Thursday, December 12, 2013
"Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be simplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived.” In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions in the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. "The Church," wrote Karl Barth, "sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men ever erected or can erect in its vicinity." In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the gospel's explosive charge is the institution we call church. As Andrew McKenna put it, "The breakdown of institutional Christianity is the legacy of the crucifixion narrative, which is one with the Hebrew Bible's denunciation of overtly sacrificial institutions, indeed, of all forms of victimization." Fortunately, however, the breakdown of institutional Christianity is not the only legacy of the crucifixion narrative. Peter's Aramaic name should serve as a perpetual reminder of the lingering lure of sacrificial thinking in Christian history, but it should not obscure the fact that the name means "rock" and that, especially in a world as radically destabilized as the one in which we live, we should not casually dispense with the few forms of stability that survive. The church, like Peter, is both a stumbling block and a cornerstone. It is the latter only when it is consciously contrite for being,and having been, the former. The inherent contradiction with which institutional Christianity is always faced was perhaps best summed up by T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday, where he wrote:
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.
The gilded hearse drawn by jewelled unicorns is Eliot's Dantesque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp that has sometimes been the only access people living under the weight of history have had to the unread vision of the gospel revelation. Lampooning the pomposities and hypocrisy of the gaudy pageant has its place, but in light of the present urgencies such things hardly deserve top priority. The real challenge is to redeem the time and to do so by redeeming the unread vision in the higher dream. Jesus, we're told, was born in a squalid little barn. The institutions that bear the Christian revelation through history are as seemingly inadequate to the task they've been given as was the feeding trough in which the newborn Christ was laid. The fact that we are less offended by the smelly manger than by the "jewelled unicorns" and "gilded hearse" is proof that the latter haven't prevented the spirit of the gospel from having its effect on us after all."
--Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, pp. 274-275
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Monday I posted on poet Dana Gioia's recent First Things piece on the failure of the Catholic writer. That morning, a reader sent a a piece by British classical pianist/Guardian columnist James Rhodes that was spot on!
The title--"Find What You Love and Let It Kill You"--is from Charles Bukowski.
If I ever get around to leading a writer's retreat, that is hands down what I'm going to call it.
Here's an excerpt from Rhodes' piece:
"I didn't play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.
Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35 lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I'd envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure...
And yet. The indescribable reward...
The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn't it worth fighting back in some small way?"
In short, a love letter straight from Christ...I cried as I listened to Rhodes play...I, too, lost my marriage, in part because of my writing; I, too, spent years in total obscurity and poverty; and the sanity, of course, is an ongoing struggle. As is the loneliness, the lack of validation, the weeks of isolation "punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure" (speaking, reading, or giving interviews for me is not nearly as extreme as playing must be for Rhodes, but it's still pressure). How beautiful to find a kindred spirit in, and the music of, James Rhodes.
Rhodes gets at something deep that Gioia's piece didn't, which is that if you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped apart...to let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting.
In a culture of speed, control, choice, and instant gratification, to consent to the kind of waiting required of great art is a radical act of resistance. Instead, out of frustration, we perpetrate violence on each other. Instead of creating, we destroy. Instead of letting ourselves be killed, we kill others.
There is nothing more Catholic than letting ourselves be killed by love.
That is what Christ did in the Crucifixion.
|FROM MY ABSTRACT IMPRESSIONIST CHRISTMAS LIGHTS SERIES|
"Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually--let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don't try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust the slow work of God."
--Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Here's the link to a First Things piece by poet Dana Gioia entitled "The Catholic Writer Today: Encouraging Catholic writers to renovate and reoccupy their own tradition."
Basically what he says is that Catholics today have no coherent, visible presence in the arts, which is true.
He failed to mention a couple of facts, probably out of reluctance (which I of course share) to bite the hand that feeds us. One is that publishing houses, Catholic and mainstream, are driven by "the market" and thus like work that is reduced to its lowest common denominator. The cover, the subject matter, the title, the way the book is presented--all are presented to the marketing department. If you actually write of things Catholic, all must tend toward the non-"threatening;" all must fit into one of the "dull categories" Pope Francis is urging us to break out of.
