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& Anna Karenina | tilling the soil of a cosmos
The fall has brought a lot of changes (as seasons are meant to do), and I think one of the graces of change I am still learning is how to adjust the vision to the new reality.
Advent is the perfect time to embrace a season of already-and-not-yet, of false starts of surprising plot twists, of things not going as you expected.
Advent is a season that, on its surface, seems like a bit of liturgical pretend. Wait for the Lord, we sing, but he did indeed come last Christmas, and—for that matter—the 2,000 before that, so what exactly is all this waiting for, except as a bit of theatrical Christmastime flair?
When you push Christianity to its limits, or down to its roots, you’ll find this funny thing called eschatology. What Christianity is ultimately concerned with is the final things—what awaits us at the end of time—what is revealed in the eschaton, that is that final moment of the world. Basically, what’s left after everything breaks down. And everything will, won’t it?
Institutions, countries, cultures—none of it is permanent. The young priest at Mass last week spoke about the skyscrapers in Chicago crumbling eventually. It was quite a dramatic, sci-fi-influenced image. But I appreciated the goad to the imagination. How often have I looked at the cigarillo skyscrapers popping up along the granite patch south of Central Park and think: those can’t go away? They seem like very permanent aesthetic and financial sins—an architecture of excess that can’t be easily repented of.
But they aren’t permanent. All things will crumble, with the rare exceptions of Stonehenge or the Sphinx proving the rule.
And so what is left? That’s the question that Christianity is concerned with.
Of course, all that will remain is love—love is the only permanent reality we have to hold on to: the gift of self for another self.
And this, of course, is right here, at our fingertips: this love that, at the end of the universe, will remain is in front of us each day. So how do we order our lives around that love instead of more immediate concerns: how will we pay the credit card bill, complete the project, stay warm this winter, keep ahead in the rat race?
What a better question: how will we love? We live in a time in which the project has begun: love has come among us, and has made possible the gift of love in us that mirrors the gift of love in God. And yet we have to peel back so many layers of experience and daily living to get to the root, to find that core of love in a distracted and distracting world.
And so we remind ourselves every year that the birth of a child is not the completion of the world the child has ripped open for us. We live perhaps more truly than we do the other 48 weeks of the year, when we forget that we are waiting, that we are on a pilgrimage whose entire way is the end.
Keats in the Sheets
“There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet”— to Benjamin Robert Haydon, May 1817
— From the Blog—
Church Life Today
If this newsletter were not proof enough that I needed an editor, this podcast is more so. I think in final draft, but I speak in first.
Keats in the Streets
“I am however young, writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Sweet Unrest writing out in the world—
John P. Meier, priest, scholar, and author of ‘A Marginal Jew’ has died at 80, Religion News Service
I woke up one morning to see the news on Twitter (this was several weeks before I deleted my account) that John Meier had died. I have the fondest memories of his Gospel of John class my first year of graduate school. My classmates and I wrote down the more colorful of his sayings. He did not share my assessment, which I once told him in office hours, that the historical-critical method of study scriptures was one of the most beautiful applications of human imagination in history, but he was the embodiment of the word fabulous.
His class was one of the cornerstones of my faith as it lives today. Because, truly, theology can never be divorced from what-is. And the historical-critical method asks: what was? What is? What are the factual, empirical steps of history behind texts we know like the backs of our hands?
And once you know that the basis of Christian revelation is God working in what-is, you are free.
So I did what little I could to pay homage to such an influential professor. Write an obituary:
Meier retired from his position as the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in 2018. He continued to teach and work on the sixth volume of his “A Marginal Jew” project during his retirement. He was a greatly loved figure on campus. Colleagues called him “a Renaissance man” and “a prince of a person.”
Meier was a prolific preacher who quoted Scripture passages in English and Greek from memory. A beloved professor, Meier’s dry wit and wisdom entertained and delighted students, one of which was this author.
“It sounds nice, but — like so many nice sounding religious statements — is wrong,” went one of Meier’s classroom bon mots.
