Thursday, January 31, 2013

THE ATAVISTIC URGE TO HIDE UNDER LEAVES








All day people poured into Asano Park, This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only the buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
--John Hersey, Hiroshima

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK


dir. Richard Press

Here's a documentary I streamed, somewhat by chance, Saturday night on netflix.  I can't remember the last time I was so unexpectedly and profoundly inspired.

Bill Cunningham [b. 1929]  is the guy who takes all those street fashion pix for The New York Times, and has forever. He rides around Manhattan on an old Schwinn, gets his film developed a what looks like a mom-and-pop convenience store, and sleeps in a cot in the same tiny studio where he's lived for decades. By night he photographs high society and celebs; day in, day out, he himself wears the same kind of sturdy blue smock worn by Parisian street-sweepers.

He loves color, cut,  the male and female form.  Women's Wear Daily, where he was employed in the late '70s, once used his photos in a mean-spirited, ridiculing way; devastated, he quit. Near the end of the film he's asked, "Have you ever had a romantic relationship? "Are you asking if I'm gay?" he cackles. He doesn't quite answer  but he does say, "No, I've never had a relationship. It just never came up! We didn't speak of things like that in our family. I've been too busy. I wouldn't have the time."

"You've said you go to church every Sunday," the interviewer continues. "Is that a big part of your life?"

Here he bows his head, close to tears, and for many moments, sits speechless. "Well, as a child I'd just sit in church and look at the women's hats, he says finally. "When you're older, yes, you need the guidance"...

Here is a man who at the day of judgment is simply going to be able to give the best possible account of himself. He didn't waste his time. He wasn't against anything. He wasn't trying to prove anything. He was living life to the absolute hilt, every second.

At the end of the film I googled his name and was vastly consoled to see he's still alive. I thought: I hope this man lives forever! 

But of course, he already has.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

NEXT STOP PGH


pgh looks just like l.a.!
photo credit
Wow, last week was a "people week," what with three (in one event, but still) christenings, two talks, several luncheons and dinners, and a strange upsurge in e-mails from far and wide...I'm back to creeping about taking pictures of twigs and buds and I think I can safely say we are all the better off for it...

Nonetheless, more exciting news looms: to wit, I'll soon be giving a talk for the Newman Center at Duquesne University, as follows:

March 2, 2013, Saturday 10:30 a.m.
Lenten speaker, Newman Lecture Series 
Gailliot Center for Newman Studies
211 N. Dithridge Street
PittsburghPA 15213 
Street parking! 
Refreshments and coffee starting at 10 a.m.
Free and open to the public.

My contact person there, Ph. D. Kevin Mongrain, is an Associate Professor at the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, a scholar of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and an author. I was so excited about the prospect of coming to Pittsburgh (where I've never been before), that somehow we got to talking and next thing I knew he was offering me a suite at the Gailliot Center for a bit longer than the planned three days.

I am quite taken with the whole notion of a--of any--"suite," and post-haste got on kayak.com and booked a ticket for a week. So I'll be in Pittsburgh from Feb. 25 through March 3 and before I'd even told anyone I coincidentally heard from a lovely priest at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery and Retreat House across the river  who ended up sending me all kinds of maps and brochures and offering to show me around Pittsburgh or "Pgh" as the people from there seem to spell it.

I love the idea of getting to wander around the arts district of a new (to me) city: going to Mass, drinking coffee and listening to the accents. Of course it will be Lent so I will probably be abstaining from sugar and thus in a low, desolate, self-pitying mood but I'm sure the good folks from Pgh will cheer me right up.

So thank you in advance for having me!

Then there's my recent post,  "The Existential Nostalgia of TV," in which I copped to the fact that I haven't much watched TV since the days of Mister Ed. A few days later I  received a little package in the mail. No card, no indication of the sender--but instantly I discerned the hand of my beloved little brother...


Friday, January 25, 2013

THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL

THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL
CARAVAGGIO, 1600-1601
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated on January 25th. Some of you saw this reflection in Magnificat yesterday but for those who didn't, here ya go....

******

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” [Acts 9:4] Authentic conversion always comes from realizing that we have been “persecuting” Christ.

In the fall of 1986, I spent thirty days at an addiction treatment center in rural Minnesota. Hiking trails meandered through the woods. The trees were turning color. One morning I crept out for a walk just past dawn. Not another soul stirred. I came upon a pond and, through the mist, saw a blue heron, standing stock still, noble head erect. I saw the heron and the heron saw me.

It was a moment from the Song of Songs, a moment of liminal space and time, an instant of such heart-stopping beauty that in my memory it has attained the level of myth. All those years while I’d been in the bars, this heron, or one like him, had been coming to the pond. All those years while I’d been drinking morning Sea Breezes at Boston’s Sullivan’s Tap, another parallel world had been breathing, suffering, praising God. Many years passed before I discovered Christ, and more years after that before I came into the Church. But in a way I can mark my conversion from that moment. In a way that heron was Christ, saying, “Heather, Heather, why are you persecuting me?”

