instance, the parts of the Islamic texts that emphasize no treachery in warfare outside of warfare."

The problem, he suggests, is when Muslims collapse texts describing "highly contingent realities" with texts "that express the subliminal, supernal reach," in a dangerous manner that might remind us of the small number of Christian Reconstructionists.

The more universal texts, however, ground Islam in witness to the God whose justice does not require the political success of his followers in such a way that they should feel compelled to use violence to "win" at any cost. And, so, there is thus ample theological justification for the words of Nostra Aetate, which stand firmly against any crude and wholesale demonization of Islam. Furthermore, we might suggest that the temptation to violence in Islam is actually similar to the temptation to violence in Christianity - the poisonous belief that God is a player in our world, requiring us to "win" for him, dependent on his followers' earthly power.

None of this is meant to excuse the denunications of the Holy Father that seem to keep coming from the Middle East. Perhaps part of the Pope's lecture was inadvisable (this is at least debatable), but the denunciations of him are inexcusable: they proceed from ignorance and have been very painful to read and see.
An intelligent and sensitive response from someone who obviously is not a Benedict-hater. I advise everyone to be careful about certain negative opinions about the Qu'ran that are floating around out there.

I hope and pray that this crisis will be put behind us and that sincere people of faith everywhere will work more to mend than to offend.

Really, I would like things to calm down so I can concentrate on why the Mets keep losing now that they're one game away from winning the NL East. It will happen. And Pedro will rise again!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Triumph of the Cross

St. Helena finding the True Cross.

Today is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. From the Franciscans at

Early in the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ's life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior's tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.

The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus' head: Then "all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on."

To this day the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica's dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
Many stories grew up around the cross and its origin that connected the physical origin of its wood with its spiritual meaning. It was thought by some to come from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. According to some legends, the tree from which the cross was made grew from Adam's grave, or even from his mouth (remember that the hill of crucifixion, Golgatha, the place of the skull, was thought to be so called because it was where Adam's skull was buried -- uniting the old Adam with the new Adam, the Fall with redemption). Various stories connect the tree with different Old Testament figures such as Seth, Lot, and Solomon. You can find Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend story here, and a description of the cycle by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo here.

There is a beautiful and imposing medieval Greek Monastery of the Cross near Jerusalem, which I visited in 2000. It was across an olive tree-filled valley from the Israel Museum, and I remember walking through the valley, entering the monastery's tiny gate, and being mobbed by a tour group of ecstatically devout elderly Greek pilgrims who had no doubt about the veracity of the legend which located the exact spot where the tree had grown inside the monastery.

The Monastery of the Cross, Israel.

What happened to the cross that St Helena discovered and Heraclius rescued from the Persians? Like many relics, both bodies and objects, it has been broken into countless pieces and dispersed through the world. One sliver of it was given to our family by the Jesuit godfather of Filius imperatricis pulcherrima Africae occidentalis on the occasion of the latter's First Communion. We don't know about its provenance, and yes, perhaps it's not really a sliver of the True Cross. Then again, perhaps it is. It was a wonderful gift and often with relics and holy sites, the faith you put into them as symbols is as important as the facts involved on the ground. We know there was a Holy Cross, we know this is a sliver. The rest is faith.

Our relic of the Holy Cross. The tiny reliquary is about the size of a nickel, the sliver of the Holy Cross lay on top of the white embroidered cross in the case.

I'd like to leave you with a hymn composed by the great Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus (AD 530-609) which is often sung on this feast day. I will leave it in Latin, but if you must, you can find one of many English translations here.

Hymnus in Honore Sanctae Crucis

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.

Confixa clavis viscera
tendens manus, vestigia
redemptionis gratia
hic inmolata est hostia.

Quo vulneratus insuper
mucrone diro lanceae,
ut nos lavaret crimine,
manavit unda et sanguine.

Inpleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
dicendo nationibus:
regnavit a ligno deus.

Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata regis purpura,
electa, digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere!

Beata cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi!
statera facta est corporis
praedam tulitque Tartari.

Fundis aroma cortice,
vincis sapore nectare,
iucunda fructu fertili
plaudis triumpho nobili.

Salve ara, salve victima
de passionis gloria,
qua vita mortem pertulit
et morte vitam reddidit.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Late medieval Spanish Koran.

Yesterday I briefly watched CSPAN as I ate my lunch. There was a woman from a NGO (Third Way, I think) who was criticizing the Bush administration's approach to diplomacy, or to be more precise, its lack of the same. Someone called in and suggested she was wrong because our adversaries -- whether we're talking about North Korea or Iran -- are "evil" and "you can't talk to them." Before giving an intelligent reply about the importance of diplomacy, she had to profusely agree about how "evil" they were.

