Thursday, September 30, 2021

"Midnight Mass" on Netflix

Horror films frighten me. Hence, I tend to avoid them. But Netflix' seven-episode limited series Midnight Mass not only comes highly recommended, but its title, with the obvious religious resonance and the implied Catholic context and concerns, was enough to make me at least curious. I still don't like horror. I have no absolutely interest in vampires. Yet, even at the cost of averting one's eyes at its worst, Midnight Mass is so much more than just a fright night.

Midnight Mass is a horror show set in an intensely (if increasingly bizarre) Catholic context, created by film maker Mike Flanagan, who is apparently known for his successful horror productions. Dramatically, almost all the action takes place on Crockett island, home to a small and shrinking island fishing community, that unexpectedly experiences surprising - possibly supernatural - events after the arrival of a new young parish priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who replaces their old monsignor, who has been pastor on the island for most of the characters' lives. Just as in our real life liturgical abuses often indicate even deeper disorders, likewise the increasingly strange liturgical life of the parish (culminating in a bizarre parody of an Easter Vigil) highlights how much is going wrong in the underlying experience of the community and the lives of its individual members.

The other principal protagonist is island native and former altar boy Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford). who, having left the island and apparently become quite successful, has now returned to his hometown after serving a four-year prison sentence for a drunk-driving accident that killed a young woman. Having lost his faith in prison, Riley struggles with lingering guilt over the woman he killed, even as he tries to reunite with his devout parents and with the island's Catholic community, which includes his former girlfriend, Erin Greene. She, having herself likewise earlier gotten away, has left her abusive husband and returned to town pregnant, and is now working at her mother's old job as a schoolteacher.

There are many other characters, of course. Among them are Riley's parents and his teenage brother, Warren. There is a girl Warren likes who is confined to a wheelchair after having been (accidentally) shot by the island's resident alcoholic. There is the local doctor, who, like Riley, rejects religion, while caring for her senile, but once very devout mother. Also outside the Church is the local sheriff, a widower and a Muslim, recently arrived along with his teen son. And at the center of the parish community is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who is portrayed as obviously unlikable, the very embodiment of the sort of self-righteous and self-serving religiosity that people like Riley and Erin find so off-putting. As such, she represents what to many today sadly seems to be the public face of religion. She is the sort of person who functions as the proverbial stumbling block for so many.

To say more would reveal too much and spoil the suspense for those who desire it. Suffice it to say that those attracted to horror will find enough of it. But, although weird things happen even in the first episode, it takes a while for the really scary stuff to emerge. Meanwhile, much of the series is taken up with some very serious dialogue on religious and spiritual issues, which is what makes it worthwhile for non-horror fans to tune in. And then there is an Easter sunrise that is worth the wait.

Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations occurs between Riley and Erin concerning what happens when we die - while Nearer My God To Thee plays softly in the background. Having lost all faith, Riley still understands the appeal of religion, but rejects it for himself. He understands death in totally materialistic terms. Everything stops: "clinical death." Yet, in the brief interlude before his brain dies, he believes his brain will release all of its dream drug, and he will dream bigger and better than ever before, "this firework display of memories and imagination." Then, it stops, "and there is nothing left of me." Erin, however, is completely preoccupied with the fate of the baby she has just miscarried, and tells Riley how her daughter has floated back above to where she came from, where she will wake up "wrapped in a feeling of love. Just pure, amazing love." Then, she will meet her family, achieve her perfect age, and happily await her reunion with her mother. That is heaven for Erin. "You are loved. And you aren't alone." In short, her hope is the opposite of Riley's despair.

Meanwhile, as miracles and seemingly supernatural phenomena appear to accumulate, different characters react differently. Bev, of course, exploits what happens in order to advance her own agenda, with catastrophic consequences for the entire community. Some seem innocently taken in, while others remain skeptical and look for rational explanations. There is, of course, another obvious - what I would suggest might be the correct - religious response: that, while real enough, some seemingly supernatural manifestations may be demonic instead of divine.

But even demons cannot defeat the power of love.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Surrounded by Angels


When I was confirmed in 1957 at the mature age of nine, I chose Michael for my confirmation name. I did not choose it to honor some relative or family friend. Rather, what impressed me most was its association with the great warrior archangel, Michael who battled against the dragon … who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:7-9). In those days, we regularly prayed to Saint Michael the Archangel after (Low) Mass: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. I really liked that prayer; and, for my confirmation, I wanted to identify with that great warrior archangel.

For centuries, Michael has been honored on this day. Hence, the traditional English name Michaelmas for today. Coming just after the autumnal equinox, as the days are visibly darkening, it must have seemed a very appropriate day indeed to honor the Church’s champion against the original “Dark Lord.” Since the calendar reform of 1969, the archangels Gabriel and Raphael (the only other angels identified with proper names in the Bible) have been folded in with Michael in one composite feast of the Archangels.

Where would we be without angels? Here in this church we are literally surrounded by statues, murals, and windows of angels – among them the three gilded bronze angels kneeling above the baldachin over the High Altar (photo) and the four bronze angels with outstretched arms and interlocking hands that encircle the huge globe of the sanctuary lamp. The Angel of the Moon, high up on the south wall of the sanctuary is considered one of the most notable of John La Farge’s murals. Its companion piece, The Angel of the Sun, on the north wall, was painted by William Laurel Harris (the same artist who also did the monumental mural The Crucifixion above the Church’s main entrance). Above and behind the High Altar, the central window depicts Mary Queen of Angels. On the south side of that central widow is a stained glass window of the Archangel Michael, and on the north side is one of the Archangel Raphael. The Archangel Gabriel appears in the painting above the Annunciation Altar in the south aisle. Painted figures of angels also flank that altar on either side, and angels are depicted adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance painted about the Sacred Heart Altar in the north aisle.

