Nearly 9 million people were mobilized to serve in Britain’s military during World War I. By the time photographer Giles Price started seeking veterans of the war in 2005, there were just 23 left. … His series, “The Old Guard,” features portraits of the last 12 veterans of the war, which broke out 100 years ago next summer. At the project’s start, Price wrote letters to each of the veterans requesting to take their photo. Thus commenced a race against time. “I was 20 minutes from taking one sitter when the home rang me to say he had passed that morning. He was 106,” Price said.
Price built a small studio in each of the homes he visited and used a studio flash to light the portraits. He shot the centenarians looking upward and ahead, in an effort to place less emphasis on their extreme age and more on the pride and dignity they retained over the years. “The gaze was one of reflection, be that the war, long life, or anything that we associate with time and memories,” Price said.
In the midst of a searching rumination on the current state of Catholic writing, Dana Gioia offers a description:
Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collection Sinners Welcome, she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.
Much of Gioia’s essay grapples with the decline of Catholic art and literature from its heyday in the mid-20th century. One reason he cites for the current impoverishment? A growing obsession with politics:
Helen Plotkin unpacks the Jewish prayer “Grant dew and rain for a blessing upon the face of the earth”:
[S]ometimes rain is not just rain. All over the Jewish sources, from the Bible to the Talmud to the prayer book, rain stands in for a more general earthward flow of divine nurture. Talking about rainfall is a way of talking about the relationship between God and humanity. When one is in good shape, so is the other. In fact, water is a major plot-driver of the Bible. Sometimes the narrative suspense comes from a scarcity of water, and sometimes it comes from being overwhelmed by too much water.
How she connects the prayer to contemporary America:
In our own era, Americans have farmed like the Pharaoh. We have used the power of technology to irrigate land without rain, making tomatoes and cantaloupes available year round. We have even relied on the labor of sojourners, people who live apart from those they serve in conditions that the served would never tolerate for themselves, people who are needed but whose growing power gives rise to fear.
And we have been forced to remember that life on earth actually does teeter between deluge and drought. Our focus on power over balance has not protected us from the danger of either kind of water crisis. In these circumstances, the prayer for rain is a powerful offering. The tradition teaches us to read it metaphorically, as an expression of longing for spiritual nourishment, challenging us to live in a way that allows God’s gaze to fall upon us for a blessing. And we can read it more literally as well: May we learn to live in a way that nurtures balance. May our interactions with the natural world leave us neither parched nor drowned. May the rains in their season bring bounty and blessing.
(Image of rain via Yuliya Libkina)
In my view, he was a kind of religious genius born in a fertile place and time: on the Silk Road, when Hellenistic ideas about body and soul had begun to take root in the Middle East, and when the winds of eastern mysticism—with the idea of karma, for instance—blew in from Persia and farther afield. Jesus grasped these concepts, and weaved them into his teaching, overturning traditional Jewish assumptions though building on some of them as well. The Sermon on the Mount offers a unique blend of western and eastern thought, summarizing his ideas. Here he puts forward his radical notions about nonviolent resistance to evil. In the gospels, he spoke in challenging aphorisms and parables. As he walked and taught in Galilee, he modeled behavior that shocked those in who met him.
By his death and crucifixion, he modeled suffering and death as well as life. He understood that his life was symbolic, even mythical. And by his resurrection—which was not the Great Resuscitation but a kind of magical transformation into a new form of life, eternal life, he offered humanity hope.
In an excerpt from his book, Parini elaborates on the significance of the resurrection, noting that when Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, she didn’t recognize him:
Nobody recognized Jesus at first — a point of huge significance, as it underscores the difficult and mysterious nature of the Resurrection, which defies all norms and defeats rationalization.
A homage to fall as the season draws to a close:
“I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that’s forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It’s just clear tears; it’s not grimacing or being contorted, it’s just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen. This continues in the poet. It may be repressed in some way, but I think we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the ‘I’ not being important. That is the ecstasy. It doesn’t happen as much when you get older. There’s that wonderful passage in [Thomas] Traherne where he talks about seeing the children as moving jewels until they learn the dirty devices of the world. It’s not that mystic. Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: ‘Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.’ That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature. I’ve always felt that sense of gratitude. I’ve never felt equal to it in terms of my writing, but I’ve never felt that I was ever less than that,” – Derek Walcott.