St. Paul fell off his horse, but Christ comes in the form of a lamb, a dove, a heron. That’s not to say he’s always gentle. But he’s often gentlest when we’ve been doing terrible violence to ourselves and others. Christ never cuts us down with a gun or a sword. He looks at us with love. He says, Look at these blue-gray feathers. He says, Isn’t it lovely to be still and listen to the frogs? He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.  

My experience with the heron wasn’t a white-light experience. It was a door opening onto what has proved to be a long and very slow spiritual awakening of, as William James put it, “the educational variety.” How often I’ve forgotten the heron. How often I’ve been harsh, rageful, importunate, intolerant, unfaithful, unkind, and just plain wrong.

When that happens I’m struck blind for a few hours or days or even months. Often a long time passes before I see that once again, I’ve been persecuting Christ.

Our offense doesn’t lie in breaking a rule. It lies in offending against love, against truth,
against beauty. What’s remarkable about St. Paul isn’t that he had a white light experience. What’s remarkable is that he retained his fervor for all the remaining years of his life.  

LONELY HERON
L.A.RIVER

Thursday, January 24, 2013

NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS


furniture store, sunset blvd., silver lake

i have a new glazed coffee cup from provence!

one of two pillows i recently fashioned from a thrift-store pair of drapes

knitting project--lap rug. this represents four james bond movies.

my friend ann sent me an orchid!

"No ideas but in things."
--William Carlos Williams

Monday, January 21, 2013

THE EXISTENTIAL NOSTALGIA OF TV

me, dad and joe
From a recent email from my little brother Joe of The Queers:

"Hey aged relative-do you have [our brother] Ross's address? I bought Allen [our nephew] a signed 8x10 glossy of Martin Milner from 1-Adam 12. I know he likes the show."

Me: "Who's Martin Milner?"

Joe: "Martin Milner? Are you tripping? Pete Malloy from One Adam 12? The greatest cop show in the history of tv? Late 60's-early 70's? It was produced by Jack Webb so there's all sorts of killer episodes of stoned hippy parents who beat their children to death or let them drown while they're smoking marijuana cigarettes. Funny as hell."

Me: "well excuse ME, as you may know, my TV watching came to a screeching halt right around the time 'Mr. Ed' completed its run"...

It's true--once John-Boy read Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wind-Hover" to Mama on "The Waltons," there really wasn't anywhere else to go.

Even earlier were such New England staples as Rex Trailer's "Boomtown," "Candlepins for Cash," and "Community Auditions," which was on Sunday morning and featured kids from Boston suburbs like Brockton and Malden (Mawlden, the people from Mass. pronounced it) massacreing "Climb Every Mountain," mangling "Für Elise" on the piano, and banging out "When the Saints Come Marching In" on cheesy drum sets.  "Star of the day, who will it be?" went the theme song. "Your vote will hold the key. It's up to you, tell us who, will be star of the day." Gene Burns was the host for years, followed by "radio personality" Dave Maynard. We'd all hoot and jeer and double over laughing, secretly thinking, in my case at least, I bet I could do that...

All eight of us were weaned on "Leave It to Beaver," "Andy of Mayberry," "Green Acres," "I Love Lucy," and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (Joe sometimes still calls me Ellie Mae, or if he's feeling ornery, Granny). The launching of the ipad had nothing on the furor surrounding the day UHF, the “cable” equivalent of the ‘60s, came to town, and from our living room at 108 Post Road in North Hampton, NH, we were able to get channels 38 and 56: "Creature Feature," "The Twilight Zone," "The Outer Limits." 

One of the first things I bought after I got sober was a Sony Trinitron (which I held onto for about 20 years), but I never quite caught up. TV for me is forever the weeks of excitement leading up to the annual screening of The Wizard of Oz.  TV is sitting in the dark as the phosphorescent glow lit our (relatively) innocent little faces, and logs from the fireplace Dad built with his own hands sent out sparks and the smell of pine pitch. TV for me is still a tangle of warm little bodies kicking, squirming, wisecracking, that back then seemed annoying (why couldn't I be an only child? I thought bitterly as I edged into adolescence) and that now I'd give my right arm for one more night of.

Call me old school, but I've never felt the same about TV since. 

STAR OF THE DAY


Saturday, January 19, 2013

MY FRIEND ANN LEARY'S NEW NOVEL

THE LEARY FAMILY--
BEFORE THE KIDS WENT OFF TO COLLEGE!
Check out my interview in The Fix this week with my dear long-time friend Ann Leary. Her new novel, The Good House, was published to rave reviews this week and is selling like hotcakes.

