Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.

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Of Sausages and Saints

From Maureen Mullarkey

I like to think it speaks well for John XXIII that the mandatory miracle had to be waived on his behalf. There was none to be found, not a trace. No pious Catholic had the heart to come forward with a crumb of evidence that the man who had convened Vatican II—its touted spirit and all its works—was released from purgatory so soon.

No need to fret over the waiver. It is just possible that John was either too reticent or too canny to deliver the customary cure. Better to greet its absence as a signal refusal, a sign of sanctity more compelling than any custom-made cure. Certainly John knows—more keenly now than ever—that miracles, like grace, are everywhere. To pull one out of a zucchetto for his own glory might have seemed ignoble to him, a catchpenny wonder that served bureaucratic concerns over salvific ones. Perhaps he thought the requirement too ornate? Utilitarian?

Daniel Chodowiecki. The Boy with the Sausage Spit (1764). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


There is no way to know. All we do know is that this year’s double canonization, in combination with the coming beatification of Paul VI, opens a window onto the politics of saint-making. Like sausage-making, into which we are advised not to look, it is a less than edifying sight.

This is Rome honoring its own in an end run around debate that continues to dog Humanae Vitae. Not infallibly proposed but infallible nonetheless? Sound in part, unsound in another? In beatifying its author, the Vatican canonizes the encyclical, entrenching it as litmus test to distinguish true Catholics from pretenders. On another level, it buttresses the novus Ordo Missae, experienced by many as desacralized and neophiliac. This year’s triple play is a megacanonization that amplifies and reinforces the authority of a man’s works by venerating the man himself.

Paul’s beatification swats at what Francis is reported to have called, in audience with bishops of the Czech Republic, “a kind of fashion” for the Tridentine Mass. Come October, seminarians drawn to the Latin liturgy are likely to find themselves more marginal than they are now. Parishes on the fence as to whether to introduce the traditional Latin Mass will have a disincentive to proceed. Catholics seeking the solemnity of the old liturgy might have to travel farther to hear the sharp, plangent treble of a Sanctus bell.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The Butcher (18th C.). Private Collection.


At the same time, Paul’s elevation is poised to outjockey resistance to the encyclical’s blanket rejection of any contraceptive act under any circumstance. The logic of principled, good-faith demurrals can be left to suffocate under the weight of Paul’s proclaimed sanctity. A transparent maneuver, the beatification further burdens conscientious Catholics who suffer—and suffer they do—the gap between their own marital scruples and credence in the Church’s teaching authority on the matter. The thunder of denunciation—“intrinsic evil,” “intrinsically disordered”—extended without nuance to non-abortive contraception used by responsible spouses open to parenthood, continues to roar confusedly in many consciences.


Paul’s advancement, conjoined with that of his successors, is a ritual of enforcement. Its object is to enfeeble unresolved opposition by leap-frogging over critical arguments in all their complexity. It looks to blunt suspicions that Paul’s encyclical, however beautiful its hymn to conjugal love, masked a failure of nerve.

The personal holiness of these three popes is not in question. The issue is quite different. What we are witnessing, in triplicate and garlanded with ceremony, is the exaltation of ecclesiastical politics.

There is pathos in that. And danger. 

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Tammany on the Tiber

From Maureen Mullarkey

John XXIII once remarked that the Vatican was the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian. The pope’s impish bon mot floated like skywriting over the double canonization in St. Peter’s Square on the Second Easter Sunday. On the glittering heels of this production came advance notice of another: London’s The Tablet reported that Paul VI is on the books for beatification this coming October.

Thomas Nast. Boss Tweed. Late 19th C.

Are we at the point where election to the Petrine office is itself a signal of godliness, a guarantee of eventual canonization? Will each pope canonize his predecessor—or two or three of them—with the unspoken assumption that his own successor will return the compliment? Is election a promissory note drafted in white smoke, and redeemable at death for public elevation to the rank of saint? It begins to look that way.

Not only the faithful but their shepherds, too, are susceptible to media-induced semblances of sanctity. Devotion to the aura of sanctity and to the machine that produces it makes cult figures out of mere men. Like that talking snake in Eden, it murmurs in the ear. It excites the illusion that every papal opinion—however lacking in prudence or responsible facts—is oracular.

