In accordance with long established practice, for Mother’s day, we drove up to Petaluma to visit Anne-Martine’s mom, who, as a result of some as yet undetermined illness, was hospitalized last week and is now in a nursing home for at least a while. Prayers appreciated.
We attended Mass at St. Vincent’s, a beautiful church and the church in which we were married coming up on 30 years ago. What we did not know going in was that this particular Sunday, the 10:30 Mass was to be said in Portuguese, and that a procession of an image of the Suffering Christ was to follow:
Seems that several centuries ago in the Azores, a beloved image of the Suffering Christ was feared destroyed in the collapse of a church caused by an earthquake. The weeping locals dug through the rubble and discovered the statue undamaged, and so, in typical Catholic fashion, had a procession and a party!
There is a large Portuguese population in California, clustered in places where fishing and agriculture were early established – Monterey, Pescadero and San Francisco for fishing, and, among other places, Petaluma for farming. So my wife grew up among several large Portuguese farming families, and St. Vincent’s as the local parish incorporated any number of Portuguese devotional practices. Including this procession and party.
I could hardly be more down with all this – rock on, Portuguese Catholics! Party down!
The Mass itself was full of pomp. And noise. I don’t know if the Portuguese are traditionally noisy people in church, or if the spirit of V-II had a disproportionate (or perhaps merely delayed) effect on them. They yak up a storm. But hey, I’ve seen worse. They all showed up for Mass in their Sunday best, which is way cool and to be commended wholeheartedly.
The exception was the music – when the band played on, any singing by anybody in the congregation fell below the sensitivity of my instruments – ears and eyes – to detect. The music itself was all some sort of modern-ish guitar tunes in Portuguese, so I have no idea what they were all about. More melodramatic than modern Mexican liturgical music; much less musically sophisticated than modern Filipino mass songs.
The thought I could not escape: what is now Portugal has been Catholic for about 1,500 years, and, while largely on the periphery of Christendom due to geography, nevertheless was a part of the Church’s general artistic and liturgical traditions for all that time. It a sure bet that there are vast amounts of perfectly wonderful liturgical music used and loved over the centuries in Portugal, some of which was no doubt even produced by locals. In any event, Portugal could not have escaped the effects of centuries of chant, polyphony, and other beautiful liturgical music.
Yet, here we sit in church, listening to music that cannot be more than 50 years old, performed well after the manner of its kind, by people who were pretty decent musicians. But this music is being performed in place of music that would actually have something to do with the events being celebrated in the procession and party! One can’t even use the feeble excuse of active participation – the people are going to sit there and listen, more or less, no matter what the musicians play.
Instead of lavishing the same sort of care on the musical traditions that they obviously lavished on the procession itself, they let die all the art and power that uplifted their ancestors in favor of music that the congregation, as far as I could tell, ignored any way.
The death of a musical tradition is just as sad as if the overall traditions of a people were to die. The Portuguese, and all of us, really, are poorer for it.
Saturday, the three members of the Moore clan still in Concord attended a very sweet wedding at our church. Helen, and Les got married after finding each other 50 years after being high school sweethearts. After getting to know each other in band (Les: trombone; Helen: clarinet) and sitting next to each other on the band bus and otherwise become an ‘item’, Les joined the army upon graduation and went away. Helen waited 6 years, then got married; Les also got married somewhere thousands of miles from Helen. All this happened about 50 years ago.
Then, a few years ago, Helen’s husband died. More recently, Les’s wife died. His mind turned to Helen, and, with the help of his children, he tracked her down on Facebook and asked if he could come see her. She said yes. (I can only imagine what went through her mind! She must have a very forgiving soul!) Next thing you know, Helen sells her house in Florida and moves to Concord to be with Les, enters the Church to better share his life (which is how we got to know them) and marries the guy! They are a cuuuute couple.
I don’t really know them all that well – my beloved got to know them better. Les has some children, but Helen was childless. Everything in my limited knowledge of her suggests she’ll step right into the mother role for Les’s grown children and the grandmother role for her new grandchildren.
Which is a very good thing, essential, even. The role of mother may be created by biology, but is much more than that. Human beings are not solitary animals, nor even family-group animals. As Aristotle says, man is a political animal. The smallest unit in which a man can act politically is the polis, the city. To state the obvious: no city, no society can exist for more than a generation without mothers, and biology is only part of it. Something that has slowly dawned on me over the 30 years I’ve been married and the 25 years I’ve been a father: the roles of mother and father only begin in the family, but are truly expressed and deeply needed in the community at large.