INSIDE THE MIND OF AN ALCOHOLIC

Ann Leary and I met 25 years ago in Boston, before we thought ourselves capable of writing a coherent grocery list, let alone an entire book. We were just getting sober. We each went on to write books—several, in fact—as I move to Los Angeles and "got religion" and Ann got a husband, actor and comic Denis Leary (before he was famous!). Now they have two children and live in rural Connecticut. Happily, Ann and I have remained close friends who can always make each other laugh. We sat down recently to talk about her new novel, The Good House, out January 15 from St. Martin’s Press. It’s set in a small New England town and is told from the point of view of a woman named Hildy Good, who just might have a problem with alcohol.

Heather King: Ann, you and I got sober together in Boston and the North Shore. A small town on the North Shore is the setting for your new novel, which captures the feel of the place, the zeitgeist of old money, flinty and eccentric New Englanders, lobster fishermen—and the repressed emotion, alcoholism, driving the back roads wasted.

Ann Leary: I love New Englanders. I moved to Marblehead from Wisconsin when I was 14 and I have been fascinated by the New England personality ever since. I felt like such an outsider when we moved there. Many of my classmates had lived in Marblehead all their lives. Some were descendants of Marblehead’s earliest settlers. My classmates had a shared history that I envied. I also was very aware of the way this town had its own personality. The neighboring towns had slightly different personalities, each formed by the collective quirkiness of the characters who had founded them and whose descendants still inhabited them...

READ THE REST HERE! THANKS, ANN.....

Thursday, January 17, 2013

INFANTILIZATION-BY-TERROR: THE PERSONALITY CULTS OF NORTH KOREA





As you may remember, I posted recently on Shin Dong-hyuk's 2005 escape from a North Korean death camp. My friend Bill and I had dinner the other night and I was thrilled to learn that he's somewhat of an expert on North Korean history. We marveled at the almost hysterical devotion to Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, in spite of the harsh repression, widespread famine, and hundreds of thousands of brutal killings committed under their watch.

Afterward he sent me the three featured youtubes. I wrote back:

"It's as if the identities of the North Koreans have all been subsumed to "The Great Leader"--exactly the opposite of the follower of Christ where (ideally) we 'obey' out of love and thus are revealed in Him...maybe that's why I like stories of the survivors--to be reminded that each of those people is a human being with a heart, mind, soul"...

To which Bill replied:

There is a radical difference between the lessons of Matthew 18:3 ["Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven] and Mark 10:15, and the infantilization-by-terror of the people of North Korea. And it's far too easy to imagine these people as robots when they're quite the opposite. The darkness we see in nighttime images from space of North Korea is like a pall of suffering.

From B.R. Myers, the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters:

"In this book . . . I aim to explain North Korea's dominant ideology or worldview — I use the words interchangeably— and to show how far removed it is from communism, Confucianism and the show-window doctrine of Juche Thought. Far from complex, it can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader."

From the book:

"Many in the West, of course, continue to doubt that the North Koreans really believe in their personality cult. This skepticism derives in part from recollections of the double lives led in the old East Bloc, where the average educated citizen feigned fervent support for his country's leader in formal settings only to joke about him behind closed doors. But this only goes to show how little the East Bloc and North Korea ever had in common, for the masses' adoration of Kim Il Sung has always been very real. Even among the few North Koreans who have left the country and stayed out, a heartfelt admiration for the Great Leader is mainstream (I personally know migrants who still cannot talk of him without tearing up). This has much to do with the far greater psychological appeal of nationalism itself, but Kim Il Sung's peculiarly androgynous or hermaphroditic image also seems to exert a far more emotional attraction than any of the unambiguously paternal leaders of Eastern Europe were able to. I am not qualified to analyze the cult (of anything else) from a psychological viewpoint, but just enough should be written here to counter the reader's skepticism that sane people could give themselves over to the adoration of a male mother figure. Sigmund Freud wrote of every child's yearning for a phallic mother, a truly omnipotent parent who is both sexes in one, and Ernest Becker agreed that the hermaphroditic image answers a striving for ontological wholeness that is inherent to man. This may explain why Jesus and Buddha are far more feminine and maternal figures in the popular imagination than in the original scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism. The North Koreans' race theory gives them extra reason to want a leader who is both mother enough to indulge their unique childlikeness and father enough to protect them from the evil world."

NORTH KOREANS MOURNING THE DEATH OF KIM IL SUNG (1912-1994).
1 MILLION PEOPLE ARE PURPORTED TO HAVE DIED THROUGH CONCENTRATION CAMPS, FORCED LABOR, AND EXECUTIONS UNDER HIS REGIME.



Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A HUNDRED SMALL ANNOYANCES



St. Claude de la Colombière, 17th-century priest and confessor, observed:

There is no one who does not experience a hundred small annoyances every day, caused either by our own carelessness or inattention, or by the inconsideration or spite of other people, or by pure accident. Our whole lives are made up on incidents of this kind, occurring ceaselessly from one minute to another, and producing a host of involuntary feelings of dislike and aversion, envy, fear, and impatience to trouble the serenity of our minds…If we were careful to offer all these petty annoyances to God and accept them as being ordered by his providence, we would soon be in a position to support the greatest misfortunes that can happen to us, besides at the same time insensibly drawing close to intimate union with God.

Well isn't that the truth? The other day, driving around L.A. on a series of pesky errands, I started thinking about Thomas Merton's famous "moment" on a street corner in Louisville where, suffused with love, he realized "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun." I thought, a bit churlishly to be sure, Yeah, I'd think people were shining like the sun as well,  if I didn't have to wade through them every day. I see the monks "shining like the sun" when I visit a monastery, too--mostly because I don't have to live with them...

That's not to detract in any way from Merton's truly beautiful epiphany; it's only to observe that the real feat for me would be to see Christ in the people who are in my way 24/7, as I jostle for a parking spot, a place in line, my earplugs at night to block out the sound of their obnoxiously yipping dogs....

Recently I heard a guy tell of a spiritual practice he's discovered. He says thank you to God not only for the things that make life easier, but for the things that make it harder, scarier, more painful. He lost his wallet at the movie theater: he got home, gritted his teeth, thanked God, and the theater called the next day and said they'd found it. He lost the wallet again, this time at a bowling alley--again, he thanked God; again, the wallet miraculously turned up. A third time he lost the wallet, on a visit to his aunt in Arizona. Again, he said, "Thank you, God;" a third time the wallet was returned.

I thought, My God man, put the wallet in a different pocket!

Still, I think the guy's onto something. Because what happens with a hundred (at LEAST!) small annoyances a day is that I, for one, can start going around with a low-grade hostility. I can fritter away my energy in a kind of constant self-defense, self-justification, scheming, planning, pre-emptive damage control mode...

Thanking God when your mother's just gone up in a Nazi crematorium, or when you've been called into the torture chamber, or when you're watching through the glass as your kid is executed might be a bit much to ask, but maybe I, who have never known such trauma, can give thanks to be alive, even in a world where God has given man free will and we so often use it to kill each other.

Again and again during the course of my day, I have to return to: How important is it? Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?

Again and again, I have to pray, Let me come from a place of love. Then, with a whole lot of luck and a whole lot of grace, I can get back to Oh God bless her, with her three dogs; I'm just jealous cause she's young and beautiful. I can think, How amazing that a city of ten million works at all, never mind as well as it does. I can think,  Look! There's a red-hot poker--one of the first signs of spring...

Kniphofia northiae

Friday, January 11, 2013

THE YEAR OF THE PERSON HAS ARRIVED



Here's some super weekend reading for ya: a reflection from the great Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete.

An excerpt:

I was once accused of heresy, which made me very happy because I thought my books would sell more. And the heresy that I apparently had given birth to, and I kept hoping, again, that it would be known by the name “Albacetism,” was that I was told to have said at a priest’s retreat, not here, someplace else, that I did not believe God was everywhere. Now, I don’t know very much about that. Never mind. I said to the inquisition, to the judges, “No, if you want I will sign any statement that affirms that I believe that God is everywhere.” I have no problem with that. My problem is that everybody that I know, everybody that I care about, I have found is always somewhere in some place at some time. I can say, “Here.” If they are everywhere, I don’t know how to handle it. If you know exactly where they are and at what time…I used to carry two watches; one was a time someplace else, one was the current time here in New York because there are times at which I don’t even know how to add or subtract, but it doesn’t matter. Whenever I wanted to know where so-and-so was at that moment, what they were doing, (I would sometimes think about Fr. Giussani himself), I didn’t have to calculate anything—not that this was a major calculation, okay? But I would just look, and my watch would have the same time as his watch. And that made me happy. Little things like that make you happy. When you’re in love with someone, the same thing. So these people have always been someplace, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t like people who are everywhere!...

We read again and again the manifestation of Jesus’ reality to his disciples even before His death and resurrection. What kind of effect did His Presence have? His look? His gestures? Amazement. Amazement that such a thing is possible. Profound curiosity begins to appear: “Tell me more”…or… “I don’t understand, but this is interesting.”

You see, part of the success of the dominant secularist culture is to try to succeed in hiding how interesting the Christian claim is, how beautiful, but above all, how interesting. And how does it do it? By killing anything that’s interesting, by deciding itself what is interesting, by diminishing the reality of interesting, especially in our youth...

