Monthly Archives: November 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Taxi in Italy

Oddly, I was in Italy again this week. I say oddly because, as chance would have it, I tagged along, once again, with my friend who attends those philological congresses. As a novelist and blogger, I am there just to listen and learn. I won’t bore you with the pedantic-sounding details of this particular congress, rich as it was in variant readings and passages in manuscripts that have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and often misinterpreted from antiquity to the present. “Does this Latin word end in –es or that word in –is or the same word in –os?” These are, quite literally, the kinds of things that are debated at such congresses, and add to this that there is much consternation over the new interpretation.

To make an example of what I just wrote: imagine that sentence was fragmentary and all that was left in a manuscript was something that vaguely looked like, “… over the new interpretation.” Now imagine that it was (of course) handwritten, and imagine, too, that I have, as I do, very illegible handwriting and, two thousand years from now, or even less, say a year from now, two people stumbled upon this fragmentary, seemingly hastily scribbled, sentence. One interpreter of it might say, well, “I think that it says, ‘aver the new interpretation.’ That sounds like something H.R. Jakes would write” (assuming it was even agreed upon that I had written it). Then that person might add, “He likes archaic-sounding language, and his use of ‘aver’ on this occasion fits the bill.”

Someone else might say, “No, no, this is obviously but a fragment of a much longer sentence. He probably wrote something like ‘there is much debate over the new interpretation.’”

Yet the first person might retort, “But he is a decisive writer, and I think he wrote, ‘I aver the new interpretation.’ That means he agrees with this interpretation.” And so the debate would rage, perhaps you are thinking “Yes, and quite pedantically,” yet someone else, a philologist perhaps, might find such deliberation stirring.

Yes, it was this very type of congress that I attended, and then I needed, of course, a ride to the airport, for flying out of southern Italy, particularly its mountainous regions, is not easy. The airports are near the sea, and thus if one is at all inland, as we were, one must get a ride to the coast—in my case, to the lovely zone (and airport) known as Lamzia Terme.

I had enjoyed dinner the night before with my friend and his primary contact at the university, a lovely and wise professoressa who enjoys the fortunate circumstance of studying poetry and rhetoric for a living. My friend had known of her for some time, as he had many years before reviewed one of her books and then connected with her at a conference, in France I think; I’m not sure, as he attends many of these international congresses. And so it went over dinner and drinks—a lovely conversation about the environment, philosophy, literature and, finally, even the quite serious topic of immigration and human displacement that is so sadly not just affecting the world in general but, especially, disquieting the lives of those displaced, disheartened, and often quite desperate individuals who have lost all—more often than not fleeing at the peril of their very lives. Each of us agreed as to the severity of the situation, the sadness of the lives of those involved, and the need for a fair and equitable solution.

The conversation turned from these serious, quite human but comparatively mundane topics to those of the spiritual realm. How strange, I thought, for among intellectuals the concept of a spiritual realm, let alone God, is but rarely discussed. If it is, it remains just that, a concept and an “it.” But this was an interesting conversation because the name Jesus Christ was mentioned more than in passing and not merely, as it usually is, as an expletive. Rather, the passage from the Bible that was discussed was that of Mary and Martha, and Jesus’ elicitation of Martha to be calm and listen, “To ‘be still and know that I am God,’” my philologist friend said, obviously quoting a Psalm.[1] The conversation then shifted to grace, a concept stressed, I think I might have pointed out, 500 years ago by Martin Luther, who reaffirmed the words of St. Paul, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.”[2] And thus went the conversation until I, undoubtedly clumsily and characteristically off-cue, brought up the comparatively entirely mundane subject of getting to the airport the next morning.

“Oh, don’t worry, there is a taxi,” said the professoressa. “It is all arranged. You can both ride together.” (Indeed, we were on the same flight at least as far as Rome.)

“Do we pay cash to the driver—I think I’m running low on Euros?” inquireth I, in an equally tactless manner.

“No, no, no …” she said. “It is all paid for already. Just get in and enjoy the ride.”

“Coincidentally,” my friend said, “That is precisely how grace works. No need to pay the bill—that’s already been paid at Calvary. One needs simply to,” and then he paused, as I could tell he was going to quote something, and I thought he was going to say, “be still and know that I am God,” for that would have made perfect sense at this climactic moment. But instead he said, “… glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Of course I recognized the quote, as it is from the shorter Presbyterian catechism, a beautifully concise piece of sublime theology. We all had a good laugh, thinking of how a taxi ride could be a metaphor for grace. And, by the way, I did enjoy the ride to the airport, for Calabria is stunningly beautiful, and I am enjoying that other, more sublime ride, as not only in Italy, but perhaps here somehow more poignantly than anywhere else, la vita e’ bella. Enjoy the ride; it’s paid for.