To be fierce; to cop to anger, conflict, loneliness, ongoing compulsions/obsessions, deeply imperfect families and friends, not to mention ourselves; to simply raise the point of how profoundly far away we are as a culture and a Church from the Christ of the Gospels; to find joy in the crazy paradoxes, unresolved tensions, and messiness of our daily, mostly deeply painful lives....all these are messages that Catholics often don't want to hear any more than the rest of the culture does.
[Perhaps this is the place to mention that I am THRILLED to report that I just sold a book to Franciscan Media, of which more later...]
Gioia (who I'm going to hear read next week, so that's something to look forward to) also failed to mention that the Catholic writer, like all writers, is invited to live in abject poverty. Not that a Catholic writer necessarily writes directly of things Catholic, but if you do, and want to, or have no other choice but to sell to one of your own, the average advance from a Catholic press is three to seven thousand dollars. That's for a year or two of the blood, sweat and tears required to write a book. You'll earn that back, if at all, on an 88-12 net royalty split (that's industry-wide, and in favor, naturally, of the publisher), which works out on every, say, ten-dollar book, to 60 or 70 cents to the writer. The people who can subsist on those kind of wages are generally priests and nuns; those otherwise supported by foundations, orders, for-profit organizations, or families; the independently wealthy; or the truly crazy beggar-fools for Christ. Whose stuff no-one tends to want to publish...
Catholics themselves tend to have no conception of the time and effort required to write the books through which they know of you, of the inner preparation required to get out from behind your desk and speak, of the years of preparing the ground it takes to have anything worthwhile to say; no conception what they are asking when they offer, say, a $300 stipend (that includes travel) at a venue that's a four-hour one-way drive from home.
They figure it's fun for them, it must be fun for you, so why would you expect to be paid for it? A man who clearly thought my speaking fee was outrageous recently took me to task for not being willing to "sacrifice." I thought Does the ten or twelve years of living on 20 grand or so a year before I even began to make a 'living wage' as a writer count as sacrifice? After five books, a stint on NPR, and a regular gig with possibly the world's most widely-read Catholic magazine, I finally feel comfortable asking 1500 to 3000 (depending on how much travel is involved) to speak, if for no other reason than that I have to support myself somehow, and it sure as hell is not going to be through my writing. (By the way, can anyone imagine offering a politician, or a scientist, or a professor with similar experience, accomplishments and credentials $300 to drive four hours and give a talk?).
In spite of the fact that I am unabashedly, unapologetically, exultantly Catholic, in fact; that I've published two memoirs with divisions of Penguin, and another memoir with Paraclete Press, that I appear regularly in Notre Dame Magazine and Portland Magazine, that my Magnificat writings (and glory be to God for Magnificat, which provides a good part of my support) have been collected into a book, that for three years I've maintained a Catholic/catholic blog on which I post every other day, I notice Gioia didn't mention me--(sorry, I couldn't resist) but that's just the point. He didn't mention Brian Doyle, Joe Hoover, S.J., the late Andre Dubus, or poet Rita A. Simmonds either--top-notch Catholic writers I tremendously admire. Not to mention the slew of other folks I'm sure are out there who I've never even heard of for pretty much the same reason they've never heard of me...
Maybe that is what it really is to be a Catholic writer today. Maybe in a world of branding, followers, fame, the real Catholic writer necessarily carries the flame in silence, in obscurity. Maybe those of us who write from a Christ-centered literary vision in this era are destined to be tiny solitary lights, sparking here and there in the darkness.
Flannery O'Connor once said "I'd trade ten readers now for one reader a hundred years from now." I feel that way, too. If only one person reads my work--now; in fifty years--and says, She believed, and she ordered her life to it, how beautiful is that. And if Christ doesn't need for even that to happen, that's okay, too.
