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Saturday, May 31, 2008

New book by William Barry SJ

I'm just starting the latest book by William A Barry SJ - A Friendship Like No Other. One of the ways he illustrates his points is with poetry. Here are a couple of the poems from his book ....

Love (III) - George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Annunciation - Denise Levertov

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A fool for Christ

- Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-LePage

Tomorrow is Joan of Arc's feast day. Here's a little of what James Marin SJ wrote about her in his book, My Life With The Saints ......


There is a late-nineteenth-century painting of Joan by Jules Bastien-LePage hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City .... Increasingly I found myself drawn to this great painting. Joan listens attentively to the voices of the saints, who are depicted as twining through a dense green thicket of trees in her parents' garden at Domrémy. St. Michael, in armor, floats in a tree, holding a sword. St. Catherine, with a garland of white blossoms woven through her hair, prays. St. Margaret is barely visible. Joan stands on the right side of the painting, her wide gray eyes glowing, her left arm held out before her as if awaiting directions. This dark-haired Joan is statuesque, earthy, magnificent.

But it was not these potent visual images as much as the marvelous illogic of her story that beguiled me. Jehanne la Pucelle, a young peasant (who could not read and, later, could not sign her name to her confession - she instead scrawled a cross), hears the voices of not one but three saints, who command her to lead the French army to victory over the English. The saints instruct her to dress as a man, a soldier. She does. She travels to meet the dauphin and, confronting an annoying demonstration of royal persiflage, promptly picks him out of the crowd at court, kneels at his feet, and tells him a certain secret, a secret so profound ( and still unknown) that it immediately convinces the young, weak prince of the righteousness of Joan's cause. Then - added as an afterthought in some blasé accounts of her life - she does lead the army to victory. She prays to St. Catherine for the wind to change during the battle at Orléans. It does. The dauphin is crowned King Charles VII in Reims. All as Joan has said.

But the wind changes again. The new king proves fickle and decides not to lengthen Joan's incredible string of military victories. For her accomplishments, she is excommunicated by the church, which has always been suspicious of her reliance on "voices". The English burn the Maid as a witch. (Legend has it, though, that her strong heart was not consumed by the flames.)

Each saint holds a particular appeal for believers. What is Joan's? Her youth? Her military valor? Her courage in facing her critics and her executioners? For many, it is her willingness to be, in the words of St. Paul, a "fool for Christ". The audacity of her plan, based on directives from heavenly voices, is, centuries later, still breathtaking, no matter how many times we have heard the story.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Church is a home for everyone

I'm slowly reading Dominican Timothy Radcliffe's book, What is the Point of being a Christian. Here's a bit from his introduction ....


[...] Let me make it clear from the start that what may be strikingly different is not that Christians are better than other people. There is no evidence that we are. Jesus said, 'I came not to call the righteous but sinners' (Mark 2.17), and this he continues to do. He ate and drank with the disreputable. The Church is a home for everyone, especially those whose lives are a mess. It is fitting that the first Christian to make it to Paradise was the thief who was crucified beside Jesus. According to an early Syriac poem, when he arrived at the gates of heaven, the angel who looked after such things tried not to let him in because he was not the sort of person who belonged there! Anyway, a community which founded its existence on the claim to moral superiority would not only be repulsive but would inevitably invite people to search for our failures and expose them with glee. If the Churches are so often attacked in the press, and our every sin given banner headlines, then this is because it is generally but wrongly assumed that the point of being Christian is to be better than other people ....


I think I'm going to like this book :) I'll post more bits as I read along.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bad Lieutenant

I saw that the 1992 movie Bad Lieutenant, which stars Harvey Keitel as a morally depraved New York City cop who finds the possibility of redemption when investigating the rape of a nun, is going to be remade, with Werner Herzog directing and Nick Cage starring. When the director/screenwriter of the original, Abel Ferrara, heard this, he's said to have been extremely angry. It's interesting - we don't bat an eye at remade movies, but imagine someone rewriting your book or repainting your painting - yikes! Anyway, I've never seen the movie and I'm trying to decide if I should rent it, wait for the remake, or give it a pass due to its upsetting nature (rated NC-17). Roger Ebert gave the original film four stars. Here's his review of it ........


"Bad Lieutenant" tells the story of a man who is not comfortable inside his body or soul. He walks around filled with need and dread.

He is in the last stages of cocaine addiction, gulping booze to level off the drug high. His life is such a loveless hell that he buys sex just for the sensation of someone touching him, and his attention drifts even then, because there are so many demons pursuing him.

Harvey Keitel plays this man with such uncompromised honesty that the performance can only be called courageous; not many actors would want to be seen in this light.

The lieutenant has no illusions about himself. He is bad and knows he is bad, and he abuses the power of his position in every way he can. Interrupting a grocery store stickup, he sends the beat cop away and then steals the money from the thieves. He sells drug dealers their immunity by taking drugs from them. In the film's most harrowing scene, he stops two teenage girls who are driving their parents' car without permission. He threatens them with arrest, and then engages in an act of verbal rape. .

Remember the Ray Liotta character in the last sequence of Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," when he is strung out on cocaine and paranoid that the cops are following him? His life speeds up, his thinking is frantic, he can run but he can't hide. The Keitel character in "Bad Lieutenant" is like that other character, many more agonizing months down the road. Life cannot go on like this much longer.

We learn a few things about him. He still lives in a comfortable middle-class home, with a wife and three children who have long since made their adjustment to his madness. There is no longer a semblance of marriage. He comes in at dawn and collapses on the couch, to be wakened by the TV cartoons, which cut through his hangover. He stumbles out into the world again, to do more evil. When he drives the kids to school, his impatience is palpable; he cannot wait to drop them off and get a fix.

The movie does not give the lieutenant a name, because the human aspects of individual personality no longer matter at this stage; he is a bad cop, and those two words, expressing his moral state and his leverage in society, say everything that is still important about him.

A nun is raped. He visits the hospital to see her. She knows who attacked her, but will not name them, because she forgives them.

The lieutenant is stunned. He cannot imagine this level of absolution. If a woman can forgive such a crime, is redemption possible even for him? The film dips at times into madness. In a church, he hallucinates that Jesus Christ has appeared to him. He no longer knows for sure what the boundaries of reality are. His temporary remedies - drugs and hookers - have stopped working. All that remains are selfloathing, guilt, deep physical disquiet, and the hope of salvation.

