Monday, December 30, 2013

Update: Ugh

Weird.  I did not know that the idea of Christ's homelessness at his birth was in some way controversial or political.  Sigh.

So anyway, I'm going to have to disagree that the Holy Family finding no room at the inn is theologically equivalent to "if you found all the hotels booked on your next vacation." 

Fr. Denis Lemieux has posted a lovely poem by G.K. Chesterton, that bastion of the liberal agenda, along with a reflection that says the rest.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Even after the ten minute walk from a cozy coffee shop to my warm and comfortable office this morning, I was panting with the cold.  Whenever the temperatures reach these extremes, I find myself thinking a lot about people without protection from the cold, who spent last night sleeping on top of heating vents or curled up in the back pews at my church downtown.

About 60% to 70% of Milwaukee's homeless population lives in my neighborhood, and part of the reason I choose to live in the city is that it makes it just a little bit more difficult to forget them.  Of course I can spend all kinds of time being "aware" without doing the slightest good to anyone, which is why "awareness" campaigns of various kinds always strike me as a bit pointless.  Thinking has to lead to action - for me, the thinking part comes easily, and the action is a little more difficult.  But I'm going to keep trying, and I thank God for the voices in the Church speaking out against complacency.

We are challenged to see Christ in the poor, in the prisoner, in the sick, in the desperate.  An artist recently created a powerful image of Christ as a homeless man.  Of course, every time we pass a nativity scene, we're seeing a depiction of a homeless Christ.  Maybe at this very moment on the day before his birth, Mary and Joseph were walking the streets of Bethlehem exhausted and without resources, with nowhere to sleep and with night approaching. Mary's contractions were getting closer together and Joseph was close to panic.  Maybe one of the innkeepers told them that they should have thought ahead, and that their poor planning was hardly his problem.  Another inkeeper could have seen the market potential of the sudden influx of visitors for the census, and taken the opportunity for a little price gouging that put the cost of a room outside of the Family's limited budget.

The scene at the manger is one of sublime beauty and grace, of course, but it's worth remembering that this feast is a celebration of the Emmanuel: the God-with-us.  Christ isn't just spiritually or symbolically united with our neediness and want and cold and hunger and desperation.  He came to us in the weakness of a human body precisely so that he could live all of these things with us, as one of us.  If we are to be his continued presence in the world, as he calls us to be, it can be in that way and no other.

Friday, December 20, 2013


"It is a scandal that God came to be one of us. It is a scandal that he died on a cross. It is a scandal: the scandal of the Cross. The Cross continues to provoke scandal. But it is the one sure path, the path of the Cross, the path of Jesus, the path of the Incarnation of Jesus. Please, do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks – orange, apple, or banana juice, but please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus. It is faith in the Son of God made man, who loved me and who died for me."

-- Pope Francis

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Catholic Thing

"What is the Catholic thing? What makes Catholicism, among all of the competing philosophies, ideologies, and religions of the world, distinctive? I stand with John Henry Newman who said that the great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God. What do I mean by this? I mean, the Word of God—the mind by which the whole universe came to be—did not remain sequestered in heaven but rather entered into this ordinary world of bodies, this grubby arena of history, this compromised and tear-stained human condition of ours...

...And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear. No philosophical or political or religious program in history—neither Greek or Renaissance or Marxist humanism—has ever made a claim about human destiny as extravagant as Christianity’s. We are called, not simply to moral perfection or artistic self-expression, or economic liberation, but rather to what the eastern fathers called theiosis, transformation into God...

...Essential to the Catholic mind is what I would characterize as a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension of it precisely through the mystery of the church. Catholics see God’s continued enfleshment in the oil, water, bread, imposed hands, wine, and salt of the sacraments; they appreciate it in the gestures, movements, incensations, and songs of the liturgy; they savor it in texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; they sense it in the graced governance of Popes and bishops, they love it in the struggles and missions of the saints; they know it in the writings of Catholic poets and in the cathedrals crafted by Catholic architects. In short, all of this discloses to the Catholic eye and mind the ongoing presence of the Word made flesh, namely Christ."

--Fr. Robert Barron

More here.  

Friday, December 13, 2013


An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man builds a snowman on Friday in Jerusalem. 
There's a huge snowstorm hitting parts of the Middle East right now - obviously highly unusual for the area.  Apparently it snows on average about once every 7 years in Jerusalem.

The picture above fills me with a weird joy.  It makes me think about how we are called have the hearts of children: playing at our Father's feet, filled with pure delight at this strange and beautiful world He has created out of His extravagant love for us.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Global Wave of Prayer to End Hunger

O God, you entrusted to us the fruits of all creation so that we might care for the earth and be nourished with its bounty.
You sent us your Son to share our very flesh and blood and to teach us your Law of Love.  
Through His death and resurrection, we have been formed into one human family.  
Jesus showed great concern for those who had no food – even transforming five loaves and two fish into a banquet that served five thousand and many more.  
We come before you, O God, conscious of our faults and failures, but full of hope, to share food with all members in this global family.  
Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just, and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.  
Thus we pray, O God, that when we present ourselves for Divine Judgment, we can proclaim ourselves as “One Human Family” with “Food for All." Amen.
More here.

Monday, December 9, 2013

An Explanation

There were a few different reasons I stopped blogging for a while.  A lot of it had to do with life and moving and new jobs and such.  However, there was another reason as well.  It's been hard for me to write about it, but I think I'm going to try.

When Pope Benedict announced his resignation back in February, I felt it very personally.  At the time, I wrote:

"I would never say that I experienced the fatherhood of Pope Benedict more deeply than the fatherhood of Blessed JPII - his death affected me like few things have, and I specifically had the experience of losing a father. But he was certainly the father-hero: when he spoke you felt united with the universal Church, like you were suddenly swept up into the grandeur of salvation history, with banners and trumpets. With Pope Benedict, it is as though he just quietly sits down next to you, almost without you noticing, and starts talking to you one-on-one, and you suddenly become of aware of God's love and challenge for you not just as part of the Church but as an individual. That's why he is Papa Benedict. Both have shown us different aspects of God's fatherhood, I think. Those of us who lived during both papacies sure have been incredibly, undeservedly blessed."

So there was a very strong sense of loss for me, the loss of a spiritual father.  However, as the next few weeks unfolded, I began to have a strong sense that, for a man as holy and in touch with God's will as my Papa to have taken such an unexpected and dramatic step, there must be a reason.  If the Lord had decided to take away such a dear and wise shepherd, he must have something specific in mind.

I don't tend to trust myself when it comes to an awareness of God's will or actions in my life.  My struggles with my faith in college and after arose from the perception that what I had experienced as God moving and speaking in my life was a sham or self-deception.  But this wasn't just my life - this was the life of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, and the movement of the Spirit seemed unmistakable to me.

On the second day of the Conclave when the white smoke went up, I was at work.  I've never been happier to work for a Catholic organization - I ran to the multi-purpose room and put the coverage up on the big screen, then had the front desk make an announcement over the PA to invite residents to come down and meet our new Pope.  The room was soon crowded and I sat towards the back.  My husband and I texted back and forth, alternating between excitement and a bit of eye-rolling at some of the coverage.

