Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Antihero of the Great Hall Monitor State

I wrote last evening about the Great Hall Monitor State that arises in the Violent Farce. It's a place that deploys the force of the state against children walking home unaccompanied from the park and against septuagenarian florists and against Good Samaritans who dare to feed the homeless, but is simultaneously unwilling to formulate an evacuation plan for 3,000-4,000 American citizens trapped in war-torn Yemen.

In the midst of this busybody, soft-surveillance state one finds a Quixotic antihero brazenly ignoring social convention and the promptings of conscience to do simply whatever he will. He is Florida Man, internet sensation and source of amazement and horror. Liberated from concern about the opinions of others and even his own bodily safety, he patrols the swampy backwaters of gator country looking for a dumpster to pass out in with his girlfriend or a WalMart where he can copulate with a stuffed animal. This past week, our hero took his antics on the road by landing a gyrocopter near the Capitol to protest the influence of money in politics.

When it landed, the Tampa Bay Times reported, in a piece that truly deserves a Pulitzer: “Richard Burns, 27, who said he works for a marijuana lobby group in Washington, stood in wonder and solidarity. ‘I don’t know whatever it was he was doing but I support him.'”

Florida Man's lack of self-consciousness and any need for respectability gives him a countercultural authenticity once enjoyed by the likes of William F. Burroughs, the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury, and Tommy Chong. Now, the desire for the counterculture to enjoy a suburban, capitalist esteem leads marijuana lobbyists to dump Tommy Chong from events because it "will detract from the overall message" of the cannabis lobby. It's the same spirit that leads guys like Tim Cook, a mainstream CEO masquerading as edgy hipster by virtue of brand integrity and brilliant marketing, to punch down on the yokels in Indiana for their audacity to be the real rebels in the Marriage Wars.

He's an everyman: equally void of reason as the rest of the mob, comically dangerous, and yet also lacking intent; he simply is. A man of action, Florida Man is the Chaotic Neutral in a Chaotic Evil world; he is the jester in the court of despair.

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Violent Farce: The Great Hall Monitor Society

In reaction to my remark about living in an era of violent farce, a facebook friend quipped that we live in what he calls a "Great Hall Monitor Society." This was in a discussion of a brouhaha resulting from a cat meme making fun of the ever-expanding alphabet soup of genital expression. As if following a script, the website that posted the graphic issued a groveling apology and took time to attack the website's defenders. This is the sort of unseriousness we've descended to: aggrieved mobs of tolerance enforcers squealing at comedy websites, pizzerias, college administrators, and other perceived authority figures to demand the suppression of speech and other forms of expression deemed "hurtful" or "threatening" or "bigoted", and those mobs being taken seriously.

The farce of the whole thing, as my friend's phrase indicates, is that we have become a society in which  aggrieved loudmouths and concerned busybodies go to authority as a matter of first resort, without seemingly any prior reflection on the situations or content at hand. Were this limited simply to cat pictures, it would be relatively innocuous, but it has expanded such that each day it seems more difficult to carry on without running afoul of the overly concerned and easily offended.

An example of this latter phenomenon has been playing out locally, where a man walking his dog called the police one two children, ages 10 and 6, who was walking home from their neighborhood park. The children were picked up by the police and held for 5 1/2 hours.
“I just can’t believe we’ve come to the moment where a responsible adult would think it’s in everybody’s best interest to call 911 instead of asking whether the kids are okay,” he said. “That culture needs to change.”
I recently read several of Dorothy Day's books, and recall her quoting Peter Maurin repeatedly; he said that he envisioned and wanted to make a world "where it is easier to be good." Absent the cultural change rooted in empathy and compassion, we will continue to descend into the absurd form of lawlessness best embodied by cops issuing fines to and arresting those who feed the homeless.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

A New Era: Violent Farce

"Ours is an age of violent farce," I remarked today on my facebook page. I've noticed a shift, either in the general arc of current events, or at least in my own reaction to them, within the past several weeks.

There was a time when I experienced dismay, fear, and anxiety about the future, but my priorities have shifted: nearly two years ago exactly, I went with my dreams and hopes into discernment with a beautiful community of Trappist monks, envisioning life in a place I could (finally!) call home after years of wandering. When I came to see I wasn't met for a life of cloistered contemplation, I bore the great sorrow and heartbreak of what seemed like a lost future. Out of the experience came much interior growth, a new sense of self-knowledge, a greater love for God, for the poor, for silence and solitude.