This expedited exercise in saint-making was a premature apotheosis, a pageant of synthetic piety staged for immediate media consumption. With this as a precedent, canonization risks becoming one more pseudo-event, like bread and circus, thrown to a culture besotted with virtual reality.

In our lifetime, we have watched the papacy descend into spectacle. By now, showboating—from kissing feet to a mega-Mass on Copacabana Beach—is an established feature of the modern papacy. As if spectacle itself could cure the malaise that has emptied churches, closed parishes, and turned cathedrals into pay-per-view tourist sites.

Benedict seemed to have little appetite for the parade. During his reign, he appeared more a captive than an agent of it. Yet even he cooperated with his captor. In his last general audience in St. Peter’s, he lapsed into the kind of mutual deception that fans celebrity culture: “The Pope belongs to everyone, and so many people feel very close to him.”

James Tissot. The Golden Calf (late 19th C.). Jewish Museum, NYC

No, the man does not belong to everyone. Any suggestion that he does is a saccharine oblation to consumers of image. That illusion of intimacy, so seductive and so crippling, is the very ground of demagogic populism. It is a dangerous chimera, as lethal to the judgment of a faith community as to electoral politics. Catholics—popes among them—are no less subject than anyone else to the lure of the star system and its crafted emphasis on personality.

It took no time at all for Francis to degrade into a celebrity. And like any politically astute showman, he takes to the camera for carefully designed photo-ops. (Posing with an anti-fracking T-Shirt in November, he conferred on activist filmmakers the kind of endorsement we expect from Yoko Ono and Matt Damon.) Media-conscious symbolic gestures are mirrored in an airy, imprecise rhetoric that is a receptacle for whatever meaning the public drops into it.

Francis clearly likes the elusive phrase “economy of exclusion.” He has used it before. Imprecise, it is a phrase for rent to fixers and mongers of any stripe. This time he served it to Ban Ki-Moon and visiting attachés of that grand sepulcher on the East River. But what do the words signify? Are they a gloved jab at the crony capitalism disabling his native Argentina? Do they aim at an American president who obligates an unborn generation to insurmountable debts not of its making? Was Francis making veiled reference to the debased status of imperiled Christians in Syria? Or, perhaps, to Islamo-leftism and the price of totalitarian theocracy? Might the phrase have sideways, metaphoric application to Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?

None of these. Uttered in concert with an autocratic injunction for “legitimate redistribution” of wealth, our pope was lending his office to apostles of the same tired, ideological hostility toward the market that ends in economic slavery under the guise of social justice. Papal messianism, bolstered by lack of competence in economics, is the road to a familiar hell, however finely paved with lovely intention. 

We know the old curse: May you live in interesting times. This might be a good time to expand the malediction to include the charm of popular popes.

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Cathedrals and the Crosstown Bus

From Maureen Mullarkey

Viewed through the radiant trefoil window of aesthetics, my love of Gothic architecture is boundless. Approached through the tighter, denser lens of prayer, however, that love shrinks. It pales and contracts to where I can barely see it. If at all.



The Cloister of Gloucester Cathedral


Christianity’s great truths come to us through a Nazarene carpenter—a tekton, a builder—whose handiwork we have no clue to. Neither do we have the faintest inkling of his response to Herod’s monumental temple complex. The whole of it, with its plaza, porticos, columns, and stairs was a glory of limestone, marble and gold. Yet Jesus directed eyes to the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, to bread, weeds and mustard seeds.

His inattention to cultivated Herodian aesthetics mortifies me some. It pulls me back—sometimes not far enough—from making a golden calf of my own sensibilities and everything they revel in. Once destined for the faithful, Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals remain great goods. But they are not ultimate goods. And when we honor them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry. 

Kathe Kollwitz. Woman with a Dead Child (1903)


Gerard Manley Hopkins, a theologian of surpassing lyricism, condensed into a single exquisite stanza all a Christian needs to know—or say—about beauty:

. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

To the Father through the features of men’s faces. The call to charity implicit in that line is the governing principle and crown of the gospels. I cannot dislodge it from memory. It repeats like a mantra, an unceasing reminder that compassion—caritas—is a vehicle for worship. And that our faith is simpler than we make it. Simpler, certainly, than the grandees of theological aesthetics would have us believe.

