Last week, strangely enough, I wrote about how it is possible to go to a cathedral as beautiful as Nôtre Dame in Paris to drink in all the religious feel of the place but to miss God, to allow the frame to obscure the painting, as it were. Having written that just a few days ago, I couldn’t have imagined that within a week such a beautiful “frame” as Nôtre Dame would be destroyed by fire, a devastating fire that, while it could have been worse, wreaked havoc upon the finest and most famous example of Gothic architecture in France.
It would merely be to repeat what everyone else has said already to say that this is more than simply France’s or Paris’ loss, it is the world’s loss. Likewise, expressing my own or American solidarity with Parisians and all France in this time of sorrow is merely to repeat what others have said more eloquently. And even to say that the cathedral was much more than merely a religious building, is not enough. That structure was, and its remnant remains, the principal symbol of French culture, the center of Paris, the richness of a combination of religious inspiration, two hundred years of devoted labor in its building, loving care of the edifice, and sustained cultural preservation. What took so long to build, and what stood proudly for so many years ended so quickly at the beginning of the holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, spoke about the care of New York Catholics for all Parisians, saying that they can “count on our love, prayers, support and solidarity.” He went on to make the connection between the destruction of the cathedral and the death of Christ: “This Holy Week teaches us that, like Jesus, death brings life. Today’s dying, we trust, will bring rising.” It is striking that this occurred just now, just before Christians celebrate the death of Christ.
Yes, celebrate is theologically the right word
here. You see, Christians celebrate Jesus’ death because they know not simply
that we can bring Him back, keeping His memory alive—I am glad to say that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, as millions of Euros have already been pledged for
that purpose—but He was
resurrected. Christians celebrate his
death for what it did for them: dying, He took the penalty for their sins away
forever. And then, to everyone’s
astonishment, He rose from the dead, which was and remains the proof that He
did by dying precisely what He had said that he would do. And that’s why Christians celebrate his
death, not just his resurrection.
Thus, while there are some similarities and,
given the season, striking parallels between the burning of the finest French
cathedral and the death of Jesus, as Father Dolan correctly points out, there
is at least one fundamental difference: while we already know that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, the expectation
of which in no way diminishes out grief over the tragic loss that has just
occurred, the first-century disciples had no such anticipation about Jesus,
even though he had repeatedly told them it would happen. And, I guess, that’s why, in this time of
great grief for Nôtre Dame,
we can still find solace: not just in the hope of rebuilding, but in the hope
of all of us sinful human beings being forgiven freely by quite another death,
that of an innocent man a long time ago. And we can add to that the hope of our
own resurrection based on that of that same man, the Son of Man, the son of
Mary, the son of nôtre dame.
Vive la France, revivra Nôtre Dame. Le Christ était mort mais vit. Joyeuses Pâques!
In my case, I was tagging along with a friend of mine who was speaking at just such a literary meeting in France on epic poetry, the poetry of sagas. Now, as I was saying above, while these gatherings are called “meetings” in America and sometimes even in the U.K., in France they are called congresses or colloques. This time it was the latter, though the two terms are often interchangeably used. And there were some famous folks at this colloque, which is in part why I tagged along. I won’t mention their names which are, in any case, to an Anglophone audience nearly as unreadable as they are unpronounceable.
But suffice it to say that there was a famous professor from the Sorbonne there, a famous Italian professoressa and an exceptional teacher at a collegium in northern France who has more publications on Theocritus than Theocritus had poems. And I, though but a writer, was allowed to crash this party, as it were, simply because one of my friends was speaking. His speech, given in French, of course, seemed to me to have gone well. Fortunately I have enough French to have followed it, and I told him that it went well, which of course pleased him.
But none of this is any real part of this story per se. Rather it is merely explanatory, providing the setting for it. The saga of the shirt began at the colloque’s opening dinner, when one of the participants accidentally spilled wine on my friend, who was at the time wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. That rich, red liquid went cascading across the tabletop and soaked rather quickly into the waiting weave of the soft cotton fabric that was my friend’s shirt. Sure enough, his shirt absorbed the drink like an alcohol-starved alcoholic or a fresh diaper, and like a diaper, was quickly stained, as were my friend’s pants. His tan pants were his immediate priority, and he managed to get the major part of that wine stain out in the bathroom by dousing them with water right away, as if they were on fire. But the shirt, alas, as the wine in question was red (specifically a Bordeaux as we were in the Bordeaux region of France) was a goner, a casualty on the especially delicious epicurean battlefield of southern France.