Finally Cardinal Tauran came out on the balcony, and made the announcement.  I didn't understand what he'd said, but a banner immediately appeared at the bottom of the screen with a name: "Bergoglio."  The announcers had some details: a Jesuit from Latin America, two firsts.  I remembered a little bit about him from John Allen's profile - he was the one who rode a bus to work.

When our new Holy Father stepped into view, my tears were flowing freely.  He stood for a long time, looking out at the crowd.  Then he greeted us, and asked for our blessing, and led the whole Church in prayer to Our Lady.

I felt like I could almost see the pieces falling into place, and felt such a serene joy in the loving actions of the Lord to bring hope and strength to a hurting Church.  It seemed to me so clear that He had sent this man to us to guide His Church towards healing, to bridge the ever widening gaps between north and south, left and right.

As the next few weeks unfolded, I continued to be excited by how I saw the Lord acting through him.  I knew that in some circles that overlap slightly with mine there was some grumbling, mostly surrounding his lack of emphasis on certain liturgical preferences.  But that in my mind was part of the healing process.  It seemed clear to me that, on both so-called ends of the so-called spectrum, we'd lost our focus, and that Pope Francis was the one to remind us about what - or rather Who - is the source and summit of every teaching and tradition.

Then came that one interview.  You remember the one, right?  The Holy Father said things like this:
The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up. The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.
I'm not going to be able to describe very well what this interview meant to me.  I read the whole thing straight through, at work, cried at my desk, emailed my husband, read it some more.

Healing.  It's something I've begged God for throughout my adult life, for myself and for the Church.  The interview felt like Christ personally reaching out to me through the words on my screen, offering me that healing.  I was so grateful.

Then the backlash came.  I'm sure you remember that, too.  And again, I'm not going to be able to describe very well how it affected me, except to say that each time someone attacked the Pope, questioned his orthodoxy, doubted his prudence, undermined his authority, spoke of him with condescension, it was like a physical blow.

The fact that many of these comments came from those who, despite my disagreement with some of their methods or emphases, I had always understood to represent fidelity to Holy Church made me feel betrayed and alienated.  I had to fight against a feeling of shame - for what?  For seeing the Holy Father as a teacher and myself as a student?  For thinking the Vicar of Christ, elected by the College of Cardinals after a life of service to the Church, probably had more prudence in his little finger than the entire Catholic blogosphere?  For drawing inspiration and joy from his words, for feeling re-invigorated in my faith and in my striving towards a life of virtue?

I never wanted to be part of the vitriol and mud-slinging and vicious divisiveness that seems to characterize so much of Catholic new media, and I still don't.

But my hurt on the Holy Father's behalf, my feelings of betrayal, were too strong to allow for any calm and reasoned arguments.  Either I could jump into the ugliness, or I could step away.

So I stepped away.

Why am I coming back now?  I'm not sure exactly.  I like writing, for one thing.  I like writing about the Church, which I love more than my life.  I like writing about other, related things too, like books and music and art.

It's not like things have changed.  We've now reached a place where someone who considers himself a faithful Catholic thinks he is living according to that description when he says that our Holy Father will "prove a disaster for the Catholic Church," "shows a terrifying naivety," that he "panders to enemies" and "swipes at practicing Catholics," that "Francis thinks by talking vacuously about the poor, he will be respected," that he has "insulted, and severely damaged the work of, pro-life and pro-marriage groups," that we "elected the wrong guy."

We've reached a place where a priest who preaches "hard identity Catholicism," rather than praising the decision of a Catholic media organization to take immediate action to end this person's employment, questions it.

I'm still angry, and I'm still not sure what to do about it.  But I still want this blog to be a place to talk about what's good and beautiful in the world, not a place to spit and hiss and build higher walls.  I think I've calmed my emotional response enough now to be able to continue with that effort.

P.S.  I thought I'd like to end with a quote from the Pope, so I went back to my RSS feed intending to look through some of his old homilies.  Instead I found this, right at the top of my feed, from today:
The announcement [of the Gospel] requires authentic human relationships and leads along the path to a personal encounter with the Lord...Therefore, the internet is not enough; technology is not enough...This, however, does not mean that the Church’s presence online is useless; on the contrary, it is essential to be present, always in an evangelical way, in what, for many, especially young people, has become a sort of living environment; to awaken the irrepressible questions of the heart about the meaning of existence; and to show the way that leads to Him who is the answer, the Divine Mercy made flesh, the Lord Jesus.

-- Pope Francis

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


So apparently I stepped away from the blog for a while.  It wasn't really planned, but there were some other things that needed my attention (like moving).  I think the summer finally caught up to me as well, leaving me profoundly drained, both physically and creatively.

I think I'll be back to posting with some regularity fairly soon.  In the meanwhile, it's Advent, and that means thinking about waiting.  It's hard to wait for God's timing in your life - I've always been just absolutely terrible at it, and right now is no exception.  So I appreciated what Simcha Fisher had to say in an interview with Jennifer Fulwiler:
"There is an awful lot of outside pressure to get things right the first time. From the secular world, 'getting things right' may look like having a super duper body, and fireworks in the bedroom every night, and maybe having one or two perfectly timed children who nicely complement your career. From the religious world, 'getting things right' may look like being visibly joyful all the time, and having a respectful, decorous flock of children who just lurve to pray and volunteer and do their chores. Either way, you’re supposed to be a catalogue-ready example of that lifestyle within six weeks, and hold that pose indefinitely. And this is nuts. Dangerously nuts.

Whenever people write to me for advice, the one thing I always include is a reminder to be patient — with themselves, and with each other. Human nature changes so slowly, cell by cell by cell. We may have epiphanies and breakthroughs, but thing that really matters most is making those slow, slow improvements. My husband reminds me of this all the time: Let’s just take care of what we can take care of today. This is true when you’re getting to know each other, or building a life together, or raising kids, or nurturing a sexual relationship, or building a relationship with God. Be patient!"

Friday, October 25, 2013


I'm reading Rex Stout's detective stories for the first time, and they're all kinds of fun.  Great stories, great characters, and a style that rivals Graham Greene's in its subtlety and skill.  I'll often laugh out loud while reading, sometimes because it's funny but mostly because of some stylistic gem.  I'll read a line and for a minute it will seem like any other sentence in any noir-style hackery ever written, and then I'll get struck with the sly poetry of Stout's word-craft.

There's not much of a premium placed on style these days - there's some good storytelling going on, but style and craftsmanship in writing seems to be considered archaic or pretentious or not worth the effort for readers whose artistic sensibilities were formed by more visual media.

Recently my family had a conversation about the craft of making movies.  I mentioned that I thought most of the geniuses of style, the Wodehouses of today, are making movies or TV shows rather than writing books.

My favorite example is Wes Anderson.  He uses the cinematic medium the way Wodehouse crafts the written word - shot after shot of playful and exquisite beauty, heartbreaking whimsy heavy with the "weight of glory."  My top three favorite movies include his so-far masterpiece The Darjeeling Limited, and my next twenty would probably include the rest of his work.