Similarly, I came more fully into myself: I changed my diet around and lost 40 pounds in the bargain; I rediscovered my love of rock 'n roll; I dyed my hair purple for Lent and then bleached it out for Eastertide; I finally got around to learning to drive, albeit failing the Maryland driving test twice (with another attempt coming up in another 6 weeks); I made a successful debut as a public speaker on the topic of alcoholism and faith; I rode Amtrak home to Minnesota for my grandmother's funeral, where I sought to love my family both radically and detachedly; I moved into an apartment of my own, turning it into my a little hermitage of sorts, in which I can host friends for tea or a meal and yet also pray the divine office in solitude; I've found myself far less engaged in politics and worry and more engaged in prayer, in making friends with the lonely and marginalized, and in living simply.

All this is a long way of explaining that I react to current events less with indignation and fear and more with bafflement and prayer and provocative questions.

The nationwide fiasco surrounding the redefinition of marriage reached a new high (I won't call it "peak" yet) in Indiana with Big Corporations and legions of internet Social Justice Warriors crying out first against the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and ultimately against a hapless, family-owned pizzeria in a town of just over 2,000 people. My question wasn't "who do these people (be they the Governor, the legislature, the CEO's, the internet tough guys, or the pizza shop owners) think they are?" but rather, "when did homosexuality become so bourgeois as to care about or demand the approval of 70-year-old florists and small-town pizzeria owners in flyover country? Freddie Mercury and Lou Reed were too cool to worry about what the squares would think of their lifestyles." Artur Rosman suggests that the "conservative" viewpoint of Andrew Sullivan has won out over the "radical" "queer" viewpoint of Michael Warner; radical that I am, I have a greater appreciation of diverse subcultures contributing color to society's fabric than I do for combinations of Big Government, Big Corporations, and vengeful mobs of Yelp reviewers teaming up and punching down on people who are essentially the real-life embodiment of the parents from Footloose.

Less well known, if only because it's happening more quietly, my State of Maryland took up one of those Orwellian "Death with Dignity" bills in the recently-concluded legislative session. Though it did not make it out of committee, it promises, like death itself, to visit again in the future. My question to my state senator and delegates was to ask the rationale behind passing legislation that would allow doctors to administer lethal drug overdoses to people at the same time that the Governor has established a heroin task force to combat an epidemic of lethal drug overdoses in the State. I received no reply from them.

The violent, farcical spirit was on display in this piece that Ace wrote about a grisly "murder-but-not-murder-murder" case in Colorado
An attacker stabbed a pregnant woman in her home, and left her for dead -- but not before cutting her baby out of her.
The baby died, the woman did not -- but this grisly murderer can't be charged with murder, because prosecutors claim the law doesn't permit murder charges involving a fetus. (Though I smell a strong whiff of "I don't want to" in this claim of "I can't.")
So some Colorado legislatures want to write the law so that it explicitly covers this situation.
But abortion extremists -- the real abortion extremists -- insist that cutting a pregnant woman's baby out of her and killing it, even against her wishes, should not be a crime in and of itself. You could charge this guy with assault for cutting the woman -- but the deliberate cutting out of her unborn child would support no further charges, because it's simply not a life. It's not even property that could be vandalized.
Not even that.
This law, by the way, explicitly exempts voluntary abortions. So it can't be claimed this is back-dooring a ban. Nope, abortions are outside the scope of this bill.
And to this one, I'm left without any smart-ass questions, or comments, or jokes. It's simply a quiet "How long, Lord, how long?"

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Liturgy and Sexuality

Last evening I wrote about the "feminine" aspect of contemplative monastic life, in which the individual soul seeks, in silence and solitude, to be opened to the Word and made fruitful by it.

This fruitfulness arises in the context of the life of consecrated celibacy lived by monks and nuns; in faithfully living chastity, they can achieve a personal integration that, I suggest, includes balancing the complementary traits of "feminine" receptivity and interior direction and "masculine" activity and exterior direction. Though celibate, they remain sexual. Their sexual energy becomes directed toward growing in love of God through the reading of the Scriptures and in private, silent devotion, as well as in the course of their most important active work, which is the liturgical prayer of the Divine Office. It is this latter aspect I wish to touch on here.

Just as the contemplative dimension of monastic life is modeled for us by women, first and foremost by the Blessed Virgin Mary (though not exclusively - as those familiar with Mary, who chose the "better part" as she sat at the Lord's feet will recall), the dimension of active, liturgical prayer in choir is modeled for us by Jesus Christ himself as High Priest and mediator.