This is why the church blesses and recognizes as a sacrament even a wedding between two elderly people who are far past the age for producing children. As wonderful as conceiving and raising children is, it remains just a part of the picture, and not, ultimately, a required part. A marriage is a marriage even if no children are produced; a woman can be a wife and even a mother without bearing children of her own. C. S. Lewis makes this point in That Hideous Strength in the characters of the Dimbles – a childless couple who nonetheless serve an indispensable role as mother and father to many children of all ages.
I watch my wife and other mothers who have embraced the fullness of their vocation, and see them mothering EVERYBODY. Just as fathers will gather to be patriots – fathers to their country – mothers act as mothers to their society and culture. In this rich moral universe – the real world – there is no either/or for mothers – acting as a mother to her own children by its very nature moves her to be a mother at large. Just as being a father means sacrificing for the culture and society in general, being mother means nurturing not only her own children, but nurturing the children of all ages who embody the culture in which her biological children live. Mother love is in this way the opposite of loving mankind – she loves exactly those real people in her life, and in the lives of her children and family, that make up the relationship among friends that is the ideal of society. No mere abstractions.
I love my wife more for being the mother of our children, just as I suspect she loves me more for being their father. Like all mothers to the degree they embrace their vocations as such, she is moved by her natures, by her loves for me and our children, to try to do good for our friends and neighbors. It is the sum of all these little actions by all the selfless mothers out there that create the emotional backbone of a culture, that enable us to see in others somebody’s son or daughter, and to love them at least a little for that alone.
For these reasons, Mother’s Day is not just the celebration of the blessing a mother is to her own children – although it is certainly that – but a day to recognize the essential role motherhood plays in any society worth living in. In this days where everything about mothers from their basic biological role to their honored and noble place in society are viciously attacked, let us celebrate mothers in their full glory.
Chesterton’s one sermon would be on Pride. Usually, G.K. is astoundingly prescient. This one time, did he miss the turning tide? A couple of the opening paragraphs, very much classic G.K.C.:
Now the first fact to note about this notion is a rather curious one. Of all such notions, it is the one most generally dismissed in theory and most universally accepted in practice. Modern men imagine that such a theological idea is quite remote from them; and, stated as a theological idea, it probably is remote from them. But, as a matter of fact, it is too close to them to be recognised. It is so completely a part of their minds and morals and instincts, I might almost say of their bodies, that they take it for granted and act on it even before they think of it. It is actually the most popular of all moral ideas; and yet it is almost entirely unknown as a moral idea. No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.
Let us put the fact to a trifling but not unpleasing test. Let us suppose that the reader, or (preferably) the writer, is going into a public-house or some public place of social intercourse; a public tube or tram might do as well, except that it seldom allows of such long and philosophical intercourse as did the old public house. Anyhow, let us suppose any place where men of motley but ordinary types assemble; mostly poor because the majority is poor; some moderately comfortable but rather what is snobbishly called common; an average handful of human beings. Let us suppose that the enquirer, politely approaching this group, opens the conversation in a chatty way by saying, “Theologians are of opinion that it was one of the superior angelic intelligences seeking to become the supreme object of worship, instead of finding his natural joy in worshipping, which dislocated the providential design and frustrated the full joy and completion of the cosmos”. After making these remarks the enquirer will gaze round brightly and expectantly at the company for corroboration, at the same time ordering such refreshments as may be ritually fitted to the place or time, or perhaps merely offering cigarettes or cigars to the whole company, to fortify them against the strain. In any case, we may well admit that such a company will find it something of a strain to accept the formula in the above form. Their comments will probably be disjointed and detached; whether they take the form of “Lorlumme” (a beautiful thought slurred somewhat in pronunciation), or even “Gorblimme” (an image more sombre but fortunately more obscure), or merely the unaffected form of “Garn”; a statement quite free from doctrinal and denominational teaching, like our State compulsory education. In short, he who shall attempt to state this theory as a theory to the average crowd of the populace will doubtless find that he is talking in an unfamiliar language. Even if he states the matter in the simplified form, that Pride is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, he will only produce a vague and rather unfavourable impression that he is preaching. But he is only preaching what everybody else is practising; or at least is wanting everybody else to practise.