The greatest cathedral of all, the only one capable of rising to the Paraclete, is the suffering human being next to us. Until we can worship on the crosstown bus, we have yet to greet the living God. 

Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow (1922-23).

Rodin’s “Cathedrals of France”

From Maureen Mullarkey

I should like to inspire a love for this great art, to come to the rescue of as much of it as still remains intact; to save for our children the great lesson of this past which the present misunderstands.

In this desire I strive to awaken intellects and hearts to understanding and to love.

—Auguste Rodin, The Cathedrals of France





August Rodin was an aggressive womanizer well into old age. The love of beauty that served him nobly as a sculptor served him as a man with notable difference. Francis Haskell described him as “Never a man of much moral conviction except in the practice and defense of his art.” For now, then, better to stay with the sculptor’s love of beauty as it manifested itself in his passionate admiration for Christendom’s exalted monuments.

Rodin kept voluminous notes but wrote only one book: Cathedrals of France, originally published in France in 1914 when Rodin was seventy four. It was not translated into English until a half century later. Beacon Press made up for that surprising lapse with its beautifully printed 1965 edition, illustrated with sketches from the notebooks.





The text is not an architectural treatise. It makes no attempt at scholarly appraisal or methodical observation. Compiled day by day through periodic visits to numerous cathedrals, it is thoroughly the work of an artist justifying his personal attachments. And doing so in terms of his craft.

Over decades, Rodin took notes on what he observed and made quick pen or pencil sketches. In 1908 he hired a secretary—first the Symbolist poet Charles Morice, down on his luck; then Rilke—to cull the cathedral passages in preparation for publication. He intended to reignite public sensitivity to the dignity and majesty of their Romanesque and Gothic heritage. (And, it should be added, to spur support for his own sculptural canons which absorbed so much from Gothic accommodation of chiaroscuro.) “The whole of France is in her cathedrals” he wrote, “as all Greece is epitomized by the Parthenon.”

It is open to question just how much the tenor of Rodin’s prose,  often mounting  to Symbolist excess and strains of Mallarmé, is owed to Charles Morice:

This is a morning painted by Claude Lorrain, admirable in depth. Spring is here. I breathe in the delight of spring mornings. The rooster announces the day. An immense sigh is exhaled. Oh marvel! The earth in love! Fresh and happy landscape!

Nevertheless, the bases of judgment are indisputably Rodin’s own. We are the richer for them, informed in their point and sweep by the knowledge of classical antiquity, especially Greek art and history.

Today’s readers need to discount for an overstrung chauvinism that is part ethnocentricity, part disdain for the character of modernity itself. Rodin had little patience for what he saw as the mechanized products and systems of the industrial age:

Will the genius of our race end by passing away like those pale ghosts and vanished forms that no one sees any more? Was it in historical or mythical times that the Cathedral, rowing through space by its buttresses, all sails unfurled, the French ship, the French victory, made beautiful as for Eternity, spread open at its apse the wings of a group of kneeling angels? . . .

But architecture no longer touches us. The rooms in which we consent to live are without character. They are boxes crammed helter-skelter with furniture. . . . How can we understand the profound unity of the great Gothic symphony?

In respect to the frequent crudity of nineteenth century efforts at restoration, Rodin’s distaste for modernity was both well earned and, at the same time, more modern than he knew. His championing of the Gothic seconded Victor Hugo’s earlier defense of the preservation of historic buildings. (“He understood as a poet; for cathedrals are vast poems.”) Rodin lent his voice to the still-young movement to codify principles and practices in maintaining cultural heirlooms. Reading his appraisals of vandalism in the name of restoration remain as instructive now as they were in the early twentieth century.

He was hostile to any method that spoiled the old in order to harmonize it with the new. Commenting on the pediment of Reims, he distinguished between the damaged but still original right gable and its retouched pendant piece. The right gable, untouched, still carried the power to arouse the sculptor’s enthusiasm. Not so its reconstructed companion:

But see how the other gable, restored, remade, is dishonored. The planes no longer exist. It is heavy, worked frontally, without profiles, without equilibrium of volumes. For the Cathedral, which leans forward, this gable is an enormous weight with no counterbalancing weight. Oh, this Christ on the Cross, restored in the 19th century! The iconoclast who believed he had ruined the gable did it no great harm. But the ignorant restorer! . . . By such heavy restoration the equilibrium is changed.

