Friday, March 31, 2006

Spring is here

Finally, it's spring. Almost 70 degrees, the air is warm, sweet, full, promising, and graced with birdsong. The light is brighter than it has been for months and we blink like animals coming up from hibernation. The street buzzes, everyone's out for a walk. Outside the barbarshops on Amsterdam Avenue, the Dominicans dance next to their parked cars, the car stereos blaring salsa.

(I refer of course to people from the Dominican Republic; the Dominican friars at Notre Dame on Morningside Avenue are not dancing next to their parked cars, the car stereos blaring salsa. They are, I imagine, preparing for the Friday Via Crucis. They are not from the Dominican Republic; they are from Poland.)

One hours' lost sleep this weekend and we shall begin the long days, the evening sun high over the Hudson, the stirrings of urban wildlife in Riverside Park. Every glorious spring I ask myself how the hell I ever got through winter.

finis tyranni

Map of West Africa, 1621.

Charles Taylor is now in the hands of an international tribunal in Sierra Leone. He had been exiled to Nigeria, but the head of the newly-elected democratic government of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first woman president and a cousin of Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae Occidentalis, asked for his extradition. Nigeria granted this, but did not arrest Taylor, who promptly disappeared. I had told Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae Occidentalis that the extradition had been granted, but when I heard about his escape, I was wisely silent. He was captured trying to cross the border into Cameroon with a sackful of dollars.

The press in Liberia and Liberians in exile are pleased. It is hard to underemphasize what a monster Taylor is. He fomented civil war in his own country and across West Africa, unrest responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. His troops of choice were child soldiers, given drugs and automatic weapons, weirdly dressed in women's clothing and wigs, happily indulging in rape and mutilation. Charles Taylor makes Milosevic look like a pussycat. He has destroyed a generation of young men, who now have to be incorporated into a society with 85% unemployment. Liberia, once the model for Africa, is now one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world.

Taylor was still dangerous from his luxurious home in Nigeria, interfering with Liberian politics from abroad (many of his right-hand men were elected to the Liberian legislature). Had he not been caught, the idea of a Charles Taylor with nothing to lose loose in West Africa is terrifying. Still, the support he can still rally and the desperate situation of Liberia make for a very unstable situation for a war crimes trial. President Johnson-Sirleaf has suggested sending him to The Hague, which would be an excellent idea, removing him from volatile West Africa and providing more of a global focus on the situation. If someone like Charles Taylor cannot be tried for crimes against humanity, than international justice is a joke.

I suspect much of the pressure to extradite Taylor and then to arrest him once he disappeared came from the United States. As much as I hate to recognize anything good coming from this White House, I have to in this case. The UN has been also instrumental in allowing for the end of the civil war and peaceful and democratic elections. I like the idea of Irish and Mongolian soldiers working together to make the streets of Monrovia livable. Still, much more has to be done. Bono is certainly right about debt relief, but that's not all. Europe, the United States, and other large markets should open their doors to African goods. Call me a liberal, but yes, lots of money should be thrown at the problem. Infrastructure, utilities, and education are essential. The United States, having created Liberia, has its own moral responsibility. One more thing: not one more gun should be sold in Africa. Arms merchants should be treated at least the same way that we treat the cartels that bring cocaine into the United States.

Let us pray for a peaceful and prosperous Africa.

PS: Another thing. During the 80's, Taylor was arrested in the US on a Liberian warrent issued by the then-dictator of Liberia, Samuel Doe. He mysteriously escaped from a Boston jail, after which he eventually returned to Liberia to overthrow the Doe regime. Some people think the Reagan administration, having decided to stop supporting Doe, was involved in his escape. Is this true? Hard to say, but it is not unthinkable, given US policy of supporting and then overthrowing the same dictators they had supported (Saddam Hussein, Noriega), a policy embraced by the Reagan administration. A little bit of extra responsibility on our hands, then.