The good news is that the enforced exile, poverty, insult, marginalization, loneliness, and failure of the Catholic writer bring him or her very close to Christ. Plus, these days, there's self-publishing.
Here's Gerard Manley Hopkins, from a wonderful piece on his letters, on the power of failure: "Christ would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure. . . . [but] was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone.”
With all that, you rejoice at the slightest connection, the slightest "success," the slightest success of another.
You fall to your knees before good writing.
You cling to your sense of humor like a drowning man clings to a raft.
You realize, all over again, that you're the luckiest person on earth, that you really would write,speak, or whatever else is wanted for free, that you often still do and forever will.
You convict yourself, ceaselessly, of pride.
And with Gerard Manley Hopkins, you continue to pray:
"Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain."
|AREN'T GINGKOS AMAZING?|
From the incident sheet of the Echo Park Security Association Newsletter:
Echo Park Methodist Church, 1226 N. Alvarado St.
9/7/2013 2:38:30 a.m. EPSA Officer-(Scanned Checkpoint) Location Patrol
REPORTED: LOCATION: Reservoir Entry/exit door RESPONSE: FOUND A MALE ON A WHEELCHAIR TRYING TO SPEND THE NIGHT OUTSIDE THE CHURCH. HE WAS AROUND 60-65 YEARS OLD. I TOLD HIM THAT HE NEEDED TO LEAVE THE AREA, NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO BE ASLEEP OVERNIGHT NIGHT [sic] AT THE CHURCH. 26076568
Thursday, December 5, 2013
I took myself to The Getty last Saturday and learned for the first time that you're allowed to walk up the hill as opposed to taking the (post-Thanksgiving weekend, extremely crowded) tram. That alone made the trip worthwhile.
|SHADOW AND LIGHT|
THE 405, TRAM LINE IN FOREGROUND
|NEARING THE CREST|
I checked out Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister and Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door.
But the highlight for me was Hearsay of the Soul, a Werner Herzog installation which consisted of sitting in a darkened room for 18 minutes while video of Hercules Seghers (Dutch, 1589-1638) paintings and cello-playing Ernst Riejseger (also Dutch, b. 1954) swept over the walls.
Featured as well was 19th c. German contralto Emmi Leisner singing Handel's Dank sei dir, Gott (Thanks be to Thee) (included on the soundtrack of Reijseger's "Requiem for a Dying Planet").
Let's just say good thing the room was dark.
Before leaving, I bought four Edweard Muybridge lenticular bookmarks at the museum store, which I plan to present to myself on Christmas morning.
DISTANT VIEW WITH BRANCH OF A PINE TREE, c. 1630
|FROM THE TERRACE OF THE GETTY:|
DISTANT VIEW OF THE PACIFIC
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Every time I write a post about my (mostly sadly ineffectual) stabs at being a peace-maker, I hear from at least one person who says, "Oh okay so if you saw a defenseless creature being harmed you'd just stand there. You'd just let someone be killed without having the cojones to use lethal force yourself."
I've thought about this a lot, trying to imagine the scenario such people have in mind. I don't and wouldn't own a gun so I wouldn't be in a position to use lethal force in any case (my bare-hands, brute-force strength for sure wouldn't do the trick). But if I did own a gun, what are the chances that at the exact moment someone stands to be, say shot at, beaten to death, or raped, there I would be, alert, unencumbered, sidearm at the ready? I'm no statistician, but I imagine pretty slim. In fact for all the zillions of guns out there, how often do we hear of a bystander being at the right place at the right time, shooting down a would-be assailant, and riding off into the sunset? We hear about chaos. We hear about wanton carnage. We hear about kids getting hold of guns and accidentally shooting each other, themselves, their parents. We hear about the massacres at Columbine, Newtown, and the Amish country.
No, to make the scenario work you would have to have a cold-blooded, meticulously-planned, timed murder, so you'd know when to be there to intercept the murder by murdering the would-be murderer and so that you, too, could plan. An execution, for example--for with meticulous planning and in cold blood is just how we kill our (often wrongly-) condemned criminals.
