Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Wait Master, it might be dangerous... you go first."

I told my niece that I would visit her once a month. In that regard, at least, I have proven to be a very serious piece of uncle.

She does not look like a college student to me, still so diminutive and child-like in many ways. She’s into fashion and I don’t get it, as I readily admit, but apparently I’m in the minority. Manhattan is a loud, mind-numbing chaos to me and imagining her day after day traipsing obliviously from dorm to classes (I mean, I’m assuming there are actually ‘classes’ of some sort involved in this fashion nonsense, right? ...RIGHT?!?!) and wherever else she may wander kind of freaks me out.

Words like ‘frailty’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘susceptibility’ - oh yes, and ‘WHAT THE HELL WERE WE THINKING LETTING THIS DITZY LITTLE GIRL MOVE TO NEW YORK BY HERSELF????’ - gently insinuate themselves into my unspoken monologues whenever she pops into my mind.

She pops often into my mind because my knee-jerk reaction to the trauma of actually watching (helping... I actually helped her move... gasp) was to get her a cell phone. In retrospect, not a mistake, but certainly not the ticket to tranquility that I convinced myself it would be.

I don’t mind the text messages at 2am... but then I find myself wondering, “Why in God’s name is this child even awake at 2am? Manhattan a college dorm somewhere alone... I mean she MUST have classes tomorrow, right? ...does this fashion bs require classes? ...what could they possibly teach in these classes? ...’Buttons 101’? ‘From Camel Skin to Cashmere: The Evolution of the Sweater Shrug’? ‘The Logic of Layering’?”

For my October visit she says she wants to celebrate Halloween in some way. Before she could even suggest anything to do with Halloween in the Village or Chelsea or anywhere else I told her I’d plan the evening.

We ended up having a burger together at the Hard Rock Cafe, mine real, hers veggie (please don’t ask) and seeing Young Frankenstein at the Hilton. I loved it as a movie when I was in high school, thankfully she loved it now, 34 years later, in its Broadway musical version. I laughed anticipating the famous old gags of the movie: “That’s Fronkensteen/That’s Eye-gor”, “Walk this way!”. “What hump?”, “Werewolf/there wolf”, “Abby Normal”, Harold the Hermit, the tap dance, etc.

Anyway, we had a good time doing something we both enjoyed. If Young Frankenstein is the scariest thing she encounters during her stay in the city, it will have gone very well for both of us indeed.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

kindling passion

I consider reading to be one of the finer pleasures of life.

I put it right up there with smoky, small batch bourbon, earthy Cuban cigars and sunny fall afternoons on shimmering New England lakes.

As with all earthly pleasures, the risk of abuse and addiction is concomitant, but so are the endless excuses I find to justify it as the right thing to do at practically any given moment.

My tastes are eclectic and I often have two or three books on the menu at once. I rarely walk out of a movie I’ve paid for, I infrequently leave food on my plate and I almost never leave a book unfinished even when it turns out to be less than I expected. In recent memory (about eight years ago) I put down the one installment of the Harry Potter series that was given me by a nephew after only forty pages or so because it began to taste like Ovaltine. I swore off Ovaltine when I was eight.

I read a lot of theology – Von Balthasar, De Lubac, Ratzinger, De Chardin, Kasper and Congar are staple favorites. I can’t resist the controversial when it arises, recently, for example, Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God or Dupuis’ Christianity and the Religions. Among Protestant writers Barth and Bultmann are always worthwhile.

The somewhat loosely classified ‘existentialists’ are my normal philosophical fare: Kierkegaard, Neitzsche, Heidegger, Chekhov, Ionesco and their ilk.

I am quite fond of Greek tragedy (Sophocles and Euripides) and their classical English counterpart, Bill Shakespeare.

But a good read certainly does not have to imply heavy lifting. I gobble up Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip Roth, John Irving, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass and others like a kid who’s allowed to skip the veggies and go right to dessert.

To the dismay of some of my brethren in the ministry, I also find dubious delight in horror, both classic and contemporary. I am the Exorcist, after all.

I will do late nighters in my lonely, creaky rectory overhanging the railroad tracks with anyone from Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson to Ray Bradbury, Jack Ketchum and Bentley Little. I even confess to the occasional Stephen King indulgence.

As if the connoisseur of fillet mignon couldn’t cave into the surreptitious craving for a Big Mac once in a while?

Anyway, all of this is but a preamble to what I was really going to mention on this post. Although I fully consider myself a child of our post-modern age, I am usually less than enthusiastic about the shiny electronic baubles and gewgaws that our technology enamored world shamelessly peddles as the latest have-to-have keys to hipness.

