Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Poem: Psalm

I loved this poem when I read it this morning and didn't want to wait until Friday to post it.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
I am still on a rooftop in Brooklyn
on your holy day. The harbor is before me,
Governor's Island, the Verrazano Bridge
and the Narrows. I keep in my head
what Rabbi Nachman said about the world
being a narrow bridge and that the important thing
is not to be afraid. So on this day
I bless my mother and father, that they be
not fearful where they wander. And I
ask you to bless them and before you
close your Book of Life, your Sefer Hachayim,
remember that I always praised your world
and your splendor and that my tongue
tried to say your name on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Take me safely through the Narrows to the sea.
-- Harvey Shapiro, from A Momentary Glory, (c) Wesleyan Press, 2014.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Autism and The Sins of the Fathers

It's been ricocheting around the internets for a couple of weeks now: Catholic research biologist Theresa Deisher -- a rare example of a highly-skilled and -credentialed professional who makes no pretense of her faith, striving instead to use her gifts to glorify God --  published a widely-disseminated study that links the use of fetal DNA in certain vaccines to the increase in autism diagnoses. While the Catholic-blogging-and-commenting cohort have cheered her study, which seems to demonstrate something that they have been hoping for a long time to find, others -- including Simcha Fisher and the science moms at a new blog, Rational Catholic -- have picked apart Dr. Deisher's methodology and (cogently) undermined her conclusions. Other Catholics have tacitly accused these critics not only of making a shanda fur die goyim, but also of being bad Catholics in general, because, evidently, Catholics are supposed to support the work of other Catholics no matter what, and besides, Dr. Deisher's son is very ill, so they should lay off her.

I will not attempt to pick apart the science here; other have done that far better than I ever could. My discomfort with the praise Dr. Deisher's work has received from lay (meaning non-scientist) Catholics is not about the science, which I'm hardly qualified to speak about. It's rather about what I consider to be a disturbing moral and theological fallacy implicit in Deisher's work. Keep in mind that I'm about as much a moral theologian as I am a scientist; but, as we all know, having zero credentials has never been a deterrent to expressing one's opinion on the Catholic blogosphere, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I believe Dr. Deisher's work is based on a faulty theological premise, because it assumes autism to be the logical outcome of cooperation with intrinsic evil. The flaws in Deisher's assumption are twofold:

1. She subtly portrays autism as an evil outcome -- a thing to be feared; and

2. She ignores the revelation of Christ in the New Testament. I will address this flaw first.

The basis of Deisher's research is the fact that the rubella vaccine was derived from a fetal cell line taken from an aborted baby more than fifty years ago; ergo, cooperation with the evil of abortion, no matter how remote, will lead to a bad outcome. This is the doctrine of karma, which is not a teaching of our church.

Deisher appears to have based her assumption on Exodus 34:6-7 and other passages in the Old Testament, which caution that God "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation." (Since today's infant vaccinands are roughly the third generation from that aborted baby, perhaps this means that the evil power of the rubella vaccine will have worn off by the time their own children are born, and that no one, in that happy time, will need Fear The Autism.)

While it is true, of course, that sin, beginning with Original Sin, has ruined the world, we now have a Savior who is merciful and just; even the prophets of the Old Testament offer a perspective on sin and forgiveness that differs from the one in Exodus. Ezekiel, for example, say that


The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent's sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child's sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.

And while it is true that God does not change, and nor do His covenants or His promises, it is a central tenet of the Christian faith that Christ has fulfilled them, has been our proxy, and has taken the burden of that punishment -- including, I would guess, the punishment of the children's children for the sins of the fathers -- upon Himself.

One of the great mysteries of Christianity is the one that consistently challenges logic: God brings good out of evil. We expect Him to repay evil for evil; justice demands it. But God quite often confounds our expectations. The proof of this is quite simply in the cross itself, the instrument of brutal torture turned into a sign of salvation. In this fallen world we have to work with what we have, and what we have is half-broken, faulty, and tainted, as are we. But God can, and does, bring great good out of these inadequate means. 

Is it not possible that the aborted baby whose cell line has been used to save thousands, if not millions, of other babies from death in utero is a type of Christ him- or herself, a type of the seed that falls into the ground and  dies, bringing about an abundant harvest? The death of Christ was a scandal, but the result is the salvation of mankind. On a smaller scale, the death of a baby by abortion is likewise a scandal, but, in this case, the result has been the saving of many young lives. Deisher's work puts forth the idea that evil always brings forth evil, and, while this makes logical sense, we know that it is not invariably true.

What's more, the evil end that Deisher and her supporters envision as the logical result of evil means is . . .  autism. This conflation of the intrinsic evil of abortion with neurological difference is, to say the least, highly problematic; I would love to know what Christian autistic self-advocates -- and yes, they exist -- think about it. 

The takeaway from Deisher's study -- at least as it's being expressed throughout the Catholic blogosphere -- is that autism must be cured (if not eliminated), and that, in fact, autism can be avoided (if not eliminated) if the rubella vaccine, which was derived from the stem cell line of an aborted baby more than fifty years ago, is no longer used. This assumes that autism is a Very Bad Thing, devoutly to be un-wished for, and that it's worth risking the deaths of countless babies (other people's babies; it always is) in utero to avoid it. This is not just theologically faulty; it's morally faulty.

My own takeaway is that, as I've learned over and over again at great cost, evil usually doesn't appear evil. Evil cloaks itself in the trappings of good. Evil is pervasive; evil wants to destroy all that is good in the world. Life is good. Death is evil. The deaths of countless babies in utero from rubella is evil. Vaccination with the rubella vaccine, which prevents those deaths, is good. And God brings good out of evil.