As if it were possible to repair these figures and ornament battered by the centuries! Such an idea could be born in minds that are strangers to the nature of art and to all truth.

Rodin’s personal life exemplified that lack of reciprocity between love of beauty and moral action that beauty cultists pull the shades on. Viewed in light of a bevy of mistresses scrapping over his will with a better-late-than-never mistress-made-wife, his many references to the female form and the feminine nuances of rounded elements resonate in unintended ways. Chaste analogies to architecture do not quite disguise the concupiscence that lurks even in chatter of the transcendental kind. Rodin makes of Woman—how to say it—a lovely piece of architectural moulding. Like Venus de Milo (“first source of nourishment for my intellect”), she is all graceful convexities. And, like a curving balustrade, inviting to the hand.

The fulsomeness of nineteenth century French prose aside, Rodin succeeds in revealing “the grandeurs of the Gothic soul” better than your Michelin Green Guide. There are no obligatory sights to consume. There is only the spirit of place to greet and savor. Episodic and personal, Cathedrals of France is a series of lyrical associations and descriptions that direct attention to minor churches such as those at  Chambord or Étampes. As Rodin knew: “We often learn far more from small things than from great ones.” And with him as company, we look at buildings more sympathetically as anatomies—embodiments of an élan that is so much more than style.

Bible in Glass at the Cloisters

From Maureen Mullarkey
The Gothics set stone upon stone, ever higher, not as the giants did, to attack God, but to reach up to Him. And God, as in the German legend, rewarded the merchants and the warriors, but to the poet what was granted?

—Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France




To the poets in stone and glass who created the great Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, God granted the grace of anonymity. To us moderns, that seems a double-edged, if not bitter, grace. Nevertheless, it was an actual one. It enabled unnamed tradesmen to ennoble the corporate worship of their own time and endow future generations with architectural testaments to a transfigured world.

The modern poet/artist is pummeled, hustled, ultimately doomed to create an inflated entity: himself. By contrast, those peripatetic, calloused teams of gifted geniuses—and genius they had—were exempt from the crushing necessity to forge a marketable individuality. That freedom, difficult as the living of it was, yielded powerful expressions of the Christian vision, radiant in stone and pierced by deathless light.

That thought lodged with me standing in front of the unsigned grandeur of the windows that comprise “Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters.” These six Romanesque windows have never left the cathedral since they were created in the late twelfth century. They are here now only because they had to be removed from their settings to accommodate repairs to the stonework holding them.

If there exists any art that can be called Christian, it is stained glass. The term “Christian art” applies most frequently, and accurately, to Christian themes. But the term does not encompass methods of execution. Stained glass—more precisely stained-and-painted glass, a product of the marriage between master glazer and painter—belongs thoroughly to the Christian era. The splendor of stained glass depends for effect on its actual materials and techniques, distinct from subject matter.



The art of glass making itself is ancient. Pliny gives a story, possibly apocryphal, of the invention of it. It was certainly known by the Egyptians in very early times. However, it was not until early in the Christian era that anyone thought of using glass to fill windows. Remnants of glass windows have been found at Pompeii. Caligula had his palace windows glazed. Seneca mentions glazing as one of those contemporary luxuries that adds nothing to contentment of mind. It took several centuries more for the glazier to unite with the Venetian enameller in giving birth to the art of painted-and-stained glass, which is stained glass as we know it.

Figuration on the glass is thought to date back to the Carolingian era. While little material evidence from that age survives, textual references do. And it is indisputable that by the early thirteenth century, stained glass was a preeminent European art form. England and France produced the jewels of their time: Canterbury, Chartres and St. Denis.

Of the stained glass that was once the glory of Canterbury, only a remnant escaped Puritan demolition. History tells of one Richard Culmer, overseer of the cathedral under the Commonwealth, who climbed a ladder sixty steps high with a pike in his hand and “rattled down

Beckett’s glassie bones.”