I understand that many people who have supported Bush have done so because they feel he demonstrates "moral clarity." To judge from the results of his policies and administration -- everything from Abu Garib to the response to Katrina to the problems of poverty in this country -- I find it hard to agree, but I can imagine that much of this feeling about "moral clarity" comes from his willingness to paint his foreign policy on one big canvass titled "The Battle of Good vs. Evil." This is a very dangerous starting point. One is reason is that it is so absolute it demands desperate measures -- such as wars to do away with evil. War, however, is evil in itself. If it is ever necessary, it must be a "lesser of two evils." There goes complete moral clarity. The propensity of this administration to rush to an armed response in any given situation without thinking of the possible outcomes shows great lack of responsibility. Glibly referring to the deaths of thousands and suffering of millions as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" (Condi Rice dixit) shows an insensitivity that I find hard to reconcile with any definition of the word "good."

Still, they will not change the storyline. If we back out of Iraq now, we are Neville Camberlain. Why? Evil is evil. "Islamofascism" (an extremely offensive word) is the same as Nazism, which is the same as Communism. This is not a complex world, where different political forces with different interests use the tools given to them with a greater or lesser concern for justice and human life, it is black and white.

One of the greatest casualties of this kind of a worldview is tolerance, especially since the president and his supporters have to classify all those who oppose us in the Middle East under a term that links a religion (Islam) with a western ideology that this country has successfully fought against in the past (fascism). The resulting term "Islamofascism" is about as helpful to understanding problems of the Middle East and terrorism as the adjective "evil." It's a gross simplification that slanders a religion and gives the false impression that we are fighting one enemy with one agenda. Al-Queada = Hezbollah = Iran = Hamas = Syria. North Korea, Bush's greatest WMD containment failure, is conveniently left out of the equation, so that the subtextual message "the Muslim is the enemy" is that much more clear. It's always hard to say whether Bush and the neo-cons use these ideas to strike fear and prejudice into voters' hearts, or whether they actually believe them, but reports that Bush did not know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims immediately before the invasion of Iraq are disturbing.

Juan Cole gives a good analysis of those who Bush sees as our enemies, pointing out the complexities and differences between the groups. We owe to ourselves to understand the Muslim world better: the price of simplification is simply too high. Yes, the attacks on September 11 were evil. That much we know. The rest is not so simple.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Peace, God, and Religion

The ruins of the Abbey at Charroux, where the Peace of God was first declared in the tenth century.

Guillaume le Fou and I have been discussing religion and war over at his blog, Zone. A big subject, to be sure, and often depressing. I think there is more than one kind of religion, but it is true that religions that profess absolute certainty can be dangerous.

A couple of days ago I was listening to Speaking of Faith, the radio program I choose when I fold laundry. I discovered it initially because of their interview of the late, great Jaroslav Pelikan. Not every show treats topics of interest to me, but it is always well-done and has a great supporting website. The last show consisted of an interview with Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, an organization that encourages interfaith understanding and social action among young people.

Patel is extremely articulate and effective, and he is anything but a dreamy idealist who spends his time singing Kumbaya. He knows the stakes involved when it comes to youth and faith:
So when people say to me, 'Oh, Eboo, you know, you run this sweet little organization called the Interfaith Youth Core and you do such nice things, you bring kids together,' I say, 'Yeah, you know, there's another youth organization out there. It's called al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda's been built over the past 25 years and with lots of ideas of how you recruit young people and get them to think that this is the best way they can impact the world.'
Patel's personal story is interesting as well. He is Muslim, but his interest in religion and social activism came through working in a Catholic Worker House in Chicago:
And at some point, a Catholic worker leader put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Kid, you've got to find a way to engage in social justice mind, body, and soul.' And so I began reading in other religious traditions, and interestingly enough, kind of avoided Islam until I met my grandmother again, and this is in the summer of 1998. I went to Bombay, India, the summer before I went to graduate school in England, and I discovered that my grandmother had this 40-year history of housing battered and abused women in her apartment in south Bombay. And she brought out all these Polaroids of these women from Hyderabad and Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. And then finally, at the end of all these stories, I wanted to hear my grandmother's story. I said, 'Why do you do this?' And she said, 'Because I'm a Muslim, and this is what Muslims do.' And it was like heaven cracked open and spilled onto me. And I realized that there was a Dorothy Day figure in my faith, in my family. I was standing in an Indian-Muslim Catholic worker house.
The work he does with people of different faiths both encourages them to understand what is distinctive in their own beliefs as well as what they have in common with others. This open religion is completely different from the fundamentalism that creates intolerant forms of Islam or Christianity (whether we're talking about Pat Robertson or the "extra ecclesiam nullus salvus" crowd in my own beloved Catholic Church). I recommend that people give this program a listen or at least check out the transcript. The "Program Particulars" section has some nice extras, like the following photo:

Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, and Dorothy Day at St John the Divine, New York City. February 20, 1973.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Back from Utah

Medieval Utah -- Anasazi wall painting, 12th or 13th century.