"Bad Lieutenant" was directed by Abel Ferrara, a gritty New Yorker who has come up through the exploitation ranks ("Ms. 45," "Fear City") to low budget but ambitious films like "China Girl," and "Cat Chaser." This film lacks the polish of a more sophisticated director, but would have suffered from it. The film and the character live close to the streets. The screenplay is by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who can be seen onscreen as a hooker. They are not interested in plot in the usual sense. There is no case to solve, no crime to stop, no bad guys except for the hero.

Keitel starred in Scorsese's first film and has spent the last 25 years taking more chances with scripts and directors than any other major actor. He has the nerve to tackle roles like this, that other actors, even those with street images, would shy away from. He bares everything here - his body, yes, but also his weaknesses, his hungers. It is a performance given without reservation.

The film has the NC-17 rating, for adults only, and that is appropriate. But it is not a "dirty movie," and in fact takes spirituality and morality more seriously than most films do. And in the bad lieutenant, Keitel has given us one of the great screen performances in recent years.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thomas Aquinas and Corpus Christi

- Chapel of the Corporal at the Cathedral at Orvieto (the Corporal of Bolsena)

Happy Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (tomorrow). Here's a bit from Wikipedia on the feast of Corpus Christi and how Thomas Aquinas figures into it , with a translation of one of his hymns by Edward Caswall and another by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ .....

In 1263 Pope Urban IV investigated claims of a Eucharistic miracle, in which blood had issued from a consecrated host. In 1264 he issued the papal bull Transiturus in which Corpus Christi was made a feast throughout the entire Latin Rite .......

A new liturgy for the feast was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas. This liturgy has come to be used not only on the Feast of Corpus Christi itself but also throughout the liturgical year at events related to the Blessed Sacrament. The hymn Aquinas composed for Vespers of Corpus Christi, Pange Lingua, is also used on Holy Thursday during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose. The last two verses of Pange Lingua are also used as a separate hymn, Tantum Ergo, which is sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. O Salutaris Hostia, another hymn sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, comprises the last two verses of Verbum Supernum Prodiens, Aquinas' hymn for Lauds of Corpus Christi. Aquinas also composed the propers for the Mass of Corpus Christi, including the sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The epistle reading for the Mass was taken from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-29), and the Gospel reading was taken from the Gospel of John (John 6:56-59).

Tantum Ergo / Down in Adoration Falling - translation: Edward Caswall

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.

To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.


Adoro Te Devote / Hidden God - translation : Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight.


Friday, May 23, 2008

10 years ago ....

In my web travels I came upon a decade-old letter written by the then head of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, while on a visit to Iraq, just before the 1998 bombing. The last line of his letter says it all ... Let us stop this madness..


Timothy Radcliffe: Letter from Iraq

The visit to the brethren and sisters in Iraq had been planned long before the present crisis. It was providential that it was now that I and fr. Daniel Cadrin, OP could pass a week with them, as they waited for the bombers to arrive. The only way to enter Iraq during the embargo is a fifteen hour drive from Amman to Baghdad across the desert. It is like entering a high security prison, and like most people going to prison we wondered when and if we would get out again. It took four hours to cross the frontier, even with the help of a young Iraqi Dominican who was returning home after finishing his studies in France, and the lavish distribution of cans of Pepsi Cola, which appears to be the local currency. Then as throughout the trip I was astonished by the exquisite courtesy of everyone I met. Never once was I reproached for being British, although our aircraft carrier was waiting in the Gulf to add its bombs to those of the Americans. What would it have been like for an Iraqi coming to Britain if there had been one of their aircraft carriers waiting in the English channel?

When we arrived at Baghdad there were few signs of preparation for war. The Iraqis discovered during the Gulf war that there is little that one can do against American bombs. The city waited, vulnerable and apparently unprotected. Even more surprising was to find the brethren building a new priory, to accommodate the postulants for the Order. It was a sign of hope to see the workmen completing a building that might easily be destroyed within a week. The young architect explained that the building was intentionally a symbol of what the people were suffering. It look as if it were cracked open, fractured, and yet strong. He explained that it represented a people who are crucified and yet hoped for healing.

Before we arrived in Iraq, I had shared in the general obsession with news of the latest development. In Istanbul we had listened to every bulletin of the BBC World Service, wondering when the denouement would come. Yet we found the people we met in Iraq were less concerned by this question. Long years of suffering, the war with Iran, the Gulf War, the seven long years of the embargo, had pushed people to deeper questions. A Dominican sister told us "We are ground down, exhausted, by years of death. 600,000 children had died of malnutrition and a lack of medicine since the Gulf War. We live with death." Somehow these years of deprivation and isolation have eroded such minor questions as to whether one might die next week because of a bomb from the air, or in ten year's time from another cause. The question was whether after death there is life, and whether there is a God who hears them. It was as if the embargo had sometimes seemed to shut out even God. The Nuncio, Mgr Lazzarotto Giuseppe, told me that when he asks for support for projects form international Aid agencies, he is refused unless it is for food or medicine. But, as our sisters told us, "We are not animals such that it would be enough to have a full stomach. What this people hunger for more than anything else is a word of hope."

Every Monday over a 1000 young people come to the theology classes offered by the Dominican brethren in Baghdad. Almost as many come to the priory at Mosul. Christians of every denomination come to study the scriptures, to argue about Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, while the world waits for the bombs to fall. In the north of the country we found a flourishing movement of Dominican laity, in the villages populated by Chaldean and Syrian Christians. They gather in each other's homes to study the word of God every week. They told us that faced the life or death, they can no longer be satisfied with superficial answers. What does God have to say to us?

I was reminded of a Dominican friar, Riccoldo da Monte Croce, who lived in Baghdad seven hundred years ago. The Dominican community had enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the Muslim community for years. But after the fall of Acre in 1291, the Christians found themselves unwelcome. Some friars died, others went to Iran, others returned to Italy and Riccoldo found himself alone. His habit was taken from him and he was forced to become a camel driver. He was plunged into despair, fearful for his life. In the market place he found among the sale of the booty from Acre the blood-stained habit of one of his brethren. He wrote letters to the brethren in Italy but no one answered, not even the Master of the Order. "What can have happened to the Master General, that he does not answer my most sad letters?", a common complaint in the Order, I am sure. He wrote to St. Dominic, Our Lady and even the Heavenly Court, expressing his desolation and despair and received no reply. "Having received no response, I will act like someone who, in a public street, has received an intolerable injury. I will shout 'someone help me!' Is there anyone who can reply?" That is the silence which afflicts some Christians in Iraq.