A stained glass window is a transparent mosaic.  Every change of color requires a separate piece of glass. From 350 to 450 pieces of glass per meter have been counted in windows of the period. This is a stunning multiplicity of refractive surfaces, each one behaving differently. Irregularities in the glass—air bubbles, flaws—fracture the daylight coming through, and split the color of each individual shard into the dancing, vibrating glory that was medieval stained glass.



Matisse’s celebrated windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence are crude by comparison. Sublimity is gone; what is left is a see-through painting by a well-known name. Tourists make day trips to Union Church in Pocantico Hills to see his rose window [ above] and Chagall’s “Good Samaritan” window. Neither leaves the visitor feeling what medievals felt when they entered their cathedrals. The Vence Chapel and Union Church are sacred spaces, to be sure. But the object of devotion is the artist in whose name the visitor arrives and stays awhile. Guests are moved to appreciation, not to wonder, a prerequisite for prayer.

•     •     •     •

An old catechism from the diocese of Tréguier in Brittany asks the question: “What should you do upon entering a cathedral?” The answer reads: “Take holy water, adore the Blessed Sacrament, then walk all around the edifice and look at the stained glass windows.” We can say that the anonymous masters of the Canterbury windows, too, contributed to the catechism. Their modern, acclaimed descendents, lovely as they are, contribute only to guide books.

The Canterbury windows remain on view through May 18th.

Hearts, Sacred and Profane

From Maureen Mullarkey

Devotion to the Sacred Heart is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Latin Church. Its prompt to compassionate meditation on the sufferings of Christ, to gratitude and contrition, is venerable. Less so is the iconography that attaches to its modern form. 

Artist Unknown (17th C.) Chambre des Reliques, Paray-le-Monial

Promoted in conformity to Margaret Mary Alacoque’s apparitions, the devotion’s iconic motif remains edifying to many. At the same time, that excised, free-floating organ looks mawkish, even grotesque—a physiological hovercraft— to many others. Paul Zalonski, a Benedictine Oblate and ardent defender of the devotion, states it this way:

Popular piety tends to associate a devotion with its iconographic expression. . . . Inconveniences can sometimes arise: iconographic expressions that no longer respond to the artistic taste of the people can sometimes lead to a diminished appreciation of the devotion’s object, independently of its theological basis and its historico-salvific content.

Certainly, the handiworks of pictorial imagination have their seasons. But change in the weather here is owed to currents deeper than mere taste. Patterned amid intellectual ferments of the Age of Discovery, the archetypal emblem of the Sacred Heart once resonated with an extra-religious charge that lost piquancy ahead of the piety that drew upon it.

Two key excitements informed the trope: Renaissance revival of dissection, plus European dissemination of priestly copies of Aztec and Maya codices. Lifting of medieval interdict against dissection triggered a revolution in knowledge of the structure and mechanics of the heart. Simultaneously, pre-Columian codices carried the frisson of ethnographic spectacles never before seen or imagined. For the first time, Europeans witnessed other peoples and their practices—specifically, ritual heart extraction.

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Study of the Heart (c. 1500)



Codex Magliabicciano, Museo de America, Madrid


Biblical language is infused with references to the heart as proxy for all that it means to be human. Exodus spoke of “all whose hearts were stirred and whose spirits were moved.” Jesus, too, relied on the same metaphoric device: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy might.

Origins of Sacred Heart devotion trace back to the second century apologists. Justin Martyr (d. 165) identified Christians as “the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart.” Irenaeus (d. 145) defined the Church as “the fountain of the living water that flows to us from the Heart of Christ.” Both men were approximate contemporaries of Galen, who affirmed ancient ideas of the heart as the seat of sensation and the organ nearest the soul.

The history of the Sacred Heart is yoked to the longue durée of man’s understanding of the heart itself, both anatomically and in symbolic terms. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the heart was as much an object of exploration as the New World. Its topography, newly surveyed and mapped, was exhilarating territory. Andreas Vesalius put back Adam’s missing rib; William Harvey toppled Galen. 

Andreas Vesalius. Engraving from Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)


 Discovery of the circulatory system encouraged debate about whether the soul could be said to have a recognizable home. Images of the human heart of Christ, palpably and convincingly pictorial, combined scientific expeditions into anatomy with the age-old understanding of the heart as the identifiable, if symbolic, home of the soul.