[T]his is our redemption, salvation. This is what Christ has come to do—to revive, to give life to our interest so that we can recognize His victory, and therefore our victory, over those forces that diminish us, that reduce the experience of our dignity, that reduce even the range of our reason and of our desires. The only thing that can break through that shell constructed around our inner selves, our heart, by this culture of death, the only way to break through is with the power of the interesting...


In my sixteen years as a convert, that has always been my experience. The road gets deeper, richer, more paradoxical, more unpredictable, more interesting...and I get more grateful.

Check out the rest! And as always, thank you, Monsignor...




Wednesday, January 9, 2013

WHAT SEXISM?


KARL HOFER
GIRL WITH AMARYLLIS, 1936
A reader recently e-mailed expressing interest in learning about confession so as to bring it into her (non-Catholic) circles. She had only one question: did the sexism in the Church ever bother me?

I replied, “What sexism?”

She thought I was kidding, but I was totally serious. I'm with Flannery O'Connor (I've been fixated on two subjects lately, I know, Flannery O and death camps) who said, "On the subject of this feminist business, I just never...think of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I [divide] people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex."

Also I am just so not the person to come to to complain about the Church (which is amazing as I will complain about just about everything else). That's not to say I don't see the Church's failings but it is to say I have never viewed its treatment of women as one of them, particularly. I had lived by my own lights for way too long to see the Church, when I finally washed up on her shores, as anything other than a sanctuary,  the Way, the Truth, the Life,  my Mother. I don't see and if I do see don't much care about her faults. I see that she formed the saints. I respond to the Church through the hearts that have been formed by it.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux observed: “I have found my vocation at last: in the heart of my mother the Church I will be love….like that I will be everything…and so my dream will be fulfilled.” That is my dream, too. The Church has never done anything but support that, encourage that, and help to make that possible.

Anyway, the next morning after receiving the would-be Episcopal minister's note, I received this one from reader/cradle Catholic Melanie Statom. In a letter to a "pagan friend," she responds beautifully, and way more fully than I did, to what I gather was somewhat the same question:

The five chord drawn home to the one chord...
Letter to a Pagan Beloved...12/24/05

Dear J,


There are probably few questions you might ask of me in regards the Church that I have not already wrestled with myself. Luckily I have had exceptional people in my life who have allowed me to deeply question. I do not mind your questions. The Church and its checkered history has sadly become an obstacle to faith for many…crusades, inquisitions, scandalous popes, devaluation of the feminine to name a few of its grave trespasses. Its dark side cannot be ignored.

I have been rooted in Catholic tradition. Some of the ways the faith was handed down, interpreted and absorbed by me have been highly problematic. But here is the paradox: I have managed to experience a light in this church so perplexing to you…a light that somehow continues to beam through so much distorting murky darkness and has brought a depth of spirit, love and profound guidance to my life…a light that continues to illuminate and expose the very darkness of things crying out for change, whether it be within myself or troubled institutions.

What faith I do possess is in that “Rose” of Dante’s which we have spoken about, persistently drawing him throughout his journey. For me, anytime, anywhere, in any religion or circumstance of life, when self-donating love manifests, this “Rose” is made present, real tangible. An encounter with it is always salvific and transforming. If this be “Christ” and if he is truly universal “catholic” for the whole world, then surely, given the grave harm religion has often brought to the world, the experience of this “Rose” cannot be limited and confined to religious institutions.

“ Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Where charity and love are, God is there.) This is the foundational root of the faith mystery within me. I do not have to be argued into the reality of its existence. I have had glimpses of its beauty, been awakened by its exquisite fragrance, been allowed to touch it, even if only in moments...transforming moments of encounter from the ordinary to the sublime. It seems that truly great artists, poets and musicians gift us common folk with incarnational expressions, creations, birthed from their encounters with this transforming mystery.

And if this is the essential reality drawing humanity, the whole cosmos, despite all the darkness, towards transfiguration…a new heaven and a new earth, back home to the Source, (the five chord wanting to go“home” to the one chord) then the Christian faith I do seem to have supports this view of things…a reality both transcendent and immanent, beyond us yet intimately present within us as well…a union of masculine and feminine energy…a communion of love exerting its gravitational pull on we earthly pilgrims, seeded in the earth, yet destined for a flowering we can scarcely imagine.

…just some thoughts…questions are good…


Gorgeous, right? Thank you, Melanie S. I am continually astonished by the sort of continuous conversation that is taking place all over, little snatches of which seem to cross my desk at exactly the "right' moment...

Next up: thoughts re "the great gift of confession."

VERMEER
GIRL READING A LETTER AT AN OPEN WINDOW, 1657-59

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

THE GREAT GIFT OF CONFESSION


ANTONIO CAVALLUCCI (1752-1795)
THE PENITENT MAGDALENE
Last post I mentioned a reader who expressed interest in bringing the gift of confession into her own (non-Catholic) circles. In its way, this is  lovely. But Confession the way I understand it--and there's a world of difference between that small “c” and a capital “C”--is a Sacrament, the only possible two authentic participants being a Catholic priest and a penitent.