As Dom Eugene Boylan, OCSO discusses in his marvelous work Partnership with Christ: A Cistercian Retreat, the prayer of the Divine Office is the prayer of Christ back to God the Father. When the monastic community assembles to pray the Office, Jesus is there in the midst of the community gathered in His name, and this liturgical prayer is offered by the Church, with Christ at Her head, to the Father.

The monk or nun prays the Office in two capacities: as an individual seeking after holiness (a soul, a "Bride of the Word") and also as a man or woman specially designated for that purpose by the Church (the Bride of Christ). In a remarkably insightful passage in his book Christ the Ideal of the Monk, Bl. Columba Marmion, O.S.B. notes that the monk or nun prays the liturgy in a role as mediator, not only for private intentions, or for those of the community, or the local church, or even all the Church, but for all creation:
The Church wills that every creature should take life upon the lips of the priest or religious, so that every creature may praise its Lord....Upon our lips as in the Word...all these creatures become animate that they may sing the Creator's perfections. "Come," we say to all these creatures, "come; you know not God, but you may know Him through the medium of my understanding, and sing to Him through my lips. Come, sun, moon, stars that He has sown in the firmament; come, cold and light, mountains and valleys, seas and rivers, plants and flowers, come and magnify Him Who created you. O my God I love Thee so much that I would have the whole earth adore and praise Thee": Omnis terra adoret Te et psallat Tibi! Through our lips, all the praise of creation rises up to God.
This description of monastic liturgical prayer clearly conveys the importance and significance of the endeavor, and reveals why it is truly "The Work of God." To lift up the prayers of all creation to God is energy-intensive activity! This is a true outpouring of self, an active and vigorous "masculine" dimension, modeled for us by Jesus himself, complementing the receptive and meditative "feminine" pattern shown us by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Monasticism and Gender Roles

In my last entry I sneaked in something that, to the Cistercian eye is unremarkable, but to the modern secular eye might be rather shocking. I noted that the Cistercian abbot John of Forde used the phrase "Bride of the Word" to describe the individual soul ("anima") in his writings. To the modern, sex-obsessed and materialistic ear, this might sound homoerotic in the context of the writings of a monk. I will suggest, instead, something perhaps more radical yet as an alternative.

Monks and nuns, living lives of consecrated celibacy, are called and directed toward an integration of their whole being, including their sexuality. This sexual integrity has both "masculine" and "feminine" traits to it, for both men and women. As I described in my previous post, this "feminine", contemplative trait is modeled for both monks and nuns in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who treasures the message of the angels, pondering it in her heart.

This receptive, contemplative, "feminine" aspect is lived in the monastic custom of silence, which I wrote about at length a year ago at Aleteia. In the long periods of silence and solitude that Trappist monks and nuns experience each day, they come to listen to the voice of the Lord in the Scriptures they read, the private devotions and meditations they practice, and in the interactions they have with nature and with the other members of their communities during the periods of manual labor they perform. It is in this silence of the heart that the soul, the "Bride of the Word," comes to enter into union with Christ.

This reality is different from what we expect, both out in the broader world that doesn't comprehend celibacy, and also in a Church culture that seems at times to be rather more literal in its interpretation of gender traits vis a vis sexual complementarity. It is not in setting aside the "feminine receptivity" in favor of "masculine activity" that the monk's life bears spiritual fruit, but rather in balancing the contemplative, receptive aspect with the intentional, outwardly-directed "masculine" that this occurs (and vice versa for nuns).

So what is the "masculine" aspect, if this "feminine" side is found in the silent, meditative, private aspect of monastic life? I will take that up next, in a discussion of the work of liturgical prayer.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Monasticism and Sexuality

The reliably-provocative Artur Rosman has translated and excerpted an interview with Fabrice Hadjadj over at Patheos on the "Sexual Orientation of Monasticism" in which he takes up the role of eros in the monastic life, in the the life of mysticism.

This is one of those topics that I have taken for granted, in many ways, as I have developed a familiarity with the Cistercian mystical tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Bernard and the early Cistercian Fathers and Mothers, as well as John of Forde, and more recent writers such as Eugene Boylan and M. Raymond. Apparent throughout their writings is a deep sense of intimacy between the soul and God. Indeed, John of Forde frequently uses the phrase "Bride of the Word" to describe the individual soul throughout his writings.

