Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bless me Father

A few weeks ago I wrote here about my early experience with the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession. Now, in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) I read a review of a new book by John Cornwell called The Dark Box, a history of the sacrament. Reviewer Peter Marshall writes:
But the real starting point of Cornwell's story comes with the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), a pope who was canonized in 1954, and who to this day remains an icon for some traditionalist Catholics, but who is the undoubted villain of The Dark Box. Pius was a humble and holy prelate of peasant stock. But he was also dogmatic and authoritarian, obsessed with the spectre of "modernist" heresy within the Church, and a rising tide of materialism and secularism outside it. His ruthless suppression of dissident scholars and theologians inflicted wounds on Catholic intellectual life from which it took decades to recover.
Before Pius X, the age at which Catholic children began to partake of the sacraments of confession and communion was about 13 or 14. Pius decreed that seven was the "age of discretion," when children could tell the difference between right and wrong, and therefore share the sacraments. He also instituted a harsh new regime of clerical formation, designed too protect candidate for the priesthood from corrupting influences of the world.
This proved to be, in Cornwell's view, a truly toxic combination. Priests imbued with a sense of their own unchallengeable authority, but inoculated from much contact with family life, or any understanding of child psychology, inculcated into generations of Catholic children an abiding sense of guilt and shame, and an image of God as a petulant tyrant to be propitiated by the performance, or avoidance, of a narrowly specified shopping list of actions. Many of these -- almost inevitably -- were to do with sex.
I suppose mine was the last generation of Catholic children to suffer under this absurd confessional regime. I would like to think that I have recovered from any permanent damage, but who knows. Cornwell apparently has much to say about how all of this relates to the clerical abuse scandal, of which he was himself a victim, but I had no experience of that. My quarrel with the Church was always more intellectual than moral; once exposed to empirical criteria for truth (lower-case), the whole shabby brocade of archaic dogma collapsed into a heap. Lord knows I've sinned, and I hope those I've sinned against can forgive me, but that doesn’t include the Lord, or the sleepy priest in the dark box.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Speed demons

They're back! Rocketing about like teenage hot-rodders, One can almost imagine the squeal and screech of tires as they stitch the meadow with their shenanigans. Zip! Zoom! Skimming the grass. Then, up, up, and away, pausing at the top of the sky, diving with the speed of a falling rock. Swish! Swish! Stop on a dime.

White-bellied. Backs of iridescent blue. Sleek as a bullet. All muscle and feather. As aerodynamic as a dart.

Tree swallows. Once upon a time they nested in trees. A century ago when Neltje Blanchan wrote her classic bird guides, she was already aware of the tree swallows' preference for ready-made habitations, that is to say, the bird boxes humans provided for martins, bluebirds and wrens. She foresaw the day when tree swallows no longer deserved their name.

That day has come. The tree swallows in the meadow have commandeered the bluebird boxes. When the bluebirds arrive soon they'll find the obstreperous squatters have taken over.

OK. We'll call them white-bellied swallows. And forgive their squatter ways because we love their high-jinks, their youthful devil-may-care carousing, their air-show acrobatics. Yes, we love the bluebirds too, but they'll have to hurry their spring migration, or stay the winter, if they want to find a place to nest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh great, something else to worry about

Tom and I watched the movie Gravity this past weekend. He'd seen it before and wanted me to view it.

Spectacular special effects, but I can't say I was taken by the film. Just a lot of non-stop smashing and not much human drama other than the usual pop fare. For my taste, I much preferred director Alfonso Cuarón's previous film, the Mexican coming-of-age road movie Y Tu Mamá También.

What I liked best about Gravity was learning afterwards from Tom about the Kessler syndrome, the cascading collisions of satellites and space debris that provides the driving plot of the movie.

Low Earth orbits are now so crowded with active and defunct satellites and other junk that one catastrophic shattering collision could set off a chain reaction that would wrap the Earth in a shroud of fine debris that could render space inaccessible for generations.
Not to mention the devastating disruptions of life on the ground if all active low-orbiting satellites were lost.