Noting that “genetic diversity in the human population is not consistent with what we would expect if all humans had descended from a single pair of individuals,” Loren Haarsma grapples with what that means for the Christian understanding of original sin:
A variety of scenarios are being proposed by Christian scholars today for how we might understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2, and their disobedience in Genesis 3, in light of modern science. Some scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals living in Mesopotamia just a few thousand years ago, acting not as ancestors but as recent representatives of all humanity. As our representatives, their disobedience caused all of humanity to fall into sin. Other scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals, or as literary representations of a small group of ancient representative-ancestors, selected out of a larger population, living in Africa over 100,000 years ago at the dawn of humanity; they were ancestors—but not the sole ancestors—of all humans today; they fell into disobedience against God over a relatively short period of time with a fairly distinct “before” and “after.” Other scenarios propose that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3 is a symbolic retelling of the story of every human who, over our long history, became aware of God’s claims on how they ought to live, and then disobeyed.
Jerry Coyne snarks:
Adam and Eve couldn’t have been the literal ancestors of all humanity. Normally, such a scientific trashing of scripture could be absorbed, at least by liberal theologians. They’d just reinterpret Adam and Eve as metaphors. But that causes big trouble on two counts.
Paula Marantz Cohen attempts to understand George Eliot’s desire for Christian morality without a Christian deity:
Eliot … was an enormously pious young girl. In Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the young heroine, Maggie Tulliver (an autobiographical portrait of its author at that age) is obsessed with God. Maggie reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, a book that greatly influenced the young Eliot. But in 1853, her knowledge of German led her to another book, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, which she went on to translate. Feuerbach argued that God is not external to us but a projection of our best qualities as human beings. The Devil is the projection of our worst. This way of thinking came to inform Eliot’s view of God, and influenced her understanding of art and the task of the artist.
Last year, in an essay exploring Eliot’s attitude toward religion, Rohan Maitzen drew a parallel between Eliot and Marilynne Robinson:
“It seems to me,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson has said, “that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”
Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, argues that in “the decades leading up to the Englightenment … open-minded questioning of religion became increasingly associated with an acceptance of suicide”:
Christianity did not initially reject suicide…. In fact, Jesus’ death was understood by many as voluntary. In the Book of John, Jesus says: “No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself.” Then came the martyrs. Some did not want to die, but many did. “I am yearning for death with all the passion of a lover,” wrote Ignatius of Antioch. … The rage for martyrdom went on for centuries. …
The defense of suicide was taken up most forcefully by David Hume in Britain and Baron d’Holbach in France. In their writings, neither man dwelled on the horror that a suicide can bring to family and friends, nor did they consider that suicides, if saved, might get over their misery, averting a tragic error. Hume poked fun at the church, arguing that if death were entirely the purview of God it would be a sin to avoid a stone that falls toward our head. D’Holbach pitied those forced by their belief in God to endure sadness rather than end their lives at will. Both Hume and d’Holbach considered suicide a valid escape from misery.
Hecht continues, “That view, now a defining stance of secular culture, is a mistake and needs rethinking”:
Writing about a Bambi spin-off in 1930, [Karl] Kraus claimed to detect the sound of Jewish dialect—or “jüdeln”—in the speech of Salten’s hares. Salten was a hunter (a humane one, he always insisted), and, as it happened, he had just published a piece about his love of hunting. Kraus joked that Salten’s hares had adopted a Yiddishy tone of voice in order to blend in with a special type of enemy—the Jewish hunter. The hares were “perhaps using mimicry as a defense against persecution.” When Salten died in 1945, an American critic found a more straightforward connection between the plight of some animal characters and that of the Jews. In his obituary for Salten, the critic, having noted Salten’s “Zionist sentiments,” maintained that the fox in Bambi not only comes across as the rapacious “Hitler of the forest,” but also has a mentality of hatred and rage that bears similarities with Goebbels’ anti-Semitism.
It was not until a decade ago, however, that an actual reading of the “Zionist overtones” in Bambi was proposed.