[1] Psalm 46:10.

[2] Ephesians 2:8f.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Instant Theology

Some years ago now it was John Lennon, as I recall, when he was by then a former Beatle, that recorded a song entitled, “Instant Karma.” The point of that song, I think, is that there is a kind of very swift cosmic balance of right and wrong that immediately threatens the perpetrator of evil and somehow, as a result, we all shine on. (That bit is less clear to me, though it is a nice thought). In response to which, were I to overthink it as I am wont to do, I might wish to write something like, “If only instant karma really were so, these days especially.” Yet, of course, I would not mean it. I would not like living in a world in which I immediately received due recompense for any bad thing I might have done. I think I would not last long in that universe.

I greatly prefer the grace-filled universe that I do in fact inhabit but, I admit, I could never have wished for sooner than I came to understand it. But, while that point of theology, redemption, took some time to gel in my mind—and it is indeed still gelling—another point of theology was not able to enjoy such a durative state of development, as it was attached to someone’s buttocks.

Sara Holbrook Community Center

I was reminded of the event in question only this past week when, as you might recall from last week’s blog, I visited the Sara M. Holbrook Community Center in Burlington. I mentioned in that blog that a church that my wife and I attended in the early 1980s provided food for the homeless folks who nightly lodged in that building during the long, cold Vermont winters. I believe that I may have failed to mention, however, that our church also met in that same building, leasing it every Sunday morning from the center, some hours after the homeless folks had left, though they would have been welcome to stay, of course. I don’t think many of them did.

Ray Commeret was our pastor, no doubt a man of Huguenotical descent—certainly he was so, theologically speaking. Yet I had no such luxury, having been raised Jewish. Accordingly, my newfound Christian theology was still in a state of development (and remains so, inasmuch as theological growth is requisite of theological humility). Oddly enough, Reverend Ray was not present in church that day. In fact, he was away for family reasons—something to do with his son, as I recall. We therefore had a visiting preacher, someone (equally lyrically) called Pastor Pete, if I remember correctly, a very kind man, rich in grace, robust in faith and appetite, which he demonstrated after service by scarfing several cookies and at least three not-very-good-for-you-but-churches-tend-to-serve-them-anyway doughnuts. Fortunately, Pete in no wise seemed put off by the fact that we met in a community center and not an actual church building. (Little did I know it then, but all the really great churches of which I would eventually be a part would lack for their own buildings, while the less robust churches I would attend would all have them).

Now this visitor, who as I said was very friendly, was in charge of the whole service and in fact would offer a rather long sermon. First he read aloud the scriptures, then led the prayer, and then preached, all leading up to the distribution of communion at the end of service before the final hymn. All that is good as far as it goes. And it did indeed go far—his sermon, that is, which, with all due respect to the preaching art, just droned on and on. At one point he wanted to make a point, as preachers often do, and to accomplish this he belabored the point—belabored, belabored, and belabored.

And as he preached on the key points he wanted to make—the title enjoyed a jingle such as “The Fall and the Call,” treating the doctrine of the Fall and the consequent call to follow Christ (Matthew 4:19)—the tail of his dress jacket caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread. Now I don’t know if I have yet made it sufficiently clear, but Pastor Pete was a large man, more than triflingly overweight, with an excessively pert, even rotund buttocks that bulged quite generously and, someone might say, handsomely. The tail of his (then popular) aquamarine-blue dress jacket cascaded off that protrusion like a waterfall of finely spun material, though it functioned not as water but rather as a fisherman’s hook.

That hook caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread.
As Pete preached, pacing hither and thither directly in front of the rather ordinary folding table that served as the Sara M. Holbrook Center’s high altar, his tails took with them the bread tray, dragging in now left, now right, back and forth, his corpulent body now obscuring, now revealing the body of Christ, each time Pete turned at each end of the table. The basket seemed to approach, turn by turn, ever nearer the table’s edge. That day, my wife and I happened to be seated quite uncharacteristically in the front row of folding chairs and thus I was nearest to the wayfaring communion bread.

All those who could see the table—nearly everyone in the room, I think—kept gazing on this spectacle, heads turning as if watching a tennis match, thoroughly astounded at the hocus pocus, as it were, of the body of Christ moving back and forth magically along the table’s edge. A relatively new convert to the faith, I had no idea whether the elements of communion were allowed to touch the floor: “Is the communion bread like the American flag so that it should never touch the ground? It must even be more precious than that.” So did I debate in my mind. Quickly prioritizing thus, I was ready to dive, if it were necessary, to save the corpus Christi, the very offering that had, in 33 A.D., coincidentally saved me.

