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The Old-Fashioned Scotch Tape Dispenser

August 8, 2014

I drove to the Post Office yesterday to buy stamps.  Stamps are useful, because, well, it’s the law.  But also, if you have a clever eye, and work up the courage to say “May I please see the special stamps available?”, you can sometimes get really interesting ones with pictures of Rosa Parks or Bugs Bunny or Wildflowers Of The American Plains.  I purchased some psychedelic Jimi Hendrix stamps.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will now admit: I have never listened to Jimi Hendrix.  In my imagination he sounds something like Bob Marley, who is just grand, but I am probably wrong.  Mostly I bought these stamps because A: they are really something to look at, like a heart attack for the eyeball, and B: Jimi Hendrix is one of J.K. Rowling’s favorite musicians.  I imagine people seeing these stamps and thinking “Ho, I say! Whoever bought these stamps is a cultured person who understands the mind of the great J.K. Rowling!”  Perhaps they too listened to Ms. Rowling in that long-ago BBC interview, and remember that she also loves Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.  Unfortunately, there are at present no stamps emblazoned with that work.

There are Harry Potter stamps right now.  You can buy them at the Post Office too – and there, in all their glory, sit our friends from Hogwarts.  I own a book of these.  Unfortunately, I am hampered by pedestrian notions of correctitude; somehow it seems too obvious to plaster Ron, Harry, & Hermione on envelopes.  I feel that it would be like expressing patriotism by dressing in the American flag.  By contrast, I may have gone overboard on subtlety.  Oh well.  Whoever Jimi Hendrix is, his stamps are pretty great on their own merits – Jo Rowling or no Jo Rowling.

It being well known that Ms. Rowling typed out the manuscript of Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone on a manual typewriter, I recently purchased such a beast myself, in the hope that it would, well, help.  I don’t write novels, but I do write letters, and they are pretty illegible.  Unfortunately, after two letters, I came to the end of the bit of antique typing ribbon still haunting the machine.  (The typewriter was also full of the greasy, grey-brown hair of a person I’ve named Carol.  I suspect that dear Carol is probably no longer with us.)  I googled the nearest Office Depot and went in search of typewriter ribbon spools.  This particular Office Depot has probably seen better days.  The silence of an empty Office Depot is the stuff of nightmares, as is the attentive solicitude of the employees.  Sadly, the Office Depot did not carry such ribbon spools; as I did not wish to explain all this to one of the sales persons, nor did I wish to specially order them, I was forced to sneak my way out of the store.

Back in my office, I began to assemble the psalm insert for next Sunday’s bulletin.  This is done by killing 25 oxen and sprinkling their blood on the photocopier, photocopying the page of music (we pray), chopping out the relevant bits with scissors, anointing them with oil, scotch-taping them to a blank piece of paper, using white-out to erase the irrelevant bits of text, and then photocopying the whole doggone thing again.  If successful, one really ought to sacrifice another 25 oxen.  But sometimes, if you’re in a hurry, 25 rams will do.  This whole process is aided by my old-fashioned scotch tape dispenser.  What I would do without it, I shudder to think.  The beauty of this dispenser is that it is weighted down with a child’s sandbox worth of sand, which means that it is not going anywhere.  Also, mine has faux wood grain on the side, which gives it an authentically 1970s-ironic-bourgeois flair.

I would be lost without it.

Full Sail

May 29, 2014

What do I do when expectation meets reality?  When I sit down in my office and look around, and realize that I’ve gotten what I wanted?  When picking out the music for Trinity Sunday is what I’m paid to do?  When I think “I should go practice” and walk across the parking lot and have the echoing sanctuary all to myself for three hours?

It’s strange.  I’ve been waiting the greater part of my life to do this, thinking “when I’m the director of music, I’ll . . . .”  But that is a pattern of wishful-thinking; reality – when you’ve been granted your wish – is here and now.  It’s the difference between thinking “One day, when I have a well trained group of choristers, we’ll sing . . .” and being shown around the parish school by the very collaborative Principal (the we’re-on-the-same-team headmaster that every choir trainer dreams of working with), and not knowing what to say to each successive classroom of children; these children staring at a perfect stranger, “Boys and girls, this is Mr. Wiley . . .”  When did I grow up?  When did recruiting choristers become something that I would do on a specific day and at a specific hour, and not while daydreaming in class?  For that matter, when was I suddenly not the kid in fifth grade who still had the high C’s?  When did I come into possession of all the grandeur belonging to Title, Surname?  The kids, surely, will discover in due time that I prefer donuts to vegetables and Dr. Who to Film Noir.