“Education is the process by which you unlearn everything you once knew,” was another.
Please read the full in memorium here.
Across the U.S., Catholic pilgrims are walking together for racial justice, America
This article has such a fond place in my heart and a special place in the story of this summer, as it was a Zoom interview with Will Peterson about his first pilgrimage that inspired our pilgrimage this summer.
Will Peterson, 30, the founder of Modern Catholic Pilgrim, made his first pilgrimage on a whim. He was a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame, interning in Chicago during the summer of 2012. After work one Friday, he took a train to Ottumwa, Iowa, about 300 miles west. Mr. Peterson spent that first night in Iowa sleeping under a tree. He called his journey a “proto-pilgrimage” because he didn’t have a prayer intention or clear destination. But he knew his purpose: practicing trust. “Like in Matthew—why do we worry, he clothes the lilies of the fields, he feeds the birds—I just wanted to trust God that this will be a good experience,” he said.
Please read the full story here.
Speaking of pilgrimages,
on Friday, I received a letter from the Finger Lakes Trail, the non-profit, community-run organization that has built and maintained the trails James and I walked on this summer. They are doing an annual appeal to help with trail maintenance and building.
And here’s a small testimony about why such trails are important:
There was one — cough—memorable day where I assured James that we would be walking on trail the entire day, and, lo and behold, we approached a trail crossing and on the other side of the road was impassable weeds and marsh. That section of the trail had yet to be completed.
A man at a Dunkin Donuts offered James a ride, but when I appeared out of the bathroom, he said he “didn’t have room for two” (sus af, I say). A man also drove his truck off the road to tell us about Warm Showers, which does seem like a very cool concept, and I appreciate his commitment to sharing about it. A bus honked at us, and we tried to communicate we wished to board it to the end of the highway, but it failed to comprehend us or, more importantly, stop for us.
We hoofed it for two hours on the side of a petit highway with semis flying by us at speeds of over 50. Was there shade? No. Did we have frequent water stops? No. Did James complain, even though he was carrying the bulk of the load on his pack frame? No. <3
We finally made it off the wee freeway to the side road leading to the church. The church, which was an oasis of air conditioning and cold water, was one of the few we encountered that was open for us. They were, providentially, having a garage sale—one of the garage sale ladies told us to come back the next day for it—and James swapped his small knapsack for a large hiking bag.
Heartened and cooled, we walked up the much smaller street to where the trail resumed, and we took it to our destination, where our hosts grandly greeted us with cold beers.
So I encourage you to donate, to fund future pilgrims and prevent their death by semi-truck on the highway.
Or, better yet, see if there’s a community-run trail in your area, and take yourself on a walking pilgrimage.
Mr. Brown’s Bylines
“Brown, who is always one’s friend in a disaster, applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning though the ball hit me on the sight.” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Pieces from good friends, and from writers whose words have been a friend to me—
James Murphy, “Saying ‘Yes’ to the Stranger in Need,” Grotto Network
James writes beautifully about a family we met in September who has been a great gift to all of us. James himself is often a demonstration of the Marian yes, and has softened my heart to be less of a naysayer and more of a fiat-giver.
I live and work next door to St. Thomas of Canterbury Church in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Our parish runs a soup kitchen and a food pantry during the week, so it’s not unusual for people to be milling about on the church steps.
On a recent Saturday morning while on my way to visit the nearby St. Francis Catholic Worker house, I saw two men looking lost on the church stairs. They saw me walking out of the house attached to St. Thomas of Canterbury and asked if I worked at the church. We struck up a conversation, which altered the course of my day — and impacted my life and the lives of many others since then.
Read James’ story here.
Bob Choiniere, “The first phase of the global synod has come to a close. What have we learned?” America Magazine
I will not give up on the Synod, although it seems like most of the U.S. Church has. Bob has been a champion of the Synod, one of the first people I met whose excitement for it educated me on its importance.