It is unsurprising, then, to learn that the Song of Songs was for the early Cistercians a text showing the dialog between Christ and the individual soul. St. Bernard wrote 86 sermons on the Song, getting as far as the third chapter, with Gilbert of Hoyland and John of Forde completing the work. In addition to this extensive exegesis of the Song of Songs, the Cistercian tradition is also known for St. Bernard's On Loving God and for its devotion, as an order to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This latter point is worth mentioning in the context of Artur's piece, in which it he notes that the Blessed Mother, rather than being asexual, is in fact radically open to transcendence. This openness, in turn, is the model for those in contemplative religious life. This model is best shown to us in Luke's infancy narrative, in which we see that Mary "treasured up all these sayings [of the shepherds reporting the appearance of the angels], and reflected on them in her heart." Mary is the model of the contemplative, for both men and women.


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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Response (after Helinand)

Thirteen years ago today, the city I loved and lived in was attacked in the most spectacular and unbelievable of ways. Every year when the anniversary comes around, I once again confront the memories of the confusion, disbelief, and fear that overcame the city on that day. I remember most distinctly two things: the smell of the smoke, which started to blow uptown on the afternoon of September 12, after it had blown out toward Brooklyn for the previous day, and the seemingly unending series of funerals at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Every day brought a new chorus of bagpipes, every evening a gathering of tipsy firemen in their sharp, dress-blue uniforms crowding into the pub on West 48th Street to drink to the memory of their many fallen comrades.

I recall reading somewhere at the time that there was an increased interest in poetry among many Americans. I personally recall taking solace in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Collected Sonnets around that time, as well as writing poems of my own. It occurred to me just this evening that the September 11 attacks, as has always been the case with wars, with tragedies, with deaths, is that it was an event somehow beyond the power of prose.

This year, I resolved, then, to write more verse about the event, this time in the manner of Helinand of Froidmont. Helinand was a troubadour in late 12th/early 13th century France, at a time when vernacular poetry was ascendant. Sometime in or around 1182, he left literary success and the world behind and entered the Cistercian abbey of Froidmont, where he lived out his days as a monk. While there, he composed a series of Verses on Death, which survive to this day. The allusion to his work indicates the solemnity of the event, while rhythm and rhyme structure (12 lines in tetrameter, with rhyme pattern aab aab bba bba) have a driving force to them and are unusual enough that it struck me as a worthy challenge to follow the master in this year's composition.

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Response (after Helinand)

The date Vienna's siege was raised
The sapphire sky with sunshine blazed:
From it did winged death descend.
Into the cloudless air all gazed,
No lost course could be appraised.
With purpose did the birds offend:
Silver missiles sent to upend
A city's life. It did not end:
The fireball, the smoke, the dazed
Expressions. Hands, helpless to lend,
Yet did on acrid plume ascend:
Forgotten never, ever praised.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ten Memorable Paintings

I've been away from writing on this blog so long I'm surprised it's still around. Writing and I have always had a troubled relationship -- on again, off again: I work in an office and get more ideas than I can process, and by the time I get home I'm too tired, hungry, lazy, distracted, and whatever else to sit down and type things up. The ideas come as if out of a firehose, and I simply don't have the attention span to put them down anywhere, so they vanish back into the ether whence they come.

Over the past several months, I've found myself lacking words and instead thinking in images; I've been dabbling in drawing and painting with the hope that I'll be able to build technique sufficient to externalize what's going on in my head.

In the interim, I will do the halfway thing and write about paintings. There's been one of those "challenges" going around on facebook lately to write a list of Ten Books that Were Meaningful to you; several friends tagged me in this and I found myself unable to narrow the list down to ten.

Defiant soul that I am, I gave up and decided to list ten paintings instead. I set for myself the following criteria: they had to be paintings I've seen in person, rather than simply prints or reproductions in books or posters; they had to be paintings that immediately struck me when I first saw them in person, rather than simply ones I liked or that I make a point of seeing whenever I go to the museums where they reside. I wanted, essentially, to document paintings that had presence, for lack of a better word. Lastly, they had to be paintings, rather than sculptures, photographs, or drawings.

And so, here we go (in no particular order):



The Tortoise and the Hare, Brittany Bennett, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts student show, 2014. I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Philadelphia this past spring and we happened upon the student show at PAFA. I was struck by both the wit and the realism of Brittany Bennett's still life, with its reminder that even the swift run the way of all flesh, and the rich variety of textures. The viewer can resist only with great difficulty the urge to reach in and stroke the lucky rabbit's foot.


