Well, it’s a long, long time
From May to December.
But the days grow short,
When you reach September . . .
That song has always been a favorite of mine. I’m a fan of the bittersweet, be it chocolate or songs. This May, though, the song hits closer to home. Back in October I officially become a “senior citizen.”
The thing of it is, I don’t feel like one. When I look in the mirror, I don’t feel resigned or indignant; I’m incredulous, wondering where this old man with the white beard and the neck bands (that’s what Google says they are) came from. I’m bewildered when someone offers me a seat on the subway. Can’t he see that I’m just as capable of standing as he is?
At sixty-five, I ought to be wiser than I was as a twenty- or thirty- or forty-year-old, at least a little. But somehow I find myself repeating the old mistakes and making new ones.
At sixty-five, I should have accumulated a useful stock of knowledge. After all, I’ve lived with (and in) books all my life, and I’ve always used them as both a resource and a refuge. Instead, I’m constantly reminded of how much I don’t know, of the deep waters I really can’t swim in. (The internet makes it worse; I discover my limitations there every day.)
At sixty-five,, I ought to be able to look back with some satisfaction at what I’ve done. But even my genuine accomplishments (and I do have some, starting with my five children) can be sources of regret for things not done or not done as well as they should have been.
Now, being sixty-five does have its advantages. There all those senior privileges: discounts at museums, on carfare, even at the opera; kind young folks giving you a seat on the subway even if you really don’t want one. And there are the drawbacks as well, aside from having a closer look at the guy who played chess with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal. It may be because I was so late coming to that road I was talking about, but I’m pretty tired of people looking at my son and me and complimenting me on my good-looking grandson. And then there are the disappointments—believe me, not retiring to Florida or Arizona isn’t one of them. In my feyer moods, I thought I’d give myself permission to be eccentric—all right, more eccentric—when I reached this milestone. I saw myself parading around the neighborhood in oriental robes, like Nicolas Roerich (that’s him on the upper left), or at least wearing a homburg and carrying a walking stick. But Mrs. C. put the kibosh on that. Maybe when, Deo volente, I turn seventy, she’ll relent.
Oh, and if you have a homburg or a walking stick you’re looking to get rid of, drop me an email.
Last night I dictated a post about Pope Francis. It was cranky, mannered, and not entirely coherent. Fortunately, when I tried to transfer it to WordPress, it disappeared. I’m not going to try to reconstruct it now. But let’s just say I’m puzzled and even a bit frightened about what’s been going on in Rome. Try as I might, I can’t warm up to Francis. The daily homilies, the omnipresence in the media, the (maybe not so) off-the-cuff remarks, the protracted tease about communion for the divorced, and now the rehabilitation of Fr. Fagan; it’s all too much for me.
No doubt a lot of this is a reflection of my own insecurities. Most of the time, and especially lately, my faith seems tenuous. I feel like I’m desperately trying to hold on to allege that juts out over an abyss. Maybe I’m looking for a kind of certitude that just isn’t in the cards. Maybe so much of my mind and heart is taken up by frustrations and anxieties that I can’t help projecting them everywhere. So I can’t credit myself with seeing particularly clearly. But I can be pretty sure that it would be very, very hard for me to become a Catholic today.
For now, I’m just trying to live with my uncertainties. The alternatives to the church of Peter, as far as I’m concerned, just don’t exist. But for me, at least, these are hard, hard times to be a Catholic.
It’s been a long time since I posted here. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say, but that I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out how to say it. And, of course, there has been my constant, but usually losing, battle with my demons.
Anyway, I’ll leave the explanations for later, if I make any at all. What, after all, is the use of talking?
Still Falls the Rain
(The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn)
Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet
On the Tomb:
Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.
Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.
Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear—
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh . . . the tears of the hunted hare.
Still falls the Rain—
Then—O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune—
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree
Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,—dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.
Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.” —Dame Edith Sitwell
The Gospel at mass last Sunday was Luke 13:22–30. Here’s the Revised Standard Version translation of it:
He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
This is not one of the warm and fuzzy passages in the Gospels. It’s not “inclusive;” it doesn’t “celebrate diversity.” It doesn’t tell us that God is going to save everyone, no matter what. I squirm a bit when I hear this Gospel. Sure, I recite the creed every Sunday, I read the Bible, I pray (not as much as I ought to), I go to confession (ditto). But where is my heart truly? Where are my treasures? Do l give my life, or at least some appreciable portion of it, to God, to my loved ones, to my neighbors. In my thoughts, words, and deeds, am I as Luther, following Augustine, says, curvatus in se, turned in on my self? The answers to those questions are not comforting.