Whenever we’re told “be careful what you wish for”, it’s implied that you might get it and it would be horrid, just horrid.  But sometimes you get what you wish for and it’s so beautiful and more real than you could have imagined that it knocks you over.  Contemplation of the wish is nothing like the living, breathing glory of the thing itself.  It’s nearly time to go sit at an organ console for an hour and a half, getting the choir ready for Ascension Sunday, and the fact that this isn’t an escape from my “real work”, but is my real work, makes me dizzy.

This is all disorienting.  But there’s wind in the sails, and we’re full speed ahead, so who cares.  Things will sort themselves out over the journey.

The important thing is that the journey has begun.

That Low Door In The Wall

May 17, 2014

I certainly don’t want to stay at the Univ. of N.D.  The years of lifelong education may be threescore-and-ten, but the years of degree-oriented education at a university certainly oughtn’t to be.  And this is part of the beauty of a degree; that, in the normal run of things, its acquisition should be clearly marked by the walls of beginning and ending: matriculation and graduation.  The university is a bath, not a pool (dilettanteishly though I’ve treated it as such at times).  Certainly, the last thing I’m likely to say is “I wish I could just stay here.”  It’s like a wedding party sitting down at an eternal wedding reception without ever moving on to the more mundane and important task of getting on with life.  Even Harry Potter has to leave Hogwarts sometime.

However.

It’s still a wrench.

This campus is an Eden of sorts; everyone says so, and it’s true.  Even in the miserable dead of winter (a pointless phrase, stretching, as it does, across a grey eternity of months), the place is still utterly, heartbreakingly magical.  The dark, slate-covered spires looming through the snow, the Narnian lampposts shining on deep footprints, the sound of wind shaking the West doors of the basilica.

And this wintry Eden is peopled by the dearest friends.  Friends who think that haggling out the workings of Grace, or the meaning of Rowling, or the character of St Joseph is the most important business in the world (over coffee, and frequently laughing).  Friends who have seen me at my best moments, and (much more frequently) at my worst, when I needed friends to say “We love you always.  But, for your own sake, stop being stupid.”  Friends who know what a hard-fought victory is – spiritual or paper – and also what defeat has looked like.

This strange place is also a shelter for those whose values do not pass as currency of the realm.  When you value Mercy rather than retribution, this is a shelter.  When you value Wisdom rather than cheap popularity, this is a shelter.  When you value Beauty rather than economy, this is a shelter.  When you value Age rather than strength, this is a shelter.  It’s a shelter for all those who feel that human nature hasn’t changed substantially in the past few millennia; that we haven’t begun to outgrow the lessons of our great Philosophers.  It’s a shelter for those who prefer growth to upheaval; Love to mistrust.

The University has fitted me for my calling, and I can’t wish to stay.  But I can say that the parting hurts with all the hurt of Love.

Notre Dame, I love you.

Decadent Sanctity or Hearing Fauré’s Requiem at La Madeleine

March 19, 2014

To the far right of the high altar at the l’Église de La Madeleine is a reliquary containing a human bone.  It is said to be a relic of St Mary Magdalene, and the documentation claims that it has been venerated since at least the 6th century.  In terms of relics, it should be fairly interesting.  For one thing, it’s quite a large relic – not one of those tiny scraps of something, and, well, frankly, come on people, this is the 21st century, and in the aftermath of Dear Mr Dan Brown one imagines that relics of St Mary Magdalene should be well-known attractions.

But this isn’t.  The small glass box with its ancient piece of human dust lies on a shelf over an assembly of gilded Second Empire chairs, and if the rector of the church hadn’t pointed it out to us, we’d never have noticed.  The venerable relic lies darkly amid the great dimming glories of La Belle Époque.  L’Église de La Madeleine is a strange place.

For one thing, in a city of Gothic churches, La Madeleine looks like a pagan temple plucked from imperial Rome.  And it doesn’t just look like a Roman temple – it was intended to be one.  A Roman temple dedicated to the glories of Napoleon’s army.  One can see this.  The steps stretching up to the heroic bronze doors plead for the saturnine virility of a military Triumph.

But France in the 19th c. (like France in all other siecles) was a complex world, and in the fashionable religious fervor that succeeded the old Emperor, the pagan temple was completed and dedicated as a church.  It is safe, I feel, to say that it is a church like no other.  The atmosphere is heavy and bewildering.  Two impressions are immediate, however: thick-hung darkness and vast space.  The only illumination in the church comes from small oculi at the tops of the domes and from the moonlike 19th c. lamps mounted on the fecund bronze chandeliers.  These white orbs glow in the gloom without really dispelling it, and merely aid one’s apprehension of the dark.  The high altar is buried under the shadow of a heroic Mary Magdalene rising in a frenzy of grey marble amid ecstatic and equally heroic androgynous angels.  Around the perimeter of the church – even their feet above eye level – stand heroic marble saints, framed in darkness underneath marble portals, as though weirdly summoned by necromancy – in equal parts beautiful and frightening.  And all of this beauty and dark and magnitude swims in a sea of marble echoing; each footfall a legion of footfalls, each voice a choir of answering voices from the beyond.