Finally, among the books ransacked from the Acre priory he found a copy of Gregory the Great's Moralia, his commentary on the book of Job. And here he discovered the answer for which he had waited. God had spoken, in the scriptures. Here he must search for the reply to all his questions. So too the young Christian of Iraq search the scriptures to understand, hungry for God's word for them. Now fr Yussuf is preparing the publication of the first Kurdish New Testament for the sisters who work among the Kurds on the Turkish border.

So, these years of suffering have worn away any comfortable little beliefs, and exposed starker alternatives, great hope and despair, sometimes the two inhabiting the same heart. Somehow this embargo with all its deprivations has brought many young Christians to a deeper knowledge, hard bought. It is as if the ground has opened under their feet, and the sky above their heads As the French poet Victor Segalen wrote of discovering the divine name of God:

"Only when there is great drought, when frost-bound winter
crackles, when springs, at their lowest ebb, spiral in shells of ice.
When the void gapes underground in the heart's cavern -
where blood itself has ceased to flow - under the vault, now accessible,
the Name can be received.
But let the hard waters melt, let life overflow,
let the devastating torrent surge rather than Knowledge!"

It was a bitter sweet week. We visited the maternity ward of the hospital run by our sisters in Baghdad, and rejoiced for the safe delivery of prematurely born twins. We prayed that they would not prematurely die. All over the country we found that Christian communities were weakened by emigration, especially to America, both paradise and the enemy. Yet we met one young man who having got as far as Morocco, decided to come back. His village is just a few miles from Nineveh. He told us that he was like Jonah. Though he tried to flee, he knew he must return and share with his people their fate and his hope in Christ. One of the faces I will always remember is that of sister Olga, young and strong. She is an Assyrian Christian. They are usually called "Nestorians" by the Catholics, though this is a name they dislike. She felt called to religious life, although there have been no communities of religious in her Church for centuries. Because she trusted that we would not try to "capture" her for the Catholics, she asked one of the brethren to help her in this new venture. When she made her vows to her bishop, this brother preached, the first catholic priest to do so in an Assyrian church after centuries of hostility. She and her little group of novices visit the mental hospitals and prisons of Baghdad as a sign of the God who has not forgotten.

We feasted with our brothers. They had managed to find a few bottles of wine. "All this must be drunk before you leave" said fr. Yussuf. We knew that they had spent more than they could afford, and that when the French provincial came next month there would be nothing left for him. In Mosul, we visited the house of formation of the Dominican sisters, filled with young postulants and novices. Since it was hard to come by the ingredients to make a cake, they performed a dance in which each one represented some element of the cake that they would have like to make, the cream, the almonds, the wheat that they did not have. Then they put on the traditional clothes of their villages and danced and sang until we were exhausted.

It is possible here to discuss their perception of the political situation. I can only say that they share the perplexity which I have found throughout the Arab world, that in the name of civilization we could even contemplate so barbarous an act as to attack these people. How can we, in the name of peace, consider launching a war that will probably bring devastation to the region for years? It seemed as if with the fall of communism we have lost our traditional enemy and needed another. Iraq was chosen. As in an old fashioned western movie, the hero must find the enemy and kill him, again and again.

When we drove back across the desert to Amman I thought of the words of Isaiah to the exiles in Babylon: "In the wilderness prepare a way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." We followed much the same route that those exiles took when they went home, and it was certainly straight and flat. But I did not feel as if I was going home. I felt sad and almost guilty to leave these people, Christian and Muslim, to their fate. Let us stop this madness.

Timothy Radcliffe O.P.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tribute to Senator Robert F. Kennedy

I saw in the news that Ted Kennedty, has a brain tumor that caused his earlier seizure. That rmeinded me of my mother. She had had lung cancer but was doing pretty well when one night as we watched tv she began to have a seizure .... very scary. Her cancer had migrated and she had a brain tumor as well. I hope Senator Kennedy recovers, and I thought I'd post one of his past speeches from the archive of American Rhetoric's Top 100 speeches of the 20th Century ..... Tribute to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, delivered by Ted Kennedy, 8 June 1968 at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.


Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Mr. President:

On behalf of Mrs. Kennedy, her children, the parents and sisters of Robert Kennedy, I want to express what we feel to those who mourn with us today in this Cathedral and around the world.

We loved him as a brother, and as a father, and as a son. From his parents, and from his older brothers and sisters -- Joe and Kathleen and Jack -- he received an inspiration which he passed on to all of us. He gave us strength in time of trouble, wisdom in time of uncertainty, and sharing in time of happiness. He will always be by our side.

Love is not an easy feeling to put into words. Nor is loyalty, or trust, or joy. But he was all of these. He loved life completely and he lived it intensely.

A few years back, Robert Kennedy wrote some words about his own father which expresses [sic] the way we in his family felt about him. He said of what his father meant to him, and I quote: "What it really all adds up to is love -- not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it." And he continued, "Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off."

That is what Robert Kennedy was given. What he leaves to us is what he said, what he did, and what he stood for. A speech he made to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966 sums it up the best, and I would like to read it now:

"There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember -- even if only for a time -- that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek -- as we do -- nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth -- not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

It is a revolutionary world we live in, and this generation at home and around the world has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation; a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; a young woman reclaimed the territory of France; and it was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who [pro]claimed that "all men are created equal."

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. *It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.* Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged, and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that event.

*The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.* Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live."

That is the way he lived. That is what he leaves us.

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

"Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not."


Monday, May 19, 2008

King Arthur, student of Pelagius :)

- Clive Owen as King Arthur

Last night's rental movie was the 2004 film King Arthur. It had an unusual cast ... Clive Owen as Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, Stellan Skarsgård as Cerdic the Saxon, Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan, and Ivano Marescotti as St. Germanus of Auxerre, among others.

- Lancelot and Guinevere

The movie is kind of interesting because it diverges from the traditional King Arthur legends and films (like Camelot, Merlin, Excalibur, The Mists of Avalon, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail :), for its producers said it was based on new archaeological findings and was more historically accurate.

I don't know about that, but the storyline did differ in many ways, and it has some interesting twists .... Merlin, for instance, is not Arthur's wizard tutor, but the leader of the Pictish tribes who were being pushed to the north and west, called "Woads" in the film (because they used woad to dye their skin, I'd guess), and Guinevere, Merlin's daughter, is pretty good with a bow and arrow, I suppose a take on Boudica. Galahad isn't Lancelot's son - in fact, all the knights of the round table are in this movie said to be Sarmatians who are serving 15 years indentured servitude to Rome in Britain.