PPS: A heartbreaking report about Taylor's Liberia.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Via Crucis

I received an email today from Bob Carlton today suggesting a great idea -- a grid blog Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross. Here's the email:

"Holy Week, which this year begins on 9 April and ends on 15 April, originated in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Church, when devout people traveled to Jerusalem at Passover to reenact the events of the week, leading up to what we now know as the Resurrection. I'd like to invite you to be part of a grid blog during this year's Holy Week, using our blogs to reenact, relive, and participate in the steps of Jesus Christ through what our many traditions have come to call the Via Crucis - the Stations of the Cross.

If you are interested in joining this global effort, the first thing you 'd need to do is choose which station (s) you will be blogging on.
Here's the schedule:

9 April: (1) Christ is condemned to death, (2)The cross is laid upon him
10 April: (3) His first fall, (4) He meets His Blessed Mother
11 April: (5) Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross, (6) Christ's face is wiped by Veronica
12 April: (7) His second fall, (8) He meets the women of Jerusalem

13 April: (9) His third fall, (10) He is stripped of His garments
14 April: (11) His crucifixion
, (12) His death on the cross
15 April: (13) His body taken down from the cross, (14) His body is laid in the tomb

The way this would work is simple: each day during Holy Week, folks who have chosen to blog on the stations (s) for that day would post their own reflection on their own blogs (including media of any type) and also (a) include the Via Crucis Grid Blog tag in their subject line and in their post (b) include a common image (to be distributed in the next 10 days) and (c) include links to stations before and after them. If you are interested, please simply go to the coordinating blog
and include in your comment the day (and station) you'll be blogging on. Feel free to sign up for as many stations and/or days as you'd like. Please make sure you include your email and blog url in your comment."

I myself signed up for all the stations. I think it will be a good way to spend Holy Week in a devotional frame of mind. He also suggested I invite blogging friends to join the group. Anyone up for this?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More Links

The church of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, Spain. Nearby is a shop that sells exquisite pate. On the side of the church are chains that held prisoners captured by the Muslims of Granada and freed by Isabel and Fernando. These chains have links.

There are some links I've been meaning to add to my list for some time now, but that means using HTML before which I, a primitive, fall to the ground, weak and trembling. I finally screwed my courage to the sticking point and there they are.

Sandlestraps' Sanctuary is a thoughtful blog written by Chris, a Methodist ex-minister who takes the time to write reasoned, intelligent posts on questions of theology, spirituality, fatherhood, and other issues that strike his interest. Very worth reading, especially since Chris is so thorough--it's so different from my busy hit and run blogging. Perspective is the work of Crystal, a Catholic convert who graces us with her great insights on spirituality, movies, books, and other good things. She also posts her own creative writing.

For more creative writing, check out The Outline of a House, a blog on which a friend and fellow poet, C. A. Liebow, posts his great poetry.

I'm also linking to the blogs of two fellow Columbia history grad students, Ted's The Late Adopter, and Kevin's Ghost in the Machine. They both study the United States, a country founded some centuries after history stops being interesting (at least for me). Kevin blogs with great energy about politics, movies, basketball, and other vital issues. Ted culls pregnant quotes from all over the place and presents them with classical simplicity.

All very good reading, indeed.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Florida 75, Villanova 62

St Augustine, looking upset.

Okay. I officially don't care about the NCAA tournament anymore.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jesuits out of the NCAA Tournament

St. Ignatius of Loyola (probably sad right now), by the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens.

I wouldn't want to say there is weeping today in the Jesuit section of heaven, but perhaps disappointment, as both Gonzaga and Georgetown have lost and left the NCAA tournament. Since I had Gonzaga winning the final, my bracket, already weak after the first round, is now officially shot all to hell. Alas.

On the other hand, the Augustinians are still in the game. Down by one point and with three seconds to go, Villanova came back to win after a goaltending call against BC's Sean Williams, who should probably not return directly to Boston. So our last hope for a title is with the Augustinians of Villanova. Let's hope they are not so Augustinian that they don't have the free will to make it all the way to the finals. Go Wildcats.

St. Augustine (still in a good mood) from a medieval manuscript.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Krum, shotguns and hotel rooms

Krum, ninth-century Khan of Bulgaria. After defeating and killing the Byzantine emperor Nicephoros I at the Battle of Pliska in 811, he had his rival's skull made into a drinking cup. All in all, a more pleasant person than Dick Cheney.