Hysterical comments will be deleted.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Music and Memory, Back to School Edition: Artificial Pearls

The music department at the community college where I teach moved to a new building over the summer. This is a good thing, even an excellent thing, since, up until now, the music department has been housed in a building that was apparently designed as a bomb shelter. All the classrooms in the old building were in the basement, and all their carpets were mildewed; I stopped reminding my students not to bring drinks to class, because the odor of stale spilled coffee was a marked improvement over what it could have been. The large number of linoleum tiles missing from the ceiling gave it the appearance of a menacingly-grinning, upside-down clown-smile, and the choir couldn't rehearse in the building, because so many of its members were stricken with mold-induced asthma attacks during practice.

Last week, before the semester began, we music-department adjuncts (who make up, incidentally, around eighty percent of the music faculty) converged upon the new building to clean it up and make it ready. It was a beautiful late-summer day, and my heart did strange things when I stepped outside the cinder-block building to make a phone call. The Soviet-bunker-style campus is nestled in a depression in the achingly-green northern foothills of the Appalachian mountains, hills that look so gentle, so kindly somehow. I thought about Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," about how the jar on the hill in Tennessee "made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill," and how, here, the anecdote was turned upside down: how here the hills surround the makeshift slovenliness of the college, but the artifice of man does not add order to or impose mastery upon those surrounding hills. I thought, too, of Emerson noting that

The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land
With little men.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I've been asked to give a paper at a conference being held in honor of my dissertation advisor, an important musicologist now retired after many years of teaching, an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn with whom I became, during the time we worked together, somewhat uncomfortably enmeshed in a sort of artificial mother-daughter relationship. She remarked to a friend at my wedding that she hoped I wasn't going to take my husband's name, because I had worked so hard to build a scholarly reputation under my own (Italian) name. When my dissertation voice recital was approaching, she, apparently worried over what I would wear, confronted me awkwardly in the hallway of the university, where she was a full professor and I an adjunct, and anxiously enquired how I was planning to do my hair. When my first son was born, she said something I wasn't sure how to interpret at the time about how some people thought you should change your life for your children, and others thought you should fit your children into the life you already had; to this day, I don't know which camp she, a mother as well as a scholar, fell into. I still worry that I'm disappointing her with my hair, my life, and my scholarship, and I still don't know what my paper in her honor is going to be about. But I felt like hanging my head when I saw the website for the conference, and saw my name (the version of it that's trotted out for performance and publication purposes, Italian maiden name first, followed by married name) and my affiliation (northern-Appalachian-county community college) next to the names of well-known musicologists who teach at Case Western, The City University of New York Graduate Center, Harvard, and Yale. I recalled how I wanted to be something great, to do something important, and yet, here I am.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Someone once said that teaching is casting artificial pearls before real swine, which, to the extent that it's true, does not make the thrower of pearls any less swinish than his intended audience. How am I supposed to do this job -- to teach music to my students at northern-Appalachian-county community college? I want to do it, I burn to do it, because, as William Carlos Williams wrote (about poetry, though the same can be said about music):

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found there.

I turned on the radio the other day while driving through my ramshackle post-industrial town, and I heard the adagio movement of a piece I know well, Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat Major. I know it well because, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother had an LP of it that I would play over and over again. We had bought it while out grocery shopping; I had seen a display near the exit of LPs on sale for something like forty-nine cents, and this one had an image on the cover of one of Marc Chagall's designs for The Magic Flute -- Papageno, the birdcatcher -- though I didn't know this at the time. I begged my mother to get it. While driving the other day, I found that, though I hadn't heard the piece for years, I could sing every note of the piano solo and the melodic orchestral line. I noticed that the performance on the radio was actually played on the fortepiano, a forerunner of the modern piano, and that, delightfully, the soloist interpolated a fragment of Mozart's song "Komm, lieber Mai" into the cadenza in the coda of the last movement.
While singing along to the radio, I saw a shabby-looking, morbidly obese man with dirty legs riding in a self-propelled wheelchair in the oncoming lane. I thought about my mother's LP. Where would I be, who would I be, if my mother had not had it? Classical music is not salvific by any means (I remind myself), but, for me, it's always been anodyne, palliative, hallucinogen, and opiate all in one. It dulls pain, it comforts, it heals, it confers vision. Without it, I would be a miserable worm of a person, even more than I am now. And I wonder if this is true for everyone: if everyone, had he had access to my mother's record collection, would be a better person.

I thought about my wonderful voice teacher and mentor, A.B., who grew up, as it happens, in rural Tennessee. His parents were mountain people; his father was a self-taught singer who worked for a biscuit-flour company. The flour company would send out a string band to drive around the rural counties in a flatbed truck, from which they would play music, and then give a baking demonstration with a portable oven. A.B. told me about how, as a child, he was given a recording of the Nutcracker on 78s, and he listened to it until the records, as he put it, literally dissolved. He later found a recording of La Bohème at the public library, and played it, too, into the ground, memorizing every word and note of Rodolfo's Act I aria, but -- as he found when he got to conservatory -- memorizing it wrong, because the record had a skip in it that obliterated part of one measure.

Classical music, discovered as a child, taught me how to live, how to breathe. It did the same for A.B. I wonder if it might do the same one day for one of my students. I think of a recurring dream I've had for years, in which I am walking certain streets in New York that I know as well as I know the Mozart Piano Concert no. 27, but finding them slightly and ineffably altered, and looking for something as I walk -- something that, while I can't quite remember what it is, I know to be the key to everything. There's a beautiful children's book by Barbara Helen Berger called Grandfather Twilight, in which the twilight is personified as an old man who each night takes a pearl from an endless strand and walks with it to the sea, while the pearl grows larger and larger, eventually becoming the moon. I hope that the artificial pearls I offer to my students this semester -- not out of perversity, but because they're all I've got -- might be able to change into something real and beautiful for them, too.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Beethoven, Schubert, and Consolation


I'm too busy to post. I have a deadline looming for the first draft of my book and a lot of research still to do for it, and I have a copyediting job to start and finish over the next month, and then I start teaching at community college again, as well as doing what I swore I'd never do, viz., homeschooling. All that is for another post. I simply wanted to drop in to share this lapidary paragraph by Jeremy Denk in his review of a new Beethoven biography by Jan Swafford.