He has a new movie coming out next year, and I just watched the trailer.  The cast is a who's who of Wes Anderson's favorites - Owen Wilson, Jason Bateman, Bill Murray - with some fabulous additions like Ralph Fiennes.  I squealed in fangirl delight throughout the trailer, and then felt happy because, even if they aren't novelists, there are artists making art today that makes me just as excited as I would have been in 1938 waiting for the next installment of Nero Wolfe or Bertie Wooster.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Walking Together

Mother Aparecida, 
today I feel like you once did
before your God and mine,
who proposes for our lives a mission
whose contours and limits we ignore,
whose demands we only glimpse.
Yet in your faith that "nothing is impossible with God,"
O Mother,
you did not hesitate,
and so I cannot hesitate.

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Let it be done unto me according to your word!"

In this way, O Mother, like you,
I embrace my mission.
Into your hands I put my life
and we will
– you-mother and me-son –
we will walk together,
believe together,
fight together,
win together as your Son and you always walked together.

(Pope Francis' consecration to Our Lady of Aparecida, WYD 2013) 

From Rocco, who has some beautiful and strong words about the Pope, Our Lady, and the vital role of popular piety in the life of the Church.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: In A World...

This weekend we saw a really enjoyable indie comedy about a female voice actor trying to find her place in the competitive, male-dominated world of professional voiceover acting.  Quite the premise, hm?

Five bullets, in no particular order:

1) I like movies that allow you to get inside an obscure community or esoteric field of knowledge - to immerse yourself in some little pocket of humanity that you didn't even know existed.   In this case, it's the voiceover acting industry.  No idea, obviously, if it's true to life or if such a community even exists as distinctively as it's shown in the film.  And I would hope that it doesn't consist entirely of self-absorbed narcissists, as also shown.  But it's fun to consider nonetheless. 

2) Demetri Martin as Louis was the stand-out performance.  I loved him in Flight of the Conchords, but have been very bored by both his stand-up and his short-lived sketch show, which somehow managed to be both bland and off-puttingly bizarre.  However, he's fantastic in this role, which requires high-level comedic skills but also has some depth.  The scenes between him and Lake Bell are charming and hilarious.  He should do more indie comedies.  Lake Bell's character, Carol, has some of the qualities of what's usually called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - socially incompetent in a way that is improbably attractive, has a tendency to mumble/ramble, etc.  This bugged a little but not as much as usual.  Bell has great timing and her character is much more developed than the typical Zooey Deschanel or Greta Gerwig creation.  

3) This movie is rife with absolutely loathsome characters, as well as more sympathetic ones who make some terrible choices.  One thing that was nice to see was that bad moral choices are portrayed as bad moral choices: characters are accountable for their actions.  One character is unfaithful to her husband - in a lot of movies, this might be shrugged off or at least softened somewhat with "everybody makes mistakes" language or a shifting of blame onto her husband or her circumstances.  Not here - the hurt she causes her husband is not glossed over, and when she apologizes it is with a complete acceptance of responsibility for her choice and its consequences.  Her husband's forgiveness and their effort to begin repairing their marriage are acts of love, but are not presented as an implicit excusing of her actions.

4) Also unusual is the way the romance develops between Louis and Carol.  The series of miscommunications and missed connections that comprises the first two thirds of the film is pretty standard rom-com stuff, but better written and executed than most.  When they finally do connect and admit they "like" each other, they spend an evening out doing fun get-to-know-you activities.  It ends with a kiss at the door but not the normally requisite bed scene solidifying their Status As A Couple.  Not that it's implied that this is off the table for them later, but it was still refreshing to see a romantic relationship take shape around shared interests and clear enjoyment of each other's company instead of just physical attraction.

5) I love, love, loved the scene at the end where Carol has started a workshop for women to "find their voice."  Throughout the movie, she encounters several women with the sort of infantile, pouty vocal inflections a lot of women seem to think make them feminine or attractive or influential with men.  At the end she's shown with a number of them gathered in a recording studio, ready to learn to use their voices in a way that reflects their dignity and allows them to communicate powerfully and effectively.  The right kind of feminist message.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Seven Quick Takes

Still digesting the Holy Father's beautiful interview.  My whistle-into-the-wind from yesterday was a small attempt to counteract some of the knee-jerk negativity I observed from people who read a couple of headlines and reacted to those without reading the interview itself.

 I don't have anything more to add at the moment, other than to direct you back to my post from before the interview hit about the need to be grateful for the gifts being given to the Church at this point in history.

If you've reached saturation point on interview talk, turn off your tablet and go say a quick prayer for a lovely and very sick young man, L., a friend of my husband's who's reached the end of his strength in dealing with his mental illness and needs some supernatural aid.

If you haven't reached that point yet, please pray for L. anyway, but enjoy this handful of links from some sensible and articulate people about our beloved Holy Father and what he has to say:

1) Aggie Catholic
"I challenge you to see Francis as an earthly spiritual father. Sometimes he is going to ask us to grow in ways we don't want to. But, it may be good for us anyway."
2)  JoAnna Wahlund
 "So please, fellow Catholics, the proper response when reading a MSM headline about the Pope changing a long-held doctrine of Catholicism is not panic or rage or despair. Rather, it’s a yawn, an eye-roll, and a resigned sigh – as well as a realization that we’re once again called upon to engage in the new evangelization for the sake of the Kingdom in the realm of social media and among our friends and family."
3) Stephen White
"Being a Christian is not, first and foremost, about ideas and rules. That is not to say our faith does not engage our minds or demand obedience (it obviously does both); it is simply to observe—and this is fundamental—that faith does not begin there. Everything Pope Francis says in his interview should be understood in this light."
 4) Mark Shea (I promise he doesn't call anyone a bedwetter in this one)
"When you focus too much on fighting the world you start to think like the world, trying to run the Church by rules and laws and slogans and power and fear and punishment and not by putting first things first: which is Jesus Christ and our personal encounter with him. The press can’t be expected to get that. But we Catholics *must* get that.”
5) Simcha Fisher
"The one thing that everybody knows is that the Church is against abortion.  What the world doesn't know is why the Church is against abortion.  What the world doesn't know is what the Church can offer instead of abortion.  The world doesn't know why life is worth living. This is the message that every pope in recent memory has been preaching -- that life is good!"
6) Cardinal Dolan
"It is becoming more evident every day that we are blessed with a Pope who is a good shepherd after the heart of Christ. "

7) And for my last quick take, I'm going to link back to the interview again, because really...just read it yourself.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Interview

Just finished reading the Pope's interview.  I'll get back to you about it once I've had a chance to mop up my heart, which seems to have melted all over the floor.

What a beautiful gift this man is to the Church.

And in the meantime: you know how the media is going to distort, misquote, and butcher his words?


Just read it yourself.  Ponder and delight in what our Holy Father has to say to us.  Enjoy being Catholic.

More from The Porch

More on Pieper, language and the truth over at The Porch!  Fun.