Fauré was organist here, and choirmaster; if this makes the church a place of musical pilgrimage (as it did for me), it nonetheless doesn’t do to romanticize.  For Fauré, the place was gloomy and wearying, stultifying in its rigid traditionalism.  (When Chopin’s funeral was sung in the church, the female soloists for Mozart’s Requiem were forced to sing behind a curtain of black velvet, so as to avoid being seen – the choir being composed solely of males.)  Even Fauré’s own Requiem – arguably the most important premiere in the church’s history – was criticized by the rector of the time for its “novelty”.

When, last Saturday, I heard Fauré’s Requiem performed in this church, I found it difficult to quite put my finger on why the experience was so disquieting.  Perhaps it is this: we are told – over and over again – that Fauré’s Requiem is a work of “light” and “peace” – an escape from the grimmer side of Death.  But in this place, surrounded by an eight-second ocean of reverberation rippling to the furthest corners of the dark marble, the music seemed less cheerful and more wistful.  Like whistling in the dark, I thought, or like clutching one’s silver cross in a threatening alley.  The a capella “Amen” at the end of the Offertoire was less heartily-Dresden and more like the sound of voices beyond a void – beautiful, but perilously distant.  The voices of heaven, it seemed, as they fell on the solitary ear of Dives.

It is beautiful, and I love beauty, but this beauty was disquieting.  At Chartres one senses what it is like to behold holiness at the very gates of Heaven.  Purity takes one in a cold wind, and the face of Our Lady smiles in utter simplicity – dread may fall on the spirit, but it is the dread of having tread the threshold of Paradise.  At La Madeleine, the beauty was dark and troubled – fertile leaves of bronze corruption gilded with Mammon.  It is to behold the joys of Paradise from the gates of Hell.  This is the far-distant, remembered-but-abandoned Paradise of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud.  A Paradise now all-but-inaccessible, but whose beautiful echoes still fall upon even the nearly damned.

La Madeleine is a dark temple of Mammon.  Brutal, bronze, and redolent with mortality and decay.  It is also, inexplicably, a place of Grace – a last outpost in the dreadful twilight, if you will.

 

It is my favorite church in Paris.

 

Midwinter Stirrings or Rustle the Maps

March 2, 2014

When I find myself pulling the Rand McNally atlas out from between the driver’s seat and the center console – and I’m not lost – it’s probably midwinter restlessness.  I start flipping through the pages, noticing how very battle-scarred the pages are for Florida and South Carolina and Indiana.  And my pulse quickens, because I haven’t opened these so-familiar pages in a long number of cold months.  They’re beautiful pages, full of long interstates and even longer (and more twisted) highways, and peppered with towns and cities of varying familiarity.

I can’t drive yet, of course.  It’s still deep winter up here in the far North, and I drive on snow like a man playing Russian Roulette.  But this fiddling with the map doesn’t mean that I want to head out tomorrow morning anyway.  It’s part of the deep midwinter stirrings.  Those nights when I sit curled up in a blanket and read about the history of colonial Jamaica and close my eyes and just think about a place half a world away, surrounded by blue water and the hot sun and mists and utter exoticism.  Those nights when I type “Savannah” and “Charleston” into my searchbar just to see the pictures of well-loved and far-away places spring up from the camera lenses of people who may, just perhaps, love these baked old cities half so well as I do.  Those evenings when I ambitiously clean a semester’s worth of junk out of the Cougar, and step back and remember what it feels like to stuff the ol’ gal full of luggage and hear her V8 engine roar down a stretch of open road with not a stop in sight for another 4 hours.  Those afternoons when I’m putting my clean laundry away and find my reversible gingham shorts in the back of the drawer, and remember what it feels like to burn the backs of my bare knees against the hot leather of the driver’s seat, and then kick off my flip-flops and press the accelerator with my bare foot.

It’s time for calling friends and planning the routes and stops and high adventures of the Summer to come.  Time to crack open the blinds and look at the falling snow and smile, because if it isn’t even Spring yet, it’s definitely time for Midwinter Stirring.

Heat up the stew.  Spread open the maps.  Check out the guidebooks.  Dream of the exoticism to be found on this continent of Summer roads.

Glory.