Now I find it very interesting that left to our own devices we do have a moral compass, a conscience, for it very much goes toward the idea that deep inside every man, woman and child is the fundamental idea of God. For years, in fact, I’ve availed myself of fellow sober alcoholics with whom to do general moral inventories on resentments, fears and sex. On that level—one broken human being to another; one sinner if you like to another—this works beautifully. In fact, this kind of being heard by (and in turn, listening to) a fellow alcoholic in large part led me to Christ and the Church. But the personal conscience, formed by nothing higher than its own lights, has limits. It’s one thing to tell another human being, for example, that you’ve had an abortion, if for no other reason than to get it off your chest, to say This is who I am and what I’ve done; to get in the habit of rigorous honesty; to cultivate the discipline of examining one's conscience. It’s wonderful to find no judgment—in fact, maybe the other person’s had an abortion, too—to find, There, I said it out loud and I haven’t been ejected from the human race.

But it’s another thing entirely to know that abortion is an egregious wrong and to want to be clean with God, to be absolved from it. That’s not going to happen in telling another person who may or may not see abortion as any kind of wrong. So early in my sobriety I saw there’s a general moral order and then there’s a specific moral order in which I was willing to be guided, to be instructed, to be obedient. Because once I got sober, I became very very interested in the truth: the deepest truth about myself, the world, the human condition. And I saw you can’t just make up the moral order as you go along. You can’t just go on your intentions, on what at first glance “makes sense.” Oh let’s just be free, we tell ourselves. Let’s do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, what does “hurt” mean for instance? If there’s no objective moral order, there’s no objective measure of what it means to hurt someone. One person is going to think promiscuity is fine and another person isn’t. One person’s going to encourage cheating on your taxes; another’s going to call that stealing. One person’s going to think guns are the anti-Christ and another’s going to want to arm every student and every teacher.

I suppose on one level that's why I went into the law, but the law, man-made civil and criminal law, has its limits, too. I saw that in civil law we try to make people whole with money and in criminal law we try to make people whole by locking up the criminal and that no-one, on either side, in either case, was much made whole at all, though that's another conversation. So you have to have a specific moral order and you'll want to consecrate that order in time and space and thus we have the Sacraments. And we need people to guide us through and in the Catholic church those people are priests. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the case of Confession, protects the confessor from thinking he’s an oracle with some extraordinary or supernatural power of his own, and it protects the penitent from a priest who might otherwise interpose a moral code of his own personal devising.

Which means, and here's another interesting thing, that the worst sinning ordained priest could validly hear  Confession and offer absolution while the most high-minded layperson, male or female, could not. Because the operative fact isn’t that the priest is sinning; it’s that he’s pledged himself to an authority greater than himself; to dogma that plumbs to the depths of the human soul and that was devised not by him alone, that does not change from one minute to the next with fashions, moods, and/or political movements. Dogma safeguards mystery. Dogma is the Church’s way of saying, This is what love looks like: per Christ, via Christ, for two thousand unbroken centuries built on the Real Body and the Real Blood of Christ. We might waver but our True North is constant.  

I have many times sat across from, and told some of my darkest secrets to, gay ex-methheads, convicted felons, functional illiterates, and all sorts of other unpromising folks like myself, to truly great effect. I have become friends with many of these people; they have been deeply loyal and generous friends to me. But I’m not going to kneel before that person. That I want to kneel; that I want, with a humble and contrite heart, to be forgiven, to be made clean, to be born anew; that the Church is built, in a sense, upon that very desire, makes me know that  my house is built on solid rock. I continue to fail and  fall, but my house is built on solid rock.  

Which somehow has everything to do with why I don't much concern myself with sexism, in or out of the Church. I love Christ, or I try to, and I find the people, men and women, who are drawn to me love him, too. That’s what interests me. That’s what sets me on fire

Here, for example, is a recent e-mail that came across my desk:

"Dear Ms. King, I am a Catholic priest on staff at ______retreat
and monastery in ______.

I like your reflections in Magnificat this Christmas and other times.

I often quote you when giving recovery retreats. I’ve read all three of your books and have recommended them to others, especially recovery people.

I am doing a day of recollection this May with a woman on staff here who has done much with alcoholic counseling etc.

A favor if you can….Could you send material relating to prayer and meditation? This is a new venture and I would welcome any suggestions etc.

Thanks you for your ministry…you have chosen the best part, the pearl of Great price."

Damn straight.   

DO I LOOK DOWNTRODDEN?



Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE PERILS OF CIVIL RELIGION



 As I contemplated Shin Dong-hyuk and his escape from North Korea last week, I also happened to be reading Ralph C. Woods Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South--an unintentionally apropos pairing.