Also, a very insightful and much-needed look at various flavors of dissent within the Church today.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Say Thank You

“The Church is not falling to pieces. It has never been better. This is a wonderful moment for the Church, you just need to look at its history. There are saints that are recognised by non-Catholics as well as Catholics – I’m thinking of Mother Theresa – but many men and women perform acts of holiness every day and this gives us hope. Sanctity is greater than scandal.”

 -- Pope Francis, yesterday

I tend to hang around with people who are very protective of the Church's doctrinal, liturgical, and cultural heritage, which makes sense, because I am one myself.  So I get a front row seat on some of the ways that something good - the desire to safeguard the Church's heritage - can sometimes start warping over time into something bad - defensiveness, panic or elitism in the face of the perceived societal onslaught against the Church and those who love her.

When our thinking starts to trend this way, it can be poisonous for all kinds of different reasons.  Lack of charity is one: I've been a bit troubled lately by some things I've read from people who seem to think Pope Benedict's words about a shrinking Church are a mandate rather than a warning.

However, the words of Pope Francis yesterday highlight a different pitfall we can encounter when we allow ourselves to be too focused on the problems in the Church and the world.  That pitfall is envy.  My brother wrote about envy yesterday, which got me thinking about the different ways that particular deadly sin can trap us.

Sin causes us to see the truth less clearly.  Envy specifically blinds us to the good things we've been given and the way grace is active in our lives.  We focus on what others have and what we don't have, rather than recognizing and thanking God for his gifts.

But envy can be focused not just on ourselves personally but on the Church in the context of its two-millennium history.  We can find ourselves looking back with increasing jealousy to that wonderful time fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, or back in the thirteenth century when men were men and heretics got their comeuppance. 

Part of that is just nostalgia, but part of it is a little more insidious, I think.  It's envy, which causes us to focus on the gifts the People of God received at other points in our history and to become less alert to ways He is active here and now.  And that leads us to something even more poisonous: ingratitude.

The well of grace hasn't just dried up - God is, in this particular time and place, quenching the thirst of a parched Church both generally and in all kinds of specific and concrete ways.  Believe me - in a generation or two, Catholics are going to look back at this period in the history of the Church and marvel at the holy and wise people who guided us, at the theological developments that increased our understanding of the deposit of faith, at the ways the Gospel took hold in new cultures and how those cultures enriched the Church...the list goes on.

We don't have to wait for generations to pass.  We shouldn't wait.  We should thank God now for the way his Holy Spirit, unchanging yet always new, is at work in the world, actively, dynamically, now.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


My brother recently posted this word on Facebook - he encountered it in his class on Old Norse.

(Pause for the customary moment of University Envy. *I wish I was studying Old Norse.  Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit are not enough.  Being a grown-up is stupid!*)

Anyway, that reminded me that Norse Sagas are pretty awesome.  My other brother and I used to sit around sometimes reading out loud from the Prose Edda.  One of us would read the English and the other would follow along with the original language, stopping at interesting words.  The sagas aren't just of linguistic interest, though; they are legitimately great stories and often drily and beautifully hilarious.

Right now I'm reading a marvelous book recommended recently by Jen Fulwiler: The Long Ships, by twentieth century Swedish author Frans Bengtsson. It's set in northern Europe during the period when most of the sagas were being recorded and is itself a contemporary saga of sorts, following the life of a Viking chieftain named Red Orm.

It's very much in the spirit of the sagas stylistically, though smoother and more cohesive narratively.  It has the same slight long-windedness, flawed but lovable characters and unbelievably dry but gut-busting moments of humor.

The role Christianity plays in the story is interesting as well, and I would imagine pretty accurate historically.  A lot of the Vikings have converted to Christianity, but with vastly different levels of sincerity.  Some notice that this new god seems to be gaining influence and figure they might as well jump on the bandwagon; others are baptized at swordpoint or to improve their "weather-luck."  Christian beliefs and rituals are sort of mashed in with the traditional pantheistic ones: at one point, a Catholic priest interrupts a pagan ceremony and accidentally causes the priest conducting it to fall to his death.  The participants barely bat an eye, and just swap out the old priest for the new one, forcing him to step into the ceremonial role.

Mostly, The Long Ships is a great adventure story: lots of fighting and feuds and love-making and travel.  It's simply fun to read and a great break from my usual navel-gazing and morose reading fare.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Porch

This new blog by a group of twenty-something Catholics seems nifty.

The most recent post is a brief commentary on the relationship between some of my own philosophical hobby horses (language, meaning, the dignity of the human person), with some quotes from the marvelous Josef Pieper.

Which reminds me: I still owe myself a series of essays on Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Seven Quick Takes

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

1) It occurs to me that anyone visiting for the first time probably thinks this is a Doctor Who fan blog.  Sheesh.  Thing is, the things I'm thinking about tend to be filtered through whatever literary or artistic work I'm currently engrossed in, thus the multiple Who posts.  However, I'm on to Baby Hipster Who now, and I'm not really feeling it, so this will probably be the last of those for a while.  Yes, I know I said the same thing about darling David Tennant.  Hush.

2) We got to see Cardinal Dolan speak last night at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Pallium Lecture.  He sold out a 4,000 seat theatre, and it was exhilarating to walk around downtown right before the event started and feel like we landed in some kind of Catholic utopia. A trio of Franciscan friars would walk by, and then we'd sit down next to a group of Catholic teenagers discussing religious freedom.  And there were priests EVERYWHERE.

3) The lecture itself was titled "Who Do You Say That I Am: Encountering Christ and Responding to Christ Through His Living Body, The Church."  The Cardinal talked about how vital it is that we as Catholics return to a deeper understanding of the essential relationship between Christ and his body, the Church.  He gave three suggestions for restoring this understanding: 1) recognize the Church as our spiritual family 2) strive for a renewal of effective apologetics and 3) become a repentant Church uniting our woundedness with that of Christ.  Fantastic.

4) I skimmed through a few news articles about the lecture this morning, and found them surprisingly balanced and positive.  The Journal-Sentinel article actually demonstrated a decent understanding of some of the themes Dolan raised, and didn't even mention the bankruptcy, lawsuits, etc etc etc.  Of course, the need was felt to bring up the one minor (and in my mind, irritatingly unnecessary) political reference of the evening, which actually came from Fr. Paul Hartmann, not the Cardinal.  Ah, well.

5) Moving on to sports.  I would like to triumphantly note that, before to the start of last night's NFL season opener, I told my husband that Peyton would be incredibly hungry this year and would be playing like it was his last season.  Was I right or was I right?  

6) However, I probably arrive at my stunningly accurate sports predictions from a slightly different perspective than, say, an ESPN sports analyst.  It's the same way I'm able to predict the story arc of a book or TV show - by looking at the narrative.  In this case, it's Peyton's personal narrative as an athlete.  He's one of the most insanely driven and ambitious NFL players ever, and a couple of years back had to sit out an entire season due to a neck injury that would have ended most careers.  He decided instead to go overseas for some terrifying Frankenstein treatment that is ILLEGAL in the United States, making me nervous every time I watched him play last year that his head would just pop off or something.  Despite the fact that he's back on the top of his game, he's clearly playing on borrowed time and gosh darn it if he isn't going to at least match little brother Eli with one more Super Bowl win.  Thus ends the lesson in applying literary analysis principles to athletic careers.