Arriving in the wake of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises Margaret Mary’s apparitions followed suit with a program (the nine First Fridays), and a mission (to propagate the devotion). Ignatian emphasis on interior visualization to assist meditation prepared ground for the later saint’s visionary endorsement of real images.

While the historical Passion found embodiment in a wealth of visual models, Sacred Heart devotion had depended traditionally on vivid verbal imagery. The language of contemplative prayer and devotional texts had been the reigning prod to empathy. But now explicit depiction had a mandate: “I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.”


Artist Unknown. Engraved endpaper (17th C.) 


Jesuits had a fitting image ready in hand. However unlikely a cloistered nun had seen depictions of Aztec heart extraction, Jesuits were among the literate elites who did. With a keen eye for pertinence, they were already applying images like the one above—quickened with the temper of the age—to endpapers of books, sometimes to church walls. Claude de la Columbière, Margaret Mary’s confessor and enthusiast, was a Jesuit.

By now, scenes of pre-Columbian practices have dwindled into Art. And we greet the human heart as a pump that can be primed, even replaced. History has drained vigor from the Sacred Heart’s seminal image. What remains is a bleached convention unequal to a revered devotion. 

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Pesach to Pasch, with Miriam

From Maureen Mullarkey

The calendar smiled on us this year. Passover and Holy Week coincided. The week began with the first day of Pesach, folded into the Triduum, and closed with the Paschal mystery. Bracketed by two great re-enactments of the saga of redemption, salvation history colored six successive April days.

The Book of Exodus recounts the decisive, saving act of a God of transcendent power and majesty. But Egypt is a changeling; oppressions metastasize across borders and down millennia. Exodus remains always in process. 

So, too, does the Haggadah. Part chronicle, part prayer book for the Seder table, it is more than a text to be recited. In the words of one commentator, it is a call to “a radical act of empathy” that becomes the obligation, by birthright, of every Jew. To approach it as simply a commemorative story is to miss the sacred claim at the heart of it.

There exists a wealth of Haggadot. All editions—more than 3,000—are fundamentally the same. Yet each edition varies, inflected by those ethical realities that, in every age, become genuine questions for faith. The Exodus story is meant to be engaged, grappled with, interpreted with attention to the yokes and exiles—moral no less than societal—of one’s own time and place.

Somewhere, another Haggadah is gathering now. Others will follow.

In Christian understanding, ultimate freedom—the freedom of the Kingdom— remains an object of trust. God’s saving action, at play in the Exodus, did not cease at Sinai. Christian hope springs from confidence that He delivers His people from bondage to sin and eternal death.

The historic Exodus provides language for the eschatological one that informs Christian prayer. Christ, our Pasch—our Second Sinai—leavens us with sanctity and the promise of redemption beyond time: the resurrection of the dead. Exodus speaks of the inexpungible reality of His people. Christians, then, can recite with Jews the words of the Haggadah: “Our story begins with degradation; our telling ends with glory.”

Next year, may we greet Passover as we do Easter: with high, holy joy.

•      •     •      •

My own Haggadah, a gift from friends, reflects the sensibilities of its author and his congregants. Composed in 1981 by Rabbi Chaim Stern, a leading Reform liturgist, it absorbs passages from Tolstoy, Lord Byron (“My very chains and I grew friends”), Frederick Douglass, and Victor Frankl. Readings from the Talmud and the Midrashim intertwine with the moderns. Mark Twain, Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche recline alongside Hasidic sages. Gandhi, too. John Ruskin enters to rail against wage slavery in an English iron forge. John Stuart Mill is invoked against the oppression of women. George Orwell stands to define the basis of freedom: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

•      •      •      •

This year at Seder, my hosts used a Haggadah that is more attentive than mine to the leading lady of Exodus. They brought out tambourines to accompany the tale of Miriam, quick-thinking sister to Aaron and Moses.

Miriam watches pharaoh’s army sink in the rebound of the Red Sea. Lives of men and horses wash away, pitched to their death in the surge and sway of the waves. She wastes no sympathy on the sight. Quite the contrary, she throws herself into a victory dance. Elated, Miriam grabs a timbrel “and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.”