Let the scientific enquirer continue to cultivate the patience of science. Let him linger — at any rate let me linger — in the place of popular entertainment whatever it may be, and take very careful note (if necessary in a note-book) of the way in which ordinary human beings do really talk about each other. As he is a scientific enquirer with a note-book, it is very likely that he never saw any ordinary human beings before. But if he will listen carefully, he will observe a certain tone taken towards friends, foes and acquaintances; a tone which is, on the whole, creditably genial and considerate, though not without strong likes and dislikes. He will hear abundant if sometimes bewildering allusion to the well-known weaknesses of Old George; but many excuses also, and a certain generous pride in conceding that Old George is quite the gentleman when drunk, or that he told the policeman off proper. Some celebrated idiot, who is always spotting winners that never win, will be treated with almost tender derision; and, especially among the poorest, there will be a true Christian pathos in the reference to those who have been “in trouble” for habits like burglary and petty larceny. And as all these queer types are called up like ghosts by the incantation of gossip, the enquirer will gradually form the impression that there is one kind of man, probably only one kind of man, perhaps, only one man, who is really disliked. The voices take on quite a different tone in speaking of him; there is a hardening and solidification of disapproval and a new coldness in the air. And this will be all the more curious because, by the current modern theories of social or anti-social action, it will not be at all easy to say why he should be such a monster; or what exactly is the matter with him. It will be hinted at only in singular figures of speech, about a gentleman who is mistakenly convinced that he owns the street; or sometimes that be owns the earth. Then one of the social critics will say, “’E comes in ’ere and ’e thinks ’e’s Gawd Almighty.” Then the scientific enquirer will shut his note-book with a snap and retire from the scene, possibly after paying for any drinks he may have consumed in the cause of social science. He has got what he wanted. He has been intellectually justified. The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan.
Go read the whole thing, it’s not long.
Two issues here that make his insights less easy to apply in this case than in many others: England is not America, and the 1930s are not the 2010s. The English have legendary reserve, and so may be supposed to react more strongly to braggarts and bumptious fools than we less reserved Americans. Maybe.
Be that as it may, even 50 years ago in America when I was a child, puffing yourself up and putting on airs was pretty sternly frowned upon. There is a difference over time in how Americans view pride, even if the cultural differences turn out to be negligible.
I grew up in a world where, in sports, you were very careful not to show up your opponent. Part of being a good sport was taking success and failure, winning and losing, in an even, generous way. My, times have changed. Rules have been passed to reign in taunting at all levels of sports, merely meaning you have to taunt more quietly and subtly. Guys who act like they just single-handedly won WWII when they sack a quarterback or hit a homerun are not viewed as pompous jerks, but as men for children to imitate.
Later, Chesterton mentions the Lady Killer as a particularly despised man, that the common man can understand and sympathize with weakness in sexual matters, but cannot tolerate a man who flaunts his successes in indulging in such weakness. As discussed in the comments to my review of Guardians of the Galaxy II, that is ancient history as well. Only *literally* killing the mothers you impregnate and the children that issue therefrom is bad. The slaughter of hearts and the strangling of love is a-ok, as long as you’re up front about it.
In the second essay, Chesterton tells a charming story about a trip he took to the Spanish town of Tarragona:
I was sitting at a cafe table with another English traveller, and I was looking at a little boy with a bow and arrows, who discharged very random shafts in all directions, and periodically turned in triumph and flung himself into the arms of his father, who was a waiter. That part of the scene was repeated all over the place, with fathers of every social type and trade. And it is no good to tell me that such humanities must be peculiar to the progressive and enlightened Catalans, in that this incident happened in a Catalan town, for I happen to remember that I first noticed the fact in Toledo and afterwards even more obviously in Madrid. And it is no good to tell me that Spaniards are all gloomy and harsh and cruel, for I have seen the children; I have also seen the parents. I might be inclined to call them spoilt children; except that it seems as if they could not be spoilt. I may also remark that one element which specially haunts me, in the Spanish Peninsula, is the very elusive element called Liberty. Nobody seems to have the itch of interference; nobody is moved by that great motto of so much social legislation; “Go and see what Tommy is doing, and tell him he mustn’t.” Considering what this Tommy was doing, I am fairly sure that in most progressive countries, somebody would tell him he mustn’t. He shot an arrow that hit his father; probably because he was aiming at something else. He shot an arrow that hit me; but I am a BROAD target. His bow and his archery were quite inadequate; and would not have been tolerated in the scientific Archery School into which he would no doubt have been instantly drafted in any state in which sport is taken as seriously as it should be.