7) As evidenced by these mildly slap-happy Quick Takes, the Summer of Shakespeare is finally over and we're slowly regaining our sanity.  I'm oh-so-glad it's over, but grateful for what we learned, especially about the the value of time.  The ability to once again balance our time between work, relaxation, time together, time with our families, art, education, prayer...well, it's just making me giddy.  I think we are in for a truly grace-filled autumn.  

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Friday, August 30, 2013

RIP Seamus Heaney

Your translation of Beowulf will always have a special spot on my shelves.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Doctor and The Master

I promise this will be my last post about Doctor Who for a while.*

When I wrote about Doctor Who the last time, I talked about how the sci-fi trappings are just incidental to what makes the series great: the characters and their relationships.  Specifically, the central character of the Doctor is extraordinarily compelling, and like a lot of heroes in a lot of great stories, tells us something about our Hero in the Great Story of salvation history.

It may be misleading to refer to the Doctor as a Christ figure.  That makes it sound like he's just an allegory, or suggests that all of his choices are perfectly admirable.  The character of the Doctor is a man, who can and does make wrong choices.  He wouldn't be interesting if he didn't.

But truth through story is so much more subtle and yet more impactful than allegory could ever be. 

"The Master" is often referred to as the Doctor's "nemesis."  In many instances, he appears to be the typical sci-fi super-villain, an egomaniacal, genocidal lunatic, set to destroy individuality and re-make humanity in his own image.  And the Doctor is the one whose job it is to stop him, of course.  So in that sense, "nemesis" seems an appropriate word.

But the relationship is radically different at root than the usual hero/evil nemesis framework.

In the final episode of the third season, the Master has taken control of the earth with an army of cyborg/human hybrids, etc.  (This is still sci-fi, people.)

The Doctor is imprisoned and seems to be beaten.  The Master taunts him with images of the destruction he is wreaking on the world and with his own powerlessness.

Several times, the Doctor tells the Master, "I have one thing to say to you."  Every time, the Master silences him, usually violently.  But he keeps persisting.

"I have one thing to say to you."

What is this one thing he has to say?  Perhaps he knows a secret from the Master's childhood that, when spoken aloud, will cause the Master to psychologically self-destruct.  Perhaps he has a grand and sweeping statement to make about how the human race, despite its apparent weakness, has some hidden weapon that will ultimately defeat their would-be destroyer.

But no, that's not it.

"I have one thing to say to you."

And at the end of the episode, over the Master's screams of protest, he says it.

"I forgive you."

That's the one thing.  That's the driving force behind the Doctor's efforts to reach the Master and to stop his evil, destructive choices.

Of course the Master has one bullet left in his gun: the ability to reject the Doctor's forgiveness and to refuse his own ability, as a Time Lord, to regenerate and continue his life under the Doctor's protection.  He dies in the Doctor's arms, proclaiming his own death a victory.

Later in the series, the Master reappears, of course - reincarnated after storing part of his life-force in a ring covered in ancient know the drill.  (This is still sci-fi, people.)

The Doctor pursues him, and the two meet face to face once again.  The Doctor listens to him rave for a while, and then has this to say:
The Doctor: You're a genius. You're stone cold brilliant, you are, I swear, you really are. But you could be so much more. You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honour. Because you don't need to own the universe, just see it. Have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space. That's ownership enough.
The Master: Would it stop then? The noise in my head.
The Doctor: I can help.
Granted, I'm a little over-emotional lately, due to bone-crushing exhaustion.  But these scenes just sent me reeling.  Because that's what our Savior says to us.

I forgive you. You could be beautiful.  I can help.

Christ offers his forgiveness and his healing to us tirelessly, repeatedly, God himself with very human tears of pleading in his eyes.  He wants us so badly, and will never stop telling us how beautiful we can be if we agree to travel with him.

Frighteningly, we have the ability to refuse that love.  We can look into Christ's eyes as he holds us in his arms, pouring his life into us, and tell him we want none of it.  We are offered that choice day by day, minute by minute. 

It is also frightening, but also hopefully exhilarating as well, to realize that this is the love we are asked to imitate.  If we are true followers of Christ, we should want to look into the eyes of those who have hurt the world and us most deeply and speak those words: I forgive you.  You can be beautiful.  And we should mean them.

Sometimes Doctor Who annoys me, with its ridiculous aliens and its sometimes clumsy plotting and its occasionally inconsistent ethical framework.  But at its best, it's the kind of story to which all makers of stories should aspire, showing humanity in all its hurt and helplessness but challenging us to consider that there is something - Someone - infinitely greater and more powerful at work who has just one thing to say to us.

* Yeah, right.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Three days left of the Summer from Hell of Shakespeare, and I'm trying to keep this in mind:

Praise our God, all peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
    and kept our feet from slipping. 
For you, God, tested us;
    you refined us like silver.  
You brought us into prison
    and laid burdens on our backs. 
You let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and water,
    but you brought us to a place of abundance.

-- Psalm 66:8-12

Friday, August 23, 2013


To me, Scottish traditional music is the most beautiful in the world.

I like classical music and always have.  It's what I first learned on the instrument I always wanted to play, and some of it speaks to me very deeply.  I also like Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant and 60s rock and some old time and bluegrass and lots of more contemporary folk-inflected pop.

But to me, Scottish music is the most beautiful, and this remains true no matter how many arguments I hear about how this music or that is objectively better, or richer, or more complex.

I first heard Scottish music, really heard it, at the Ohio Scottish Arts School, a week-long Scottish arts workshop at Oberlin College.  My interest in the music had been developing for a while before that, and I'd heard plenty of recordings and even played some of it.  But I can't say I really heard Scottish music until I heard it played by my fiddle instructor, Bruce.

Bruce is short, squat and red-faced, wears hideous cutoff jean shorts and has a cauliflower ear from years of rugby.  When he's had a few (dozen) glasses of wine, he starts doing headstands in the middle of a session.

Also, he seems to have just up and swallowed the whole deep ocean of Scottish history and tradition, like that guy in the folk tale, and when he plays it just comes flowing out of him.  His fiddle is like part of his body.  I don't think I caught my breath for days after hearing him play for the first time.

Bruce gave me a scholarship to come back to the workshop the next year, which strangely might be one of the things I've received in my life that has made me the most proud.  To me it meant that he saw potential in me, so that maybe some day I could come close to doing what he does when he picks up a fiddle.

There's a word in Welsh that's not easily translatable into English: hiraeth.  It's most commonly rendered as "longing" or "homesickness," but those are oversimplifications.  To me it conveys much the same thing as C.S. Lewis's notion of "joy" and touches on that most fundamental of all human longings, the divine homesickness for a home we've never seen but that we know to be our ultimate destiny.

You can't go looking for this feeling - it just comes on you, brought on sometimes by the most trivial or unexpected things.  It is painful, because it is shot through with a deep awareness that we can't fulfill that deepest longing fully - not yet, not in this life.  But the hope is there too, the knowledge that there is a Person who can and will fill the emptiness, and that every small experience of virtue or truth or self-sacrifice or beauty is His footprint.