One of Wood’s main theses is that O’Connor--the novelist, short story writer, and devout Catholic--preferred the excesses of fundamentalism, which at least takes God seriously enough to take him literally, to the bland “civil religion” practiced by most Americans, including most Catholics.

"O’Connor discerned that something deadly had occurred when national identity had been made to trump religious faith”…

“[Her] objection to a blithe indifferentism concerning truth and error, to an all-tolerant notion that one church or synagogue or mosque is as good as another, to a reduction of doctrinal and communal faith to uncritical moral earnestness, was also voiced by the Jesuit Gustave Weigel in a debate with the liberal Protestant Robert McAfee Brown: 'The average Protestant seems to think it makes little difference what you believe so long as you are decent and virtuous. About the only faith he seems to demand is the one implied in the sincere effort to do the right thing' "…

'Not only did the civil religion of the 1950s melt particularized historic faiths into a thin religious gruel; it also made even the most secular Americans into allegedly religious people. As Dwight Eisenhower once declared, 'Our government makes no sense…unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith…and I don’t care what it is.' "

"Religion itself, as James C. Edwards once put it, has become another consumer choice at the smorgasbord of the American emporium”…

As Wood points out, the final showdown will not be between religion and science, but rather between nihilism and the Gospels:

"Though Flannery O'Connor's death came more than a quarter-century before [the Catholic novelist] Walker Percy's, the latter shared her worry about the nihilistic gas that is asphyxiating our church and culture alike. Percy believed that it was having an especially deadening effect on certain souls who sit in the high places of American cultural and ecclesiastical power. Only two years before his own death in 1990, Percy wrote a letter to The New York Times, which it refused to publish. That our national "newpaper of record" refused to run a plea voiced by one of our major novelists makes the letter all the more worth hearing:

The most influential book published in German in the first quarter of this century was entitled The Justification of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value. Its co-authors were the distinguished jurist Karl Binding and the prominent psychiatrist Alfred Hoche. Neither Binding nor Hoche had ever heard of Hitler or the Nazis.

Nor, in all likelihood, did Hitler ever read the book. He didn't have to. The point is that the ideas expressed in the book were the product not of Nazi ideology but rather of the best minds of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic--physicians, social scientists, jurists, and the like, who with the best secular intentions wished to improve the lot, socially and genetically, of the German people--by getting rid of the unfit and the unwanted...


I would not wish to be understood as implying that the respected American institutions I have named [The New York Times, the United States Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization of Women] are similar or corresponding to pre-Nazi institutions.

But I do suggest that once the line is crossed, once the principle gains acceptance--juridically, medically, socially--[that] innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason, for the most admirable socio-economic, medical or social reasons--then it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next, or if not next, then sooner or later. At any rate, a warning is in order. Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls--now in favor of allowing women to get rid of unwanted babies--it is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court ten years, fifty years from now, who would favor getting rid of useless old people, retarded children, antisocial blacks, illegal Hispanics, gypsies, Jews...."


A holocaust rages in North Korea. That innocent people of all ages are suffering, starving, being shot on sight for having sex outside that ordered by the camp administration, disobeying a guard, or failing to rat out their parents is a crime against humanity, a crime against reason and truth, and a crime against Christ.

We would like to blame the [psychopathic] "dear Leader." But I wonder sometimes if we are not headed in the same direction.



Wednesday, January 2, 2013

ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14



"The reverse side also has a reverse side."
--Japanese proverb

As I said a couple of posts back, over Christmas I read Escape from Camp 14, about the odyssey of Shin Dong-hyuk and his escape from a North Korean labor/death camp. I missed him on 60 Minutes but the story is gripping: a national leader who punished political dissidents down to the third generation; a child born into a labor camp where, on starvation rations, for decades tens of thousands of inmates have been worked to death; the eating of insects and rats; the witnessing of a six-year-old girl beaten to death for hiding five kernels of corn; Shin's snitching out his own mother and brother (prisoners were commanded, under penalty of instant death, to spy on and report their families and friends); the seven months in a torture bunker; the witnessing of his mother and brother’s executions; the escape through an electrified fence on which his partner and friend died; the walk through China; the (inevitable) difficulty adjusting.

In spite of his gratitude to South Koreans for their asylum and help, Shin has difficulty understanding how, with such horrific suffering at their doorstep, they have not protested more loudly and widely.

Journalist Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14,  points out that the general lack of concern of South Korea for North Korean is:

a blind spot that baffles local and international human rights groups. Overwhelming evidence of continuing atrocities inside the North’s labor camps has done little to rouse the South Korean public. As the Korean Bar Association has noted “South Koreans, who publicly cherish the virtue of brotherly love, have been inexplicably stuck in a deep quagmire of indifference.”