However, a few days ago my love of a good book got the better of me and overrode my distrust of flashy gadgetry. After prolonged inner debate I got myself a Kindle.

This little gizmo is the real deal.

Books, newspapers, magazines and blogs in a paperback sized contrivance that satiates even the most depraved biblophile’s inner nerd. Instant gratification. Isn’t that what life is all about?

I doubt that anything will ever replace the thrill of leisurely searching through used book stores. And no device will substitute the satisfying snap of a hardcover being bent back for the first time or the intoxicating smell of the printed page. But, believe me, the Kindle has already given new meaning to long lines, travel, solitary lunches, boring finance committee meetings, spaces between appointments and down time in general.

And so, I hereby boldly state to all the world that the Kindle will ultimately do for Chaucer what the IPod has done for Rachmaninov.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

the last resort

These first days of fall, with their crisp mornings, luminous and fleeting sunshine, cool afternoon breezes that rustle the crisping, colorful foliage take me back to harvest time in Chile. The grape harvest from late February to early April in fairytale places like the Colchagua Valley and Casablanca is an earthy, deeply human event that brings out the best in man and nature.

I would slip away from the everyday demands of ministry in the city to bless the fruits of the season, commend the workers to God’s providence and ask the Lord of the harvest to hold back the rains of winter until the grapes could be safely reaped and stored. Everything about those days is beautiful and subtly sacred and it became clear to me why the vineyard is one of the preferred images in both Old and New Testaments to teach us about the Creator and his relationship with all the created.

Even now, in Chile, most of the vineyards are family owned enterprises. I was always enthralled by the unique relationship between the owner, the workers, the winemakers and the vineyard itself – land, vines and climate – for its oneness of purpose and single-minded devotion.

Our last three Sundays of ordinary time have dealt us Gospel parables set against the backdrop of the vineyard. Timely and engrossing, they speak to us today even as they did in Jesus’ moment of the divine drama playing out in human history, as rich and complex as the wines that are the vineyards ultimate vindication.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus paraphrases Isaiah’s ‘song of the vineyard’ for the religious leaders of his audience with an added twist: the owner’s lament is now directed not at the miserable fruits of the harvest, but at those who have been charged with reaping and delivering the fruit in its due time.

All Jesus’ parables are ultimately self-revealing, but this one seems to intimate painfully more than we might wish to comprehend.

When all the emissaries have been dispatched to recover the fruits of the vineyard, when all have met the mean fate that the tenants have prepared for them, Jesus says, “Finally he sent his son to them.

Mark’s retelling of the tale drives the point home with starker, more desperate phrasing: “He had but one left to send, a beloved son. He sent him to them last of all thinking, ‘They will respect my son’.”

I am reminded of one of the unanswerable questions that theologians ponder and students of theology, like me, are required to work through and read about in theoretical terms at some point in their studies...

Does God suffer? Can the immutable, ever same, impassive Divinity experience what we call pain... loss... emptiness? Pain implies change, movement, imperfection: realities we can hardly attribute to the unchanging Foundation of all there is.

Yet Jesus insinuates just that. The owner of the vineyard relinquishes ‘the only one he has left’. He puts at risk and ultimately accepts the loss of ‘the last one’, all he had left, all that was truly his.

Paul’s reflections on kenosis, on God’s emptying of self – notably expressed in his letter to the Philippians which, coincidently, is the second reading during these weeks of ordinary time – are restricted to the Son... almost as if the incarnation, the Son’s full identification with human state and circumstance, were the necessary condition for emptiness and suffering.

But Jesus puts the origin of drastic self-surrender in the Father. It is the predisposition of the Father to lose the Son that enables the Son to be lost. The parable of the vineyard posits the pain and loss of the Father. Does that not also appear to be the dramatic core of ‘the prodigal son’?

The revelation – that only the Son can make – of a quality in the Father best expressed by an analogy with human pain and loss, better yet, with human capacity for radical self-sacrifice is the least ‘theoretical’ of all revealed truths.

It means that reckless abandonment of self, giving regardless of the cost, surrender that finds no kinship with defeat... are the very fiber of this world’s reality which reflects in all its mysterious nuances the heart of its Creator.

This alone sustains our hope in a world that never tires of beating it down and smothering it... in a futile attempt to wrest the inheritance from the Son.

These are my thoughts as I head down for the first of today’s three Eucharistic celebrations. I can only appeal to the benevolence of my parishioners...