Scottish music is where I've encountered this feeling most often, and I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that it's a Celtic language that actually puts a word to it.

This past weekend at Milwaukee Irish Fest, I discovered the first new band I've heard for a while that plays Scottish music the way I learned to love it.  They are from Nova Scotia, actually, and their music is billed as "fusion," meaning they use some non-traditional instruments and are inspired by different genres in their approach to traditional music.  But make no mistake - they are deeply rooted in the Scottish tradition and breathe incredible life and passion into it.

They have some absolutely kicking arrangements of dance tunes, but my favorite thing they played was a waltz.  When you find out that this tune was written as a wedding gift for a friend, it takes on an even deeper resonance, musically, emotionally, and even theologically. 

As Bruce would say, have a listen.

Jenn and Anthony's - Sprag Session

Friday, August 16, 2013


 I've always liked science fiction.  Star Trek is near the top of my Favorite Things list, and my dad had an anthology of classic sci-fi short stories from the 50s and 60s that I read cover to cover several times as a kid.  I've read Heinlein, Asimov, Vonnegut, et al.

Sci-fi is a philosopher's genre: a lot of sci-fi stories are essentially ethical or metaphysical thought problems dressed up with robots or mutants or parallel universes.  I like the way a sci-fi story will push some reality past its expected limits to explore the implications.

Given that I'm a sci-fi loving Anglophile, it's surprising that Dr. Who never really crossed my path.  I'd barely even heard of the show up until a few years ago.  Then, suddenly, I started hearing about it absolutely everywhere: the TARDIS popped up, like it does, all over my newsfeed and blog reader, month after month.

So I tried watching it, beginning with the 2005 reboot...and I couldn't get into it.  I really, really wanted to like this charming Northerner and his adventures in space and time, but for the longest time I couldn't manage to get hooked in.

Okay, relax.  I've gradually come around.  But it wasn't an instant love affair.

I think part of my slow start stemmed from the show's visual style.  The sometimes poor special effects are notorious, but it goes beyond that.  In general, I think the writers allow the storytelling to ride a little too heavily on effects, bad or good, and especially on the visual impact of various weird creatures.  I prefer it when the impact of a TV episode flows from the suspense and mystery and weird twists of a well-paced story more than from the fear and disgust and shock value of strange and unsettling images.  Star Trek keeps all of these things well-balanced, I think, whereas Dr. Who leans a bit too much on the latter.

Also, philosophical and ethical reflection is not as front and center in Dr. Who as in a lot of sci-fi.  It's there, and I'm seeing it more now that I'm two seasons in.  But a lot of episodes follow some pretty well-know sci-fi tropes and plot devices: robots who want to kill us, robots who want to make us robots, and of course zombies.  Lots and lots and LOTS of zombies. There's not all that much treading of new ground or asking of probing questions.

However, as I said, I've now settled in and I'm enjoying the show quite a lot.  I think the real genius of the series lies in the characters rather than the plot, and especially (of course) the central one.  The sci-fi trappings are actually kind of non-essential to what makes the show great.  That's why some of the best episodes are the time travel ones, because they delve a little deeper into the characters by placing them in a different historical and cultural context.

Speaking of the Doctor: am I the only one in the universe who likes Christopher Eccleston's Doctor best? I'm not really qualified to have an opinion on this since I've so far only seen him and David Tennant.  Well, I did go back and watch one episode of Classic Who from the 70s, but the Doctor was unconscious for most of the episode, so I really didn't learn much.

Anyway, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor just has more...substance to him that David Tennant's.  His performance has so much more weight and nuance and charm and doesn't rely on yelling and slap-happy bluster.  David Tennant is adorable and Scottish, but lacks a little in artistic maturity. Also, David Tennant's Doctor and Rose get way too gooey.  What is with all this hand holding and incessant hugging?  Harumph.

And then there's that smile, which somehow carries the weight of the Doctor's thousands of years of pain and loss.  That's acting for you.

UPDATE:  About David Tennant?  I take it all back.  Still love Christopher Eccleston...but David Tennant is a more than worthy successor.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


I'll hopefully be back to writing soon, though not for at least a week.  I have two article deadlines coming up and my husband is going into yet another tech week, so we're pretty much in Bare Minimum Mode for the time being.

In the meanwhile, I had to share this post from Fr. Longenecker, because...well, it's just perfect:
"I’m a liberal in the classic sense of the word–meaning I wish to have an open mind and an open heart to the viewpoints of others–seeking to embrace and affirm all that is beautiful, good and true in every philosophy, culture, group or perspective. I wish to have an open heart to those in need–to have a preferential option for the poor, to be suspicious of hypocrisy, cant, croneyism and the establishment powers. I want to be liberal in the administration of God’s love for the lost, the needy and the disenfranchised. I like the radical call of the liberal–I admire the maverick and the rebel amongst them. I follow a table turning Jesus.

I am a Conservative because I wish to conserve all from the past that is beautiful good and true. I believe if a thing ain’t broken you don’t need to fix it. I am a conservative because I trust things that have stood the test of time more than that which would replace it. I’m conservative because I want to conserve and repair something old and precious rather than junk it and get something new. To put down roots and grow deep and strong I want to value all that has been tested through generations of thinking people. I’m conservative because I want to make sure those good things from the past continue to live and be relevant and dynamic in the world today.

I’m progressive because I believe God’s Spirit is always doing something young, new and fresh in the world. God’s work is ever creative, ever new and ever bold. I’m progressive not because I believe that the progress of mankind is inevitable, but because it is possible. I’m progressive because all creation is groaning for redemption and God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. He is not dead and he is not done. He is not done with me and he is not done with our beautiful world and he is not done with the human race. I am progressive because I believe in his loving providence the best is yet to come.

I am Traditionalist because tradition provides the roots whereby the new work of God can blossom. Tradition is the trellis on which the vine can grow. Tradition gives the structure, the discipline and the wisdom which instructs and channels the powerful work of the spirit. Tradition treasures the beauties of art, music, architecture, literature and drama which echoes from the past into our age and gives us inspiration and guidance on how to go on. Tradition on its own is dead, but tradition with the power of the spirit is a dynamite that can transform the world and transform me.
I refuse any particular category and will kick out of any box, and I encourage readers who wish to be fully Catholic to do the same."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Healing, Continued

The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don't have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It's a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn't say: 'But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?' No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there's someone ... but, it's not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy. And I believe that is a kairos: This time is a kairos of mercy.
-- Pope Francis, at that interview (translation courtesy John Allen)

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Blogging Challenge: Day 7!

About this time every Sunday, I start to feel vaguely uneasy and preoccupied thinking about the impending work week.  

Part of this is because I don't particularly like my job, and lately it's been significantly less rewarding and more stressful than usual.

But part of it, I think, is that the place of work both in our society's view of a full human life and in my own life are a little unbalanced right now.

Almost every day when I get home, I experience the cumulative effect of a day spent in that absolutely mind-crushing combination of psychological stress and intellectual boredom that seems to be the hallmark of a typical office environment.  I feel exhausted, drained and unable to focus, and about all I want to do is flop down on the couch and watch TV or mindlessly thumb through articles online.