- Tristan and his hawk

One kind of interesting part is that they show Arthur, a Roman soldier of British/Roman ancestory, as a student of Pelagius and his doctrine of free will ( St. Germanus, appearing in the movie, was one of his real life detractors). Here's a little of what Wikipedia has to say about him ...

Pelagius (ca. 354 – ca. 420/440) was an ascetic monk and reformer who denied the doctrine of original sin, later developed by Augustine of Hippo, inherited from Adam and was declared a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism. He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. He spent time as an ascetic, focusing on practical asceticism, which his teachings clearly reflect. He was not, however, a cleric. He was certainly well known in Rome, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation in Rome earned him praise early in his career even from such pillars of the Church as Augustine, who referred to him as a "saintly man." However, he was later accused of lying about his own teachings in order to avoid public condemnation. Most of his later life was spent defending himself against other theologians and the Catholic Church ..... After being banished from Rome, Pelagius headed east. He probably died in Palestine around 420, as reported by some. Others mention him living as many as twenty years later. The cause of his death is unknown, but it has been suggested that he was killed by his enemies in the Catholic Church.

- Guinevere with her woad on

Though the movie had its downsides - a hinky dialogue, a misrepresentation of Pelagianism, a bizarre mix of weapons and armour, showing all the Christians as rather venal and the Saxons as unredeemably evil with Cedric such a sociopath, he made my skin crawl - still it was entertaining ... the Picts were sort of freedom fighters that we came to embrace, there was a pretty nice scene with a fight on a frozen lake, the Battle of Mons Badonicus was not too bad, and the scenery, shot in Ireland, was beautiful.

- Cynric and his dad Cerdic with their Saxon horde

Here below is some of Roger Ebert's review of the movie, to which he gave three stars ....


[...] This new "King Arthur" tells a story with uncanny parallels to current events in Iraq. The imperialists from Rome enter England intent on overthrowing the tyrannical Saxons, and find allies in the brave Woads. "You -- all of you -- were free from your first breath!" Arthur informs his charges and future subjects, anticipating by a millennium or so the notion that all men are born free, and overlooking the detail that his knights have been pressed into involuntary servitude. Later he comes across a Roman torture chamber, although with Geneva and its Convention safely in the future, he doesn’t believe that Romans do not do such things.

The movie is darker and the weather chillier than in the usual Arthurian movie. There is a round table, but the knights scarcely find time to sit down at it. Guinevere is not a damsel in potential distress, but seems to have been cloned from Brigitte Nielsen in "Red Sonja." And everybody speaks idiomatic English -- even the knights, who as natives of Sarmatia might be expected to converse in an early version of Uzbek, and the Woads, whose accents get a free pass because not even the Oxford English Dictionary has heard of a Woad. To the line "Last night was a mistake" in "Troy," we can now add, in our anthology of unlikely statements in history, Lancelot's line to Guinevere as seven warriors prepare to do battle on a frozen lake with hundreds if not thousands of Saxons: "There are a lot of lonely men over there." (Her reply: "Don't worry. I won't let them rape you," also seems somewhat non-historical.)

Despite these objections, "King Arthur" is not a bad movie, although it could have been better. It isn't flat-out silly like "Troy," its actors look at home as their characters, and director Antoine Fuqua curtails the use of computer effects in the battle scenes, which involve mostly real people. There is a sense of place here, and although the costumes bespeak a thriving trade in tailoring somewhere beyond the mead, the film's locations look rough, ready and green (it was filmed in Ireland) .....

The movie ends with a pitched battle that's heavy on swords and maces and stabbings and skewerings, and in which countless enemies fall while nobody that we know ever dies except for those whose deaths are prefigured by prescient dialogue or the requirements of fate. I have at this point seen about enough swashbuckling, I think, although producer Jerry Bruckheimer hasn't, since this project follows right on the heels of his "Pirates of the Caribbean." I would have liked to see deeper characterizations and more complex dialogue, as in movies like "Braveheart" or "Rob Roy," but today's multiplex audience, once it has digested a word like Sarmatia, feels its day's work is done.

That the movie works is because of the considerable production qualities and the charisma of the actors, who bring more interest to the characters than they deserve. There is a kind of direct, unadorned conviction to the acting of Clive Owen and the others; raised on Shakespeare, trained for swordfights, with an idea of Arthurian legend in their heads since childhood, they don't seem out of time and place like the cast of "Troy." They get on with it.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

- The Holy Trinity by Antonio de Pereda

Conversation is a beautiful word. Its original meaning was “to live together,” “to share a life.” This hangs on in the English legal term “criminal conversation,” which means to have an illegal sexual relationship, not telling dirty jokes! Conversation came to mean talking to each other in the 16th century, because it is by talking to each other that we build community. A shared life means shared words. So the church is held in unity by the millions of conversations that cross theological boundaries and which heal divisions. This is one of the ways in which we find our place in the life of the Trinity. The Trinity is the Father speaking the Word, which is the Son, and their shared sending forth of the Spirit. Indeed Christoph Schwöbel, a German theologian, has said that “God is conversation.”
- Timothy Radcliffe OP - Overcoming discord in the church

Friday, May 16, 2008


- Seabiscuit arrives at the Santa Anita racetrack with trainer Tom Smith and owner Charles Howard.

Today I finally finished listening to the book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. I almost gave up on it after the first disc because I wasn't used to listening to non-fiction, but I stuck with it and I'm very glad I did. The characters came alive, even Seabiscuit - of course I never met the odd little horse who won so many races during the Depression, but the book taught me to know and love him.

The book was ranked #1 on the New York Times best seller list for 42 weeks (there are 628 customer reviews at Amazon! :), and as the NYT mentioned, Seabiscuit,, Hillenbrand's book (Random House, 2001), was a thunderclap of research and elegant writing. The writing is very good and the author has been published in magazines like the The New Yorker .... one of her essays in that magazine is about her continuing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome - A Sudden Illness -- How My Life Changed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Some poems by ....

.... George William Russell (A.E.) .....


The gods have taken alien shapes upon them
Wild peasants driving swine
In a strange country. Through the swarthy faces
The starry faces shine.

Under grey tattered skies they strain and reel there:
Yet cannot all disguise
The majesty of fallen gods, the beauty,
The fire beneath their eyes.

They huddle at night within low clay-built cabins;
And, to themselves unknown,
They carry with them diadem and sceptre
And move from throne to throne


The wonder of the world is o'er:
The magic from the sea is gone:
There is no unimagined shore,
No islet yet to venture on.
The Sacred Hazels' blooms are shed,
The Nuts of Knowledge harvested.

