I’m going to give some attention to the public FB post of a long-time family friend, an African-American IT professional and pastor from the Baltimore suburbs between western city line and Patapsco river that have been my home territory (though not always where I’ve lived) for the better part of three decades. He posts publicly there, we can pretty safely say, not because he’s inattentive to information privacy matters, say, or is just an indiscreet person, but because he means to present an open testimony of fidelity — the fidelity he understands to be our due to God and wants to urge those under his pastoral care to follow his example in, as also conversely God’s primary fidelity toward the people of God, the ground of this man’s declared confidence in doing the thing he sees to be right even when it’s a very painful thing to do.
I’m lounging alone on the screened-in back porch at S.’s dad’s place a few hours outside New York on a Sunday morning, browsing books, smoking an early pipe and on my third cup of coffee. (No one else is up yet.) The house — a 1950s ranch-style out-of-town place now long his and his wife’s home base, where S. spent a good deal of her teens and twenties — is packed with books. All the rooms — bathrooms, basement rooms, hallways included — have full bookshelves. It’s a writer’s haven. I have a bio of Hannah Arendt pulled from the guest room and a Penguin Graham Greene, from a stack of Penguin Graham Greenes in the basement, in front of me on the coffee table I’m propping my feet on.
Noting here a two-week-old article in the NYRB about the Jew-caricature in medieval Europe and its connection to evolving Christian tradition.
In accord with the new devotions, artworks had just begun to portray Christ as humbled and dying. Some Christians struggled with the new imagery, discomfited by the sight of divine suffering. Proponents of the new devotions criticized such resistance. Failure to be properly moved by portrayals of Christ’s affliction was identified with ‘Jewish’ hard-hearted ways of looking. In this and many other images, then, the Jew’s prominent nose serves primarily to draw attention to the angle of his head, turned ostentatiously away from the sight of Christ, and so links the Jew’s misbegotten flesh to his misdirected gaze.
The author, Sara Lipton, teaches history and Judaic studies; I gather she’s been working on the story of the development of anti-semitic imagery for a long time. The article seems intended to introduce her new book Dark Mirror.
This would be a fine occasion, obviously, to pick up again with what I started in May, but I don’t have time for it now. Hope to come back to it in the new year, perhaps.
Went to Mass today. It’s some years now since my Rome-ward shift, and though I can say that it’s proven a substantial thing, I’m still very much in process of finding my way. I don’t go to church every week. I would like to, but I don’t. Sometimes there are good excuses, sometimes not. I’m not especially ashamed of not making it to church regularly, in any event. The long period of my adult life in which regular church-going was a sort of primary virtue is past, possibly for good.
As I understand Christianity, it conceives of the world as wholly oriented to the call of God via the resurrection of Jesus. Christians say that God not only creates and rules over, he also redeems and restores. That he redeems and restores the world assumes first, of course, the fallenness and (therefore) the freedom within it of human beings, who are the weirdest, least obviously integrated piece of an otherwise evidently comprehensive and systematic, generative and entropic material order of God’s making. Human beings don’t introduce corruption and fallenness on their own, but in their freedom they take part in introducing it, and they’re susceptible to it by nature: susceptible, subject to its structural effects and to dealing constantly with its meaning.
In the last of an otherwise not especially satisfying short series of articles for National Catholic Reporter, covering his objections to Robert Sirico‘s Catholic-flavored economic libertarianism, Michael Sean Winters arrives at something I found pretty wonderful, an idea that elevates the whole series: ‘the model for Christian creativity is the receptive, dependent, suffering creativity of Jesus, the Son’ — which he attributes to David Schindler. I take with caution Winters’ elaboration, that ‘there is nothing protean, nothing self-made, nothing frugal or thrifty, nothing self-assertive, nothing competitive, nothing greedy or self-interested in the lives of Jesus and His Mother,’ since it is certainly possible in a qualified way to see the Jesus of the gospels as self-assertive and competitive (to the point of combativeness) in his social and political context. (The all-important qualification is that Jesus’ self-assertion comes with, and for a believing reading definitely out of, a messianic self-awareness oriented to revelation and relationship to transcendent authority. It may even be promethean (as I think Winters means), in a sense, but apart from a prejudicial reading, from sources external to the narratives themselves, it can never be taken for mere self-expression or self-satisfaction.)