Likewise, the liturgy daily reminds us of angels. At every Mass, we join in praying the Sanctus, an acclamation based on the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the angels in heaven (Isaiah 6:3-4). The Gloria’s opening words recall the hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds on the first Christmas (Luke 2:14). At Funerals, we pray May the angels lead you into Paradise. That familiar In Paradisum prayer was, of course, the basis for Horatio’s famous farewell to Hamlet, Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2).

Then, there are the Guardian Angels, commemorated this coming Saturday, October 2.

It seems the angels really are everywhere – not just in pretty pictures and in the countless books found on the shelves devoted to angels in contemporary bookstores! Where would we be without them?

Homily for the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 29, 2021.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Praying for Rain

Today, in the Jewish calendar, is the holy day Shemini Atzeret, which (together with tomorrow's additional holy day Simchat Torah) brings to its close the joyful festival of Sukkot, what the Bible calls the Feast of the Tabernacles, probably the most important festival in the New Testament period. It was on this day, according to John 7:37, that Jesus exclaimed: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. This probably referenced the Tenple-era custom of bringing water in procession from the pool of Siloam to the Temple on this day.

The Temple is long gone, but the water theme survives in that today is the day when the prayer for rain is recited for the first time, asking God to grant abundant rain. From today until the spring festival of Passover, this prayer is recited daily, corresponding to the traditional Israeli rainy season. After the dry, hot desert summer, a new year begins bringing the life-giving and life-sustaining autumn rain.

I have been lucky to live most of my life in places with predictably regular rainfall, where in most years it rains all year long (and sometimes unfortunately too much). But there are places (California, for example), which, like Israel, have a Mediterranean desert climate and are dependent on the winter rainy season for sufficient water to sustain human and animal life and agricultural production for the rest of the year, when no rain is normally expected. I can well remember visiting California in January and February as recently as 20 years ago when it didn't just rain, it poured. But global warming is rapidly changing the climate, and the American West has been experiencing severe drought now for years, with multiple consequences for the water supply, wildfires, etc. Whether this drought portends a climate-changed future for much of the American West, which will render that region ultimately unlivable, remains to be seen.

While there is no exact analogue in Christian liturgy to the daily, Sukkot-to-Pesach practice of praying for rain, the traditional Roman liturgy has long included, among its optional occasional prayers, a collect for rain. That traditional prayer Ad petendam pluviam somehow survived the 1960s liturgical cutting room (albeit shorn of its accompanying secreta and postcommunio). As climate change worsens, it is a prayer which perhaps deserves to be prayed more frequently: O God, in whom we live and move and have our being, grant us sufficient rain, so that, being supplied with what sustains us in this present life, we may seek more confidently what sustains us for eternity.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Italy at War - The Ciano Diaries

I just recently read The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943, the diary kept by Benito Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944), during his last four years as Italy's Minister for Foreign affairs. Kidnapped by the Germans in 1943, Ciano was executed in January 1944, and his diary (which both Mussolini and the King knew about) was smuggled from Italy to Switzerland by his wife, Edda, and subsequently published. This edition has an Introduction by Sumner Welles (1892-1961), U.S. Undersecretary of State from 1936 to 1943, the period during which Ciano was Foreign Minister. Welles met Ciano in 1940, before Italy entered the war, when he was sent to Europe by FDR to explore possibilities for peace. Welles' diagnosis of Ciano effectively captures why his diary is worth reading. According to Welles, Ciano in his diary, "shows himself to be precisely what he was in life - the amoral product of a wholly decadent period in Italian and, for that matter, in European, history. ... Yet where he showed himself far superior to the man who was his father-in-law, his political chief, and finally his executioner, was in his ability to see clearly where Italy's real security lay. ... He was under no illusions as to what a German-dominated Europe would imply for Italy. ... But what is equally important is his total inability to change the course upon which Mussolini had embarked."

The main storyline, obviously, is how Ciano as Foreign Minister saw the alliance with Germany and what war would entail. While forced regularly to meet with Hitler and Ribbentrop and play along with the alliance, Ciano regularly recorded his reservations. He also recorded those of the King (Victor Emmanuel III), who "has no trust in the Germans, and every time he talks of them calls them 'those ugly Germans'."

Since Ciano was foreign Minister, the King is a constant presence in his diary, a good reminder that Mussolini never quite enjoyed the absolute power he craved. Hitler's soldiers swore an oath of personal loyalty to him. Italy's swore loyalty to the King. In March 1940, the diary reports that the Minister of the Royal House, Count Acquarone, told Ciano: "the King feels that it may become necessary for him to intervene at any moment to giver a different direction to things; he is prepared to do this and to do it with despatch." As we all know, the King unfortunately did not do any such thing until much later - finally removing Mussolini in 1943. Had he perhaps acted earlier, he might have spared Italy some of the coming catastrophe.

Mussolini, as depicted in the diary, seemed to become increasingly hostile to the King and to the institution of monarchy. He called the King "the only defeatist in the country." In a sense, so was Ciano himself, who "did not hesitate to tell him [the King] that I would consider a German victory the greatest disaster for our country." Meanwhile even the gilded royal carriages at the ceremony of the Opening of Parliament irritated Mussolini. More importantly, Mussolini seemed to understand how monarchies "are potentially the natural enemies of totalitarian revolutions." Hence his active opposition to the hoped-for restoration of the Spanish monarchy after Francisco Franco's victory in 1939.

However, he never took any actual action against the Royal House and never seemed to recognize the real threat that the King ultimately posed to him. But Donna Rachele, his wife, did see the danger, Ciano quotes her as saying: "With the wind that blows even the starlings have changed direction; they are flying to the trees of Villa Savoia [the King's villa]."