Oh, what is worth this lore of age
If time shall never bring us back
Our battle with the gods to wage
Reeling along the starry track.
The battle rapture here goes by
In warring upon things that die.

Let be the tale of him whose love
Was sighed between white Deirdre's breasts,
It will not lift the heart above
The sodden clay on which it rests.
Love once had power the gods to bring
All rapt on its wild wandering.

We shiver in the falling dew,
And seek a shelter from the storm:
When man these elder brothers knew
He found the mother nature warm,
A hearth fire blazing through it all,
A home without a circling wall.

We dwindle down beneath the skies,
And from ourselves we pass away:
The paradise of memories
Grows ever fainter day by day.
The shepherd stars have shrunk within,
The world's great night will soon begin.

Will no one, ere it is too late,
Ere fades the last memorial gleam,
Recall for us our earlier state?
For nothing but so vast a dream
That it would scale the steeps of air
Could rouse us from so vast despair.

The power is ours to make or mar
Our fate as on the earliest morn,
The Darkness and the Radiance are
Creatures within the spirit born.
Yet, bathed in gloom too long, we might
Forget how we imagined light.

Not yet are fixed the prison bars:
The hidden light the spirit owns
If blown to flame would dim the stars
And they who rule them from their thrones:
And the proud sceptred spirits thence
Would bow to pay us reverence.

Oh, while the glory sinks within
Let us not wait on earth behind,
But follow where it flies, and win
The glow again, and we may find
Beyond the Gateways of the Day
Dominion and ancestral sway.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Primaries and delegates

I am pretty confused about how the Democratic primary is going. I don't really understand the importance of the primaries vs the delegates in choosing the nominee .... in 1968, I've read, Hubert Humphrey was chosen by the delegates of the Democratic party as the nominee although he had not run in any of the primaries and thus was not voted for by any citizens. I see everywhere that Obama is for all intents the nominee because he has the most delegates, but I also saw in the news today that Clinton is probably going to win in West Virginia and Kentucky, and could well win the popular vote - transcript of Meet The Press ...

- [...] MR. RUSSERT: ...a member of Congress from Illinois, worked in the Clinton White House, said this on Friday.


MR. RUSSERT: "Just looking at the facts, he"--Barack Obama--"the presumptive nominee." Fair?

MR. McAULIFFE: First off, no one is the nominee. Everyone needs to be clear, until someone gets the magic number of the delegates, 2209, you are not the nominee of the Democratic Party. Right now, Tim, you have seen in these contests you've had 35 million people vote. If you take everyone who pushed a button for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, 16.6 million for Hillary Clinton, 16.7 million for Barack Obama. That is a difference of 100,000 votes out of 35 million.

MR. RUSSERT: You're counting Florida and Michigan.

Mr. McAULIFFE: Sure I am, they voted. There's no question they voted, they were certified at the county level and the state level. They voted. I'm not talking about delegates. But they voted.

MR. RUSSERT: But Obama's name wasn't on the ballot in Michigan.

MR. McAULIFFE: And that was a political decision he made to pull his name off the ballot.

MR. RUSSERT: All right.

MR. McAULIFFE: Let's be clear. He was on the ballot, he took his name off to appease Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a political decision, I'm fine with that. But they voted, two and a half million people. And the Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet on the 31st to determine their status. But just remember. Who voted? A difference of 100,000 out of 35 million.

MR. RUSSERT: Looking at the math...


MR. RUSSERT: Since Super Tuesday, Obama's gotten 104 superdelegates, Clinton's gotten 16.


MR. RUSSERT: Since Tuesday's primary in Indiana, North Carolina, Obama's got 18 superdelegates.

MR. McAULIFFE: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Clinton's won 25. Don Fowler, former Democratic Party chairman...

MR. McAULIFFE: Yeah. Good friend.

MR. RUSSERT: ...passionate Hillary Clinton supporter.

MR. McAULIFFE: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Quote: "The trickle is going to become an avalanche of superdelegates going to Obama."

MR. McAULIFFE: Has it become an avalanche today? No. Did it become an avalanche after Tuesday, when you and others were all on the air saying it was over? No. Which should make you say something. We are now coming up to West Virginia on Tuesday. The last poll had Hillary up 43 points. She's up 40 points in Kentucky. What does it say for the candidate that you say has won the nomination that he can't win two states that Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996? We lost them in 2000 and 2004. This is our point: Hillary Clinton in the general election can beat John McCain ....

Will someone explain about the difference between the popular vote and the delegate vote and how someone can win the popular vote and still not be the nominee? Argh! Here below is another story that deals with the subject a bit, not that I understand it either ....


Democrats' Rules Set Stage for Messy Nomination. Effort to Avoid Back-Room Deals Could Cause Chaos
April 22, 2008; Page A6

No matter how Pennsylvania votes, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton is likely to clinch the nomination with Tuesday's primary or even with the remaining nine contests in May and June.

That means the Democratic nomination is likely to be settled by rules, committees and uncommitted superdelegates, and possibly by a floor fight at the Denver convention in August.

How did the Democrats get into this mess?

The short answer is that they have two candidates of roughly equal popularity and organizational strength. The longer answer starts with Hubert Humphrey, picks up steam with George McGovern, has a lot to do with fund raising and hits the rocks on the aspirations of Michigan and Florida for a bigger voice in the nomination.

The party shut down its legendary smoke-filled rooms where ties could be broken and decisions brokered after the chaotic 1968 Chicago convention. Vietnam War and civil-rights activists rioted that summer after finding themselves shut out of the nomination by party bosses who had already settled on Vice President Humphrey.

Until then, party tradition held that the few state primaries were nonbinding beauty contests, delegates were chosen at closed-door meetings and delegations voted as a bloc, which kept them under the control of big-city mayors or governors.

In response to the Chicago uproar, a commission co-chaired by South Dakota Sen. McGovern rewrote the party rules to require states to hold a primary or caucus and allow delegates to vote individually for the candidate of their choice. "The people just kind of took over the process," ending the power of party honchos, said Sen. McGovern, now 85 years old and a Clinton supporter.

His own chaotic convention in 1972 helped force the party's other major change -- the superdelegates. Young McGovern delegates beat out such party powerhouses as Massachusetts Rep. Tip O'Neal for seats as delegates at the convention, Sen. McGovern said. His historic drubbing that fall convinced the party it needed the leavening hand of its party elders to resolve ties and prevent the party from nominating another unelectable candidate.