When South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2007, just three percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They told pollsters that their primary interest was in making higher salaries…

South Koreans themselves struggle mightily to fit into their own success-obsessed, status-conscious, and education-crazed culture. Shin was attempting to find his way in a society that is singularly overworked, insecure, and stressed out. South Koreans work more, sleep less, and kill themselves at a higher rate than citizens of any other developed country...

They also view each other with a witheringly critical eye. Self-worth tends to be narrowly defined by admission to a few highly selective universities and prestigious, high-paying jobs at conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

“This society is unforgiving, relentless, and the competition is constant,” Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University, one of the country’s most elite schools told me. “If young people do not obtain the right credentials—they call it the ‘right spec’—they become very pessimistic. They believe they cannot get started in life. The pressure to do well in school begins to build at grade four, believe it or not, and it becomes everything to students by grade seven….

Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000. The suicide rate in 2008 was two and half [sic] times higher than in the United States and significantly higher than in nearby Japan, where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture. It seems to have spread as a kind of infectious disease exacerbated by the strains of ambition, affluence, family disintegration, and loneliness.


South Korea, in other words, sounds very much like us. The First World, in its bondage to consumerism, has contrived a life outside the camps that is eerily reminiscent of the police state inside the camps. In the camps, people are killed by guards; outside, people kill themselves. Inside, people are worked to death; outside, people work themselves to death. Inside, people see their own mothers as competition for food; outside, people see their peers, classmates, friends and the world as competition for jobs. Inside, people starve to death for lack of food; outside, people “starve” to death for connection and meaning. Inside, people know little or nothing about love; outside…

FALLEN PALM FROND
After reading the book, I watched the documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone (directed by Marc Wiese). The story is all there, and amplified (there were parts I couldn't watch).

Near the end, Shin reflected on his life of "freedom" in South Korea:

When it comes to my body, I live in South Korea, but in my mind I still live in the camp. I still feel I haven't quite managed to leave the camp for good. I would like to return to North Korea, my home. If it wouldn't be a labor camp any longer, I would like to live in the home where I was born. I want to farm there and live of the fruits of my own labor. Even if I would have to grow corn. [Prisoners at Camp 14 ate cabbage soup and corn three meals a day, seven days a week]. If the border to North Korea ever opens up, I want to be the first to travel back there. I want to live in the camp where I was born.

When I lived in the labor camp. I had to suffer a lot of pain. I had to go hungry and put up with beatings and punishment. because I didn't do my work well enough. But in South Korea you have to suffer when you don't have enough money. It's exhausting. It's all about money. That makes it tough for me here. When I think about it, I rarely saw someone committing suicide in the camp. Life was hard and you were an inmate your whole life. But in South Korea many people attempt suicide. They die. It may look like the people here don't want for anything. They have clothes and food. But there are more people committing suicide here than in the camp. There are news reports about that every day.


Interviewer: What do you miss of the life in North Korea?

[Shin gets out a phone and starts tapping. Looking down at the screen--]

I miss the innocence and the lack of concerns I had. In the camp where I lived I had a pure heart. I did not have to think about anything. I didn't have to think about the power of money like I do in South Korea. Though I don't miss everything from that camp, I miss the purity of my heart.

I don't know how else to say it. I miss my innocent heart.




Tuesday, January 1, 2013

ON THE 23RD ANNIVERSARY OF MOVING TO L.A.



A month or two ago a reader sent along this Philip Levine poem. I'm reminded of my arrival, 23 years ago on New Year's Day, in Los Angeles.  Or rather our arrival: me, my then-husband Tim, and the cat, Blanche.

Blanchie died.
Tim's back East.
2012 was, in its way, stupendous.
Happy New Year.

SOLOING

My mother tells me she dreamed
of John Coltrane, a young Trane
playing his music with such joy
and contained energy and rage
she could not hold back her tears.
And sitting awake now, her hands
crossed in her lap, the tears start
in her blind eyes. The TV set
behind her is gray, expressionless.
It is late, the neighbors quiet,
even the city—Los Angeles—quiet.
I have driven for hours down 99,
over the Grapevine into heaven
to be here. I place my left hand
on her shoulder, and she smiles.
What a world, a mother and son
finding solace in California
just where we were told it would
be, among the palm trees and all-night
super markets pushing orange
back-lighted oranges at 2 A.M.
“He was alone,” she says, and does
not say, just as I am, “soloing.”
What a world, a great man half
her age comes to my mother
in sleep to give her the gift
of song, which—shaking the tears
away—she passes on to me, for now
I can hear the music of the world
in the silence and that word:
soloing. What a world—when I
arrived the great bowl of mountains
was hidden in a cloud of exhaust,
the sea spread out like a carpet
of oil, the roses I had brought
from Fresno browned on the seat
beside me, and I could have
turned back and lost the music.

--Philip Levine


FAREWELL 2012...
and let us greet the dawn of 2013!