If the monarchy represented a constitutional rival to Mussolini's would-be absolutism, an even more potent cultural rival was the Church. Although it was Mussolini who had engineered the successful reconciliation between Church and State in 1929, he remained consistently hostile, blaming Catholicism for "having made Italy universal, hence preventing it from becoming national. When a country is universal it belongs to everybody but itself." More than once, Ciano quotes Mussolini as calling himself "a Ghibelline" (the medieval Italian faction that was anti-papal in politics). He was also increasingly suspicious of the possibility of some sort of alliance between the Pope and the King. (Indeed in 1939, during Pope Pius XII's official visit to the King and Queen at the Quirinale Palace, Ciano overheard the Pope criticizing Germany in his conversation with the King.) In May 1940, Mussolini told Ciano: "The Pope need not think that he can seek an alliance with the monarchy because I am ready to blow both of them up to the skies at the same time."

What Ciano wrote in his diary in response to this reflected a much more realistic assessment of where the power lay. If Mussolini "intends to wage war, he must not provoke a crisis with the Church. the Italian people are Catholic but not bigoted. Superficially, maybe, they scorn the Church, but they are religious at heart, and especially in times of peril do they draw near the altars." A year and a half later, while Mussolini was showing disdain for Christmas, Ciano observed, "the crowds in the churches are overflowing."

One of the charming aspects of any good diary is all the little asides one is unlikely to find elsewhere, like the King's opposition to colored shirts or that Mussolini did "not like works of art" and detested "that period of history during which the greatest masterpieces were produced." In 1939, after Italy occupied Albania and the Albanian Crown was assumed by the King of Italy, Ciano wrote "better still, they would like to have me." (Given Ciano's deep degree of involvement in Albania, that may not be so crazy as it sounds, but it is still a bit much!) Even more intriguingly, we learn that Mussolini liked snow and cold and that he believed a colder Italy would improve "our good-for-nothing men and this mediocre race." For this reason, Mussolini had reforested the Apennines "to make Italy colder and more snowy." Who knew Mussolini was in the vanguard opposing global warming?

Mussolini promised his people to make Italy great again. But, rather than restore the imagined imperial grandeur of ancient Rome, Mussolini took Italy to an unwinnable war and the consequent catastrophe - and in the process discredited himself and his movement. Yet, for all his foolishness and personal buffoonery, Mussolini - and, more importantly, the Mussolini phenomenon - represented an important historical moment, one not without important lessons for later leaders comparably tempted. Even if, as Marx so famously remarked, all great world-historical facts and personages occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, the farcical character of more recent would-be Mussolinis must not keep us from learning the lessons of such problematic historical episodes. Count Ciano's diary does not address - let alone answer - all the many questions raised by Italy's Fascist experience, which was in many respects unique. It does, however, highlight the abiding importance of what we have more recently come to call constitutional and cultural "guardrails" and their central significance for restraining the exercise of political power and guiding its direction. In Mussolini's Italy, the constitutional "guardrail" was the monarchy, and the cultural "guardrail" was the Church. Neither performed optimally, and both failed in their efforts to keep Italy out of the war. Yet, had they been absent, the story would undoubtedly have ended even more tragically than it did.

What constitutional and cultural "guardrails" can we Americans confidently rely on?

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Thoughts on Getting My Annual Flu Shot


In the above photos from the 1918 flu pandemic, on the left a Seattle streetcar conductor checks to see if potential passengers are wearing the required masks; on the right, a New York street sweeper wears his mask. The admonition of the New York Health Board to wear masks to check the spread of influenza epidemic in 1918 was: "Better ridiculous than dead."

There was no vaccination available against influenza back in 1918, but thankfully there is now. I first remember getting a flu shot back in 1967. I have gotten them more or less regularly ever since. It has become a kind of regularly repeated end-of-summer, early autumn ritual, its importance highlighted by the one's increased susceptibility and the flu's increased precariousness as one ages. 

The routine of getting vaccinated against the flu every fall fits into a uniquely modern expectation that science can save us from deadly diseases which were once quite commonplace and against which the world once offered little practical protection. I am old enough to remember when polio was still a real threat. I myself, like most of my generation, suffered as a child through measles, mumps, and chickenpox, afflictions against which, thankfully, subsequent generations are able to be protected by vaccines. 

Against this background, the sudden emergence of covid-19 was quite the shock - a contagious, easily spread, serious, and indeed deadly disease, against which we had no known protection. We all remember how frightening those initial weeks were, while we struggled to adapt to mask-wearing and physical distancing as the best we could do to hide from the disease. Unfortunately, that also meant in effect hiding from one another - a poignant reminder that we are very social animals, that our fulfillment and flourishing as human beings depends on society, but that society is a fragile attainment, quickly compromised by natural forces beyond our immediate control.

Reacting to the plague that attacked ancient Athens around 430 BC, Thucydides observed:

At the beginning [of the plague] the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick. Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.

A lot has changed since the fifth century BC, but Thucydides' description could, with only modest modifications, have been written in the spring of 2020. Particularly poignant was his portrayal of what happened to the precious human ritual of funerals: All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could. Such was my own family's experience, when my mother died at the very beginning of the pandemic period. We planned my mother's funeral in the usual way, adhering to my mother's personally stated desires. Then, all of a sudden, everything had to be cancelled. A full 15 months would pass before we would finally be able to assemble as a family for her burial. It wasn't what we had planned - or what she had planned - but, as Thucydides said centuries ago, we buried the dead as best we could.

Salvaging social life from the catastrophe of the pandemic will be an ongoing challenge on many levels. 

Every flu season is different, and so no one knows at this point in time exactly what to expect this season. Some years the flu season seems mild - like last year, when, of course, we were all wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. Some years we're not so lucky. After all the horror covid-19 has visited upon us, let us hope and pray we're lucky this year!

