Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Plato, Pig Socks and Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Now I don’t often mention the same person, in this case Mother Teresa, in a blog within a two or three week sequence because it seems to me a tad tautological to do so. But this time, I suppose, I have to, because two things happened this week that made me think of Platonic forms. One had to do with socks that a football player Colin Kaepernick wore during a recent game. The apparel in question portrayed police officers as pigs. For the sake of clarity, I quote here from Josh Peters’ USA Today article that records the words spoken by the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, Bill Johnson:

“It’s just ridiculous that the same league that prohibits the Dallas [Cowboys] football club from honoring the slain officers in their community with their uniforms stands silent when Kaepernick is dishonoring police officers with what he is wearing on the field.”[1]

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick

It seems to me that I needn’t quip, “He has a point.” I imagine that is self-evident to any sound thinking person. Rather, let me quote Kaepernick’s Instagram response:

“I wore these socks, in the past, because the rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments not only put the community in danger, but also put the cops that have the right intentions in danger by creating an environment of tension and mistrust.”[2]

I shall leave Mr. Kaepernick’s misunderstanding of the proper use of commas aside for the moment; to point that up would be petulant. Rather, let us look at what he is saying. He seems to me to be stating that the exception is more important than the rule. Put another way, he is suggesting that the particular is more important than the form. And that worldview also explains why he won’t stand for the national anthem. The exceptions to the basic goodness of his country have, in his mind, become of greater weight than the idea or ideal that the country could possibly represent. Even any semblance of such an ideal is absent. It’s gone.

Where did it go? I suppose it followed Hemley Gonzalez to India, who went there in 2008 “to take some time off and get in touch with [his] compassionate and creative side.” How thoughtful of him. Hemley (if I may) “decided to split [his] time in India between backpacking and volunteering, giving them two months of [his] time and energy; it was then that [he] discovered the serious medical negligence that had been taking place for quite a while inside the organization [Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity[3]] and began to document and report the abuse [he] witnessed.” Now I can only imagine that our friend Hemley hitherto had enjoyed very little familiarity with a third world nation. Hemley had probably not gone backpacking through Ethiopia. What a novel concept: touring a place where people are dying every day from starvation. And, then, just to ensure that he’s done his part for humanity, good-deed-doing Hemley documented the “abuses” of those trying desperately to help the starving and afflicted. Novel indeed.

Portrait of a Gentleman by Bartolomé González y Serrano, perhaps a forebear of Hemley? There may be a lesson in this portrait for the younger Gonzalez—just sayin’…
“Portrait of a Gentleman” by Bartolomé González y Serrano, perhaps a forebear of Hemley? There may be a lesson in this portrait for the younger Gonzalezjust sayin’…

I need not go on. Our friend Hemley made in 2008 the same mistake that Colin Kaepernick is making now merely by putting on his socks in the morning and sitting through the national anthem. Both decided, at some fundamental level, that the form of goodness (in Kaepernick’s case, merely the country, but in our friend Hemley’s case, God Himself and the vicar of God on earth—in this case Mother Teresa; wow!) is less important than the particular exceptions to the rule. Hemley found among the abuses that the heirs of Mother Teresa (for she was no longer living in 2008) perpetrated was their dearth of adequate utensils for the treatment of the very ill of Calcutta; they were discovered to have reused some of the equipment that had not been sterilized to Hemley’s satisfaction. I can just imagine Hemley’s version of Jiminy Cricket, perched right on his shoulder saying in his ear, “Good heavens, Hemley! What abuse you’ve stumbled upon! Report it! Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Yea, even from the Himalayas!”

I can only hope to sit next to Hemley the next time I fly. He reminds me of a business man I once met on an airplane. I got a one day pass to a fight club and, in my mind at least, I smacked him: but you’ll have to go back to another blog for that account. In the meantime, I recommend to our friend Hemley that the next time he wishes to get in touch with his compassionate side—which side is that, right or left?—or his creative side, that he simply go to the local humane society for the former and an art exhibition for the latter. As for our quarterbacking friend, I think he needs to grow up. (As an aside, may I say that I would love to have been lucky enough to be the patriotic blitzing linebacker that has him in his sights the next time they step on the gridiron together?)