Of course, when I do, the effect is not a feeling of being rested and refreshed.  If anything I feel more exhausted and nervy and less able to cope with the next day's stress.  Why?  I was tired, and needed relaxation, right?

Wrong.  What I needed, and what so few people actually get, is leisure, as defined by Josef Pieper in his phenomenal little book Leisure, the Basis of Culture:

The simple ”break” from work - the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer - is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The ”break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide "new strength” for "new work,” as the word ”refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.
….Now leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work - although it does indeed bring such things!…Leisure is not justified in making the functionary as "trouble-free” in operation as possible, with minimum "downtime,” but rather in keeping the functionary human…and this means that the human being does not disappear into the parceled-out world of his limited work-a-day function, but instead remains capable of taking in the world as a whole, and thereby to realize himself as a being who is oriented toward the whole of existence. 
This is why the ability to be "at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work. Only in such authentic leisure can the "door into freedom” be opened out of the confinement of that "hidden anxiety,” which a certain perceptive observer has seen as the distinctive character of the working world, for which "employment and unemployment are the two poles of an existence with no escape.”

Since I really need a reminder about this right now, I think I'm going to set myself a good old-fashioned high school reading and writing assignment.  I'll read a few pages of Pieper each week and do a synopsis here, with probably some chunky block quotes, then consider its application.  And then, I dunno...have a feast, maybe.  We'll see.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


The Pope has a call for us, and it is the call of Christ - the radical, noisy, messy, scandalous call of the God-Man.

I wrote earlier this week that I was about ready to sock anyone who implied that Benedict was less loving than Francis.  But guess what?  If you're spending a lot of time grumbling to yourself about Francis, you are missing just as much.

There is intense continuity between Benedict and Francis, and the reason for that is that both of them are speaking the Gospel, a Gospel that is the opposite of narrow or tidy or easy to quantify.  Our God is so great that he encompasses all of the riches that both Benedict and Francis have shown us and infinitely more.

Benedict's incredible act of humility and trust, borne out of his deep connection with the will of God both for himself and the Church, had a purpose.  I suggest we start listening for it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Shakespearean Edition

Blogging Challenge: Day 5

1. I mentioned that this is the Summer of Shakespeare at our house.  Last night I got the chance to see the production of King Lear that my husband is performing in for the third time.  Incredible play, incredible production.  I wasn't that familiar with Lear, though I saw it once a few years ago at the big repertory theatre in town.  This recent production has so much more impact.  Part of that is packing a gigantic Shakespearean tragedy into a tiny 60-seat store-front theatre, but much more of it has to do with the performances, directing and design.

2.  Speaking of Lear, my new idea is to write something (maybe a short play, maybe a novella) inspired by Lear about a family struggling with the challenges of an elderly parent with early to mid stage dementia.  I've been around those particular challenges quite a bit in my almost three years working at a retirement community, and in seeing the play these past few times have recognized a lot of very common family dynamics that often result.  My husband's production allowed the characters of Gonneril and Reagan, Lear's eldest daughters, to be a little more sympathetic than in most productions, emphasizing the strain that their father's past abuse and current mental health have put on them.  It would be interesting to explore further.

3. My husband has also started rehearsals for a production of Hamlet that will take place at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.  This venue is a replica of a classical Italian villa, with an enclosed courtyard and extensive gardens.  It's an incredible setting for the play, and it really sounds like they are taking advantage of the distinctive features of the building and grounds in their staging.  I'm excited.

4. Shakespeare project #3 is a short film adaptation of Richard II, one of the lesser-known and seldom performed histories.  My husband is playing Harry Percy, who in later plays is known as Hotspur.  My favorite history is Henry IV, Part I in which the fiery, somewhat rash, but brave and passionate Hotspur is defeated in his quest for the crown by Prince Hal, the lazy, smug wastrel who later becomes Henry V, of "Crispin's Day" fame.  Or at least that's my read on the play.  Other interpretations have something to do with Hal's development into a king and hero, blahblahblah.  HOTSPUR.

5.  We're currently watching "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian TV show that ran from 2003-2006.  The story centers around a Shakespearean theatre festival (inspired by the Stratford Festival in Ontario) and the various people that make up its little community: actors, administrators, corporate sponsors, critics.  I've seen it before, but it's just as good the second or third time around.  It's whip-smart and hilarious - each season is built around the production of one of Shakespeare's major tragedies, and themes from the play being produced shape the plot.  Highly recommended.

6.  Has anyone seen the new Joss Whedon Much Ado About Nothing yet?  We were excited about it but haven't found the time, and now I'm afraid it's probably gone from our local art house theatre.  I was in a student production of Much Ado in high school and loved the Branagh film adaptation, but have never seen it professionally staged.  I'm curious to see what a director who has spent most of his time on vampires and superheroes will do with it.  To be fair, superheroes are awesome and The Avengers was one of the best superhero movies of all time.

7.  For a few years, Milwaukee had its own professional theatre company focusing on Shakespeare's works.  Then the funding was pulled for one of its major grants, and it folded.  It was discouraging when it happened, but in the last few years a number of Milwaukee theatre companies have risen up to fill the void.  Clearly we as a city have a passion for classical theatre.  One of our most active local critics recently wrote on his blog that he had seen 4 Shakespeare productions in 8 days.  Just another sign of the way the arts are exploding in our beautiful city.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Too Many Doors

Blogging Challenge: Day 4

I heard once that, according to the principles of Feng Shui, it's bad to have too many entrances to an office space.  I'm guessing it has to do with energy escaping or the flow of chi or something.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1905
Whether or not you give any credence to Feng Shui, I can personally attest to the fact that working in a room that sits at a sort of public crossroads is not ideal.  My work space adjoins three other offices and the hallway, and I also serve as the gatekeeper for the CEO.  This means that there is a steady flow of traffic through my office, plus a constant multi-layer buzz of noise and activity coming from the adjoining offices.

My boss has sometimes called me "the water cooler" because my coworkers have a tendency to gather in little gaggles in front of my desk and chat.

Some people would probably love being at the center of things and always up on the latest office gossip, but this work environment leaves an introvert like me feeling jumpy and exhausted by the end of the day.  It makes me less productive, too - I need a certain amount of quiet and privacy in order to focus and do my job well.  I often wish my office had fewer open doors.

Pope Francis has talked a lot, directly and indirectly, about opening doors.  Here he is in one of his homilies back in May: 

We think today of Jesus, who always wants us all to be closer to Him, we think of the Holy People of God, a simple people, who want to get closer to Jesus and we think of so many Christians of goodwill who are wrong and that instead of opening a door they close the door of goodwill ... So we ask the Lord that all those who come to the Church find the doors open, find the doors open, open to meet this love of Jesus. We ask this grace. 

This is an important message, especially in an era when tribalism and "us vs. them" seems to be the prevailing narrative. It's good to be reminded that, when it comes to reaching out in love, the Church can't possibly open too many doors. 