I'm back from a brief trip to Utah, where strange things are always occurring. It appears that the righteous and God-fearing Utah Liquor Commission, always ready to stand up to non-Mormon depravity, were ready to bust a convent of Carmelite nuns who were ready to turn their fundraising fair into a Sodom and Gomorrah of booze and gambling (i.e., they were going to have beer and bingo). The commission finally allowed the nuns to sell beer, but the good sisters had to agree not to charge for the bingo cards -- and damnit, put it in writing, because the Latter Day Saints on the commission were certainly not going to take their word for it. You have to keep your eye on those nuns, otherwise they'll lead all of Zion into debauched corruption.

It's news stories like this, plus the fact that Utah still has the highest public approval rating of the Bush administration, that can lead even our fearless leader himself to make a public appearance. And he did, to speak to the American Legion. One would think that at least speaking to the Legion in Utah our president could not raise much of a fuss. Stereotypes, however, always disappoint, and the capital city of ultra-conservative Utah has a firebrand ex-ACLU lawyer as mayor, who not only led a demonstration against the president's policies, but gave one of the most no-holds-barred anti-Bush speeches I have heard from the mouth of an elected official. You can see it here or read the transcript here. It makes one wonder about facile descriptions of red states and blue states. I wonder if the nuns were at the demonstration.

PS: Good news -- Guillaume le Fou, a.k.a. Cowboyangel, has started to blog again. Stop by his site and encourage him.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

book meme

Ezra and his books.

Sandalstraps tagged me with this book meme, which I will only half take seriously. It did get me scratching my head -- damn, I'm a book person, I've spent my whole life reading and writing and the name of a book that has changed my life does not jump immediately into my head? I think books have changed my life, but just one? Certain books have changed how I think about certain things (Hobbes' Leviathan changed how I look at politics, for example), but does that change my life? When I was sixteen, I thought Nietzsche changed my life, but now I realize I didn't understand him. Besides, as I grow older I see that real change is slow and over time. Even sudden conversions as a result of a crisis aren't as unexpected as one would think -- life has been laying the tracks for them, unseen (or in the case of the good conversions, God has been calling for sometime, unheard).

I will, however, do my best.

1. One book that changed your life: This was a tough category, and I had no idea until I saw that Brian, who had also caught the meme, listed Purgatorio under a different category. I think the Divine Comedy has changed my life, though I'm not sure how. It just seems to be the summit of human achievement -- theology, spirituality, history, politics and everything else all wrapped up in the most beautiful poetry imaginable. I feel constantly drawn to it and I think Dante's encompassing vision may have had quite a bit to do with my own return to religion -- if that's true, it has changed my life, and quite a bit.

2. One book that you've read more than once: Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara. This gem of a book changed my life as a poet: I saw that a poet did not have to limit himself or herself to "sensitive thoughts about feelings," but that personality and energy could make the simplest of poems electric. I have not only read this book more than once, I've bought it more than once after having lent it and never seeing it returned. One of its poems, called "Poem":

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

3. One book that you'd want on a desert island: Okay, I know everybody says this, but I would take the Bible. Not only would a desert island experience be a great chance for really studying scripture, but besides, the Bible has everything: poetry, adventure, revelation. Never a dull moment.

4. One book that made you laugh: Candide by Voltaire. If you haven't read it, trust me: brutal, but hilarious.

5. One book that made you cry: I had to think about this one. One book that moved me a great deal was Raymond Carver's collection of short stories, Where I'm Calling From, especially the haunting "A Good Small Thing." The part about the nuns in the South Bronx in Dom Dillo's Underworld is also beautiful.

6. One book you wish had been written: The Complete and Perfect Prosopography of Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Leon and Castile. Yeah, it doesn't sound too exciting. Still, if you were doing the work I'm doing, you'd understand.

7. One book you wish had never been written: There are books out there that represent the most hateful and dangerous ideas that have been formulated (e.g, Mein Kampf), books that represent the worst part of that sewer called contemporary American politics (Unfit for Command or anything by Ann Coulter) and books that can be classified as hate crimes against good English prose (Dan Brown). Still, to wish a book had not been written is something like destroying or burning a book. One shouldn't fight bad ideas with repression, but with good ideas. If I had to choose one, it would be the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for its dangers and its staying power.

8. One book you're currently reading: The Quest for El Cid, by Richard Fletcher. This is a wonderful book about eleventh-century Spain for non-specialists, and I would recommend to any history buff. It's well written, and Fletcher has a great gift for explaining the technical difficulties of medieval historiography in a way that is neither dry nor confusing.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: Any big scary theology tome by Karl Rahner or Paul Tillich.

10. Now tag five people: This is the hard part, since most of my blog friends have already done this. Here goes. If any of you have already bookmemed, put the link in the comments: Jeff, Crystal, Gillaume le Fou, mi primo, and Fay.

Now I'm going away for a few days. Behave yourselves.