One is the great warmth, affection and magnetism of this man—Francis—and his willingness to allow the gospel to shape his ministry in a very profound and visual way. Additionally, the pressures of the culture we find ourselves in has, in a way, forced Catholics and Protestants together in a new way, where they realize that what divides them is far less than what unites them. … And when you hear a Pope stand up and talk about mercy, and forgiveness, and the broken hearts we all endure, and the need to push gossip aside and how destructive that can be in our lives, he’s getting down to the very granule level of faith that I think is appealing to the evangelical and Protestant mind.
A second selection from Emily Dickinson’s newly published “scraps” and fragments:
may gloat on
be the same
Now I abundance
Which was to
famish then or
Unto the Gallows
in the sky
(From The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson © 2013 by Christine Burgin and New Directions. Transcription images copyright © 2013 by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)
Bill Keller, an erstwhile Catholic, recently reiterated the case against priestly celibacy (NYT):
The arguments for lifting the requirement that priests forswear sex and marriage are not new, but they have become more urgent. Mandatory celibacy has driven away many good priests and prospects at a time when parishes in Europe and the United States are closing for lack of clergy. It deprives priests of experience that would make them more competent to counsel the families they minister. Celibacy — by breeding a culture of sexual exceptionalism and denial — surely played some role in the church’s shameful record of pedophilia and cover-up.
“Lots of people don’t see [celibacy] as some extraordinary act of witness,” said Thomas Groome, who heads the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College. “They see it as just a peculiar lifestyle, and one not to be trusted.” Groome was a priest for 17 years but left to be a husband and father. “The loneliness of it, I think, can drive people crazy,” he told me. “I’ve known hundreds of priests in my life,” from student days in an Irish seminary through the priesthood and decades as a theologian. “I don’t know too many diocesan priests, maybe three or four, who have lived a rich, life-giving, celibate lifestyle.”
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, read the piece with exasperation, noting that the article is “based largely on the opinions of two priests who left the priesthood and a sister who left her order, and [Keller's] own speculation about what the celibate life must be like”:
Maybe it would have been helpful to look at some actual data.
Richard Beck ponders Caravaggio’s intentions:
Most think Matthew is the bearded man. It appears that he’s pointing to himself as if to say “Me?” in response to Jesus’s call. This theory is supported by two others works of which The Calling is a part, The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. In those paintings St. Matthew looks similar to the bearded man who is pointing to himself in The Calling.
And yet, some think Matthew is the young man on the far left of the painting, the one at the table hanging his head. The gesture of the bearded man, if you look at it, is plausibly pointing to the young man with the unspoken question now being “Him?”. If the young man is Matthew the painting is capturing the moment just before Matthew lifts his head from the table to look at Jesus.
Beck goes on to write that he believes Matthew is the bearded man, but prefers the “drama” of imagining it to be the young man, about to look up and meet the eyes of Jesus. Pope Francis’s perspective on the painting, which he discussed in an interview with America in September:
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
(Image of The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, c. 1600, via Wikimedia Commons)
A reader writes:
Your post quoting Francis’s wish for a “bruised, hurting and dirty” Church suddenly sparked a match in my head – the face of the Whiskey Priest, the protagonist from one of my favourite novels, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. And all at once I put my finger on what it is that makes Francis so exciting – he is Greene’s pope. The priest of that novel is drunken, adulterous and self-destructive, weak and self-pitying. He is a “hollow man”, filthy and unshaven. But he is the greatest priest in all fiction because his is the church of the street, the church that will take you however awful or fallen or destitute you are. The church needs to hurt and fail too, if it is to properly care for a fallen people.
“It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful,” reflects the priest. “It needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt”. Even as an atheist teenager I remember being struck by this radically beautiful idea. I came to see two Catholic Churches in my head: the untouchable hypocritical Ratzingers caught up in that perfect web of procedure, and the repugnant filthy whisky priests seeing pity in all humanity. That Francis sees the ideal of the Church to be poor tells me he’s on the right track.
We will never get a whiskey Pope, I suppose, which is a shame. But something tells me Greene would have liked the idea of a hurting church and a Pope who washes the feet of convicts.