My Haggadah lowers its eyes from this rapturous display of retaliatory glee (God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning, and you sing praises!”). More to my temper is Rabbi Geela Raphael’s lively midrashic verse:

They danced, they danced
Oh, how they danced
They danced the night away
Clapped their hands and stamped their feet
With voices loud they praised.
They danced with joy
They danced with grace
They danced on nimble feet
Kicked up their heels, threw back their heads
Hypnotic with the beat. 
They danced so hard, they danced so fast;
They danced with movement strong
Laughed and cried, brought out alive
They danced until the dawn.
Some carrying child, some baking bread
Weeping as they prayed
But when they heard the music start
They put their pain away.

Accent on Miriam is meant to balance the Book, to grant equal billing to a woman too long sidelined. Recent fashion for a Miriam’s Cup, set on many contemporary Seder tables with the traditional cup for Elijah, celebrates Miriam as—how to put it?—a co-redeemer.

It is not the feminist tenor that draws me to the anecdote of Miriam and Rabbi Raphael’s spirited lyrics. Not at all. It is the episode’s exuberant rout of sentimentality. The women grasp instinctively what posture to take toward the destruction of their enemies: those terrorist overlords, cruel destroyers of their children’s wellbeing. Here is schadenfreude on a truly biblical scale. Rhapsodic, voluptuous, and unapologetic.

Radical empathy is economical; it discerns priorities, does not overreach. It knows when steel is more gracious than tears. When the tambourines are tapped, I imagine Miriam’s prayer: “Chide me tomorrow, Lord. But for now, just let me dance.”

Beauty & Accidents of Perception

From Maureen Mullarkey

Nature is terrifying. Aesthetic distance from dread of it increases only in proportion to our mastery over it. Shelter from it frees us to make art of our aesthetic promptings, so easily confused with a spiritual consciousness.

It is snowing as I type this. Icicles two and three feet long hang from the gutters. A struggling andromeda outside the front door is bent in two by the weight of ice. My long curving, uphill driveway, treacherous in bad weather, is impassable. No oil truck could make a delivery if my tanks were low; no EMS, if needed, could get to the door. I am snowbound. Still, I am blessed with a stocked refrigerator and a working generator to keep heat on and lamps lit if a tree limb falls on a power line. 

Watching it fall, I am reminded how much the beauty of snow— my perception of it—owes to central heating. Put another way, it is the saving fact of my lovely boiler, the electricity that keeps it going, and the indwelling charm of steam radiators that permits me to look out my double-paned window and take aesthetic pleasure in what Longfellow called the “poem of the air.”

The arts of the engineer partake as fully in the creative intelligence as any other.

Those misled by romantic poetry or far gone in devotion to pathetic fallacies—Mother Nature, the bosom of Mother Earth, our weeping planet—dote on what they insist is the intrinsic beauty of nature. A kind of demonology arises around sceptical demurral from that faith in inherency. Dissidents suffer the predictable brickbats: Materialist! Utilitarian! Shallow pragmatist! There is just no arguing with cultists. The most you can do is wish on them a sustained, possibly curative, power outage in freezing weather.

Burst pipes, numb fingers and toes, and the threat of hypothermia have a way of depressing the altitude of lyric flights. Remove the interior reverie of a well-housed, sherpa-lined and Gore-Texed admirer from the view, and what we see is a relentless, lethal threat to life. 

A few winters back, two frail, elderly townspeople here froze to death outside their own doors on a snowy day like this.

One lived alone. She had ducked outside briefly for a quick chore—to scatter crackers to birds? take out garbage?—without bothering with boots or coat. Whatever the reason, it was supposed to have taken only taken a few seconds. But, without thinking, she locked herself out. She could not get back in; neither could she get herself through the snow to a neighboring house with anyone home. It was a week day. Neighbors were at work. No one nearby was around to hear her calls for help.

The second woman was the sole caretaker of her older, bedridden sister. She had stepped out the back door, slipped on icy stairs, and fell into snowdrifts. She could not get up. The sister, asleep in a room on the other side of the house, never heard any cries.

The snow fell as indifferently on both doomed women as it does on the Alaskan cedars and Douglas firs outside my window. To anyone watching unawares, it looked lovely coming down. To the two women trapped under it—metabolic heat draining out of them— each crystal flake was a cinder from a frigid hell. Far from the warming light of the Good. 