The superdelegates last settled a nomination in 1984 when they gave former Vice President Walter Mondale the decisive last delegate votes. But the superdelegates didn't create a public outcry: Mr. Mondale already had 500 more delegates than Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, superdelegates accounted for one in seven delegates rather than today's one in five and almost no one knew about their voting power, anyway.

Today's seeming impasse also has roots in the primary calendar, which has long nettled big states because it allowed the nomination to be sewn up before they had time to vote. "People all across America hate Iowa and New Hampshire because they've been privileged so long," said Don Fowler, a former party chairman and Clinton superdelegate.

Delegate-rich Florida and Michigan opted to jump this year's calendar queue and risk losing their convention seats as punishment because they were convinced that the nomination would be settled quickly, the winning candidate would restore their seats and Iowa's and New Hampshire's reign would be ended. "It was worth running the risk of losing delegates," said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a 2004 candidate for president.

What largely unsettled that strategy was Internet fund raising and the millions of small donors it brought into the campaign. In the past, the losers of the early contests would find their donations quickly drying up among big funders, effectively ending their ability to compete. "Now, you can raise money regardless of your losses. You can go on and on," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who represented 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in rules disputes.

Sens. Clinton and Obama have raised a combined $400 million, which has allowed them to keep fighting. As long as they stay in, however, Florida's and Michigan's status remains unresolved, setting up the possibility of a convention battle, and voter wariness grows that the superdelegates will override their choice.

Democratic Chairman Howard Dean insisted in an interview that it is "hysterical" to suggest that could add up to a convention nightmare. He said a clear winner will emerge by the end of June, after the primaries have ended and as the remaining uncommitted superdelegates choose sides.

Then, "I expect either one of these candidates to stand up next to the other one and say 'I'm supporting this person,'" he said. Whether either candidate's supporters "feel they've been robbed is going to depend on what the candidate has to say about it," he added.

So far, both candidates are saying a lot, and that is one of the dangers for the party. The Clinton campaign has charged relentlessly that Florida and Michigan voters will be "disenfranchised" if their primary votes aren't counted. That has infuriated Sen. Obama's supporters, because recognizing the two states' contests would largely wipe out his popular-vote lead.

Obama supporters argue that the superdelegates should vote for the winner of their state's primary. That has infuriated Clinton supporters, who note that party rules let the superdelegates vote as they choose and are counting on them to wipe out Sen. Obama's delegate lead.

Party strategists worry that either issue might cost the party the huge numbers of new voters who have been drawn to the Democrats, and especially the young and African-American voters attracted by Sen. Obama this year. The Obama campaign says it added 218,000 new donors in March alone to bring its donor base to 1.3 million. Some 26 million voters already have cast Democratic ballots, 43% more than in all of the 2004 primaries.

"You have a million people invested financially" in the campaign, said Joe Trippi, who managed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards's 2008 race. "How are they going to handle it if the [superdelegates] say 'no, it's not going to be him.' Can you win the general election?"


Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Wild Ride

- Pentecost, a quilt by Linda Schmidt

I remembered this 2006 article on Pentecost by James Alison - The wild ride - from The Tablet and thought I'd post it here ....


Luke's tableau of Pentecost, sketched out for us in Acts 2, is an extraordinarily deft compilation of scriptural fulfilments. In such tableaux, the odder the detail, the better we remember it. So most people remember best the tongues of fire resting on each of the gathered. Yet there is scarcely a word in Luke's description that does not bring with it a set of allusions from Scripture. The Lord promised to speak to his people by means of strange men and a new tongue (Isaiah 28.11) - and, as in Acts, there are even drunkards in that prophecy. The mighty wind (or breath) is the east wind which Yahweh used to divide the sea into seven streams so that the people could pass over dry shod (Isaiah 11.15, Exodus 14.21). The house that is filled with the Spirit is an allusion to the Temple (usually referred to as the 'House') being filled with the Presence during Solomon's consecration of it (2 Chronicles 5.2 and 13; 1 Kings 8.10). Through the tongues, the fire, one of the true Temple furnishings hidden away at Josiah's Reformation, and absent from the second Temple standing in Jesus' time, is being returned to the New Temple which is being brought into being. This was in fulfilment of a messianic prophecy which saw that, when the Messiah came, all the Holy Things which had been lost to the Temple would be restored in the New Temple. The Ark is of course already there, in the person of Mary. She had been recognised as Ark when John the Baptist, in Elizabeth's womb, danced before her - Luke's Greek word is the same as that used of David dancing before the Ark in the Septuagint. This is the Ark that bore the new and living covenant.

Furthermore, the tongues were divided out upon those gathered, an odd word in Greek, but the same as is used in Zechariah 14.1: 'A day of the Lord is coming, when the spoil taken from you will be divided out in the midst of you'. So the sacrificial death of Jesus, the New Covenant who issued forth from the new Ark, is divided out, like portions, among those gathered in and as the New Temple. The Presence has the shape of the Passion. This is also the place where the Lord fulfilled his promise to Ezekiel to give a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36 and 37), which was the same as putting the law within them, as Jeremiah had promised (Jeremiah 31). Going back still further, this is the fulfilment of what Moses had prayed for in Numbers 11, but which had not happened at the time: there the Lord took some of the spirit that was in Moses and gave it to 70 elders, who prophesied for a short time and then no more. When trouble arose because some others who hadn't been among the elders were also prophesying, Moses said: 'Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.'

And of course, the gathering together of all the nations and languages in Jerusalem reflects the beginning of the undoing of Babel, where tongues became confused as a punishment for the pride of those who would have made one language which would have controlled the whole earth. Here God undoes the confusion without imposing a single language, but enables the single truth to be spread throughout all the nations of the earth, thus permitting for the first time a non-controlling unity of all humans. It is the same truth in all translations, none 'purer' than the other, for we are all secondary cultures. Back even beyond this, the Spirit which comes down is the same Spirit as that which hovered over the earth. It is the Creator who is erupting into his people.

These scriptural references are not present as a checklist, so that we can see God fulfilling his promises, and tick them off one by one. Each is present as a glimpse, a lens, on to something of enormous power which is happening and which neither we, nor any of our stories, or allusions, can control or adequately describe. For what is happening is a seismic act of communication. The Creator is coming among us as protagonist who will lead us into all truth, opening up Creation for us, but he is doing so at our level, indeed involving us on the inside of opening up Creation.