From the beginning of my off-&-on writing here I’ve wanted to explore my sense — from experience, mainly — that creativity is basically receptive (not to say passive) rather than productive. I’ve never really done so explicitly, though. At best, I guess, I’ve been oblique, on rare occasion — hinting I’d like to re-frame my old interest in ‘design culture’ as belonging to ‘reading.’ For one thing, my theological background just isn’t up to the discussion, and I think getting anywhere with it demands a theology. Finding Winters’ reference here gives me some hope of coming to the theme anew.
The most fascinating form of the yearning for the Holy Spirit was formulated by a pious abbot in southern Italy in the twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1130–1202). Joachim was deeply conscious of the deficiencies of the Church in his time: the hatred that separated Jews and Christians, the old and the new people of God, from one another; the hostility between the Church of the East and the Church of the West; the jealousy between clergy and laity; the high-handedness and greed for power displayed by the Church’s men. This led him to the conviction that this could not yet be the definitive form of the Church of God on earth and that before the return of Christ at the end of the world, God must take a new step on t h i s earth, in this history. He longed for a Church that would be truly in accordance with the New Testament and the promises of the prophets and, indeed, with the deepest yearnings of man’s heart, a Church in which Jews and Gentiles, East and West, clergy and laity would live in the spirit of truth and love, without precepts and laws, so that the will of God for his creature man would be genuinely fulfilled. Out of this grew his new vision, in which he attempted to interpret the rhythm of history on the basis of the trinitarian image of God. After the kingdom of the Father in the Old Testament and the kingdom of the Son in the hierarchical Church that had existed up to then, a third kingdom, a kingdom of the Holy Spirit, would come from around 1260 onward. This would be a kingdom of freedom and of universal peace.
At this point, we must ask an even more fundamental and general question: What does it mean to speak of a “name of God”? When God receives names in the Old Testament, can this be anything more than a reminiscence of the polytheistic world in which Israel’s faith in God was obliged to struggle step by step to find its own form? This view may seem to find support in the fact that the individual names of God, which are numerous in the early strata of the tradition, disappear gradually, as the Old Testament faith develops; although the name “Yahweh” is retained, the Second Commandment meant that it had ceased to be uttered long before the time of Jesus. The New Testament no longer knows any proper name of God; one contributory factor here was the fact that in the Greek Old Testament, the name “Yahweh” had already been largely replaced by the term “Lord”. But this is only one aspect of the matter. It is indeed true that the individual names of God disappear once the polytheistic beginnings are left behind; but is also true that the idea that God has a name plays a decisive role precisely in the New Testament. In many ways, one may regard the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel as the high point of the development of the New Testament faith, and this brief text speaks four times of “the name of God”. The principal part of the text, in verses 6 and 26, is set within the framework of Jesus’ testimony to his own mission, which consists in making known to men the name of God. Jesus appears here as the new Moses who now accomplishes completely and in reality what had begun in a fragmentary and hidden manner at the burning bush in the wilderness.
It’s a couple of months, probably, since I was in a church on a Sunday. (Not for lack of interest, certainly. Regular failure to get my act together enough, on the weekend, so as to act from my own felt interest — that’d probably be the summary judgment. But unavoidable circumstance has had a role in there.) This morning I made it to an early service. I was aware of course, in back of my mind somewhere, that the Pope is in the UK on tour for a few days, during which he is to declare Newman beatified. But I’m in my own corner of the globe and wasn’t thinking about the UK this morning. The priest presiding where I was visiting, then, at first caught me a little off guard with his rambling reflection (unconnected to the readings & more or less in lieu of homily) on the occasion, which he’d watched taking place a few hours earlier, and on Newman’s influence on popes in his time & since, on various bishops of Baltimore, &c.
Early in his talk he trotted out the famous verses written by Newman while young & a rising Anglican — as I can imagine hundreds of other priests all over are also doing today. And I had to be, and am, grateful for it. I don’t know them well — so no sentimental attachment — and find it easy to slight them as the sort of thing that gets icon standing in Christian culture for iffy-to-bad reasons, reasons quite apart from artistic merit & so on. Yet I am in that very position where very subjective words like these, and some little anecdote about the author to go with them, do good for me because of little that has to do with any deft poetic capture of things or elicited moment of (re)discovery, much or everything to do with the turn back around to myself & my frustrations in interpreting my own experience. The week I’ve just come off, in fact, was one particularly suited to bring home how unpleasant the last six or seven years have mostly been for me — a fresh taste of the old disappointments pressing in, the periods of self-torment, &c. &c. Really, this morning was a good time for me to be read a mediocre verse prayer for knowing the light I think I’m after, for capability to be led, for not losing heart if indeed I’m being led. And a good day, in any event, to make it to a church.
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene — one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.