I suppose I had heard about this before as part of the background noise, but it never firmly registered on my consciousness. What is the critical density of orbiting objects that makes the Kessler effect likely? Are we there yet?

But think of the spectacular nights of "shooting stars" as bits and pieces of all those pulverized objects rain to Earth.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Breaking the ice

This morning I'll turn you over to Mo.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unending time

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why cranes fly -- a Saturday reprise

There were a few Comments here recently about herons, from right around the world. What is the power of this bird to touch our minds and hearts?

The naturalist Aldo Leopold was intimately familiar with the cranes of Wisconsin, cousins of our New England great blue heron, the Irish gray heron, and Adam2's aosagi from Japan, and wondered about their ability to move us so deeply. In A Sand County Almanac he watches as a crane "springs his ungainly hulk into the air and flails the morning sun with mighty wings." Our ability to perceive beauty in nature, as in art, begins with the pretty, he says, then moves into qualities of the beautiful yet uncaptured by language. The beauty of the crane lies in this higher realm, he proposes, "beyond the reach of words."

Words may fail, but poets have tried to capture the ineffable.

John Ciardi sees "a leap, a thrust, a long stroke through the cumulus of trees" and stops to praise "that bright original burst that lights the heron on his two soft kissing kites."

Theodore Roethke observes a heron aim his heavy bill above the wood: "The wide wings flap but once to lift him up. A single ripple starts from where he stood."

In Chekhov's The Three Sisters, sister Masha refuses "to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars are in the sky. Either you know and you're alive or its all nonsense, all dust in the wind."

(This post originally appeared in July 2007.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle

Like many of us, I faithfully check APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). When this image popped open the other day it took my breath away. I sat there gaping for five minutes.

Go to APOD. Drag the image to your desk-top. Open it and make it large enough to fill your screen. Or at least click on the image here.

You are looking into the heart of the Great Orion Nebula, a gassy star-forming region of the Milky Way Galaxy that appears to the unaided eye as a blurry star in the scabbard of Orion's sword.

As I gazed, I thought of what Beatrice says to Dante as they ascend to the seventh heaven:
She was not smiling. "If I smiled,"
she said, "you would become what Semele became
when she was turned to ashes,

for my beauty, which you have seen
flame up more brilliantly the higher we ascend
the stairs of this eternal palace,

is so resplendent that, were it not tempered
in its blazing, your mortal powers would be
like tree limbs rent and scorched by lightning.
What Dante sees reflected in Beatrice's face is the divine beauty itself, the love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

The poet, writing in the 13th century, must imagine the Beatific Vision. The Hubble Space Telescope brings us face to face.

I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. We can only speak metaphorically when confronted with the deepest mysteries of creation, here the powerful beauty of the forces and energies that build the very stuff of our existence, stars forging carbon, oxygen and iron. Some will look into the fiery furnace of Orion and see an image of themselves inflated to cosmic proportions, an all-powerful personal God. I see a flower, the flower in the crannied wall, perhaps, or the chambers of a human heart, the universal mystery that resides in every nebula and every grain of sand, before which I simply bow my head in silent acknowledgment.

(The translation above is that of Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Renée, our concierge of yesterday, has more to say about tea. As a prescription for human accord, her cup of tea may be simplistic. But perhaps not altogether irrelevant.

Tea is no minor beverage, she says. "When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"

Tea has become pretty much a universal drink, from Tokyo to Glasgow to Istanbul. A sippy sort of drink, that soothes, slows and silences. An inexpensive drink, enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. Perhaps each session of Congress should begin with a tea ceremony, to remind the reps of our common humanity. I like those photographs of uniformed American military commanders sharing tea with tribal elders in Afghanistan.