So say after much maneuvering and planning and sneaking about you somehow found your way into the death chamber and, just as the executioner was about to pull the lever, shot him dead. And then just behind you was a guy who felt the same way you do and wanted to rescue the executioner and so as you're shooting the executioner, shoots you dead, and so on down the line, each would-be murderer being killed in the act of murdering by another person who is also willing to murder. In the end, there would be only one person left in the world, all the others having been murdered. At which point he would have to murder him (or her-) self--if nothing else, out of loneliness.
This is the insanity of violence, and part of the insanity--the chill factor--is the predictability. Violence is a formula: violence begets more violence. We don't know how or where the violence is going to break out, but as sure as e=mc2 it is going to break out somewhere.
The beauty of following Christ is that we are freed from the formula. The follower of Christ cedes control, outcomes, results. The follower of Christ doesn't play God by dropping an atom bomb on 130,000 Japanese civilians with the rationale that killing those people will save a bunch of other people. How do we know that if we refrained from dropping the bomb and looked for another solution, no-one else would have had to die?
Children don't control; they explore. Children don't count the cost; they're open to delight. The follower of Christ is open, with a child-like heart, to wild-card reality: not the happy ending, but the surprise ending.
Violence gives us temporary relief/release and then we need more. It's like porn: in order to satisfy, the violence needs to become more corrupt, more perverse, more intense. The astonishment of Christ is that he puts himself in mortal peril without exercising violence toward anyone else. He puts himself in the line of fire unarmed. This is wild-card. We don't know what will happen. They might kill us and they might not. But even if they do--this is the glory, mystery and wonder of the Resurrection--our deaths will bear unimaginable fruit.
We seem to have lost sight of the staggering significance of the Crucifixion--that it happened, how it happened. We go about with a breezy "Christ had to die to save the world and now we're free to continue to commit ever more mindless, ever more sophisticated violence."
No-one saved Christ from the unimaginably brutal violence he suffered by committing more violence--and he wouldn't have wanted them to. He ordered Peter--the rock upon whom he built his Church--not to. In effect, he was saying, If you live out the Ten Commandments, underlain by the kind of love I am about to show you, you, too, will be nailed to the Cross. And you, too, will be reborn into something you could never have imagined...
He wasn't just showing us how he had to die, in other words; he was showing us how we should be prepared to die. Either Christ is in our bowels, our hearts, or he is a cartoon figure. Either the Gospels pulsate with the truth of existence, in every direction, on every level, or they are dead.
So no, we don't just stand there. We commit our entire strength, heart, mind and soul to living a life of inner peace. We commit ourselves to a life of unceasing prayer, knowing that prayer is dangerous, risking ourselves to what prayer might call us to.
For most of us, the danger is played out on the battleground of our families, co-workers and friends--but that is its own kind of martyrdom. We, too, will be nailed to the Cross. But "Be not afraid," says Christ. Store up your treasure in heaven. Regard the lilies of the field. My kingdom is not of this world.
When we enter his Kingdom, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. In the midst of our suffering, we will begin to experience the wild-card genius of love.
|I HAVE CALLED YOU BY NAME--YOU ARE MINE...|
Who was the janitor
with the set face, wardening
the approaches? I had prepared
my apologies, my excuses
for coming by the wrong
road. There was no one
there, only the way
I had come by going on and on.
from No Truce with the Furies
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I feel a ridiculous, child-like excitement at the prospect of Christmas (though the best part of Advent may be the week BEFORE Advent, when you're anticipating the excitement, as with the actual excitement comes stress).
My system tends to get over-amped around both bad and good things, which can be a problem. Because inevitably (especially if most of your friends are alcoholics), just when you start thinking, along with Anne Frank, Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart, out of the blue someone will do something that is so hideously hurtful, dismissive, cruel, and/or rude that it takes your breath away.