Denk writes:

I found myself aching to replace the “Triumph” in Swafford’s subtitle with “Consolation” [the book is titled Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph]. Of course we love Beethoven’s movements of triumph: the C major fanfares that conclude the Fifth Symphony, the lust for life in the dances of the Seventh Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” They are a crucial part of his persona, but not the center. . .  The pianist Leon Fleisher observed that Schubert’s consolations always come too late; his beautiful moments have the sense of happening in the past. Generally, Romantic consolations tend to be poisoned by nostalgia and regret. By the modern era, consolation is mostly off the table. But Beethoven’s consolations seem to be in the now. They are always on time — maybe not for him, but for us.

What a brilliant exegesis of Romantic music -- the ethos of consolation come too late, leaving the musical protagonist in the sorrow of his regret. The idea of Schubert (who worked very much under the long shadow of Beethoven) composing beautiful moments which seem to have already gone by is breathtakingly apt. One hears, for example, the straining, yearning nostalgia in the opening theme of the Sonata in B flat, D 960, played here by Fleisher himself. In many of Schubert's pieces, there's a tentative quality in the opening notes, the sense that the theme has begun already, somewhere to the left of the first measure, which I think is related to this notion of consolation that has happened in the past, a gentler version of Dante's famous aphorism: "There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time when one is in misery."



(Incidentally, former Vox Nova contributor Mark DeFrancisis, a classical-music connoisseur, sent me a recording of Mitsuko Uchida playing the same piece, and I listened to it while driving, and had to pull over because I was crying too much to see the road.)

Read Jeremy Denk's entire marvelous book review here. He is one of those rare musicians who writes as well as he plays.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mother of the Muses


I had the strange and somewhat disconcerting experience recently of reading a memoir about people I know. It was written by a woman who was, at one time, romantically involved with a close friend of mine. Both of them are writers, and her memoir details a time in her life after college when she, a young woman from a privileged background, took a poorly-paid entry-level job at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger, and simultaneously moved into a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with my friend (in a building that really should have been condemned; I was there many times). At the end of this time period, according to the memoir, she underwent an awakening that was both literary and spiritual in nature and jettisoned the apartment, the job, and the boyfriend.

The memoir may sound -- and perhaps is -- a trifle slight and self-serving. It's a coming-of-age story very particular to its time and place -- New York City in the 1990s -- but it's written with an appealing clarity and simplicity, and the author gets so many things right, including the changing seasons in the city; my friend (whom she paints in an unflattering, if fairly accurate, light); and, ultimately, the reality of suffering. One of her job duties at the literary agency was answering the voluminous fan mail sent to Salinger with an off-putting standard form letter. After reading some of these letters, however -- many of them from fellow World War II veterans -- and after belatedly reading Salinger's slim oeuvre, she comes to a deeper understanding of the human condition. She notes that Bessie Glass, the mother of Franny and Zooey, of Boo Boo, Buddy, and Seymour (as well as of Walt, lost in the war, and his twin brother Waker, a cloistered Carthusian monk), "is in mourning [for her two dead children]. As is the entire Glass family. A family in mourning, never to recover. A world in mourning, never to recover." The book is worth reading just to get to that moment, which comes near the end.

I didn't know the author that well back in the day, and I don't know whether her heart had always been open to the truth of suffering, or whether that realization was entirely catalyzed by her reading of Salinger. The author's ex-boyfriend has, in private correspondence, cast her compassion somewhat into question, but I suppose it's not really that important. What is important is the truth that art can effectively reveal certain aspects of humanity, including the inescapable fact of its suffering, and can also provide, if not the remedy for that suffering, then at least some assuagement.

This calls into question the purpose of the memoir as a genre. What is it for, really, and who among us has lived in such a way that merits such public retelling? The Salinger memoir appealed to me because I knew what the author meant. She describes with great care the weather, what she wore, and what she ordered at the deli, all of which are things that I like to know about; attention to such details in my own life is something that has always had great, almost talismanic significance for me. And even if she's not telling the truth about everything -- because who, in a memoir, is? -- she is nothing but truthful about the fact that, beneath the surface of things and phenomena, trouble is roiling, suffering exists, and even the best-intentioned of us cause one another unspeakable pain. If the Salinger memoir has merit, it's primarily because it sends out a slim shaft of light into the brokenness of things: the light of shared pain, of recognized suffering. We possess art, as Nietzsche said, lest we perish of the truth, and is not the purpose of art to alleviate suffering? Goethe wrote:

Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
how anguish and joy
change places in the loving heart.
You cannot heal the wounds
that love inflicts;
but comfort comes,
kindly ones, only from you.



And Memory, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the muses.

Perhaps all art is an evocation of Memory, Mother of the Muses; as writers and as readers we summon her so that, as good mothers do, she might comfort us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love and Bullies

I've mentioned here before the semi-well-known Catholic journalist whom I briefly dated after returning to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I declined his offer of marriage, but we remained friends in a distant sort of way until he wrote me a vicious email a few years ago, apparently after misunderstanding something I'd written here. Like most of the journalist's work, this email was meticulously crafted, and also like most of his work, it was a demonstration of his bravura literary skills in the service of a cause he believed in. As in most of his work, too, that cause was the exposure and denunciation of a perceived enemy. In this case, the enemy was a woman he seemingly once had loved, and his tactical methods included attacking me as a wife (though not his), a mother, and an artist; insulting my family of origin; and -- the tour de force -- reminding me (in case I might have forgotten) that long before he knew me I had committed an "unspeakable crime" against my unborn child. He finished, in a sort of dénouement, by mentioning that I was "bad for" his spiritual well-being, and so he wanted nothing more to do with me.