When he got back to his hotel, so he told me, he originally had thought to place the shirt in the small, round trash can in his room. Indeed he had done so. But, even though he is slightly less Welsh than I am—though he may be precisely as Welsh as I am for all I know—he immediately felt guilty. The reason for his guilt, so he told me at breakfast, was because he had come to the congress from Paris where he had seen hundreds of middle eastern refugees living in the streets, many of them dwelling in small pup tents, each tent quite often inhabited by an entire family. Those tents had been provided for the refugees, mostly from Syria, by the Parisian police and rescue society. Indeed the city of Paris is in crisis mode. Ironically, while radical Islamic terrorists seek to destroy the city—four cells associated with various mosques were broken up while I was there last week—the Parisians are nonetheless reaching out to those needy refugees, many of them of course Muslim, giving them shelter and, for now at least, some measure of hope, how ever small a measure that might be.My friend, though it took him all night, as I was saying at the outset of this blog, eventually came to view the wine-blood of the shirt differently than an object merely to be tossed away into an undersized garbage can. He regarded the wine as the blood of Christ spilled on his shirt.
“How is this so?” I queried of him as we boarded the train quite early this very morning, he going to Paris-Bercy, I getting off at another stop to catch a plane from Paris’ CDG airport.
“I washed the shirt out and, save a slight red stain on one of the sleeves and near the stomach, is almost dry, entirely clean and, if a bit wrinkled, nonetheless quite wearable. It was nearly a new shirt, you know.”
“No, I don’t know, or rather I didn’t know nor would I have known. How could I, as I was not with you at the dinner?” To which, no response. Of course not, I thought, he’s a philologist proper, he finds no need to waste words, even if (or especially because) he supposedly loves them. So, of course, I followed up. “How does the wine spilled on your shirt have anything, even remotely, to do with Christ?”
“It has everything to do with Him,” he responded.
Now, if you had the luxury of a college education, at this point you may be recalling that annoying professor, you know, the one who usually answered obliquely, a Socrates to your Euthyphro. I think that is why I like this friend of mine, because he does that very thing to me. So, of course, I followed up again, eventually worming out of him the notion that the act of spilling of the wine reminded him of the sacrifice of Christ, blood spilled redemptively, even propitiously for the whole world. And that reminded him of the love of Christ. And that he (strangely, to my mind) connected with the shirt, for he had seen refugees sleeping in tents on the streets of Paris—one such encampment on the Rue d’Hôpital, not far from Paris-Bercy. His idea was, rather than having simply tossed the shirt in the trash (as he nearly did), to walk from Bercy station to the encampment and to give the shirt to one of those in need, then to walk to Denfert-Rochereau to catch the bus to Orly, whence he is flying later today—indeed will have flown, by the time you read this.
“That is a lot of walking,” I said. He indicated that recognized as much, but the blood spilled on the shirt reminded him to do that. “Couldn’t you just give money online?” I queried.
“Too sterile,” he responded in his not infrequently (indeed usually) unusual manner. His look seemed to be kind and understanding, yet at the same time he seemed to me clearly to be issuing a spiritual challenge. Soon he expanded on the theme unprovoked. “Too sterile, even unworthy of the blood, for Christ always got his hands dirty. That’s how we can know his modus operandi. That’s how we recognize the fingerprints of love.”
I alighted, as I said, before my friend so that I might catch a train to the Charles DeGaul, where, upon my arrival I found myself wandering in my thoughts about the spilled wine, the shirt, the striking metaphor of fingerprints of love—striking, yes, but nonetheless a bit incongruous for a shirt. “Can a shirt even bear fingerprints?” I wondered. “Maybe it bears my friend’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, except of course on the buttons.” I tried to give my mind and spirit a rest as I now physically wandered about the airport, passing a fancy men’s clothier with a bright white well-pressed shirt in the window, one sporting sharp-looking silver cufflinks.
“My thoughts are beginning to sound rather pedantic,” I mused. “I have been hanging out with my philological friend too much.” Still, I wondered about the shirt, the other one, the one with Christ’s blood upon it, its saga. Did it make it to a refugee? Did it bear my friend’s DNA? Christ’s fingerprints? What refugee would ever even figure that out? And then I thought of the ten lepers. Though only one figured it out, all ten were healed. “I hope that shirt, like a message in a bottle, made it to it where it was supposed to go,” I muttered, half thinking, half praying. I suppose I will only find out at the next literary congress in France, when I hope to see my philological friend again, or perhaps, if I get back to Paris first, I may see a poor refugee wearing a white shirt with a sleeve slightly stained by the wine of the cup of salvation.
Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.
Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.
The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.
The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.
The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”
All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.
Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9).
Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.
We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.
But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.
Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.
Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.
Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. So, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.
 In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”
… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.
Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated.
If we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.
I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?
And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.
Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.
Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.
What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiographyknows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.
Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.” While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.
And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.
I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.” As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy. Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …
Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us all
Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):
One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?