We have art, Nietzsche wrote, so that we will not be destroyed by the truth. But his aphorism, too, was a piece of art. We are better served by taking note of how art itself can destroy the truth of things. 

 [The delightful graphic, above, was an ad for cough medicine that appeared in an Italian magazine at the height of the lethal epidemic of Spanish Influenza, 1918-20.}

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Of Calendars and Memory

From Maureen Mullarkey

The sixties were generous with gifts that keep on taking. I cannot help thinking that one of them was the Church’s 1969 calendar revision for January 1. 

The Church began withdrawing recognition from the circumcision of Jesus in the sixties. Today, circumcision itself is under threat in once-Christian Europe, from Switzerland to Scandinavia. Because it is practiced by both Jews and Muslims, it is tempting to see moves against the ritual as the sour fruit of secularist ideology. And there is partial truth to that. But the entire story, followed closely by Commentary, is darker. Moreover, hostility to ritual circumcision pre-dates current concern over Muslim presence in Europe.

For centuries the Latin Rite had commemorated the date as the Feast of the Circumcision. John XXIII’s 1960 calendrical revision distanced the date from its traditional association by means of the simple descriptor, Octave of the Nativity. In 1969 Paul VI declared January 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, displacing the Circumcision. Five years later—and only twenty years after Pius XII’s inauguration of the Queenship of Mary—Montini dropped the Feast of the Circumcision from the Roman liturgical calendar.

Did Marian devotion require additional ecclesiastical encouragement? Catholics were already in possession of significantly more Marian feasts than Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, or any Christian denomination. The proliferation of them over centuries calls to mind something Yves Congar admitted to having experienced in his research for I Believe in the Holy Spirit. Coming forward in time, he found increasing references to Mary where he expected the sources to mention the Holy Spirit.

Over thirty days of the General Roman Calendar are dedicated to Mary. Each of them— whether dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Sorrows—originates in her identity as the Mother of God. Mary has claim to the entire month of May (“’Tis the month of our Mother/ the blessed and beautiful days.”) and reigns over October, dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Central to our cultural history, her image has fired Western imagination down the ages. Marian apparitions are celebrated as historic events. She is the Second Eve, “the guarantee of Christ’s true humanity,” in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase.

All honor is due the woman who gave flesh to our Redeemer. A Galilean country girl, with capable hands and dusty feet, clothed the uncreated God in creaturely humanity. That is miracle enough to stun us onto our knees and keep us there. Catholics are in no danger of forgetting it. Rather the opposite. We risk making a godling of the Mother of God.

What we jeopardize is precisely what the Feast of the Circumcision held in view: the Jewishness of the woman and her son. The Logos entered history enfleshed as a Jew. To assume flesh was to assume ethnicity as well. Ours is not a cosmic Christ but a Jewish one.

“We are all Semites,” Jacques Maritain was fond of saying. If we leave our Jewish taproot untended, let it wither, we untether ourselves from Jesus of Nazareth. The old Feast of the Circumcision helped keep us mindful that the truth of Jesus is two-fold. His divinity does not erase his humanity.

True man, Jesus of Nazareth was a faithful Jew, subject to that first, infant blood-letting that symbolized his people’s inherited covenant between God and Abraham. Raised in an observant family, he read Torah in synagogue, ate, dressed, and prayed in the spirit of first century Judaism.

Michael Novak, in his 1994 essay “Jacques Maritain and the Jews,” had this to say:

Christianity needs a vital and living Judaism, in the concrete world of history as it is, in order to help it to understand its own inheritance. For many of the foundation and preconceptions and starting places of Christian life have been, and still are, protected and nourishied in a vital Judaism. This witness of Judaism is concretely indispensable to keeping the Jewish tradition alive also within Christianity itself.

Jesus’ Judaism bestows an ancestral bond between Christians and Jews. Once, we had a holy day of obligation to remind us of the imperishability of that kinship. Not any more. It is gone at that very moment in “the concrete world of history as it is” that—with Islam rising—we are chastened by its absence.

•     •     •    •

Richard Prosquier, a French Jewish cardiologist born in Poland in 1945, tells of his father being ordered to drop his trousers by the Nazis in order to establish his identity. It is safe to say that when such orders come again, it will not be Muslims asked to expose themselves. 


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