Not surprisingly, I don't intentionally read this journalist's work anymore, though sometimes I will click on a link to an article a friend has posted and find something written by him at the end of it. While I spent months crying about his email at the time, by now I have other things to cry about. I was thinking about him the other day, though, and I wondered how I had had the presence of mind to turn down his marriage proposal, especially since I had always been prone to impulsivity, and was at the time a divorced woman in my mid-thirties facing statistically-declining odds of ever getting married again. The truth, however, was that, although the journalist was brilliant, witty, and charming, he had a certain quality that truly scared me. I couldn't describe at the time what it was, but after reading his email, I understood it a bit better. There is something corrupt and cruel -- something unmanly -- about deliberately attacking the weak, and I think that most women are instinctively repelled by it.

I should note here that I am by no means the sole target of this journalist's vituperation. He, along with others of his cohort, in his professional work routinely disparages various people and groups with whom he disagrees, including liberals, immigrants, and Catholics who don't practice their faith the way he thinks they should. And I should note, too, that while most women may be repelled by attacks on the weak, not all are. Many women, in fact, are drawn to bullies -- to men who bolster their sense of self by making a show of strength against individuals or groups who are not their equals, against those who are lesser than they in strength, wits, and power. But, though it would be easy to do so, I can't in good conscience condemn these men, nor the women who love them, because we are all grievously wounded in our capacity to love.

And surely it's what we all want most: to be loved not in spite of our woundedness and our egregious faults, but, somehow, because of them.  Everyone wants to feel as though there is someone who sees him as he is, and who loves him anyway. Even the journalist -- who makes a show of deprecating those who have none of his intellect or understanding, including those Catholics who were not fortunate, as he was, to receive a sound teaching of the faith -- would occasionally reveal to me, in private conversation, his innermost fears and doubts. The vulnerability we show to one another can be endearing, certainly; but, as demonstrated by the journalist's gratuitous and deliberately hurtful reference to my long-ago abortion, it can also be used against us by those in whom we've put our trust.

I would like to be able to call a man who deliberately hurts a woman a sadist or a misogynist, but perhaps that's unfair. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze into the abyss, it gazes into you. When we make it our life's work, even our identity, to upbraid and revile, how do we keep ourselves from becoming something worthy of revilement?

I suppose that women who are attracted to bullies see their vulnerability and want to protect it, to heal it. Some women no doubt nobly and self-sacrificially live out Longfellow's aphorism: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." I know that this is true -- that both the journalist and the targets of his writerly contempt have suffered enough misery that we are constrained to love them without exception. Nonetheless, in the absence of severe neurosis, it seems to me that it is not unrealistic for women to expect men to protect them, rather than the other way around, and for men to want to protect women, rather than to harm them.

I pray that we may all learn to forgive one another for the wrongs we so blithely and carelessly commit against each other, and, also, that we may truly learn what it is to love. God knows I pray this for myself every day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

C'est Son Métier


Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go . . .

. . . . Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- From "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

There was a man I loved desperately when I was quite young. R. was witty, well-read, and almost impossibly good-looking. He was also louche, something of a hedonist.  He spent a great deal of money on clothes and a lot of time in nightclubs, and he regarded himself as being on the cutting edge of cultural expression. I was a teenager from an unhappy home, and he became the first in a series of men about whom I believed that if I attached myself to them, I could escape and, in some essential way, save my life.

Predictably, this relationship didn’t work out. I became suicidally depressed in the wake of its breakup, but recovered, and some years later R. and I were friends. We didn’t see each other that often, but back in New York, in one of the lovely ways that New York can seem like a small town, we would often run into each other unexpectedly on the street. R. was a freelance journalist and didn't have a nine-to-five, and if I had the day off from whatever my bread gig was at the time – waitressing, or secretarial temping, or working as a cosmetics girl at Bloomingdales (my brother happened into the store one day and said of me and my colleagues, "You look like a bunch of Nazi nurses") – we would walk around the city and drink coffee and have conversations that were shimmering, transcendent, incantatory. I still have dreams sometimes about those walks.

As happens, however, our lives went in different directions, and I had not seen R. for many years when I heard the shocking news last year that he had died -- in his forties, and by his own hand. He had achieved some success, and had even written a best-seller nonfiction book, but some controversy had arisen around it, and I assume, though I can’t know for certain, that the minor scandal that ensued had contributed to the deep depression which apparently led to his suicide. R. was childless, but he left his widow behind.

His death, which I learned about around the time my mother also died, was crazy and unacceptable to me. As a young man, R. had been remarkably handsome, as well as generous, funny, and adventurous; but somehow he had become one of those tragic ones, those few who, as A.E. Housman wrote, would "carry their looks [and] their truth to the grave."  He was not a Catholic; I don’t know what, if anything, he had come to believe, though, on one of the occasions I ran into him on the street, he had recently returned from a trip to Nepal, and on that occasion he urged me to read Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, a luminous travel memoir about the author’s encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. And during much of the time I had known R., he was something of an obvious sinner. I couldn’t help wondering if, with this checkered history, and lacking both baptism and any formal sort of repentance, it was sensible or even seemly to pray for his soul. But because I profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, I knew I must pray for him, and do so with great abandon, 

One hears occasionally from Traditionalist types the maxim “extra ecclesia nulla salus” – there is no salvation outside of the (Roman Catholic) Church. This is the teaching of the Church, but what does it really mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church asks:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.

Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation [emphasis added]. 

It seems to me that the main problem with defining “extra ecclesia” is knowing each unbaptized man’s “fault,” which is, of course, impossible. There are all kinds of mysterious baptisms, including that of desire, about which we know little or nothing. "Betwixt the stirrup and the ground/Mercy I asked, mercy I found": there is forgiveness of which we know nothing. 

In fact, God is a fountain of mercy. God is love. God did not create His children in order to damn them. If He did, He would not be God.  As Heinrich Heine, the great poet of German Romanticism and a convert from Judaism, said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me; c’est son métier.”

When we profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are simply acknowledging, with Heine, that forgiving sins is God’s métier, His business. With this statement, we categorically accept that God can forgive all sins, including the ones (always, it seems, committed by others) that we may not entirely want him to forgive. What we talk about when we talk about forgiveness is actually the possibility of redemption for our enemies, of the complete falling away of what made them our enemies in the first place, of what made them hurt us and of what made us hate them -- nothing less than the belief that anyone can become good in the Platonic sense; that anyone can become holy.

Therefore, I'm constrained to believe in the possibility of R.’s radical spiritual transformation, and of his total moral regeneration. In the end, what we profess when we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, is that we believe that God loves everyone else, including those annoying ones in apparent darkness, equally as well as He loves those of us to whom he has given the great and wholly-unmerited gift of faith.

R.'s last book was published after his death. It's a nonfiction work about a morally-suspect character who became a quiet humanitarian, a narrative which parallels the trajectory of R.'s own too-brief life. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mother vs. Happiness

Where does it start, our downhill slide -- a slide into serious sin for the most damaged; for the rest. at best, into lukewarmth and mediocrity?

I suppose it begins with our desire to be happy, which is quickly corrupted by our belief that we deserve to be happy. I've known few people who don't secretly harbor this belief, including the very best of men. Our self-regard, our amour-propre, is so deep and intractable that even those of us who strive for holiness find it hard to escape the notion that this holiness, once attained, will curry favor with God and loosen up all kinds of neat stuff for us. It's hard to escape the thinking that if f I, say, pray and work for a sincere conversion, or go to daily Mass, or give lots of money to the poor, or pray for the people that I hate, then God, noticing with approval, will send me a really nice guy, or put in a word with my boss about a raise, or at least make my life just a little less painful and difficult. 

This belief is reinforced by a popular narrative in Catholic writing, which features the protagonist's turning or returning to God, after which everything falls neatly into place. This narrative is (no doubt unintentionally) deceptive, because it implies cause and effect, actions and consequences. It doesn't acknowledge the untold numbers of people who turn or return to God -- who turn or return to Him daily, in fact -- and who strive to orient their lives and wills completely in the direction of His own, but who nevertheless suffer, who continue to suffer, and whose sufferings persist and even get worse. 

We all want the shiny stuff, and to shore up our uncertain futures with the goods which, in a logical and just world, might be purchased by our holiness. But I doubt it really works that way, and am more inclined to believe that, at best, we have our brief moments of triumph and delight, before we're kicked right back down to the curb again, which is, essentially, where we belong: for, as Hamlet said, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" 

And why should it be otherwise? I used to know a sedevacantist mother of many children, whom I once overheard telling one of them about Jesus cursing the fig tree. She finished by explaining that the Lord would condemn those who squandered their gifts, adding (smugly, as it seemed to me), "So I had ten fruits." Nevertheless, I think we should probably ponder, and should perhaps shudder, before we assume that anything we've done is actually good, since we're no more than unprofitable servants doing our duty.

When I was a child and later a teen, I would often propose certain activities or situations to my mother, explaining that doing or having something, or becoming something, or going somewhere in particular, would make me happy. I bitterly resented her standard response, which was the sobering "You're not here to be happy. You're here to make the world a better place." But I know now that she was right. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the only reason we're actually here.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

I believe that, when Hopkins says that the world is "charged" with God's grandeur, he means two things: that God's grandeur is immanent in all things, that the created world is imbued and shot through with it; but, also, that it is the duty of creatures to bear, to maintain, and to reveal that grandeur: that revealing it is, in fact, our charge. It is our duty, as unprofitable servants, as my mother would say, to make the world a better place.

A friend of mine who follows an eastern religion told me his guru compared enlightenment to one's mother being home all the time. I loved that analogy, but it made me wonder whether enlightenment is or is not synonymous with happiness. Is having mother home happiness? Is mother happiness? One would think so; but as the German Romantic poet Klaus Groth put it in his poem "Heimweh II" -- Heimweh meaning, essentially, grief over the lost home, which is not just a house, but is a whole universe: 

O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück,
Den lieben Weg zum Kinderland!
O warum sucht' ich nach dem Glück
Und liess der Mutter Hand?

In translation:

Oh, if I only knew the way back,
the dear way back to childhood's land!
Oh why did I seek happiness
and let go of my mother's hand?

That image of letting go of mother's hand to seek happiness is so wrenchingly poignant, and it seems not only to suggest that happiness is not a worthy goal, but also to assert that happiness is not mother. Mother is something else, something different -- something more than happiness. In fact, in my own mother's formula, mother, while not happiness, makes the world a better place.

I don't believe that being a mother makes one happy, nor should it. I don't even believe that mother, or children, or anyone else deserves to be happy. But the ethos of having mother -- of having mother home all the time -- is better, somehow, than happiness, is beyond happiness, and I suppose it's what heaven must be like.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In Memory of the Dead

A. E. Housman wrote his poem cycle A Shropshire Lad in 1896, so this excerpt is not really about World War I; but I can't hear George Butterworth's bittersweet setting of it without thinking of it as prophetic of the composer's own death in the Battle of the Somme, and the deaths of so many others in the flower of their youth. 