    Portrait of Paris von Gutersloh, Egon Schiele, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I grew up in Minneapolis and was fortunate to have the world-class MIA as my hometown museum; it was a place I retreated to on days when I skipped class or called in sick to work to get some quiet. Schiele's portrait of his friend was the first and clearest use of complementary colors that I recall encountering; the bright blue necktie stands out from the oranges and golds of the overall composition and stands at the halfway point between the subject's dramatically-posed hands, drawing the viewer's eyes toward the intent gaze of his eyes.


    Office at Night, Edward Hopper, Walker Art Center. Minneapolis is also home to the Walker Art Center, where one finds more modern and contemporary art than at the MIA. Edward Hopper's Office at Night depicts a sort of lonely claustrophobia; the viewer feels like a voyeur gazing in on an scene that raises more questions than it answers: what is the relationship between the subjects? What are they doing at the office together so late? Do they sense the sexual tension that the viewer senses looking at them? What will happen next?


    Nude on a Couch, Gustave Caillebotte, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. When I was about 6 years old or so, I recall triumphantly bounding into a New Year's Eve party my parents were hosting after they thought I had gone to bed. I had somehow found the Sears catalog and discovered the lingerie section. Some years later, when I first saw Caillebotte's reclining nude, with her shoes beside the couch and clothes strewn behind her head, I experienced the same thrilling sense of discovery.


    The Agnew Clinic, Thomas Eakins, University of Pennsylvania. I have written before about the personal significance of Thomas Eakins's painting in my life. The subject matter and the size combine to make this a painting that one confronts rather than simply sees.


    Fox Hunt, Winslow Homer, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Winslow Homer's Fox Hunt is perhaps the most terrifying painting I have seen in person. The large, dark crows menacing the hungry fox in the snow convey a profound, dark fatalism, a sense of psychological dread.


    Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leutze's painting is one of those images so familiar to American schoolchildren by way of history books that you don't expect to be moved by it, until you walk into its presence and see that it is immense (149 x 255 in.)! Washington Crossing the Delaware's size and angular lines convey a sense of destiny and inevitability that cannot but affect the viewer.


    Lucretia, Rembrandt, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Rembrandt masterfully depicts all the tragic strength of Lucretia here; she has already struck herself the fatal blow, and yet she still firmly grasps the blade in her right hand, while her mournful eyes gaze upon her left hand, with which she will momentarily drawn down the final curtain.


    Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sargent depicts a different sort of powerful female beauty, that of Mme. Pierre Gautreau. Clad in a stark black that makes her marble-white skin glow against the rich browns of the background, Mme. X is both powerfully alluring and yet aloof and mysterious. To enter her presence is to encounter iconic female beauty, a glimpse of Woman herself.


    Embrace of Peace II, George Tooker, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. George Tooker, like Edward Hopper, was one of the great painters of loneliness and alienation. His most famous works depict the anxieties and isolation of modern life in a way that few others have been able to capture. It is perhaps surprising, then, to see his later work imbued with such tenderness, intimacy, and lightness. When I first saw his Embrace of Peace II, I came to think that this is how I hope heaven to be; I have described it as "one big hello," where all long separations come to a joyful end, forever.

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    Sunday, September 22, 2013

    "That forever empty."

    Louis CK is crass and crude, and also one of the funniest and most brilliant comedians out there today. Here in a recent appearance on Conan O'Brien's show he rants against cell phones, noting that our tendency to texting and other forms of instant communication indicate our inability to be alone.



    It's a rather monastic view of the world; the most difficult thing to do is to be alone in silence, apart from the distractions and obstacles to self-knowledge we place before us constantly. As Louis CK notes, we never come to know either true happiness or true sadness as a result, leaving us stunted in our growth.

    It was reminiscent of this famous appearance he made years ago, making fun of our materialism and our sense of entitlement.


    "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy" by Meowbay

    It's no wonder I like him, and also that I pray for him to join the fold.

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    Monday, September 16, 2013

    Ways in which toddlers are like alcoholics

    I was at a friend's wedding over the weekend; there was a large number of families with young children in attendance at the reception. At one point, a three-year-old boy scampered across the dance floor without pants and knocked over a small, child-sized chair, falling down in the process. I turned to a friend and said, "Oh thank God I'm not the first person here to take off his pants and knock over the furniture!"

    I then got to thinking and realized how similar are the behaviors of toddlers and drunks: talking loudly, poor motor skills, knocking over furniture, falling down, taking off clothes, grabbing crotches, throwing punches when irritated, falling asleep on the floor when tired. I stepped back and realized how grateful I was that God delivered from the old life, in which it's possible that I would have behaved like a toddler.

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