More importantly, I would wish that both gentlemen take the time to read Plato’s Euthyphro, for they both are Euthyphro. They have particularized the moment. They have forgotten that there are ideas that transcend any individual event. And, perhaps they are emblematic of the way many of us, in America at least, think today. So I close with that thought, not a one day pass to the fight club, but simply the notion that too often nowadays we are so quick to wish to glut ourselves with an ephemeral “correction” of a particular instance of injustice that we lose sight of the greater good, the form of Justice itself. This Labor Day, which represents the hard work of our citizens rather than any particular instance of it and is therefore a Platonic holiday, may we think about something nobler, something ennobling, something to which to aspire that we might inspire others. Mother Teresa did that and tomorrow, though she was merely a fallen human being like the rest of us, she will be made a saint. Let us look to the hills whence cometh our strength. Hemley come down from there! Like Mr. Kaepernick, you’re simply out of your league.

Colin Kaepernick sacked

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/49ers/2016/09/01/police-reaction-colin-kaepernick-pig-socks-san-francisco/89715672/

[2] https://www.instagram.com/p/BJ0vPsQAGZQ/

[3] http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/hemley-gonzalez-the-truth-about-mother-teresa; see also the recent CNN article http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/31/asia/mother-teresa-controversies/

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Handshake

handshakeYou may not know it but, when you shake someone’s hand, you are connecting with that person in a close and particular way and you are, as it were, touching with your own hand the embodiment and tangible representation of that person’s past.

Now I realize that the word “particular” in this opening sentence may sound, to an English speaker, vague. “Particular,” someone might say, “how so?” The response to that statement is, in many cases, something you can learn only over many years. I did a few days ago in Italy, in Farfa to be specific.

Farfa abbey courtyard
Courtyard of the Abbazia Benedittina di Santa Maria di Farfa

Farfa is not your typical tourist destination. It’s most enduring claim to fame is a monastery founded by a hermit known as Lawrence of Syria. That structure served for   years, as monasteries often do, as the principal school for the surrounding towns of Montefalcone, Salisone, and Castel San Pietro. Young children would walk over the hillsides from tFarfa streethese hamlets for miles to go to school there at the Abbazia Benedittina, to learn and, if they were lucky, to graduate from the fifth or sixth grade with what is, by modern standards, perhaps the level of eighth grade learning in the current (often too tepid) American educational system.

Fabio’s grandmother had been one of those schoolchildren, and he told me of her studying there in the very courtyard in which we were standing. The abbey chapel, still his family’s church, was also that of her family, a family which had to walk miles to church every Sunday from their countryside village as she did for her schooling. His grandfather came from another village not far away, and that selfsame grandfather was baptized as a baby near the turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth) by Beato Placido Riccardi, O.S.B., then rector of Farfa, whose remains are on display in a glass-case reliquary in the church. He was eventually succeeded by the also beatified Ildefonso Schuster, an Italian with a Germanic name who welcomed, at first, the dawn of fascism in Italy[1] and was even

Beato Placido Riccardi O.S.B.

enthusiastic about the decision of the Italian state to invade Ethiopia, likening Mussolini to Caesar Augustus and seeing the invasion itself as an opportunity to bring the gospel to that nation.[2] (Perhaps he was unaware that Ethiopia, thanks to St. Phiip’s teaching in a chariot, is uniquely the oldest primarily Christian nation). Yet this dubiously beatified figure nonetheless did do the world the favor of writing a 447-page history of the Farfa abbey published in 1921.