But like an effective exercise program, empathetic listening must become a routine practice, not a singular activity. As then Bishop Robert McElroy wrote in the July/August issue of America, "Once the reports to Washington have been sent, there will be a strong and natural institutional tendency in most dioceses to let the process of synodality at local levels go dormant until after the pope’s apostolic exhortation on the universal synod is released in 2024.”
Now, while the church is convoked in synod, there is a great opportunity to build upon these graces and strengthen our practice of empathetic listening, communal discernment and co-responsibility. One way that dioceses, parishes, universities and other Catholic organizations might continue to build upon this good work is by becoming schools of listening and discernment.
Read Bob’s reflection here.
Emily Claire Schmitt, “Do We Have to Learn How to Live with Porn in a Relationship?” FemCatholic
It’s a great question and even better article! Emily does it again.
Compared to the young women of today, I had it easy. No one tried to choke me or asked for anal sex, both of which are increasingly common. In fact, 25% of American woman report being scared during sex. It shouldn’t have to be said, but most women do not enjoy being choked. They especially don’t like it when it’s a surprise.
Unfortunately, you’d never know that from watching porn. Despite what we may want to believe, the version of sexuality portrayed in pornography absolutely impacts our real sex lives – and it’s usually women who suffer the consequences.
Read the full essay here.
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“The Literary world I know nothing about” to George & Georgiana Keats, Feb 1819
—Highlights from the Good Reads shelf—
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve picked her up again, in a year-long re-reading that continues with every COVID quarantine. I’m not done with the novel yet (maybe that will happen the fourth time I have COVID har har). But, on every page — Levin’s story, the Oblonskis, Anna’s deliberations and the society schedule—I see the questions I’ve been asking about the epistemology of a culture. What can we know together? What do we know together—anything? And how does what we know together harm us or heal us?
“Before, when I was told to consider him clever, I kept wondering why I should and came to the conclusion that I was too stupid myself to see how clever he is. But the moment I said: He is stupid, [everything] became clear,” says Princess Myakhky.
1870s Moscow has a lot in common with 2020s America, in terms of having a lot of new ideas and yet no idea of how to incorporate them into a culture. The tensions of individual and community are equally heightened. Particularly, as is the preoccupation of many chapters of Anna Karenina, the terrible challenge of incorporating modernity into the practice of marriage, which seems so far to have gone as well as pouring new wine into old wineskins. Marriage is a very weighty institution for passing on a culture, and seems to be in a bit of a state of crisis of meaning at the moment—as it certainly was in Moscow among Anna’s social circuit.
Fights about the meaning of marriage take up a lot of very tired airspace in our division-driven media. And “marriage” is a bit of a strawman, because what we’re really saying is we can’t agree on the basics of what it means to be a person. Marriage is simply the social mechanism by which we pass on that meaning.
It calls to mind an idea that Paddy Gilger, SJ writes about in his chapter for Roots: Catholic Youth Evangelization in a Post-Pandemic World:
Yet despite such rightly celebrated freedoms, there is one capacity that remains beyond the purview of individual persons: the capacity to construct a morally significant world. Which means, to the extent that it takes the individual as the object of its ministrations, purposive psychology cannot aid young people in providing for themselves what no individual can provide for her or himself: a morally significant world; a cosmos rather than a universe. […]
And the construction of a cosmos is a supra-individual project, one that requires being able to tell not just a personal story about the purpose of my own life, but a collective narrative within which my story finds its place, origin, and vector.
What does it mean to be an individual and a collective? I think we have lost even the idea of our own individual identities now that we have no more collectives. And the collective itself is mostly lost, despite "the “poor conservatives who don’t know what to conserve” who want to hold onto the remnants of a collective cosmos that have made their way down to them but are an empty tomb and shroud.
Tradition, now, it seems, is opted into by individuals—the perverse insistence of the individual of holding onto a past that no longer has any collective meaning outside the individuals who have decided to hold onto it, despite the changes that have occurred in the community.
So how does one change, together? Mechanically, I have no idea. But, theologically, that is a Resurrection.