I was reminded of a trip I took to Italy when in art school. We were in Fiesole near Florence on Easter. I had attended the Vigil Mass at the Cathedral in Fiesole, being warned that getting into the Duomo in Florence would be involved. So, the next morning I headed down to see about the noon Mass, as I’d been told about the Explosion of the Cart, and wanted to see it.
(I suspect this is one of those ‘Only in Italy’ things: a beautifully-decorated metal cart is pulled into the plaza between the Duomo and the Baptistry by two lovely white oxen with gilded horns. The oxen are lead away, a door in the cart is opened and a wire running back into the Duomo is hooked inside.
At the conclusion of the last mass of Easter Sunday, a paper mache white dove with a small fireworks rocket inside is ignited near the high altar and launched down the wire into the cart – which slowly explodes into a fireworks/sparkler display, the the cheers and applause of the assembled throng.
The Holy Spirit is going out into the world to set it on fire, you see. Very fun and cool.)
So, I get to the plaza plenty early, and find a spot where I, a tallish man, can see. Gradually, the plaza fills up behind the safety barriers, with many dads with their children.
I got the see the wagon come in and the oxen lead away. I had a nice view. Then, at some signal i didn’t catch, the Dove was ignited inside – and a thousand small children were lifted up upon the shoulders of their dads, completely blocking my view. The dove flew, the cart ‘exploded’. All in all, seeing all that father-child bonding was as good a show as sparklers on a cart!
On the north side of our house is a little concreted in area where we keep our trashcans (or, more accurately, this being California and all, our recycling bin, our yard waste bin and our landfill bin). There are a couple small areas up against the house, no more than a couple square feet each, where the soil is exposed. Why those little areas were not paved I have no idea.
We’ve lived here for over 20 years. In an exhibition of hope triumphing over reason, one of previous owners planted calla lilies in those areas. Somehow, they are still there. To recap: no sun, no care, poor clay soil. The only way they ever get watered is by rain or maybe when I wash off the patio in the back and the water accidentally makes into the beds. Note that I don’t wash off the the patio often, pretty much never when we’re having a ‘drought’, so called. So, for the past 5 years, those flowers have gotten by on only a tiny amount of water at highly irregular intervals. Yet, they will not die.
As you may have heard, it has rained a freaking lot (technical term, that) this year out here in California. It’s raining now. We’ve received well over a foot more rain than is typical, almost 200% of average.
The calla lilies liked it:
Mrs Yardsale of the Mind cut a bunch for Easter and put them on the table, where I snapped these pictures. Over the spring so far, there have been maybe a couple dozen beautiful flowers, totally unearned and unexpected.
Blessed Fra Angelico has got what you need. First, we have the women at the tomb greeted by an angel:
The Risen Christ hovers in the background, as it simply would not do to show merely an empty tomb. This fresco is in cell 8 upstairs at San Marco’s Dominican Convent in Florence, so Fra Angelico paints St. Dominic kneeling to the left – in the brother’s cell, he (almost) always puts a Dominican in the scene, to remind the viewer that he is not just looking at a pretty fresco, but is to see himself in the events portrayed.
I love the way the angel sits rather casually and seems to be caught mid-lecture: He is risen as he said!
Ye sons and daughters of the Lord,
the King of glory, King adored,
this day Himself from death restored.
All in the early morning gray
went holy women on their way,
to see the tomb where Jesus lay.
Of spices pure a precious store
in their pure hands these women bore,
to anoint the sacred Body o’er.
The straightaway one in white they see,
who saith, “seek the Lord: but He
is risen and gone to Galilee.”
Next, from cell #1, is the “Do not cling to Me” scene from the Gospel of John:
The lack of a Dominican is a little unusual – a quick skim spotted only 3 or 4 others cell frescoes out of 36(?) or so cells that do not feature one. I could make up a story about how the text being illustrated – Mary Magdalene, confused and desperate, looking for her Lord, is enough of an Every Person for the artist’s purpose. But I don’t know.
Love the hoe on Christ’s shoulder – mistaken for the gardener, indeed. Here and in his Annunciations, where man’s fall and salvation are front and center, Fra Angelico sets them in a garden and adds much details to the plants and trees. Man’s proper place is, after all, in a garden, a place restored and then some by Christ’s Resurrection. Ave fit ex Eva, after all.