Fabio’s grandfather was the personal adjutant of Rev. Schuster’s successor, working side by side with him during some of the most difficult years of the Second World War. While Schuster only eventually realized that Mussolini was not going to be a great leader and that fascism provided no real antidote to the world’s ills—the location of a concentration camp nearby the abbey may have been all the evidence he needed—his successor at the abbey proved a gentler man and, though he was never beatified, by Fabio’s account he even resisted the Nazis and Italian fascists.

Fabbio and family
Fabio and his family

Indeed, some of those held in the concentration camp escaped, in part through the agency of local folks like Fabio’s grandfather, who would give them food at night when those refugees slept in the fields. The food the Jews received and the access to the peasants’ land helped them for a time as they hid from the Nazis who were seeking to incarcerate them—particularly Jews of Serbian or Croatian descent, as Fabio recalled it—in the nearby concentration camp that marred the rolling Sabine hills, which lovingly encompass, like the great arms of God, the hamlet and abbey of Farfa.

Sabine hills
Sabine Hills

All this history, all this pain, struggle, sadness and finally joy at the destruction of the camp by the allies, with the help of those very locals, began with a mere handshake in 1979 when I met a very young version of Fabio on a bus in Rome. Now, all these years later, I visited his family homestead, his meager “fabbrica” on which is situated a modest but grand, in terms of its view, manor. I felt I had come upon the Corycian gardiner, though upgraded to modern times. There his lovely wife prepared a spectacular Italian luncheon—the primo of homemade pasta, secondo of both veal and chicken, a tasty insalata, an Italian tort for dessert, and then the treat of meeting his younger daughter, the great-granddaughter of his mother’s father, who had helped the fleeing Jews during the great war.

The next time I shake Fabio’s hand, I shall think of all this: his grandmother’s education and the courage of his grandfather, who had been baptized by Beato Placido; the slow learning curve of Father Schuster; the untold stories of the Jews who escaped; the tragic tale of those who did not. And the next time I shake your hand, I shall try to be ready to hear your story, for I learned from Fabio some 40 years ago, it all can so easily begin with a mere, but quite particular, handshake.Farfa church view 2

Farfa church





[1] Cf. e.g. http://es.catholic.net/op/articulos/61702/alfredo-ildefonso-schuster-beato.html.

[2] http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/25th-january-1997/14/doubts-about-schuster.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Via Dolorosa—Thoughts on Poverty & Sacrifice

The via dolorosa. The way of suffering. Though the adjective meaning “of suffering” is rare and occurs only rather late in antiquity, I have thought about this phrase many times. One such occasion occurred, I can recall, when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia, walking well beyond University City near West Catholic Preparatory School toward the Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church on 51st Street.

episcopal church
Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church, Philadelphia (51st and Spruce)

There are row homes all around, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods were then, and still likely are, starkly poor. I was young, and though I had no money myself, my heart went out to those living in what I then perceived to be poverty, because I knew that for me, in the end, there was a pretty good chance, with all the education I was privileged to be getting at the time, life would likely work out somehow; but for many of those living there, it might never change, might never turn out well.


They might in fact be held in a less-than-living wage category for their entire lives, with no hope for a future. Theirs, I then thought, was the true via dolorosa, the true path of suffering. Theirs would most likely be a life of subsistence living.

row house
West Philly row houses

On the one hand, save one letter, I wasn’t too far off about that being the via dolorosa. Truly it is hard for someone stuck in an impoverished situation to break the cycle of poverty, whether they live here in America or anywhere else in the world. Yet the letter I was missing was a ‘T’, as I was confusing the life of suffering (vita dolorosa) with the way of suffering (via dolorosa). Those row houses, row upon row upon row, had all the earmarks of underprivileged living, poverty mingled with poverty, sadness dripping more sadness. That would be the life, not the path or way of suffering. And that was all merely from the outside. For in any of those row houses, I’ll wager, there could have been, and very likely was, a real home, a place of warmth and care, love and acceptance. And that is real wealth, real prosperity.