Small things that aspire to nothing. Is it possible to find happiness with such simple accoutrements as a cup of tea, a Chopin Etude, a vase of fresh-cut flowers? Poor, unattractive Renée, in her frugal loge, doesn't envy the affluent families that inhabit her apartment building. Their wealth does not seem to make them happy, or generous, or kind. Renée has her art, high and low. And tea.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Tea and empathy

Yet another pit bull story in the newspaper this morning. A pit bull cross-breed bit off a woman's lower lip.

What else to expect? Pit bulls were bred for violence. Even when raised with kindness and affection, the genome has its own agenda. For dogs. For humans.

I read the pit bull story just after reading the following passage from Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (translated from the French), a musing of one of the two protagonists, a 54-year-old, self-educated female concierge in a Paris luxury apartment building.
At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this: hold your rank, or die.
Oh dear, is it really as bad as that? Are we all pit bulls under the skin, a skein of primitive hominoid instincts iced over with a fragile skin of culture, a growl of loosely-restrained genes poised to bite your lip off if you get in the way?

Easy enough to believe, I suppose, if one reads the newspapers.

Still, one hangs on to one's optimism. Human history can be seen as a struggle between genes honed in a struggle to survive and cultural conventions arrived at by societal negotiation. I once heard Margaret Mead define civilization as the ever-widening circle of those who we do not kill. The optimists among us want to believe with Steven Pinker that the better angels of our nature are in the ascendency.

And what does Renée, our sardonic concierge, have to offer?
Thus, to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appendages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The cottage and the cottage cheese

The critic Helen Vendler said of the poetry of Howard Nemerov: "The world causes in Nemerov a mingled revulsion and love, and a hopeless hope is the most attractive quality of his poems, which slowly turn obverse to reverse, seeing the permanence of change, the vices of virtue, the evanescence of solidities and the errors of truth." It is this wry pessimism always redeemed just in the nick of time by optimism that has appealed to me about Nemerov's poetry, and never so much as when I read his late poems now in my even laterness.

Let me share one with you, a witty thing called "Adam and Eve in Later Life":

On getting out of bed the one says, “Ouch!”
The other “What?” and when the one says “I said
'Ouch,' ” the other says, “All right, you needn't shout.”

Deucalion and Pyrrha, Darby and Joan, Philemon and Baucis,
Tracy and Hepburn––if this can happen to Hepburn
No one is safe––all rolled up into two,
Contented with the cottage and the cottage cheese
And envied only by ambitious gods …

Later, over coffee, they compare the backs of their hands
And conclude they are slowly being turned into lizards.
But nothing much surprises them these days.

Nemerov was 62 when he wrote that poem, in 1982, but I suspect anyone over sixty, long-partnered, will resonate with the mix of coffee and decay. I'm not sure what the poem is doing in a blog called Science Musings, except to say that the blog has grown old too and outlived its title. We sit now on the late Porch of life, and even the youngsters are welcome to pull up a chair. The backs of their hands are smooth and their truths are not yet smudged with error. We love them in spite of their youth, and willingly share our cottage cheese.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The last chapter…

…in John Updike's book of memoirs, Self-Consciousness, is called "On Being a Self Forever." As a reflection on personal immortality I would recommend it over the labored ponderings of any philosopher or theologian you can name.

I say this even though Updike had an optimistic sense of an afterlife -- just as he carried a nuanced Christian faith to the grave, rather as one might keep and treasure old family photographs.

Updike was well versed in science. He was no biblical literalist, and was aware of the aching, empty immensities of the cosmos. He recognized the absurdity of looking for heaven among the myriad galaxies, and knew that the doubters and atheists had all the best arguments.

But poet and lover that he was, he also knew that the staggering complexity of the cosmos left every door at least a little bit ajar, so that even a crack of light might lessen the overwhelming darkness of death.

What he had a hard time accepting, he tells us, is "the thought of the cosmic party going on without me."
The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this interval of light, to witness and experience.
Updike knows that any discussion of an afterlife must begin with a definition of the "self." And, oh my goodness, what a complicated thing that is. A self is constantly changing. It is a body of tics and blemishes, atoms flowing in and out, a tow-sack of microbes, loves, longings, languishings, imaginings and dreams. Today's self is not yesterday's. And yet the self longs for persistence.