We shall not cease from exploration

February 22, 2014

One year ago this day I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

At the time, I prepared a very ambitious post – full of sound and fury – which provided a rational explanation of this decision, and a defense against popular misconceptions of the Church.  Looking it over, I decided that the zeal of the Church’s newest confirmand would do best to cool for a year.  So, that post went into the bin.

Now, a year on, I don’t feel much inclined at all to provide a rational explanation of my decision, much less a defense against popular misconceptions of the Church.  This is good, because I’m ill-equipped to do either.  Logic.  Not my gift.  Anyway, precisely what the Church believes isn’t a mystery; copies of the Catechism can be found at practically any library.

But what I’ve found dearest to me over the past year is not a dynamic explanation of Ecclesiology or Eschatology or any number of very complex and interesting (and good and true) doctrines.  What means more to me now than it ever has is The Old Story.  That I am a sinner separated from God, but that – out of pure Love for me – Jesus Christ was made Man, and was crucified – bearing my sins on his body, and was buried, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father.  And that in the blood of Christ there is Grace to pardon all my sin, to cleanse me, and to fill me with his Love.  And that Grace doesn’t wait for me to dust myself off and become presentable and conjure up spiritual thoughts.  Grace goes searching after me when I’m lost, to bring me back.

Besides going to confession, and receiving communion at Mass now, not much has changed over the past year.  I still sin in pretty much the same ways, and with the same dismaying frequency.  I still get my nourishment from Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.  St John is still my favorite of the Evangelists.  Charles Wesley is still my favorite hymn writer.

None of this is innovative or new or partisan.  It’s just the plain life of a Christian being slowly led by Christ.  And this, I think, is good.  Because to be in full communion with the Catholic Church is to be grounded upon a firm rock.  And that rock isn’t, at its source, either Peter or his successors; the rock is Christ – “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

 

“O my friends, run away now, escape while you have a chance! If you linger here, Jesus is going to win you over, and you will become a very strange person.” – Fr. Austin

Stained Souls and Glass

February 9, 2014

Some nights, when I tire of the perspective afforded by terra firma, I walk up the stone steps of Main Building and sit on a windowsill underneath the southern portico.  It isn’t really all that high up – not more than one floor off the ground – but the perspective changes nonetheless, and there is the added thrill that I never see anyone else doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s illegal.  I don’t suppose it is, but all the same, I’m always the only person sitting up there.

Straight ahead from this windowsill is the Sacred Heart statue (recently returned from cleaning); to the left is the darkened Washington Hall, but to the right is a view for even the most disenchanted – the basilica, its windows glowing from the warm lights within.  Our campus is well-lit, so the effect isn’t immediately noticeable, but if all the other lamps went out, the basilica would be a many-colored lantern, throwing its light across the snow and ice.  It’s a sight worthy of the graveyard in The Deathly Hallows.  Literally, it’s Light in Darkness.

Tonight I was talking to some friends over dinner, and the question of human goodness came up.  Are humans fundamentally good or evil?  It’s easy to come down bang on one side or the other because of presuppositions, but the truth is that either point of view carries its difficulties.  To affirm the essential goodness of people seems to overlook the atrocities committed by even “decent” people – blatant racism, discrimination against “the other” (that wonderful academic-sounding catchphrase), and a smug contentment with drastic economic inequalities.  To affirm the essential evil of people overlooks many lives of complete selflessness – some lived by people without a smattering of “religion” to provide any excuse.  Besides which, on a practical level, Grandma (par exemple) doesn’t seem particularly evil, nor do most of the people we know.

The catholic view (that held by all Christians) is that human nature was created to be essentially good – such that goodness is inherently “us”, but that mankind has fallen and as a result our nature is now evil – but an evil that is a twisting of an essentially good thing.  It’s not a pleasant thought.  What it means is that Grandma’s or our own niceness is probably a result of our protection from the temptations that would bring out our worst latent evils.  And yet, that’s not all it means.

Not hardly.  Because this isn’t a closed system.  Grace has a way of breaking in.  Grace streaming freely from a good and loving God, and that Grace breaks out in the most unlikely places – even in deeply stained souls.  Even in the most unlikely places – people with scarring upbringings and ruthless environments – Grace flows out as if the powers of Sin and Death had no power.

This is, of course, because they haven’t got any.  Sin and Death are vanquished forces, prowling around the countryside on their way into final exile.  They have never recovered from their battle with the strong Son of God, the battle when their weapon was turned against them, and The Cross became the sign of victory.

Out of the cold windows of our hearts, so frequently marred by selfishness and pride, shines the light of Grace.  And this Light, which isn’t the work of our own hands, illumines the wintry graveyard around us.

. . . the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day . . .