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair, 
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will neve
r be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lent: The Underground River


Lent has been bleak. I suppose that's how it should be: we're supposed to acquaint ourselves well with ashes -- with the taste of ashes, with becoming ashes. I've never been good at keeping up my prescribed penitential practices, especially where food is concerned; I've always felt as if giving up this or that food  was just too simple, too elementary, a mere beginner's step in the spiritual life, and that, since I don't have problems or obsessions or issues with food or drink, I'll just move on to the more advanced exercises, all of which shows, of course, exactly how warped I am by pride.

So this year I've been rigorous about, among other things, not eating between meals, and it's been surprisingly hard.  There's something so consoling about elevenses, or that late-afternoon bite of something -- so much so, in fact, that I've come to understand, this Lent, that turning to food has always been a way I've kept myself from crashing emotionally. This Lent, I've crashed.

I spend a good deal of time each day thinking about food, about certain tastes and textures, about how a bite of lemon pound-cake with a cup of black coffee at four o'clock, or a glass of flinty, ice-cold white wine an hour or so later, or even some peanut butter smeared on a saltine at midday, would make me feel. And I imagine that these things would make me feel resplendent, transformed, and would make life seem bright and gay, full of whispered possibilities. And then I shake myself awake and remind myself that this is food we're talking about -- ballast against hunger, disease, and death for most people in the world, and for most people far from delicious, much less redolent of fantasies and hopes -- and that building castles out of pound-cake is a distinctly First-World concern.

And then I think about the other things that I love, that I rely upon, that without which I would feel as if my life were truly a pile of shit. The main one is music. Slipping the Crooked Jades or one of Beethoven's late string quartets into my car CD player opens up worlds upon worlds for me as I drive through the bleak post-industrial landscape of my town; the music lends a warmth, a sort of hazy sheen to the phenomenal world, making what is often merely indifferent and sometimes hostile seem benevolent, making what's unendurable seem like a bad dream from which one will soon awake. But perhaps the world is not really so beautiful after all, and so I turn off the CD and navigate around the winter-cratered streets in silence.

And then I mourn, because, in these moments, it strikes me that everything I love is gone, or is going, and that everything good is disappearing from the world. The record of our earthly sojourn is one of loss. The annals of recorded sound, the smooth pages of poetry, are cries from beyond the grave, where we, too, are going, who knows when? "The curtain descends, everything ends/Too soon, too soon."


Sometimes I so envy our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They have ecstasy, they have fellowship. We have rubrics, and wandering in the dark, and spiritual dryness. They go from door to door in the ghetto and ask people what they need -- do they need a window fixed, a bag of groceries, maybe someone to pray with them? And then they do those things for and give those things to those complete strangers, those others, those neighbors. My mother used to do this with her church. As for us Catholics, we shun each other at Mass and then have arguments in each others' comboxes.

As I was waking up this morning, I mentioned to God that I'd given up everything I loved for him. My old life, research, singing, travel, pretty clothes, intense friendships, fun, my beloved city, the feeling of being an expert, even an authority, at something. Having only two children means that I also have had to give up the happiness of babies after only a short time, and to move swiftly on to the difficulties of everything else, especially since both my children have medical needs. And adopting means always being aware of a former but unbridgeable pain and loss and wounding, and means praying, as I stumble around in the dark, that I might be able to assuage it, and realizing how impossible that is and how inadequate I am. However, since we don't generally have any of the ecstatic things, the waves of warmth and happiness, the mystical auditions, I got no response to any of this from God.

Lent always seems as if it goes on forever. It seems as if it will go on even after Easter is over. I've always thought that at some point, later on, in the future, everything will be settled and peaceful and good -- that one day the world which is hinted at in the music I so love will become apparent. But perhaps that will never happen, and we are all just headed down, into, as a character in a book I read put it, the underground river, from which there is no return and no going back.

One of Debussy's earliest songs is "Beau soir," with a text by Paul Bourget, which says, in translation:

When streams turn pink in the setting sun
And a slight shudder passes through the wheat fields,
A plea for happiness seems to rise out of all things
And mount up towards the troubled heart,

A plea to savor the charm of life

While one is young and the evening is fair:
For we are going away, like this wave is going away,
The wave to the sea, we to the grave.

I would like to have been able to add something to the annals of beauty, the record of loss, in my brief time here. I don't know if I will, but we must keep doing the work that's assigned to us each day.

Above: Pierre Bonnard, The Breakfast Room, 1930.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lenten Grocery Penances for Bourgeois Outcasts

At the evening Mass on Ash Wednesday I sat in the pew realizing that, for all my pushing away the truth of the matter, I am a failure. The proof could not have been starker -- here I was, sitting in my coat in an unheated church in the ghetto of a once-thriving, now-crumbling Rust Belt town, far away from all the things that, to my mind, had long defined not only my own life, but even life itself -- the things that had nurtured my belief that I was special, out of the ordinary, made for something important.

My older son was with me, half asleep in the pew. I shook him awake to get in line for ashes, and when it was his turn, the priest -- a gruff, stern, socially-awkward west African man with a heavy accent and a hortatory preaching style, who is known to have conflicts with some of his brother priests in the diocese and who has been mostly benignly ignored by our parishioners -- murmured to my son, as he daubed the ashes onto his brow, "Remember that you are dust, my brother. And to dust you shall return." I was struck by this entreaty; after all, Father didn't call me "my sister" -- and I mentioned to my son that Father's words to him were special. And I believe that they were, because Father loves my autistic son, and I heard his words as not only an exhortation, but also a greeting cast out across the chasm of loneliness, from one outcast to another. I recalled Father hearing my confession a couple of years ago, when I was still wallowing in my own sense of exile and loneliness (well, I still am), and I mentioned it to him; he said, "Oh, my sister. I understand." In loneliness, I became his sister. As outcasts, we were next of kin.