Although I do comment on political affairs on this blog and have very strong opinions about them, I try to stay away from the character assassination that ones sees so often in blogs, right or left. My one exception is Dick Cheney, who has no character to assassinate. Disagreeable, secretive, corrupt, vulgar (remember his remark to Patrick Leahy on the senate floor), Cheney is positively Nixonian.

So I will turn to one of those curious bits of news that serve as fodder for late-night comedians and have little transcendence, but at the same time can be revealing. The hunting accident was like this. Perhaps Cheney was reckless, perhaps not. Perhaps it was an accident that could happen to anyone. The humor in the matter suggested itself: Dick Cheney "shot an old man in the face." If this had happened to other vice-presidents, there would also have been merriment. Al Gore would have explained the fault in an awkwardly wooden matter. Dan Qualye would be the butt of jokes focusing on both his intelligence and the many puns his last name would offer.

That it was Cheney, however, who "shot an old man in the face" was more suggestive and even metaphorically appropriate. It fits the mean smirk he carries on his face. The fact that he was hunting "wingless quailtards,"-- i.e., helpless birds raised for hunting and then released directly in front of fat old men armed to the teeth so that they can kill without any of the difficulty or discomfort that makes real hunting a noble sport -- is an excellent allegory for both his privilege and his attitude towards the use of armed force. His reaction to the accident was typical of the Bush administration: he did not tell the media, the secret service prevented an investigation, and there was no admission of responsibility until it was absolutely necessary. There was an attempt at a some kind of spin and cover-up, the attempt was incompetent.

Yes, I should have blogged about this when it happened. Sorry, grad school, different time-space continuum, you know. I did come across this item in the Times today. It seems that Cheney, like any good rock star, has his list of things he must have in his hotel:
All televisions sets in Mr. Cheney's hotel suite should be tuned to Fox News, all lights should be on, and the thermostat set at 68 degrees. Mr. Cheney should have a queen- or king-size bed, a desk with a chair, a private bathroom, a container for ice, a microwave oven and a coffee pot, with decaf brewed before arrival.

The vice president should also have four cans of caffeine-free Diet Sprite and four to six bottles of water. He must have the hotel restaurant menu, with a copy faxed ahead to his advance office. If his wife is with him, she should have two bottles of sparkling water, either Calistoga or Perrier.

For his reading material, Mr. Cheney should have The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the local newspaper.

Pretty tame. No specialty M&Ms or anything like that. Jokes could be made about what should be on the list: cup of goat blood, pentagram on the floor, etc. What fascinates me most is the requirement that "all television sets... should be tuned to Fox News." God forbid he should be forced to watch anything else, even for the five seconds it takes to find the remote. He might actually find out how different the world is than that vision which is fabricated in the White House and then vomited up again on their TV channel. How telling these details can be.

I wonder what he uses the Times for.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

heresy, immigration and basketball

Late 16th-century allegory of heresy.

1. I don't have much time to post since today I have to give a lecture on 13th-century heresy to the class for which I am a TA. The 12th- and 13th-centuries were an incredible time for the development of Christianity, but they were also terribly brutal. The same religious fervor that created St Francis could spill out in many directions, and the Church lost the opportunity to dialogue with several of those, ultimately choosing to repress them instead. In our multidenominational society, it is hard to understand how dangerous a threat to unity seemed to people of that time. The paralyzing fear, however, that one word could install in society may be more familiar. Then it was "heresy." Fifty years ago it was "communism." Now it is "terrorism."

2. The Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, has written an op-ed about proposed legislation on immigration that has already been passed in the House of Representatives. This law would not only involve harsher and more punitive treatment of illegal immigrants themselves, but would also criminalize their "accomplices"--that is, anyone who provides any human kindness to these people. Mahony has said that if the law is passed, he will order his priests to defy it and continue to give humanitarian aid to immigrants. This is a courageous and thoroughly Christian position.

3. How I see the NCAA tournament: The Jesuits are still alive, on two fronts. My brackets have the Northwest Jesuits beating the Augustinians in the final. I would be happy to see the Augustinians win as well.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

Happy St Patrick's Day, everyone.