Friday, September 24, 2021

Peril (The Book)

There seems to be no limit to our appetite for Trump-related reporting. Different accounts have focused on different aspects of the Trump phenomenon, and in fact there has been no end of new revelations about aberrations and deviations from normal predictable presidential behavior and governance to keep more and more authors busy. To my mind, one of the best such accounts to date has been Carol Leoning and Philip Rucker's I Alone Can fix It: Donald Trump's Catastrophic Final Year, largely because of its focus on the pandemic, which may well be remembered as one of Trump's most disastrous (and deadly) departures from normal predictable presidential behavior and governance. 

Now we have the dean of such presidential reporting, Bob Woodward, teamed up now with reporter Robert Costa, whose presence on TV has been much missed since he bowed out of Washington Week on January 1. Woodward and Costa have given us Peril - completing Woodward's Trump trilogy of Fear (2018) and Rage (2020).

Much of their account is familiar. After all, we already know the story - not just from books but from having lived through it so recently ourselves. We are familiar with the ongoing threat Trump (and his willing collaborators in the Republican party) have posed to American constitutional governance through his demonstrated indifference to traditional norms of presidential behavior, his bizarre cult of strength (or at least the appearance thereof), his extreme divisiveness, and his unwillingness to respect dissent and the results of legal elections. This we already know, but the book is nonetheless filled with new revelations about just how bad it all really was. Hence, Woodward and Costa commence their account with the now famous (and in some quarters controversial) actions of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley to mitigate the threat of Trump starting a war or otherwise employing military force overseas to help keep himself in power. Trump, Milley feared, might be looking for what he called a "Reichstag moment." 

Unsurprisingly, since these revelations have come out, Milley's actions have bizarrely been condemned by some in the name of "civilian control of the military." That ignores the historical precedents for Milley's actions, not to mention the inconvenient fact that the constitution never actually grants the President the power to make war on his own and that the civilian war making power is actually invested in congress, a power presidents have usurped since 1950. In fact, whenever the "checks and balances" become imbalanced (e.g., when Congress chronically failed to fulfill its responsibilities under the 14th and 25th amendments), other governmental actions step in to compensate (in the case of civil rights, it was the judiciary).

We also hear from Woodward and Costa about the successful resistance of others to some of Trump's more extreme maneuvers. Most dramatically, we learn how hard Trump tried in the run-up to January 6 to get Vice President Pence to overturn the election, how the perennially submissive Pence struggled to find his way, and how former Vice President Dan Quayle (who had to announce his own defeat on January 6, 1993) instructed Pence on his constitutional duty to do no more than open the votes and count them. 

But, in a sense, Woodward and Costa have written two books. There is the book about the dangerous goings on in the White House and the peril Trump posed to the country. Woodward's technique of cultivating inside sources serves him especially well here. But the authors also shift between alternative narratives and so also give us a second book within the book. That second book is an account of Joe Biden’s campaign, continuing the story beyond January 20 into the early months of the Biden Administration. Thus the book highlights how Biden successfully campaigned as the anti-Trump, how he was - as Congressman Jim Clyburn claimed - "the only person who can beat Donald Trump." The authors quote Mitch McConnell on how “Being Donald Trump” was enough for Trump to lose in November. “Trump’s personality was his biggest problem and from a personality point of view, Joe [Biden] was the opposite of Trump.” In this book, Biden appears as an ambitious president determined to heal the country not only from the pandemic and its multiple effects, but also from Trumpism.

The book thus highlights the contrast between these two ambitious men and their very different ambitions. Trump is all about himself. Biden has beliefs about the country and its history and about how to use politics to achieve actual ends. To the extent that those ends are more conventional, they invite more conventional critique. If Trump is Biden's alternative at a symbolic level, Senator Mtich McConnell is his practical political challenge. According to McConnell, Biden is "doing what every Democratic president wants to do, which is to push this country as far left as possible, as rapidly as possible. They all want to be the next FDR.”

But the two challenges are intertwined. If Biden is stymied in accomplishing anything in the practical political order in his effort to improve actual Americans' lives, I wonder what other alternative might there be other than the continuation of Trumpist grievance politics with all that that entails. What is "populism," after all but a response to the failure of democracy to deliver on its promises?

Meanwhile there is still Trump himself. Biden faces "Ford’s dilemma: How do you get the country to move on? How do you have your own presidency?" So the book concludes with a question and a warning: "Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power? Peril remains."

Thursday, September 23, 2021

American Rust

Some years back, I had occasion to spend several days in a Pennsylvania town, which had literally just lost its status as a city due to its declining population. The people there were wonderful, and the attractive architecture testified to a once vibrant past. But now there was just less and less there, less and less to do, less and less reason to remain.

Set in a much more dramatically dying "rust belt" town in a naturally beautiful, perpetually cloudy, and socially stressed corner of Pennsylvania, Showtime's American Rust is about people proverbially living lives of quiet - and not so quiet - desperation. An adaptation of Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel of the same name, American Rust seems so immediately expressive of the crises of post-industrial society with its family dysfunction, drug abuse, unemployment and underemployment, and unfulfilled hopes and dreams at all ages.

Inevitably, American Rust will be compared to HBO's Mare of Easttown, which was also set in a similar post-industrial dystopia. This is obviously the right time, socially and politically, for shows of this sort, and Mare has shown that such shows may succeed commercially. Mare Sheehan's world, however, while afflicted with similar problems, somehow seemed like less of a hellscape. It was a place where people's relationships, mutual support, and commitment to community mitigated some of the trauma that kept buffeting them. Institutions, notably religion, remained a presence in Mare's world - albeit maybe more in the sense of belonging than believing - whereas (so far at least) religion is effectively absent from American Rust.

As in Mare, the starring role is a police officer - Buell PD Chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels). Likewise, the story revolves around a murder investigation, although in this case the victim seems to have been a somewhat less sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Chief Harris is romantically involved with Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), whose high school football star, now dropout son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), sort of personifies the perplexity and fragility of life in that dead-end world, while also possibly being a murder suspect (an obvious complication for the Chief).