What is the shape of our Creator's protagonism? One of the terms which emerges most frequently is 'Advocate' - meaning 'Counsel for the Defence' - in other words someone who is For Us, undoing all and any sense of cosmic conspiracy. The Protagonism, the driving force of the Spirit, is For Us, it is not out to get us, or entrap us, as other spirits, both sacred and secular, do. And the Protagonism is in the process of turning us from being a 'they' into a 'we'. Our very pattern of desire, which is the basis for our 'self', is being transformed from within, so that we learn to desire anew, and thus to become new from within. And the route to this is the Spirit stretching us in prayer. By the Holy Spirit God is no longer an 'it' which is outside us, or even an 'I AM' in whose presence we are always a 'they'. By the Holy Spirit we are being taken into the inside of God's life, so that our very 'I' might become part of the 'I' of God who has risked sharing that with us: this is what Paul understood when he says: 'It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me'. He has not been displaced by a spirit, but recreated from within by the Spirit.

At Pentecost the real protagonist of Creation emerges. And it becomes clear that Creation itself has become, and is becoming, a human drama in which we participate starting from where we are. One of the first moves of this driving force would be to set up the dwelling of God with humans as something which is not sacred, as the doomed Temple was sacred, hence the apparent secularity of the New Temple, consecrated in an Upper Room. A short time later the purity legislation which marked off the sacred from the profane will be brought down, with the baptism of Cornelius. And so the shape of the Protagonist reveals itself to us, neither sacred nor secular, but Holy, creating a relatively benign secular that is able to bear witness to the glory of God by manifesting Creation coming fully alive. And ever since then, the wild ride has been on, and the rows about what it all means, and the deep peace which goes with being carried into the heart of God.


Friday, May 09, 2008

Hamlet X 2

- Ophelia's funeral procession

Though I've read the play, I've never seen it performed, so it was with interest that I checked out a Hamalet movie from the library, and will have another loaned me by my sister this weekend. Neither one is the Olivier or the Branagh version.

The one I haven't seen yet sounds very interesting - Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, a modern version taking place in New York, but with the original dialogue, and starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, a film student, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, and Bill Murray as Polonius.

Last night, though, I watched a 1990 version made by Franco Zeffirelli, who also did Jesus of Nazareth, Brother Sun Sister Moon, and Romeo and Juliet. It starred Glenn Close as Hamlet's mom, Queen Gertrude, Alan Bates as his uncle, now King Claudius, Paul Scofield as the ghost of Hamlet's Father, Ian Holm as Polonius, and Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia ..... Hamlet was played by Mel Gibson. I think it was pretty good and I'm not alone - Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars.

- Hamlet (Gibson) and his mother, Gertrude (Close)

For those who don't know the story of the Shakespeare play, here's the long story short .... set in Denmark, it tells how Prince Hamlet, illuminated by his father's ghost, dithers for quite a time over whether and how to exact revenge on his uncle Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father, the King, and then taken the throne and married Hamlet's mother. Numerous people fall by the wayside as he makes up his mind, pretty much depopulating the story by its end.

- Polonius (Holm) and his daughter Ophelia (Bonham-Carter)

Here below is Ebert's review of the movie from 1990 ....


I had a professor in college who knew everything there was to know about "Romeo and Juliet." Maybe he knew too much. One day in class he said he would give anything to be able to read it again for the first time. I feel the same way about "Hamlet." I know the play so well by now, have seen it in so many different styles and periods and modes of dress, that it's like listening to a singer doing an old standard. You know the lyrics, so the only possible surprises come from style and phrasing.

The style of Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," with Mel Gibson in the title role, is robust and physical and - don't take this the wrong way - upbeat. Gibson doesn't give us another Hamlet as Mope, a melancholy Dane lurking in shadows and bewailing his fate. We get the notion, indeed, that there was nothing fundamentally awry with Hamlet until everything went wrong in his life, until his father died and his mother married his uncle with unseemly haste. This is a prince who was healthy and happy and could have lived a long and active life, if things had turned out differently.

Part of that approach may come from Zeffirelli, whose famous film version of "Romeo and Juliet" also played on the youth and attractiveness of its characters, who were bursting with life and romance until tragedy separated them. The approach also may come from Gibson himself, the most good-humored of contemporary stars, whose personal style is to deflect seriousness with a joke, and who doesn't easily descend into self-pity and morose masochism. He gives us a Hamlet who does his best to carry on, until he is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of events.

Zeffirelli sets his film in a spectacular location - a castle on an outcropping of the stark coast in northern Scotland, perched on top of a rock nearly surrounded by the sea. There is mud here, and rain and mist, and the characters sometimes seemed dragged down by the sheer weight of their clothing. This is a substantial world of real physical presence, fleshed out by an unusual number of extras; we have the feeling that this throne rules over real subjects, instead of existing only in Shakespeare's imagination.

Right at the outset, Zeffirelli and his collaborator on the shooting script, Christopher De Vore, take a liberty with "Hamlet" by shifting some dialogue and adding a few words to create a scene that does not exist in the original: The wake of Hamlet's father, with Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius confronting each other over the coffin.

In film terms, this scene makes the central problem of "Hamlet" perfectly clear, and dramatically strengthens everything that follows. It sets up not only Hamlet's anguish, but the real attraction between his mother and his uncle, which is seen in this version to be at least as sexual as it is political.

The cast is what is always called "distinguished," which usually but not always means "British," includes at least three actors who have played Hamlet themselves: Alan Bates, as Claudius; Paul Scofield, as the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Ian Holm, as Polonius. Holm is especially effective in the "to thine own self be true" speech, evoking memories of his great work as the track coach in "Chariots of Fire," and I enjoyed Bates' strength of bluster and lust, as a man of action who will have what he desires and not bother himself with the sorts of questions that torture Hamlet.

The women of the play, Glenn Close, as Gertrude, and Helena Bonham-Carter, as Ophelia, are both well cast. Close in particular adds an element of true mothering that is sometimes absent from Gertrude. She loves her son and cares for him, and is not simply an unfaithful wife with a short memory. Indeed, there are subtle physical suggestions that she has loved her son too closely, too warmly, creating the buried incestuous feelings that are the real spring of Hamlet's actions. Why has she remarried with such haste? Perhaps simply so the kingdom's power vacuum will be filled; she seems a sensible sort, and indeed everyone in this version seems fairly normal, if only Hamlet could rid himself of his gnawing resentment and shameful desires long enough to see it.

Bonham-Carter is a small and darkly beautiful actress who is effective at seeming to respond to visions within herself. As Ophelia she has a most difficult role to play, because a character who has gone mad can have no further relationship with the other characters but must essentially become a soloist. All of her later scenes are with herself.

