Alleluia for the Easter Season

I used to find Easter a letdown. Lent is so full of the self-improvement activities of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I typically add a midday prayer to my usual Morning and Evening Prayer. I decide what organizations I want to give alms to: a different one each week of Lent. And fasting: not from food (my health doesn’t allow for that), but from something I feel is keeping me from closeness to God. The past few years it has been fasting from judging others (or trying to).

Then comes Easter. The first week is always a joy, reading about Jesus’s various post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. But in my Catholic faith, the Easter season continues way beyond this: for a full fifty days, until Pentecost. Catholic practice doesn’t instruct me to do anything special during these fifty days. So instead of the fullness of God’s grace, I’ve felt this season to be an empty repetition of “Christ has risen.”

Until this year. I don’t know why… but this year, each day of the prolonged Easter season has filled me with grateful wonder. The Scripture selections in The Liturgy of the Hours, which I pray from, feel richly full. Each week there are passages from Romans:

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is the word of faith which we preach) (10:8).

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him (6:8).

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also, through his Spirit dwelling in you (8:11).

Both in life and death we are the Lord’s (14:8). [Read more…]

Inventing the Kingdom, Part 2

diploria strigosa fossil by james st john on flickrThis post, which appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 92, is continued from yesterday. [Link to yesterday’s post here]

“I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” Carrère says, and his other books bear this out, but in The Kingdom most of the best portraits are of the bit players. Carrère’s rendering of Saint Paul, on the other hand, is straight out of central casting: a vain megalomaniac, a sort of Gnostic heresiarch eager to escape the world and eager for the Apocalypse.

With Saint Luke, Carrère is more generous, in part because he sees himself in Luke. The Greek physician is a cultured man, steeped in pagan tradition, “fond of anecdote and human traits; theology bored him.” Luke comes late to the party: the sayings of Jesus are already available in Mark’s Gospel, but Luke, with his gift for narrative, is impelled to weave his own version of both the Gospel and the early church.

The problem Luke faces, according to Carrère, is that there are too many gaps in the story, and so he has to do what many gifted contemporary writers have done in such circumstances: he invents. Carrère thinks Luke not only invented stories like the infancy narratives of Christ but that he was the ghost writer for the Epistle of James, since the presumably illiterate “brother” of Jesus could not have written anything.

Late in the book, Carrère pauses to justify his form of highly personal interpretation by contrasting his method with that of Marguerite Yourcenar, author of many novels, including the epic Memoirs of Hadrian. He quotes Yourcenar’s literary manifesto for her historical fiction:

Strive to read a text of the second century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the second century; let it steep in that mother solution which the facts of its own time provide; set aside, if possible, all beliefs and sentiments which have accumulated in successive strata between those persons and us…. Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us….

Carrère’s school of writing, he says, is more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. “Good modern that I am, I prefer the sketch to the grand tableau”—another baffling statement in light of his sweeping four-hundred-page tableau of Christianity’s first century. [Read more…]

Inventing the Kingdom, Part 1

image of Emmanuel CarrereThis post appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 92.

When The Kingdom landed on my desk with a thud, I could tell that it would pose a challenge—that it would be a book I had to contend with. In addition to being a substantial tome, it comes with the cultural imprimatur conveyed by its publisher, the venerable Farrar, Straus and Giroux, whose backlist includes the likes of Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, and Flannery O’Connor.

From the publicity materials I learned that its author, Emmanuel Carrère, is one of France’s leading writers and intellectuals, the author not only of novels and memoirs but also of film and television screenplays, some of which he has also directed. One of these was a series about people who mysteriously come back from the dead, not as zombies, but as people resuming their normal lives: Les Revenants, remade in North America as The Returned. Carrère’s books include My Life as a Russian Novel and The Adversary, the chilling story of a Frenchman who posed as a doctor for twenty years, then killed his own family in a doomed attempt to prevent the truth from coming out.

The Kingdom begins with a memoir of Carrère’s fleeting conversion to Christianity more than twenty years ago, the moment when, as he put it at the time, he felt “touched by grace.” You can tell by the way he writes about it now that Carrère is embarrassed by the sentimentality of this phrase. But at the time his devotion was sincere, manifesting itself in daily Mass attendance and a series of notebooks in which he recorded a running commentary on the Gospel of John.

And yet, only a couple of years later, he would relinquish his faith. “I forsake you, Lord,” he wrote in the final notebook. “Please do not forsake me.” [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Spirit of Promise”

image of an individual in a church looking upwards and maybe taking a photo; her back is to the camera.Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, /  like you, the start of everything.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Trump and the Borgias: The Stuff of Great TV

Image of Jeremy Irons in the television series The Borgias as the PopeFive hundred years from now our present political confusions, conflicts, and outrages will become the stuff of high melodrama.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would look back on this period of American history as entertainment, but they’re bound to, I expect.

Not Singin’ in the Rain entertainment, but certainly something like Wall Street or The Big Short.

That’s what’s happened to the legacy of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander VI, and his family of mistresses and illegitimate children. I’m nearly done with the third and final season of Showtime’s The Borgias. Created by Neil Jordan and starring Jeremy Irons as the lascivious, ambitious patriarch, it was advertised as “The Original Crime Family” to draw explicit connections to The Sopranos and The Godfather.

If the stories are true (which, to be fair, some historians are challenging), this Spanish family treated the papacy as a tool for acquiring power and wealth rather than as a profound spiritual responsibility. Rodrigo bought the papacy with a mule-train of gold, sold cardinal’s hats to increase the Vatican coffers, hosted elaborate orgies—even kept mistresses whilst pope. His son Cesare was an amoral cutthroat who wouldn’t flinch at assassination and regularly betrayed people—he became, in fact, one of the “heroes” of Machiavelli’s Prince.

Conflicts of interest and nepotism were almost de rigeur for this family. Foreign entanglements were an explicit strategy. [Read more…]