The other major family constellation includes a disabled and somewhat unlikable widower Henry English (Bill Camp). His remaining role in life seems to be to burden his children - Isaac (David Alvarez), his smart, gay son, who already in the first episode jumps into a frozen Monongahela River and later steals his father's money in order to skip town, and his daughter Lee (Julia Mayorga), the town's rare success, who got away, went to Yale, married rich, and lives in New York, but who returns to care for her father after her brother's sudden departure. Inevitably, she was once Billy's girl, and her return has predictable complications.

Only two episodes have aired so far. So how the characters and the story will play out remains to be seen.The second episode complements the soulless joylessness of Buell life with the wedding of two minor characters Katie and Jimbo (the sort once impolitely called a "shotgun" wedding). Practically everyone is there. So we get that comforting feel of small-town community closeness that papers over all that individual and familiar dysfunction. For most of those present, the wedding is a temporary reprieve from sadness and relentless dreariness - a chance to dance wildly and have fun. As one girl says to the bride: "What's this life supposed to be about, if we're not laughing as hard as we're crying?"

Episode 3 airs this coming Sunday.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Chair

I am sure that, if i were still working full-time and if there were no pandemic, I might not be watching Netflix as much as I do and so might never even have watched The Chair, the new 2021 Netflix series set at a fictional, liberal-arts-college-like, New-England-like "Pembroke University," where Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) has been newly appointed chair of the English department. The first woman (and first Korean) chosen for this position, she wants to facilitate the tenure of a young black colleague (Nana Mensah). Meanwhile, she is struggling personally in terms of her relationship with her recently widowed close friend and prominent academic colleague Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), while also struggling with parenting her adopted non-Korean daughter.

The 6-episode series seeks to cover several academic-world situations. There is the pressure on the Chair to ease out senior professors who are highly paid but have low course enrollments, the classical conflict between the ostensibly detached priorities of academic learning and the reality of colleges and universities as catering to contemporary consumers (students) who in many cases couldn't care less about traditional notions of academic learning, but who may well be attracted to more entertaining teachers. Then there is the more contemporary preoccupation with faculty diversity. And, finally, there is the damage done to academic freedom and faculty reputations and careers by contemporary "wokeness" on campus.

The series is well done and has been well received. But I am fairly certain that I might not even have watched it and probably would hardly have cared had I myself not briefly been an academic at an earlier time in my life. While I have no regrets about having left the academic world to pursue my present vocation, I still feel some attachment to the traditional academic values of intellectual inquiry, scholarship, and teaching that attracted me to that world and that vocation in the first place. So I identify and sympathize with the older (as they are stereotyped in the series) faculty who care about Melville or Chaucer and don't want to see themselves as entertainers or salesmen responding to the uneducated and transient interests of their students. As for Bill Dobson, he exemplifies a certain sort of self-indulgent academic, who succeeds according to the traditional academic norms while engaging in transgressive narcissistic behavior. Historically, colleges and universities have provided space for both conserving and passing on the wisdom embodied in the traditional literary canon and for transgressive figures who successfully challenge students' complacency and inspire real engagement with actual ideas.

Regardless of how typical or exaggerated the presentation of academic life in The Chair might be, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that something has gone terribly wrong on contemporary campuses - from a consumerist preoccupation with satisfying students to the neglect of more traditional academic priorities to contemporary "wokeness" and "political correctness," which significantly devalue "academic freedom" (the privileged possession of tenured faculty) and the underlying value system that views education as about learning the traditional wisdom embodied in the classical canon and empowering knowledge-based free inquiry.

How much of a crisis this actually is can certainly be debated, although, of course, one obvious consequence of "wokeness" and "political correctness" has been precisely to stifle debate, both academic and political. That said, it is evident that something precious is being  lost in our society. And, to be clear, it was already being lost before "wokeness" and "political correctness" contaminated campuses. The first challenge facing the new chair in the series The Chair is financial pressure reflecting a consumerist model of education. That problem has been around for a long time and is reflected, for example, in the hollowing out of classics departments. 

It was a great privilege for me to have had the opportunity to teach Plato and Aristotle and encouraging students to engage with ideas completely contrary to contemporary cultural trends. To the extent that colleges and universities are increasingly unable or afraid to do that any more, that is a catastrophic loss - not just for the once comfortable clubby little world of the tenured faculty and the junior faculty and grad students who aspire to join them, but also for a society that desperately needs to rediscover sources of wisdom and the ability to deliberate and debate about things that really matter.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Rizzio (The Book)

A long time ago, way back when I was in my teens, I became fascinated with the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), a highly romantic and romanticized historical figure and Reformation-era Catholic heroine, whose story resonated with a deepening fascination for history and religion and the intersection of the two. At the time, I read biographies and even historical novels about her. 

That was, as I said, a long time ago, but I have never completely lost interest in Mary's enigmatic life and reign and the political and religious conflicts that consumed her. So when I recently read a review of Rizzio, a new novel by Denise Mina, I immediately went and read the book. It subject is David Rizzio, Mary's Italian secretary, whose murder - by a cabal of Protestant Scottish Lords led by Mary's Catholic second husband, Henry Lord Darnley, during Mary's pregnancy with the future King James VI and I - proved to be a pivotal point in Mary's increasing alienation from Darnley and one more calamity that contributed to Catholic Mary's reign's careening out of control in increasingly Calvinistic Scotland.

The historical background is the tragic events of March 9, 1566, when the 6-months pregnant queen was peacefully enjoying supper in Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace with some of her ladies-in-waiting, together with her secretary and confidant David Rizzio. Her troublesome husband Darnley (whom she had unwisely married to bolster her claim to the English Crown, but who had quite quickly shown himself unworthy) stormed into the room and, while Mary was held captive at sword point, Darnley and his accomplices murdered Rizzio stabbing him 56 times. Mary eventually lured her weak treacherous husband back and, with his assistance, escaped. Meanwhile, however, the distraught Queen supposedly commanded that his bloodstains not be washed off the floor. To this day, a marker identifies the spot to tourists, of whom I was one in 2005.