For Updike, religion and the dream of immortality are our hope of persistence, against all the evidence of science, an apparently absurd but irresistible affirmation that "we are not insignificant accidents within a vast uncaused churning," that our lives are stories with "a pattern, a moral, and an inevitably."

Longing, of course, does not make it so. Storytelling is a gift, but not every story is true. Yet what I like about Updike's account of "being a self forever" is that it is a story, and like every other story from his masterly hand, it has its own pattern, moral, and -- for Updike -- inevitably.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Everything changes

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Making hay while the sun shines -- a Saturday reprise

Tom and his wife made a whirlwind tour of the New York City art museums last week: the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim. One of the works he particularly sought out at the Met was Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters, painted in 1565. (You can click on pic to enlarge.)

When we came here to (what was then) a remote corner of Ireland 30 years ago, I helped my neighbors in the fields. We made hay and oats with the same tools and in the same way as the farmers in Bruegel's painting. I was not allowed to scythe -- an art beyond the skills of a boy from suburban America. But I used the rake and the pike. My hay cocks invariably leaned precariously. We also made the stooks you see in Bruegel's painting, another art I never quite mastered. I did do pretty well at what you see most of the farmers in the painting doing, resting under a tree with a flask of tea and a drop of whiskey.

In 400 years the technology of farming had not changed a whit here in West Kerry. Then, almost overnight, it was all gone. In twenty years Ireland became one of the richest countries in the world, with a higher standard of living than America. One generation of West Kerry farmers made hay and oats like Bruegel's farmers, the next generation was stocking their freezers at Tescos and taking holidays in Orlando.

I'm reading a just-published book of oral reminiscences by women of West Kerry, most of them my age (70) or older, women who grew up without electricity, cars, phones, or indoor plumbing, who believed in fairies, walked barefoot to school, and helped in the fields with the rake and the pike, who now find themselves in the land of the Celtic Tiger -- 400 years of technological progress squeezed into a couple of decades. Most of them have warm memories of the past -- for those enchanting moments you see in the Bruegel painting -- but none wishes to go back. As one of the women says, "I think the fairies disappeared with the electric light, so they were really never there at all."

(This post originally appeared in June 2007.)

Friday, April 04, 2014

Occasions of sin

Good lapsed Catholic that I am, I faithfully peruse Commonweal magazine whenever I'm ensconced in the college library, a habit that goes back to my young transitional years when I would have thought of myself as a liberal Catholic. Commonweal was our liberal voice. I even wrote for the magazine on occasion. I would still write for them, if they'd have me.

Which, quite rightly, they won't. In fact, "liberal Catholic" sounds to me today like an oxymoron. The magazine probably hasn't much changed its editorial stance, but what used to seem cutting-edge and spunky, now seems stogy and defensive. Still, I'm a faithful, if disbelieving, fan.

I bring this up because I was stopped in my tracks by a photograph in a recent issue: a boy of about 8 or 9 years of age at the door of a confessional. We see the boy from the back. His face is turned to the curtain of the dark booth he is about to enter. Next to him is the other door, behind which the parish priest patiently waits.

That boy might have been me. Same skinny posture. Same haircut. Same clothes. Same hesitance.

The door of the grill slides back. The priest is dimly glimpsed, leaning toward the grill, his hand cupped at the ear. The nervous recitation: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession." Then, the brief list of made-up sins, with made-up numbers of occasions. The same tame transgressions the other kids confessed. Any really naughty stuff that had crossed my mind, I kept to myself. I could always save myself from eternal Hell-fire with an Act of Contrition.

What was that all about? An elaborate ritual to teach innocent children that they are sinners? Not a public celebration of virtue, but a dark, private confirmation of our fallen natures.

I caught myself saying the kid in the photograph, "Don't. Don't go in. You are OK. Go home. Kiss your Mom. Be kind to your sister. Play ball."