Though stuck in the gloom of a dissertation that is going nowhere (Saints Brigid of Ireland, Catherine of Alexandria, Nicholas of Myra, and Thomas Aquinas, patrons of scholars, pray for me), I must pause to remember the saint who made the Irish the second most Catholic people in the universe (first prize may well go to the Poles).

St Patrick is also the patron of the archdiocese of New York, and the cardinal archbishop has given us a dispensation to eat meat today, despite it being a Lenten Friday, in order to celebrate the good saint's feast day. I personally will dine on mutton pies and Guinness, not corned beef and green beer.

I am going to leave you with the incredibly moving prayer "The Lorica of St Patrick" (St Patrick's Breastplate). If not written by Patrick himself, it was certainly inspired by him. Its litany-like repetitions are hypnotic. The beginning "I arise today" makes it personal, giving the idea that each believer can say he begins every day with the armor of faith. It expresses an early medieval concern with temptation, heresy, and magic, but it also shows a stunning appreciation of the beauty of creation ("light of sun, brilliance of moon"). The climax of the poem situates Christ in every relation to the believer, first in each physical direction and then in all encounters with others. It is magnificent. Happy St Patrick's, every one.

The Lorica of St Patrick

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the
Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession
of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim
in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels,
in hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets,
in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me:
against snares of devils, against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature, against everyone who
shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.
I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils):
against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose
my body and my soul,
against incantations of false prophets,
against black laws of heathenry,
against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry,
against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul.
Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning, against drowning,
against wounding, so that there may come abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right,
Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length,
Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the
Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the
Oneness of the Creator of creation.
Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.


In the end, I have made some progress on the dissertation today. My thanks to Saints Catherine, Nicholas, Thomas Aquinas, and Brigid of Ireland, who probably enjoys this day very much.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


From Informed Comment: Human Rights First has a petition about the Darfur conflict in Sudan They're trying to get 200,000 signatures to ask the UN to appoint a special envoy to deal with the situation. Please take the time to go to the site, see the short flash movie they have prepared, and read about why a envoy would be useful.

Also: an article by Nicholas Kristof on the subject. He also suggests that an envoy would help. Last time I was in the School for International and Public Affairs of Columbia University, there was an exhibition of crayon drawings by refugee children from Darfur, showing the attacks on their villages. Heartbreaking.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

of wind and martyrdom

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry, my favorite comic book.

I am posting briefly today because it's been too long without a post, regardless of whether or not I have anything to say (not really) or any time to say it (certainly not). So:

1. Why didn't anybody tell me about the wind before I moved to New York City? Chicago, they say, is the windy city. I don't know about the hog butcher to the world, but I do know what it's like to be caught up in the Broadway wind tunnel. Even when not cold, immensely irritating.

2. Today is the feast day of the Martyrs of Valeria. According to Catholic Online: "Two monks hanged from a tree by the Lombards. Pope St. Gregory I the Great reported that after dying, the monks could be heard singing Psalms." The weird beauty of medieval hagiography. I imagine a Roman pine on a hill by a lonely road in what once was Ertruria. Near dusk, backlit by the setting sun. No sound but the whistling wind and haunting Gregorian chant. Two tonsured and robed silhouettes dangling from the branches. How frightening the beauty of martyr tales.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

snow & lent

Medieval snow: from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry.

It started snowing early here in New York and now the roofs and the quad here at Columbia are dusted with white and the heavy gray sky is now letting fall freezing rain. A nice quiet afternoon for reading calmly about medieval Spain, which is what I should be doing anyway.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and for once the ashes on my head lingered there all day. I like Lent, its solemnity brings me back to myself in many ways. University life makes Advent difficult to appreciate, as things build to a frenzy just before Christmas and the teaching and grading load becomes unbearable. But Lent is somewhat easier, coming in the middle of the semester just when I need to be both disciplined and serious, allowing me both religion and study.

What does one say? "Happy Lent" doesn't seem quite right. I hope everyone has the Lent they need.