It is, of course, a problem inherent in historical fiction that we already know what happened. So there is no suspense or surprise. We know who committed the murder and why. If this were an entirely fictional account, then what might make for suspense would be the very dangerous situation - for both her and her unborn heir - that Darnley has put Mary in, and how her resourcefulness will turn her husband briefly back into an ally in order for her to escape that danger. We know that she is going to be the winner here - just as we know the long-term doom that lie ahead for her rule and eventually her life. The artistic challenge for the novelist here is to bring this old story to life in a way which makes the characters and their internal and external dilemmas immediate to us, for which secondary fictional or composite characters can be successfully employed. History has already taught us what the participants did and said. The novelist's task is to help us imagine how they may have felt. And that Mina manages to accomplish quite convincingly.

If only Mary had managed her sojourn on the Scottish throne better, if only she had been a bit more like her more successful cousin, Elizabeth of England, how different history might have turned out! What would have been the political - and religious - history of Britain and the English-speaking world, had it been Catholic Mary, rather than her Protestant son, who had inherited the English crown in 1603? It is the allure of that alternative, our historical understanding of all that was ultimately at stake, that makes Mary's sad story so compelling even today. Throw in the allure of romance that also always envelopes Mary (in contrast to her "Virgin Queen" cousin Elizabeth), and Mary's saga will always be perfect subject matter for the talented novelist.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Vaccines Forever

I am not normally in the habit of looking for wisdom in The Wall Street Journal, but this weekend's Review section seemed especially on target as our country continues to careen toward totally unnecessary pandemic mortality as a consequence of the anti-pubic health stances adopted by one particular political party's politicians and media allies. Entitled "The Long History of Vaccine Mandates in America," the section's cover article (photo) recalls the long legacy of mandating measures to protect public health, dating back to General George Washington's famous forcible immunization of his troops against smallpox during the Revolutionary War. Washington had called smallpox "more destructive to an Army in a Natural Way, than the Enemy's Sword." Thanks to compulsory immunization, however, smallpox largely disappeared from the Continental Army's ranks. 

The article recounts the subsequent introduction of the even safer method of vaccination against smallpox, famously developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. As elsewhere, there was opposition, but vaccination eventually won out. The issue of vaccine mandates was finally adjudicated by the Supreme Court in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In that decision, Justice Harlan famously ruled: "the liberty secured by the Constitution does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint." Instead, Harlan argued that the Constitution rests on "the fundamental principle of the social compact ... that all shall be governed by certain laws for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor or private interests of anyo one man, family, or class of men."

Indeed, whenever I hear right-wingers claim that the Constitution is about "liberty," I cannot help but recall that the Constitution itself says the opposite. Yes, "the blessings of liberty" are mentioned, but only last in a long list of the social and political purposes for which the Constitution and its government were established. We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. 

Liberty follows from and only makes meaningful sense within a society committed to justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the general welfare.

Few ideas have done more damage to our society than the right-wing obsession with "liberty." and now it is again costing lives!

The WSJ article closes with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, recalling and lamenting the loss of his four-year old son to smallpox in 1736: "I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen."

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Like a Child

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I really wish the Gospels included more information about Jesus’ disciples.  For example, wouldn’t it be interesting to listen in on the disciples’ conversation en route to Capernaum? I can picture Peter, perhaps still stung by Jesus’ rebuke in last week’s Gospel, reminding the others that he was still in line for the top job! I can almost hear Andrew answer, “OK, brother, but don’t forget that I met him first, and I introduced you to him!” And John chiming in, “but I’m the one he’s closest to!” And, of course, Judas, “I’m the one he trusts with the money, without me where would you all be!”

Instead, the Gospel tells us that when Jesus asked what they had been arguing about, they were suddenly (and suspiciously) tongue-tied, and that Jesus, ever the teacher, took the opportunity to teach them a lesson.

Actually, this was the second time Jesus had tried to teach them what lay ahead. But they failed to understand.  In a world without power-point presentations and other such gimmicks, Jesus employed a child as his instructional aide.

Children induce all sorts of reactions in people. A baby is a sure attention-grabber in any gathering. In our society, children are considered cute, innocent individuals, to whom we are expected to react positively and benevolently.

Benevolence is certainly good. But what is distinctive to childhood – and certainly what Jesus’ audience would have responded to – is the dependence and hence powerlessness. That is inherent in being a child. The poor are particularly powerless, of course, at all stages of life. So poor children are especially powerless. But even rich children, as long as they remain children, are dependent on someone else to exercise power on their behalf.

So, when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what following him is all about, he pointed to a powerless child. In this way, he sought to teach his clueless disciples the paradox of the powerless Christ, who, in obedience to his Father, assumed our ordinariness as his own to meet us, in his economic and political poverty, where we are all at our most powerless – in the darkness of death, where all our obsessive human preoccupation with power and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, all come to nothing.

No wonder they found him hard to understand! It seems being a disciple means more than merely listening to Jesus’ words and possibly preaching them to others. No, it means being led, by him and with him, where he was led. It means leaving behind our perpetual preoccupation with power, wealth, and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, our competitiveness with one another and within our own selves - the passions that the Epistle of James so strongly warns us about, causing us to covet but not possess, to envy but not obtain, to ask but not receive. From school popularity contests to their imitations in our national political campaigns, it’s all about who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out.  

In contrast, Jesus challenges us to come to know Christ with the powerless. He invites us to compensate for our own limited moral experience by paying attention – difficult as that may be - to the experiences of others, whose lived reality of poverty or other forms of powerlessness can cut through our comfortable self-understanding and teach us something new, expose us to realities and insights we would not otherwise be exposed to.