People are basically people, which of course includes me, and how staggeringly good, kind, and humble of God to take on human form and pitch his tent among us. Because I don't know about you, but I need a ton of help. Always, but especially during the holidays.
Last year, raw with my mother's death, I fled to a monastery for Christmas. This year, for better or worse, I'm staying put. I love creeping about in the dark or semi-dark with my camera, so you can look forward to LOTS of pix of lights shining in darkness.
Also starting this month, Magnificat subscribers will find the first in a (at this point, at least two-year) series called CREDIBLE WITNESSES.
Each month I'll have a 500-word essay about a Catholic artist, thinker, poet, or neurotic who has not (in many cases, yet) been canonized. All my favorites are here: Caryll Houselander, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O'Connor, Léon Bloy. There are pieces on Antoni Gaudi (the Sacrada Familia), Matt Talbot (patron saint of drunks), Fr. Walter Ciszek (total hero: spent fifteen years in Soviet prison camps), Marthe Robin (subsisted for decades on the Eucharist, water, and no sleep), laywoman/mystic Elisabeth Leseur, and Michelangelo.
Magnificat is featuring lots of other new columns/writers as well, so check it out. $44.95/year.
And if you're SHOPPING, don't forget Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, my collected Magnificat reflections to date.
|THE 10 EAST, APPROACHING DOWNTOWN L.A.|
Saturday, November 30, 2013
I received an incredible email the other day from a young friend in New Orleans. Below is an excerpt.
Of course the letter says more about him than me, but I take my gifts where I find them.
As we enter into Advent, let's blow open the doors to a new dimension!....
Heather you have blown open the doors to an entirely new dimension of Christian living that I never knew existed. You have made real for me the fact that life is Christ. That Christ is in all: the good, the bad, the badder; the sunrise, the sunset, the overcast; the priest, the professor, the prostitute; the consolation, the desolation, the confusion; the chapel, the workplace, the bathroom. We have a God who got his hands dirty, and I have always been too scandalized by that mystery to truly accept it, along with all its ramifications in my life. Because accepting it meant that I couldn't quarantine Christ anymore to the fragmented parts of my heart, to the minutes in the chapel, or to the beads on my rosary. No, He truly wants ALL of me, ALL of my humanity. And this is WILD! and THIS fact had BLOWN UP my entire worldview and my every minute of living in this world! So, thanks for your life and your presence in this world, it certainly makes my life much brighter and my view much broader, which is a pure gift. And thanks to Him who made it all, who paid it all, and who bade it all good.
Peace be yours today my friend!
REFLECTED THROUGH VARIOUS WINDOWS IN MY ROOM
Thursday, November 28, 2013
|DON'T SHOP--TAKE A WALK!|
I am always trying to photograph bougainvillea and have never been able to fully capture the way the sun glows through the flowers (technically bracts) in late afternoon. You'll be walking along a totally "ordinary" residential street in L.A. and come across a cascade of these gorgeous blooms: magenta, amber-gold, mother-of-pearl...
The above are from a lone, spindly bush of oleander, also so common in these parts (and also, as you can see, sublime) as almost to be a trash plant.
These come mostly in white, creamy pink, and deep red, and the flowers are apparently poisonous (possibly because they are often placed alongside our freeways and have mutated from the exhaust).
|click any of the photos to enlarge|
Notwithstanding the above, I did catch this beautiful stand of blood-red bougainvillea outside the Metro Gym in Atwater the other afternoon. (I am working on a new series called "flowers with telephone wires")...
Such are the treasures of our splendid city, available to all, free for the divine-intoxication taking...
Speaking of splendid: Thanksgiving! Phone conversations with family, a meal with the best kind of fellowship, a misunderstanding or two, a long walk, a visit to the Impact unit of the women's jail, and a mere (unheard of) 20-minute commute home (8:18 to 8:38 p.m.)...I hope your own Thanksgivings proceeded on a similarly even keel.
And now for Christmas! I'm cooking this year...