Fortunately, Christ’s body needed no saving as eventually, by the grace of God, the coattail released its prey, like the whale opening its maw to release Jonah. I and a number of parishioners were, of course, greatly relieved at the sight—with me, I imagine, at least by proximity, being chief among them, even as Paul chief among sinners. And that was, I think, a moment of instant theology, as I had to reckon up the true value of the bread, that is the body of Christ—I would think on the wine another time. Concomitantly, I suppose, I also was able to reflect on the truism that sometimes what might appear to be happening magically right behind you can be at least as interesting as, if not more, whatever you might happen to be saying. Hoc est corpus indeed. Shine on.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lasagna and Human Beings

By the time I studied at the University of Vermont, Sara Holbrook, who had been a professor of psychology there, had passed away years before, but her legacy remained. In 1937 she had founded the Burlington Community Center, intended to help Irish, Italian, and French-Canadian immigrants meet their own and their family’s needs and, ultimately, to obtain citizenship. Yet by the early 1980s the center, by then renamed in honor of its founder, among other things served as the city’s first emergency shelter and, in the evenings, that meant homeless folks did not have to sleep on the bitterly cold streets of Burlington in the wintertime at peril of their own life. They could, at least for the night, sleep on cots in the Sara Holbrook Center, and before bed receive a decent supper, courtesy of that shelter which was then working in coordination with various charitable organizations, chief among them at the time, churches.

That’s how my wife and I became involved with the poor, not just in Burlington but da per tutto, as they say in Italy. Yet our first exposure to folks who live on the streets was in the Sara Holbrook Center. We learned a few things there, most important among which is that homeless folks are people, real people. They’re not bums, not riffraff, not losers, though they are certainly folks down on their luck for some reason or other. But they are, first and foremost, people.

90 N. Winooski

This was evident in the eyes of one man, a gentle soul, who week by week expectantly awaited my wife’s lasagna. She made two trays of that tasty nourishment for the shelter in the tiny oven of our apartment on North Winooski Avenue—I think it had room enough for two trays—and I would deliver them on my bicycle’s back rack through the snow, in some cases, to the Sara Holbrook Center, which, located on Front Street, was not far from 90 North Winooski Avenue, but it wasn’t close either. It was far enough away that I could gain in a short time on the bike as I rode along Burlington’s frigid North Street that took its breeze straight off Lake Champlain, an appreciation of how cold it would have been later that evening for lasagna-loving Sam, or any of those folks from the Sara Holbrook Center to have to live on the streets all night long. They wouldn’t have had the advantage of keeping their body warm by peddling the bike or the heat (along with an appetizing pre-prandial odor) from the lasagna somehow creeping up the back tail of my long overcoat that I would put over the back rack of the bike so as to keep the lasagna warm en route. No, without the Sara Holbrook Center, I reckon, some of those folks would have died, frozen to death on the cold and unforgiving streets of Burlington Vermont, the state’s biggest, and really only, city—pace Montpelier.

View of Lake Champlain

Of all of the folks I shook hands with when I delivered the lasagna, which was distinctly the most popular dish among the many donations that arrived each evening, I recall Sam the best. I think his name was Sam, I hope it was, for he did not want to be forgotten. I could see that in his eyes as easily as I could sense it from his words. He wanted someone to know that he was alive. He wanted to matter to the world, even to his community, but he seemed not to know how to do that save to be the first to compliment me—for as usual, even though I was clear that I had not made the lasagna but my wife had, I got all the credit for simply showing up with what my wife had actually made—and then Sam would be the last to bid me farewell as I headed out the door to remount my bike and head home where I would find my loving new bride having prepared me my own supper. (She never got credit for that or for so many things she did then or anytime in her life, and it has never bothered her.)

“Don’t forget me,” Sam would say, either verbally or, more poignantly, with his eyes.

“No, I won’t,” I would respond, adding somewhat awkwardly, “For God has not forgotten you.” Yet secretly I wondered about that. How could this man have found his way to this point in his life?

Then I remembered that he was a human being, and that Christ himself taught very clearly that is not one’s proper business to judge one’s fellow human being, but rather to care for that person.[1] I learned then what I now know but must be reminded of every day, that folks different from me, however different they may be, however strange the twists and turns of their life might appear to have been, are in fact my brothers and my sisters. We are all in this human endeavor together. And the key to understanding that, or perhaps just the beginning of it, might just be, to quote another wise teacher (in this case not Jesus but Garfield), lasagna.

[1] Matthew 7:1.