However, I think the way in which each of us individually opens the doors of his heart will look different.

I've been thinking about this as I read coverage of WYD.  Pope Francis is becoming notorious for giving his handlers and security people headaches by, essentially, opening doors - seeking out closer contact with those he meets and making impromptu changes to his schedule in order to reach more people.

One example was his last-minute addition of a pilgrimage to Aparecida on what was scheduled to be a day of rest without any scheduled commitments on Benedict's original itinerary.

This change may relate partially to the difference in physical health between Benedict and Francis, but it probably also has something to do with their personalities.  As an introvert, Benedict's self-knowledge and prudence would lead him to plan in the appropriate amount of rest and time alone to allow him to be fully present and effective as a loving pastor.

As an introvert, I know that I become less effective and less able to deal with people calmly and helpfully if  I'm working in an environment with constant interpersonal interactions.  They wear me out and don't allow me to recharge.  The same applies more broadly to the Christian life and my personal pursuit of holiness.  Although it is my responsibility to push my comfort level to a certain extent, it is also my responsibility to work with my personality, both strengths and weaknesses, to determine how I can live out my calling as a disciple of Christ most effectively.

At this point, I'm about ready to sock anyone who implies that Benedict is less loving and open than Francis.  But that doesn't mean the two of them won't come across differently, or that some people might respond differently to their distinct personalities.  As Simcha Fisher noted recently, none of us is the whole Church, and something one person doesn't respond to might be just what another needs to hear.

We need to recognize how each of our two recent Popes, in his own unique way, opens the door to God's love.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All the Books

Blogging Challenge: Day 3
Sometimes I'm afraid that I've read all the books.

It's not that I think I've read all the good books.  I've read quite a few of the great classics of the western canon, but there are many, many more that I haven't read.  Most of Dickens for instance.  Or, you know...Madame Bovary. 

It's not that I think I've read every book I'll ever like, either.  I just finished a recently-written, Pulitzer-winning novel about an immigrant family from India and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It wasn't a classic or a work of genius, but it was well-written and a good read.

It's more a fear that I've read all the books that will ever be my favorites.  I mean the books that I've read literally dozens of time, that I can practically recite from memory, with characters that feel more real to me than a lot of real people that I've known.  I mean the authors with whom I feel a strange personal connection and who have informed my artistic, philosophical and even spiritual worldviews almost as much as my own parents.

I can't go back and read Til We Have Faces for the first time, or the Confessions, or Brideshead, or Gaudy Night.  I can't re-discover the works of Shakespeare or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Graham Greene.

These books will always be a part of my life.  I'll buy new used paperback copies every few years because mine will have fallen apart and lost their covers.  I'll take them to bed with me when I can't sleep, read them to my kids, lend them to friends.  I'll still cry when I re-read them decades from now.

But it's been quite a few years now since a new book was added to that list.  It almost seems like that chapter (so to speak) of my life is over.  I miss it.

This all sounds kind of morose.  I'd be curious to hear from people a little older than I am about their reading experiences at different stages in their lives.  Did you continue to occasionally have that experience of discovery and kinship with a previously unread author?  Or were you pretty much tapped out by the age of 28, and had to think about reading a little differently?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: Promised Land

 Blogging Challenge: Day 2

Promised Land came out last year, but we just got around to watching it.  It's co-written by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, who also star along with Frances McDormand.  The story follows a representative of Big Natural Gas, Inc. (okay, "Global Solutions") as he makes a preliminary visit to a farming community to try to convince its residents to lease their land for hydraulic drilling for natural gas ("fracking").
  • My first reaction on hearing a description of this movie was that it sounded a little dull and preachy.  I wasn't entirely wrong: despite the "twist" at the end (which spoiler etiquette dictates I can't reveal), it followed some pretty well-worn plot tropes and was quite heavy-handed in its message.  My main exposure to the whole fracking controversy has been the documentary Gasland, and I haven't really done any research into opposing viewpoints.  However, unless the doc is based on pure falsehood, it would certainly seem that fracking is at best a risky technology and at worst an environmental and public health catastrophe and a deliberate exploitation of impoverished families for corporate interests.  Still, fictional explorations of ideas like this are always best if they are secondary to great story-telling.
  • On the other hand, the protagonist was actually the representative of the "bad guys," and the story of how he got there was pretty compelling.  The fact that the farming lifestyle has become unsustainable and dependent on big industries and government handouts is a heart-breaker of which I wasn't fully aware.  I did find his big conversion at the end to be a little implausible, though.  I can certainly buy that the discovery of unethical practices by your employer might lead you to quit your job, but usually not by way of a beautifully crafted tear-jerker of a speech in front of hundreds of your employer's screwed-over constituents.  But it's the movies, after all.
  • Speaking of farming, I wish I was more moved by the tradition of farm life and its place in American history and mythos.  My grandmother grew up on a farm, so it is part of my heritage, even though I've been a city kid all my life.  This movie had a lot of scenes of people talking about their land and how it had been passed down for five generations as well as numerous montages of cows juxtaposed with American flags set to stirring music.  I simply don't respond to that, somehow.
  • I'm in no way immune to John Krasinski's charms - in fact, I think what he and Jenna Fischer created on The Office with the Jim/Pam romance is one of the reasons the show has become so iconic.  He's drily funny and deadpan and charming again in this movie, but - sheesh - is he a one-trick pony.  The character might as well have been named Jim.  Except that Jim wasn't such a sanctimonious jerk, so I suppose that required a step outside the memory-foam-levels-of-comfort zone.
  • This all sounds like I liked the movie a lot less than I did, which was some.  I particularly liked Matt Damon's performance, with his customary level of craft and nuance.  It really seems like he's due for that big Oscar-winning role one of these days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Text

Blogging Challenge: Day 1

At our house the past few months have been dubbed the Summer of Shakespeare.  My husband is working on three different productions of Shakespeare's work - simultaneously - which means we've been absurdly busy but enjoyably steeped in some of the greatest plays ever written.

Forbes Masson as Feste in Michael Boyd’s 2005 
production at the Royal Shakespeare Company
I've seen more live Shakespeare over the years than most people my age, and have always been most affected by productions where the power and beauty of the text itself was given pride of place.

I don't have a problem per se with high production values or even some well-placed spectacle.  The problem is when these things pre-empt, distract from or even mask the power of the text.

Same goes for any given concept or interpretative lens - it has to work within the text rather than fighting against it.   If you're going to set A Midsummer Night's Dream on a lunar colony, you sure better have a textual justification for it.

One of the most powerful productions of Shakespeare I ever saw was in London in 2005 - an RSC production of Twelfth Night (maybe my favorite of the comedies).  There were a lot of things that made the show especially moving, not least the exquisite music played on period instruments.  But one of the things I remember most about it was the way the director chose to highlight the character of Feste, the fool.  It became really his story, almost more than Viola's.  Somehow this was accomplished not by trampling on the text but by drawing out certain things that slip under the radar in a lot of more conventional productions, particularly in Feste's songs.

If done right, productions like that one can honor a centuries-old play and its playwright not by deconstructing but by shedding light on previously hidden facets of the work.