Of course, I've mentioned my feelings of isolation in my new hometown too many times to count. They stem from the obvious: I'm far away from home; my friends and family are at a significant remove. I can go through a day hardly seeing another adult except through the glass of my windshield; driving, while making my life incalculably better, has increased my sense of isolation, and also, I fear, my complacency. When I was still walking everywhere, I was forced to confront the poverty of my fellow walkers in the city; now I am safe from them.


Not that this place hasn't also forced me to confront my child-of-the-utopian-seventies notions about poverty, too. I have reached out to a couple of poor mothers here, and found their lives and their children's lives to be hobbled by the kind of disastrous decision-making that right-wing pundits like to rail about. But I have made disastrous decisions too. I think I know something about the fear and despair that drives people to cling to even the most harmful and toxic attachments, and I have seen that the lives of the poor are shot through with a loneliness much worse than my own.


I see now how we hold ourselves back, apart, and away from people who are not like us, and how I have done this, too. My singing was the thing that I imagined could keep me safe from the misery of broken human promises and relationships, and of stumbling and falling attempts at human love. I had something I could use to put up a wall of protection between me and the lives of utter loss and failure that are common to the poor women I have known: a key, a tool, an instrument, a wedge.


To counter this still-prevalent attitude in myself, I'm doing grocery penance for Lent again this year. I'm going shopping at Aldi's instead of Wegman's, for starters, and putting the price-point difference in our Lenten sacrifice Jar to buy formula for medically-fragile Chinese orphans. This means that I have to forego the smug sense of self-satisfaction that Wegman's lulls me into, the sense of being with other people like myself: clean, bourgeois, well-educated, able to pick out the freshest and most beautiful groceries in a warmly-lit, expansive space. Instead, I must stand out in the cold waiting, along with the gray-faced night-shift workers, the toothless, tubercularly-coughing women, and the lank-haired young mothers of children in dirty coats who ought to be in school, for Aldi's to open its doors and let us in to its boxy cheerlessness, to fill our rented carts with foods in knocked-off packaging (the Benton's graham cracker box looks so much like the Honey-Maid one, but just isn't), with brand names, like Cattlemen's Ranch and Happy Farms, both vaguely euphemistic and reminiscent of Chinese communism. 


And it also means that I have to strive to stop exalting myself, my knowledge, my gifts, and trying to use them to pry open the world to give me the things that I want, and to try instead to accept and desire being forgotten.


In "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," one of the songs he wrote to texts by the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, Mahler succeeded in creating a sense of stilled timelessness, of dying to self and to the world. The text says, in translation:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult
And I rest in a quiet realm.
I live alone in my heaven,
in my love and in my song.

May it be so, eventually, for all of us.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Catholics with ASD Children and the Pro-Life Movement [UPDATED]

I had the unusual experience a few months ago of having a former mentor contact me to ask me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. M. was a remarkable soprano a few years my senior; as a young singer, I assiduously tried to pattern myself after her. But because of a combination of forces -- one of the most intractable of which was a difficult family situation -- her career was not what it might have been. She eventually became the mother of a large family, got an advanced degree, and began working in another field. The graduate program she was applying to, however, was in music, and, though I hadn't heard her in years and wondered what the appeal of a performance degree could possibly be at this stage in her life, I was happy to write on her behalf, and delivered a sincere assessment of her numerous fine qualities as an artist, colleague, and friend.

We had been out of touch for a few years and, while working on the letter, I gradually learned that since we'd last spoken, two of her children had been institutionalized for Heller's Syndrome -- also known as Child Disintegrative Disorder or CDD -- one at the age of six. Once considered a distinct diagnosis, CDD is now, like Asperger's at the other end of the dial, rolled under the rubric of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-5, the standard diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders. If CDD is indeed a cognitive disorder that falls on the autism spectrum, it seems like a particularly brutal and horrible manifestation one: the child develops perfectly normally until the age of three or four, and then loses not only speech, but every other acquired skill as well. At this age, children have some awareness of what is going on, and the affected ones are reported to have episodes of extreme terror -- perhaps because they are losing the ability to speak, to do, to comprehend -- before they shut down completely.

I don't know how one survives such a thing as a parent.

But it's not as if one can stop getting up in the morning.

I started thinking about what it's like, as a practicing Catholic (which M. is as well), to have a child with autism. My own son with autism is only mildly affected, especially relative to M.'s two CDD children, and living with him, in spite of some painful difficulties presented by his behavior, also brings its own kind of fulfillment and rewards. But I haven't experienced any support -- neither understanding smiles or kind words, nor extensions of friendship -- from my faith community. I've found it extremely hard to make friends with mothers of typical children, including those I meet at church, because my ASD son is so obviously different, and his behavior can be so disruptive, that people with the usual sort of children either withdraw, or simply don't extend themselves. (I've also received this response from progressive types, interestingly; it generally comes about after my son has gone along passing for normal for a time, and then suddenly does something egregious.)

While I've never seen mothers of children with autism embraced in pro-life Catholic (or any other) circles, mothers of children with Down Syndrome are very much celebrated in our community. Perhaps this lionization of DS mothers is based on the fact that, since prenatal testing can reveal the condition, and the law permits a choice of responses to it, in many cases the parents of DS children have consciously chosen life for these children, something that many in the wider culture do not do. So, if there were some kind of prenatal test that revealed autism in utero, and if mothers in these circumstances also "chose life" (which I would wager far fewer in the larger culture would do for autistic unborn children than they do even for DS), would these mothers find more support from Catholic mothers of typical children? I don't think so.