Good teacher that he was, Jesus did not totally demolish the ambition of his disciples. Instead he gave them a new definition of greatness to aspire to. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

That can be quite frightening, even threatening. Certainly, it scared the disciples. And it scares most of us most of the time, which is why we tend to pass over it as quickly as possible in search of some more “upbeat,” ostensibly friendly message, as if Jesus’ point were to affirm us and our way of life.

But this ultimately this is the challenge of a becoming a disciple – for all Christians from first to last.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, September 19, 2021.

Friday, September 17, 2021


In the 1993 movie And the Band Played On about an earlier pandemic, epidemiologist Dr. Don Francis (Matthew Modine) challenges his boss, Dr. James Curran (Saul Rubinek): "When a house is on fire, you don't wait for scientific proof. You grab the first hose, and you start putting out the fire." 

I wonder whether anyone was playing that part in the internal FDA debate about boosters, a role that President Biden seems to have been sort of playing in his advocacy of booster shots against the FDA's painfully slow, seemingly so "business as usual" approach to vaccine accessibility and distribution. It is true that, now that this has become largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated, the government is practically begging people to get vaccinated and is at long last starting to mandate it (action that also should have been taken long ago). Yet we all can remember what it was like earlier this year, when the much anticipated vaccine was first produced, how slowly the vaccine was made available, how access seemed to be slowly - painfully slowly - dribbled out to one category after another of potential recipients. Then it was frightened people begging to get the vaccine, and sometimes having a hard time finding out how to get it, or having to wait until it was finally made available to their particular age or category. More recently, we have seen how long it took - way too long - to get the final full approval for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine (the only one which has as yet gotten such full approval). And even now there is still no approval for any vaccine for children, which has obviously seriously complicated the opening of school.

To be fair, by historical standards, it is true that we have made almost miraculously rapid progress from where we were a mere 18 months ago. It is also true that, unlike the efficacy of the vaccine in general, the efficacy of a booster shot seems to have been less certain. The data seems largely limited to the Israeli experience, which, however, does support making a third shot widely available. 

As I understand it, the two-shot regimen has proved quite effective against severe disease and death, but that the immunity to infection itself maybe waning, for which a third shot may be a remedy.

Maybe "booster" is not the best word. I can well remember receiving the Salk Polio Vaccine as a child as soon as it became widely available. As I recall, there was a three-shot regimen, followed eventually by a fourth shot. I don't remember whether the fourth shot was called a "booster," but I believe it quickly became the norm. Later, when the oral polio vaccine came out, that too required multiple (three, I think) doses. A few years ago, when I got vaccinated against shingles, that required two doses, spaced out over a set period of time. Multiple doses seem to be the way these things often seem to work. Maybe we should just think of this as ordinarily a three-shot regimen, especially if the goal is not just to avoid severe disease and death but also to minimize so-called "breakthrough" infections.

Given how long it will take to vaccinate the whole world and completely eradicate the disease, it may be much more likely that covid is going to become part of our regular human experience - like the flu. And, like the flu, we may find ourselves in need of a new shot every year. If so, the scientific and medical community needs to respond rapidly to the data of experience and so enable policy-makers and ordinary citizens to respond appropriately both to the ongoing threats and the possibilities vaccines can offer.

Meanwhile, I look forward to getting my third shot, my "booster," as soon as it is offered!


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Going to Church in Medieval England (the Book)

One of the unfortunate myths still perpetuated about the middle ages is that few people regularly went to church before the modern era. In contrast, Eamon Duffy, in his magisterial The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale U. Pr. 1992), has shown how late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of the Reformation" and how in the medieval liturgy "lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place within it."

In that tradition, what a joy now to encounter medieval historian Nicholas Orme's new, delightfully written, easy to read, and beautifully illustrated, Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale U. Pr. 2021). Orme's book asks the basic questions: "Who went to church in medieval England, and what happened when they went?" (Personally,  I am much more interested in the latter question.)

Orme's answers are offered in enormous detail. We learn probably more than we ever expected to know about what medieval English Church life was like. As a lover of all liturgical arcana, I especially enjoyed the chapters on how and when the Divine Office, Mass, and the sacraments were celebrated. But Orme tells us about everything - like how time was kept and the impact of the invention of mechanical clocks and the curious claim that Robin Hood allegedly attended three Masses daily! The chapter-headings highlight the comprehensiveness of Orme's work: "Origins and the Parish," "The Staff of the church," "The Church Building," "The Congregation," "The Day and the Week," "the Seasons and the Year," "The Life Cycle," and, sadly, "The Reformation."

Yes, lurking in the background of this detailed description of a long-lost world is the sad story of how it ended in the tragically iconoclastic event we remember as the English Reformation. Much was lost in that disaster to advance the power needs of the modern state. "No portable or processional crosses remained, and the palm crosses built in churchyards were mostly demolished. Imagery was reduced to a single example: the royal coat of arms in a prominent place, signalling that the Church was now under the monarch’s governance." Unsurprisingly, among the feasts and saints that were cancelled, a primary victim was, of course, that great medieval defender of the Church's freedom from the state, Saint Thomas Becket.

Other changes reflected the influence of Protestant reformed theology from the continent. Indulgences disappeared, of course - and, more consequentially, Latin. As a result, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed (previously universally known but only in Latin) acquired standardized English versions.

That said, a surprising amount of medieval Church life survived. "Reformers remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage, infant baptism, a set liturgy with traditional features, adult communion, and many calendar observances. Churches could only be adapted, not rebuilt, for Reformed worship. It was unwise to push congregations too far: there had to be some concession to popular usages, notably seating. People’s habits and preferences continued to determine the extent to which change would happen locally."