That leaves Hamlet and his best friend, Horatio (Stephen Dillane), as those who are not satisfied with the state of things in the kingdom, and Dillane, with his unforced natural acting, provides a good partner for Gibson. As everything leads to the final sword fight and all of its results, as Hamlet's natural good cheer gradually weakens under the weight of his thoughts, the movie proceeds logically through its emotions. We never feel, as we do sometimes with other productions, that events happen arbitrarily.

Zeffirelli's great contribution in "popularizing" the play has been to make it clear to the audience why events are unfolding as they are.

This "Hamlet" finally stands or falls on Mel Gibson's performance, and I think it will surprise some viewers with its strength and appeal. He has not been overawed by Shakespeare, has not fallen into a trap of taking this role too solemnly and lugubriously. He has observed the young man of the earlier and less troubled scenes, and started his performance from there, instead of letting every nuance be a foreshadow of what is to come. It's a strong, intelligent performance, filled with life, and it makes this into a surprisingly robust "Hamlet."


- "Alas, poor Yorik, I knew him, Horatio."

You can read the play online at Hamlet Online

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Myanmar, David Hart and the tsunami

I've been reading about the terrible death toll from the cyclone in Myanmar ... US diplomat: 100,000 may have died in Myanmar cyclone. It reminds me of the tsunami of a few years ago. I thought I'd post an old article by David Bentley Hart that ran in First Things after the tsunami .... in some ways, it seems relevant to this new tragedy as well.


Tsunami and Theodicy
by David B. Hart
First Things, 2005

No one, no matter how great the scope of his imagination, should be able easily to absorb the immensity of the catastrophe that struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas this past year; nor would it be quite human to fail, in its wake, to feel some measure of spontaneous resentment towards God, fate, natura naturans, or whatever other force one imagines governs the intricate web of cosmic causality. But, once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside, it is worth recalling that nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware.

Not that one should be cavalier in the face of misery on so gigantic a scale, or should dismiss the spiritual perplexity it occasions. But, at least for those of us who are Christians, it is prudent to prepare ourselves as quickly and decorously as we may for the mixed choir of secular moralists whose clamor will soon—inevitably—swell about our ears, gravely informing us that here at last our faith must surely founder upon the rocks of empirical horrors too vast to be reconciled with any system of belief in a God of justice or mercy. It is of course somewhat petty to care overly much about captious atheists at such a time, but it is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grâce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death. Perhaps we did not notice the Black Death, the Great War, the Holocaust, or every instance of famine, pestilence, flood, fire, or earthquake in the whole of the human past; perhaps every Christian who has ever had to bury a child has somehow remained insensible to the depth of his own bereavement.

For sheer fatuity, on this score, it would be difficult to surpass Martin Kettle’s pompous and platitudinous reflections in the Guardian, appearing two days after the earthquake: certainly, he argues, the arbitrariness of the destruction visited upon so many and such diverse victims must pose an insoluble conundrum for “creationists” everywhere—although he wonders, in concluding, whether his contemporaries are “too cowed” even to ask “if the God can exist that can do such things” (as if a public avowal of unbelief required any great reserves of fortitude in modern Britain). It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe.

In truth, though, confronted by such enormous suffering, Christians have less to fear from the piercing dialectic of the village atheist than they do from the earnestness of certain believers, and from the clouds of cloying incense wafting upward from the open thuribles of their hearts. As irksome as Kettle’s argument is, it is merely insipid; more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound. And these attempts can span almost the entire spectrum of religious sensibility: they can be cold with Stoical austerity, moist with lachrymose piety, wanly roseate with sickly metaphysical optimism.

Mildly instructive to me were some remarks sent to Christian websites discussing a Wall Street Journal column of mine from the Friday following the earthquake. A stern if somewhat excitable Calvinist, intoxicated with God’s sovereignty, asserted that in the—let us grant this chimera a moment’s life—“Augustinian-Thomistic-Calvinist tradition,” and particularly in Reformed thought, suffering and death possess “epistemic significance” insofar as they manifest divine attributes that “might not otherwise be displayed.” A scholar whose work I admire contributed an eloquent expostulation invoking the Holy Innocents, praising our glorious privilege (not shared by the angels) of bearing scars like those of Christ, and advancing the venerable homiletic conceit that our salvation from sin will result in a greater good than could have evolved from an innocence untouched by death. A man manifestly intelligent and devout, but with a knack for making providence sound like karma, argued that all are guilty through original sin but some more than others, that our “sense of justice” requires us to believe that “punishments and rewards [are] distributed according to our just desserts,” that God is the “balancer of accounts,” and that we must suppose that the suffering of these innocents will bear “spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind.”

All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

The locus classicus of modern disenchantment with “nature’s God” is probably Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, written in response to the great earthquake that—on All Saints’ Day, 1755—struck just offshore of what was then the resplendent capital of the Portuguese empire. Lisbon was home to a quarter million, at least 60,000 of whom perished, both from the initial tremor (reckoned now, like the Sumatran earthquake, at a Richter force of around 9.0) and from the tsunami that it cast up on shore half an hour later (especially murderous to those who had retreated to boats in the mouth of the river Tagus to escape the destruction on land). An enormous fire soon began to consume the ruined city. Tens of thousands were drowned along the coasts of the Algarve, southern Spain, and Morocco.

For Voltaire, a catastrophe of such indiscriminate vastness was incontrovertible evidence against the bland optimism of popular theodicy. His poem—for all the mellifluousness of its alexandrines—was a lacerating attack upon the proposition that “tout est bien.” Would you dare argue, he asks, that you see the necessary effect of eternal laws decreed by a God both free and just as you contemplate

Ces femmes, ces enfants l’un sur l’autre entassés, Sous ces marbres rompus ces membres dispersés

“These women, these infants heaped one upon the other, these limbs scattered beneath shattered marbles”? Or would you argue that all of this is but God’s just vengeance upon human iniquity?

Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?

“What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers’ breasts?” Or would you comfort those dying in torment on desolate shores by assuring them that others will profit from their demise and that they are discharging the parts assigned them by universal law? Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.

For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.

But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?

Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Nowhere does it address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God. But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different. Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.

Christians often find it hard to adopt the spiritual idiom of the New Testament—to think in terms, that is, of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell. All Christians know, of course, that it is through God’s self-outpouring upon the cross that we are saved, and that we are made able by grace to participate in Christ’s suffering; but this should not obscure that other truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty—wherein neither sin nor death had any place. Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent—though immeasurably more vile—is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”