On the other hand, no sound-thinking person could say that poverty is a desirable situation to live through year in and year out. And, on that same other hand, one has to realize that poverty is often on a sliding scale. What I was calling poverty in Philadelphia, genuine as it was and still is in that city, is still not the same as poverty everywhere.viewfromKM2

I was not too long ago—just two years this month—in a country, Ethiopia, where poverty is much more severe. There we visited a family who lived in a small hut with a small not very private, at best, semi-isolated area alongside of it that served as a bathroom. There was no running water in the hut or the makeshift bathroom and it was a long walk to the nearest well. The floors were beat-down dirt with a rug over a portion of the dirt. The possessions inside the hut were meager. A few pictures. Stick furniture. Something that served as a bed. A very modest life, and no hope, no way out—ever. Not what we in the affluent West call poverty as it most often manifests itself in our culture; something worse.

neighborhood in Addis

Yet by the time I got to Ethiopia, all those years after wandering and pondering in West Philly, I knew that what I saw in Africa was not the via dolorosa (way of suffering), which had in fact led me there, but rather the vita dolorosa (life of suffering). The latter can occur anywhere, but obviously can be quite acute in situations that offer no opportunity for improvement, no hope for change for the better. The former is a frame of mind. It is a choice to embrace pain, not to run from it. It is, as anyone who knows anything about Christendom will be aware, peculiarly poignant, even palpable, this time of year. It is not the right to bear arms (too often a pet issue for American conservatives), but the right to roll up one’s shirtsleeves and work with those less fortunate. If it is a burden, it is a light one, because it is a choice. It is the choice willingly to give away much of one’s material wealth to help the poor, hopefully empowering them that they may discover a way out, that they may get the opportunity to improve their situation; it is a choice to spend time with the disadvantaged; it is a choice to embrace a friend in need and to help to carry his burden. Even if some Christians might self-effacingly deny that it is a choice—after all, what happened to Simon of Cyrene does not seem to have been much of a choice—it nevertheless can feel like one. In Simon’s case, he bore a small burden for the One who would bear a much heavier burden on that very cross. We can do so, as well.

Simon of Cyrene by Titian

So I close with these thoughts a day earlier than usual, for I offer this blog not on a Saturday but on a Friday, a very good, if a very dolorous Friday. These reflections about poverty are couched in a discussion of the distinction between the life of suffering and the way of suffering. Though there can sometimes be joy in spite of it, the former is unfortunate in any culture; the latter, by contrast, is desirable, the only truly desirable outcome for a life well lived, at least for those who seek to follow the path that Simon of Cyrene trod. That path led Him, whose cross Simon bore, to the quintessentially heroic, propitiatory sacrifice. For those of us on that path, we shall find that it leads not to but through personal sacrifice surprisingly to joy, and it does so in a relatively short time. Though in this life it may seem to us to take an eternity, it will turn out, in fact, merely to be a span of three days.

empty-tombAs the Devoted Life website says,
“Easter changes everything.”

Happy Easter!



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Donkeys, Snakes and Other Talking Animals 

verona streetTwo weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent.  And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.

“I don’t want one,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”

“I am,” she said.

“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”

“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”

“How hungry are you?”

“Just a little.”

“Then a snack would be perfect.  Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”

“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”

Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake.  Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake.  But I am not a herpavor.  I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes.  But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.

Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard.  juliets balconyDrifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable).  balsamicIndeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù.  Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle.  Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal.  And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.

Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts.  First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner.  I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste.  Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.

Alexander mosaic, detail

Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew).  The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden.  But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you.  Some horses have been very famous.  Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander.  The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master.  Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet.[1]  And should I even mention Mr. Ed?  Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.

So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!”  I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.

Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino
Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino (sauce of donkey)

Wait, what about dogs and cats?  They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough.  First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys.  It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats.  The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference.  Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.”  So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me.  Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.

But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places.  So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk.  And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.

[1] Miriam Griffin, ed. A Companion to Julius Caesar (Cambridge, 2015).