Alice Robb examines some research showing that drinking and drugging in adulthood correlate with higher childhood intelligence:
Drawing on the results of the National Child Development Study, which tracked for 50 years all British babies born during one week in March 1958, [evolutionary psychologist Satoshi] Kanazawa found that kids who scored higher on IQ tests grew up to drink larger quantities of alcohol on a more regular basis than their less intelligent peers. He evaluated other factors, including religion, frequency of church attendance, social class, parents’ education and self-reported satisfaction with life, and found that intelligence before age 16 was second only to gender in predicting alcohol consumption at age 23.
In Kanazawa’s model, illicit drugs constitute another evolutionarily novel experience—and he (and others) have also found a link between high IQ and experimentation with drugs. In Kanazawa’s study, the higher a respondent’s IQ before age 16, the more psychoactive substances he or she had tried by age 42. Another study found that 30-year-old women who had earned high scores on an IQ test at age five were more than twice as likely to have smoked weed or used cocaine in the previous year; men who had scored highly on IQ tests as children were 50 percent more likely to have recently consumed amphetamines or ecstasy.
Gretchen Reynolds examines research on the extent to which sex is exercise:
[Professor of exercise science Antony D.] Karelis and his colleagues recruited 21 young heterosexual committed couples … and had them jog on treadmills for 30 minutes, while researchers monitored their energy expenditure and other metrics, in order to provide a comparison for the physical demands of sex. The scientists next gave their volunteers unobtrusive armband activity monitors that gauge exertion in terms of calories and METs, or metabolic equivalent of task, a physiological measure comparing an activity to sitting perfectly still, which is a 1-MET task. Then the scientists sent the couples home, instructing them to complete at least one sex act a week for a month while wearing the armbands, and to fill out questionnaires about how each session made them feel, physically and psychologically, especially compared with running on the treadmill.
When the researchers analyzed all of the resulting data, it was clear, Karelis said, that sex qualified as “moderate exercise,” a 6-MET activity for men and 5.6-MET activity for women. That’s the equivalent, according to various estimates, of playing doubles tennis or walking uphill. The jogging, by comparison, was more strenuous, an 8.5-MET activity for the men in the study and 8.4 for women. (Though some men, according to their activity monitors, used more energy for brief periods during sex than they did jogging.) The sex also burned four calories per minute for men and three per minute for women, during sessions that ranged from 10 to 57 minutes, including foreplay. (The average was 25 minutes.) Men burned about 9 calories per minute jogging and women about 7.
A former family doctor and recovering morphine addict offers a harrowing account of what it’s like to take and withdraw from the drug:
I am an outcast; I see a father walking along the roadside, holding his children by the hand. It’s like a knife, a small parcel of anguish, why can’t I be like that, be a normal dad, with normal interests and normal concerns. I remember it, I remember walks and family picnics, birthdays, holidays, Christmas. The memories seem to come from a far distance, a long-lost place. I’ve sent this happiness, this contentment, away from me. The normal world is a rainbow of colours, mine is dull and grey. Why can’t I be like that still, how did I lose it?
It’s a selfish ordeal, I’m drowning, too immersed in my own misery to think about the people I am hurting, my wife, my children. “A devil in the house,” my wife calls it, no matter how many times she tries to push it out it keeps on getting back in again. The drug has come between us, has ruptured that bond, that presumption that we were a couple and a family, that we would meet everything together and handle it together. I have betrayed the trust, I have promised her again and again that I would stop, that no, I’m not acting strangely and no, I haven’t used and no, there’s nothing wrong with my voice, and yes, I’m clean, that this was definitely the last time, but I’m like all addicts; you know I’m lying because my lips are moving.
And I get angry when my lies are challenged, when she asks about a blood-stained tissue, or wants to see my arms to check for bruises, or finds a stray needle or empty ampoule. I make up some story, try to explain it away, I had a blood test today, or I banged my arm on the car door, the ampoule must have been there from a few months ago, it sounds stupid even as I’m saying it, but it’s all I’ve got. What about the kids, she asks, supposing Jack or Katie had hurt themselves on that needle, how would you feel, do you not consider them? I have no answer, I think I care, but the drug comes first every time.
Recent Dish on drug addiction here.
(Hat tip: Mind Hacks)