We’ll end for this year with Piero della Francesca’s awesome Resurrection:
Aldous Huxley, of all people, describes this fresco thus: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” Like most masterpieces, photos do it no justice. Piero captured the grandeur of the Risen Lord, and his realistic portrayal of the guards as contemporary Italian men at arms who dropped asleep where they sat is wonderful.
One last distraction: count the guards’ legs. Piero was painting the Resurrection, not guards’ legs, so if he needed to leave out a few…
A happy, holy and blessed Holy Thursday to all who read this blog and their loved ones.
Let’s look at some nearly randomly chosen Last Supper art:
Along the east coast of Italy, facing what used to be the Eastern Roman Empire across the Adriatic Sea, there are a number of churches that look east for their architecture and style. San Marco, in Venice, is the most outstanding. Above is a mosaic of the Last Supper, from sometime after the 10th century, capturing the moment in St. John’s Gospel where, at Peter’s urging, John lays his head on Jesus’s chest and asks who it is who will betray Him. Typically of iconography, little attempt is made at realism – feature, not a bug, as the point of all such art is to raise our minds to contemplation of the Truth, not artistic realism.
An oddity: all 12 apostles are shown – and each has a halo. Since, at this point in the narrative, Judas has not yet left to lead the soldiers to Christ, is the artist trying to tell us he is still an Apostle, still counted among the holy?
Here, for example, from a few centuries later:
Note that John still had his head on Christ’s chest, even though at this point Christ is shown consecrating the bread and wine. Judas, front center left, does not have a halo. He is depicted as having already abandoned himself to treachery and the devil. There’s a long history of northern Europeans – largely, the Germanic tribes – having a very legalistic view of things which the missionaries from Italy had a devilish time trying to convert them from, such as compiling books of exactly what penalty each carefully-defined sin would get them in the confessional. The Eastern artist wanted to convey that even Judas was chosen by Christ for holiness and salvation. Huguet wants us to know who the bad guy is.
Fra Angelico wanted to be realistic, after the fashion of Giotto, with real figures shown doing real things. He’s also working with the existing architecture – he’s fitting this fresco on a wall under an arch, which intrudes in the upper left. He takes these considerations, and makes them strengths. He can’t hang his Apostles suspended in mid-air behind a table whose surface is in another plane from wherever it is the Apostles are located, so he wraps the table around under the arch, gives the three Apostles sitting there a higher built-in bench to sit on so that they line up nicely heightwise with the Apostles along the other stretch of table.
But there’s not enough room to show all 12 in this manner. Our Byzantine artist in Venice would have just packed them in, and that’s what Huguet did – nobody is eating dinner in his picture, they’re practically sitting on top of each other. Fra Angelico instead shows 4 empty seats that, had the Apostles been sitting on those benches, would have put them awkwardly with their backs to us, and instead has them kneeling – a nice reference to the way people would have received Communion in the churches in Italy in his day. These four Apostles obscure each other – unlike the other 8, they are not individuals, but a crowd. I think Fra Angelico did this on purpose, to have those 4 represent us, the people not at the table at the Last Supper, kneeling to receive Him today nonetheless. Also, he sticks Judas in that crowd, compromising on the halo question by giving him a dark one – Judas is still among the chosen Apostles, but he is losing the gift of grace as he embraces treachery.
Unlike the other paintings, here the table is cleared of dinner. “When supper had ended” we are told in Scripture, Christ consecrated the bread and wine. The other artists wanted to emphasize the Passover meal, and so showed it still on the table. Fra Angelico wants to emphasize the connection between what went on at the Last Supper and what goes on today at Mass, so the table is cleared. It is the Lamb of God distributing Himself Who is portrayed, Who completes and supersedes the pascal lamb of the Israelites.
Christ comes around the table to distribute Communion, just as the priest at Mass comes down to the railing. Assuming Christ was sitting in the middle, he’s starting with John, who would have been next to him according to John’s Gospel, and, as the youngest would be a beardless Apostle. But there’s also a clean-shaven Apostle on the end, so can’t be sure.
Finally, he puts Mary (I’m pretty sure) kneeling in lower left. Some tradition place her at the Last Supper, although she is not mentioned there in the Gospels. It serves Fra Angelico’s purposes to show her there – she is also us, in a way, the woman who said yes and for whom the Almighty has done great things. That yes and use by God for great things is what we aspire to. Judas is in a kneeling crowd, a crowd of those aspiring to what Mary has achieved – total surrender to the will of God. He could have chosen otherwise.
There are hundreds of other wonderful representations of the Last Supper. Maybe in future years we’ll get to a few more.