Perhaps one of the few particularly positive outcomes associated with the Reformation is that monumental liturgical masterpiece, the Book of Common Prayer (heavily indebted for many of its texts to the medieval Latin Sarum liturgy). It was "not until the Prayer Book of 1549 was a service of mass (now called holy communion) specifically designed and officially authorised for parish usage." The liturgical uses of York in the north and Sarum in the south structured and somewhat standardized the medieval liturgy, but were based on a cathedral, rather than parochial, model (which leaves us some room to speculate how exactly the pre-Reformation Mass, Office, and sacraments were celebrated in the smaller - but obviously more ordinary - parochial settings). 

Finally, having lived through more than my fair share of pointless debates about the sacrament of confirmation - when to celebrate it and (more basically) why we celebrate it - I found it moderately consoling to learn that the medieval English Church generally avoided distorting the sacrament into a coming of age rite and was otherwise more or less all over the place in terms of when to do it.

Just as the Reformation radically transformed liturgical sensibilities, so too have subsequent calamities. We will never again experience a Palm Sunday procession as the medievals did, but we can still reflect upon how the liturgy then (unlike today) was deeply integrated with people's actual lives and ponder what difference that made. That doesn't make the middle ages into some mythologized "age of faith," when all was wonderful, but it does help explain how medieval religion exerted such a strong and vigorous hold over people's imaginations and loyalty right up to the very moment of 16th-century disaster. Have we anything at all comparable today?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

California Dreamin'

California has long been the bellwether of some of the best and much of the worst in American history, culture, and politics. A century ago, as part of the Progressive reform movement's assault against representative democracy, the initiative, referendum, and recall were added to California State Constitution, with catastrophic consequences evident every time California's voters are confronted with one of their lengthy, proposition-laden ballots. Since then, there have been 179 recall attempts directed at state elected officials in California. Eleven of those efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances, the most famous having been Governor Gray Davis, removed from office in 2003 only a few months into his second term. Why, one might ask, bother to have a system of representative government by elected officials only to try to remove them precipitously or circumvent them by ballot initiatives?

Rousseau famously believed that legitimate sovereignty was exclusively attributable only to the entire political community's volonté générale. Historically, the early 20th-century Progressive movement and contemporary "populism" have been the vehicles for perpetuating this pernicious denigration of representative government, most recently on display in California's recall election.

Thankfully - for the institution of representative democracy, not to mention some sense of political stability and sanity - California's embattled Governor Newsom has safely survived this latest recall threat. Of course, if he were less an exemplar of the overly rich, overly entitled, out of touch, rules-are-for-little-people mentality so characteristic of so many contemporary elites and their moneyed world of hypocritical, clueless entitlement, perhaps the recall campaign would have simply been just another silly (and expensive) nuisance rather than the source of so much existential anxiety that it briefly became for many Californians (one more source of existential anxiety to add to covid, drought, wildfires, increasing inequality, and the suburban sprawl and urban blight brought on by the state's widespread lack of affordable housing). That said, this otherwise ridiculous recall effort inevitably has become one more illustration of the unsettled character of contemporary American politics, in which one political party - increasingly unable to win elections by persuading people other than its small angry "base" - seeks power by delegitimizing democracy and undermining the voters' confidence in the electoral process itself.

Of course, covid was a factor as well. Unlike homelessness and income inequality, one of the few areas where the state seems to be functioning rather well has been in responding to the pandemic, and so it was reasonable to fear that replacing Newsom with some mini-Trump Republican would make California more like Florida or Tennessee in terms of those states' catastrophic covid outcomes. 

Californians can and clearly should fix their state's constitution and eliminate recalls and other ballot initiatives. Perhaps mustering the political capacity to do that might encourage and empower them to address some of the state's many other, even more serious problems and become the model of modern governance it once seemed to be. 

But the delegitimizing of the democratic process seems certain to continue.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Reading Dante

Today, September 14, is the 700th anniversary of the death of the greatest of medieval poets, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), whose Divina Comedia famously takes the reader on an amazing pilgrimage through the cosmos from the depths of hell through purgatory to the beatific vision in heaven, the cosmos ordered by God's power, wisdom, and love. A century ago, in honor of the 600th anniversary of Dante's death, Pope Benedict XV's encyclical In praeclara summorum said Dante was one "of the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast" and a "pride and glory of humanity."

Italy in Dante's day (and for long after) was a complex of rivalries among cities, petty principalities, and noble families, opposing one another and taking sides in the overarching rivalry between the two major long-term principal players in the politics of the peninsula, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. In the convoluted politics of his time, Dante's family was loyal to the "Guelphs," the faction that supported the Pope in opposition to the "Ghibellines," the faction that favored the Emperor. Exiled from his beloved Florence in 1302, he never again got to return to the city which was his identity, but during those latter years of exile he gave us his masterpiece, the great poem set in the Jubilee year of 1300, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" (at the midpoint of the journey of his earthly life). 

During his exile, Dante became a supporter of Emperor Henry VII who invade Italy in 1310 and in whom Dante came to see a new Charlemagne, and he wrote De Monarchia, advocating a universal empire. Unlike that explicitly political treatise, however, the great poem that is his greatest legacy was written in the Tuscan vernacular and thus helped make that Italian version of evolving Latin the language of all Italy. 

Dante died and was buried in Ravenna. His home city, Florence, from which he had been unjustly exiled, made repeated requests for the return of his remains and even built a tomb for him in the Basilica of Santa Croce The custodians of the bod in 1829, but it remains empty. To protect their treasure, the citizens of Ravenna at one point even concealed his body in a false wall of a monastery! 

In celebration of this greatest of poets, I have signed myself up for a special online program, "100 Days of Dante," which offers video introductions to each of the 100 cantos of the Divina Comedia, narrated by teachers and scholars, in order to guide the reader through this treasure of spiritual and political poetic inspiration. To access "100 Days of Dante," go to:

Photo: The oldest known image of Dante, painted prior to his exile, probably by Giotto, in the Bargello palace chapel, Florence.