I love the 22nd chapter of the Revelation to John. Verse 17 reads (in the Authorized Version):
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoeverwill, let him take the water of life freely.
Whosoever will. What do I will? What is it I really want? Under all the selfishness, the self-deception, the sin, who is it I truly love?
LORD, how I am all ague, when I seek
What I have treasur’d in my memorie !
Since, if my soul make even with the week,
Each seventh note by right is due to thee.
I finde there quarries of pil’d vanities,
But shreds of holinesse, that dare not venture
To shew their face, since crosse to thy decrees :
There the circumference earth is, heav’n the centre.
In so much dregs the quintessence is small :
The spirit and good extract of my heart
Comes to about the many hundredth part.
Yet, Lord, restore thine image, heare my call :
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can grone,
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.
George Herbert, “The Sinner”
Book collecting—and I’m not talking about first editions— is an expensive hobby, more expensive with each passing year. The price of books has risen drastically over the years. What was once the price of a hardcover is now the price of a paperback, and what used to be the price of a trade paperback is now the price of a mass-market one.
And that’s only trade books (the ones that get on the bestseller lists and make the tables at Barnes & Noble or the home page at Amazon. I usually buy academic books, and the prices for those are stratospheric. Hardcovers from Oxford or Cambridge often go for more than a hundred dollars; paperbacks from the university presses or a specialty publisher like Eerdmans seem to start at fifty. (Okay, $49.95. I’m not fooled.) I understand the exigencies of academic publishing; I’ve worked for a university press. Personnel, paper, and manufacturing costs go up while library budgets go down. In order to break even, prices have to be high. What’s really galling, are the high prices for academic e-books. Take one of the books in the post above, Daphne Hampson’s Christian Contradictions, published by Cambridge University Press: the hardcover retails for $104.00, the paperback for $43.00, and $34.00 for a zero-manufacturing-cost PDF! I try really hard to be understanding, but my bibliomaniac’s heart quails.
Yes, sometimes I do pony up the $49.95, or wait for a birthday or Christmas to let someone else do it. If I’m really lucky, I’ll snag a half-price copy at a used-book store. I don’t have access to a university library or hundreds of dollars lying around to get it. At the public library, most academic books don’t circulate. If you want to read them, you have to sit in the library for as long as it takes.(Yes, I have done this.) Inter-library loan is slow and troublesome. My only hope is that the public library will digitize everything and make it all available to cardholders. Not that the publishers are likely to let them.
I’m a law-abiding fellow. I don’t litter or play loud radios on the subway or remove the Do Not Remove tags from pillows. But these days I have a certain sympathy for pirates.
There must be some people out there who read books straight through, one at a time. I’m not one of them. At the moment I’ve got these books going:
- Allen Nevins, The Ordeal of the Union, volume 2
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume 1 part 2
- Balzac, The Ball at Sceaux
- Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions
- Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit (This is my second attempt. I’m barely into it.)
- Zechariah Sitchen, The Twelfth Planet (I hate to admit I’m reading this one, but I have an almost bottomless appetite for wacko stuff.)
- Joseph Farrell, The Nazi International (Ditto.)
- Daphne Hampson, Christian Contradictions
Now, I’m not saying this to brag about my intellectual ambitions or how much I read—at least not entirely. No, I mean it as a self rebuke. Of these seven, how many will languish at various stages of reading? How many will I persevere with, and how many will be pushed out by some new temporary enthusiasm? I have another, longer list of books that haven’t looked at for months, yet haven’t given up on. The trouble with this is that, if it’s fiction, I have to skim through to refresh my memory of what’s going on. If it’s demanding nonfiction, I sometimes have to start from the beginning to try and puzzle it out. There’s one book of German philosophy (no, not Hegel) that I’ve begun at least three times, only to bog down a chapter or two farther than when I last picked it up.
Every New Year’s Day I resolve to reform my reading habits, to stop acquiring books until I’m through with the bunch I’m reading now (plus the ones I got for Christmas). But long about the middle of January, some new title beckons. Oh, I tell myself I’ll just slip that in and then go back to my current list, but rarely happens; one or two or three or four titles slide into forgetfulness as I surrender to the seductions of publishers’ catalogs and internet reviews.
One of the consequences of my inconstancy is a sore point in my marriage. Mrs. C thinks we have at least twice as many books as we need, and frequently tells me that if we have to move, I’ll have to get rid of half the library. (The very thought gives me the vapors.) Lucky for our marriage (and for the apartment) that our budget is limited.