Children with Down Syndrome are generalized to be happy and loving, and even to have unique propensities for holiness; they are sentimentalized as "special" gifts from God for "special" parents. Children with autism are not. Children with Down Syndrome are welcomed, even celebrated, by people of faith; who can forget the near-hagiography surrounding Trig, the DS infant son of Sarah Palin, during the presidential campaign of 2008? Children with autism are not; in fact, when they are murdered by their parents, a chorus of voices generally arises to exonerate their killers. Children with Down Syndrome are viewed as sweet-natured, possessed of a unique sort of hidden wisdom, Holy Fools. Children with autism are . . . not. Even a beloved friend of mine, a faithful Catholic whom I respect and admire, told me that she would be happy to babysit for Jude, but not for my older son. (In her defense, she apologized immediately afterward, but I brooded about it for weeks.)

Even the panic over vaccines, and the increasing rates of vaccine refusal on the misguided ground that they cause autism -- and the vaccine-deniers cut through a cross-section of conservative and liberal -- underlines the point: no one wants a child with autism. Even in what we like to think of as the Catholic subculture -- the counterculture! -- the undergirding of our dominant American materialist-Calvinist culture bleeds through, and I suspect that parents of autistic children, and the children themselves, are seen to a certain degree as cursed by God, with an undercurrent of "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?"

If anyone looks at me, they have plenty of reason to confirm such a belief. I'm an egregious sinner. And my husband was in his forties when our autistic son was conceived, and there's a strong correlation between autism and paternal age. So people in our midst may breathe a sigh of relief if they have avoided our mistakes, or may congratulate themselves for their superior wisdom and virtue. They may even refuse vaccines. Perhaps they will thus be able to avoid both the very real difficulties and the very real loneliness of having children with autism. Or perhaps not. Who knows? But the persistent, underlying narrative, both in the larger world and in the subculture of faithful Catholics, is that autistic lives are less valuable, and far less desired, even than other disabled lives, and that if you get too close, some of it might rub off on you.

The Talmud suggests a prayer to be recited upon seeing a person who is disabled; perhaps it can be applied to people with autism as well, although they often do not appear different:

One who sees… an albino, or a giant, or a dwarf, or a person with dropsy, says ‘Blessed is He who made his creations different from one another.’ One who sees a person with missing limbs, or a blind person, or one with a flattened head, or a lame person, or one who suffers from boils or a person with a whitening skin complaint says, ‘Blessed is the true Judge.’ (Talmud Bavli Berachot 58b)

I do not expect to be celebrated by my co-religionists or anyone else for having an autistic child, but I would like not to be shunned. And I think that a real challenge at the heart of the pro-life movement is to formulate a loving response to the lives of those with disabilities, including the disabilities that are not immediately apparent, are not cuddly and inviting, and may not make you feel like a Good Person for embracing. For God is present in even the most disastrous of lives.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The South Wind

In spite of the fact that the cold of this winter seems to have etched itself into my bones, now that I can drive, I go all around in my own solipsistic, climate-controlled little realm, creating my own atmosphere with recorded music. Nonetheless, I have to be careful what I play, because there's a lot of music across genres that can make me cry, even bawl, which makes for unsafe driving. I had to pull over last week while listening to Sam Cooke singing "A Change is Gonna Come." 
But these past few days, I've been playing the same song over and over again as I drive: the eighteenth-century Irish song "The South Wind," sung by Jean Redpath, for which, sadly, there is no Youtube video, though this is a very nice instrumental rendition. 
The Jean Redpath version is on her album A Fine Song for Singing, and is accompanied by guitar, cello, and violin in a chamber-music-like setting. And it is transcendentally beautiful. The four parts evoke a conversation by turns charming, witty, and haunting, trading off the melody between them, with the violin in particular articulating a wide and subtle range of emotions. In the heart of a hard winter, hearing this song reconciles me to the possibility of a coming lightness, a kind of hope.
 
But I also hear the song, in these last few days, as a kind of accidental-but-apt encomium for the husband of a friend of mine who died suddenly last week. He was a beloved public school teacher, many of whose former students have said that he changed -- even saved -- their lives. His funeral was at an orthodox Jewish synagogue, and during it I found myself longing for the kind of warmth and community I've often noted among observant Jews, which seems so absent from Catholic life as I've known it (they have joy, mysticism, fellow-feeing, and an ethos of life in its fullness; and we have, it often seems, sourness, primness, division, and an ethos of life in its meanness. Why should this be? I've heard that it's the result of the Jansenism imported by the Irish clergy, and also that it's a Northern thing. But it's enough to make me sometimes feel like the Inuit seal-hunter who supposedly asked the missionary priest if he would go to hell if he didn't know about the truth of Christ. No, said the priest; the risk of hell was only for those who knew the truth, but chose to reject it. To which the hunter replied, Then why did you tell me?) 

Tonight I'm going to sit shiva with his family, including the adolescent daughter who has been an occasional voice student of mine. I've never been to a shiva before, but my understanding is that one goes to keep the mourners company, to be with them in their grief, to let them know that they are not alone (I wish we had a tradition like this!). I will bring them a platter of cookies, and also a copy of the Jean Redpath CD. The words of the song go, in part:

South wind of the gentle rain,
You banish winter weather,
Bring salmon to the pool again,
The bees among the heather.
If northward now you mean to blow
As you rustle soft above me,
Godspeed be with you as you go,
And a kiss for those that love me.

From south I come with velvet breeze;
My word all nature blesses;
I melt the snow and strew the leaves
With flowers and warm caresses.
I'll help you to dispel your woes,
With joy I'll take your greeting
And bear it to your loved Mayo
Upon my wings so fleeting.


I will pray that God will send solace to this family, and that, like the south wind, He will, some day in the future, coax the grief of this long winter slowly from their hearts.