To Alice, the Wonder Dog, my loyal friend…
As Alice, my loyal friend and pet for nearly 15 years, comes to the end of her days, I thought it best to write some words. As life for us all is a precious thing, but also something fleeting, it seems appropriate that we celebrate a life with words, something else that is outwardly ephemeral (words as sounds vanish even as we utter them) but that has something of the eternal (that to which words refer – ideas and sentiments – linger on). Abraham Lincoln, in those words from the Gettysburg Address, suggests this transitory nature of the spoken word – “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Lincoln noted – ironically, those words of Lincoln provide the most lasting memorial to the Union dead, because the sentiments and ideas expressed in Lincoln’s speech have lasted.
Alice, my precious black pug, did not consecrate or hallow any battlefield. Her achievements in the larger world are quite small, like the dog herself, and not noteworthy. But she was a great dog, and that is worth something. And she will be remembered by those who saw her in action, or watched her in inaction – she did exhaustion very well, maybe better than any other dog.
For me, Alice will always be dog # 1 – I didn’t have a dog when I was a kid, and though Carla and I have had many pets, dogs included, Alice was, very much, my dog.
Unlike Irma, one of the smartest dogs I’ve seen, who knew how to manipulate objects to her purposes, Alice was not so brilliant. If left in a room where the door was a bit ajar, Irma would know that is she pushed at the door, it would open far enough for her to proceed. Alice, for a good part of her life, would just wait patiently for someone to do something about the door. It didn’t occur to her to push. She did, though, seem to learn a bit about cause and effect when it comes to doors later in life, and sometimes took action rather than a wait and see attitude.
She was not the fireball of enthusiasm or energy of Irma, or of Pippin, another of our dogs, or of Phoebe, currently our youngest dog. But she could, in her younger days, get up a great deal of speed and was a demon at running along the fence when dogs in the neighbor’s yard would be out. And she did win 1st prize in her age class at one of the annual pug flings in Auburn, KS, for the speed at which she moved in the pug races.
Bu boy, she had a hunter’s eye for dropped food, or food hovering over the edge of a plate, which might fall, and if it did, she was there before anyone, Irma included. As her eyesight became worse over the years, and she developed cataracts, she lost this gift. She retained, though, until very late, her sense of hearing, and was the one dog who especially seemed to notice whether the upstairs door latched closed, or whether there was the chance to get upstairs into the stash of cat food.
I remember her darting out into the yard when still a puppy when we had the first deep snow. Bounding off the steps into the yard, she landed in snow that came all the way to her shoulders. It surprised her, but she loved it and romped in the snow before prancing up the ramp into the house.
I also recall her distinctive pug head tilt whenever I said the word “Chushingura” – the word is a Japanese word meaning “loyalty,” and it is the title of the 1962 cinematic retelling of the story of the 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. My wife, Carla, cannot understand my own fascination with the 47 Ronin story, and when I was telling her about Inagaki’s version, which features a nice bit about the treatment of dogs, and I spoke the title, Alice did a double pug head tilt. And whenever I said it for the next few months, same thing. That did not happen with any of the other dogs (Marcel, Irma and Daisy at the time), but only Alice. I like to think it is because she was ever loyal to me. And now the day we must part is coming soon. I hate to let my little friend go, but life is not forever, and an extended life when the body fails seems a rather pitiful existence.
When she would give it her all running around in the yard, or following us about as we did yardwork in the spring, summer or fall, she’d come back into the house, stretch out on the floor (cool tile in hot weather, and warmer carpet in cool weather), or lie flat on my lap, if I was resting too, and lifting her head a bit, would utter a sound a lot like a horse shuddering and drop her head to be level with her flattened out body. It is that sound more than any other I associated with Alice, but now her exhausted body no longer has the strength to make the exertion, and so, she no longer makes that sound. Thinking of it makes me sad, and will for a while. But the Alice of story and memory, well, she’ll always be around, still proudly # 1.
To Alice, the Wonder Dog, my loyal friend…
Here are the readings and the sermon for the service I officiated at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, Lenexa, KS on 3 August 2014.
“In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
“Night Mail,” by W.H. Auden
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Thro’ sparse counties she rampages,
Her driver’s eye upon the gauges.
Panting up past lonely farms
Fed by the fireman’s restless arms.
Striding forward along the rails
Thro’ southern uplands with northern mails.
Winding up the valley to the watershed,
Thro’ the heather and the weather and the dawn overhead.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheepdogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Craw-ford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
from Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch
The train and the stations, the engines and boxcars, the rat-tling aura of faraway places and the stories told by those who had ridden in the wheeled and coupled lines of coaches out to and over the blue horizon: all these put fresh images – some true, some gloringly embellished – into our pantheon of fan-cies and reservations. The train made distances seem less re-al; it also intruded upon the American desire to be left alone, to seek peace and respite and rural seclusion. In its size and its constancy of motion, city to city, its loud whis-tles and rapid clanking and clattering, the train was both a machine and an almost breathing monster of transportation, es-cape, kidnap. The train seemed to go everywhere, and it meant everything. (pp. 260-261)
Sermon — “A Unitarian Dreams of Trains”
When Thom asked me in May if I wanted to do a service this summer, and asked for a possible topic, I replied “yes,” and then “trains.” As our communication was through email, my response to his questions was not instantaneous, though it felt that way. “Trains” was the first thing that popped into my head, and taking that as a sign from my Muse, I sent word to Thom. Having made my choice and having announced it, I then started to wonder, why trains? What am I going to do with this? Well, one thing I won’t be doing is giving some sort of descriptive catalog of trains. When I mentioned my topic to a co-worker at the Kansas City Public Library, she asked, “diesel” or “steam,” “commuter” or “long-distance,” “freight” or “passenger” “Union Pacific” or “Amtrak.” Though I would find such a discussion interesting, I am not well equipped to do it justice. And, besides, I recall a long mon-otone presentation on the history of trains delivered as a lay-led summer service at May Memorial Unitarian Society in Syracuse, NY in 1993, and those memories are not so fond. Ra-ther, my sermon will be more poetic, and fanciful, and person-al in nature. If you were hoping for a lecture on the speed, means of power, and relative aerodynamism of the Chatanooga Choo-Choo, that train’s long gone from Track 29 in Syracuse, NY, and boy, are you late.
Well, so far as I can figure, there were two immediate connexions made in my mind with trains, and with trains in this place at this time. First is the proximity of train tracks to our property, and the fact that we hear the train whistle most Sundays. The proximity of tracks was the first thing I noticed when Carla and I drove over one Sunday to get a look at the property the Church was then considering for purchase as a new religious home. And the whistle was what I chiefly remember in our very first service here – the time for silent meditation was punctuated with the whistle and the rum-ble of a passing train. At first, that used to bug me. Here I was trying to reflect on something related to the service, or to something said in the Candlelighting, and some chuckle-head was tooting his horn blasting away my wispy mental crea-tion, or making it difficult to hear something, no doubt im-portant, said by the minister. But you know, over time, I’ve come to really appreciate that sound, and was most disappoint-ed during the first two services of this July that no train passed. The train whistle has come to have something of a Zen effect on me. If you’ve ever witnessed Buddhist monks having one of their ritual debates, one will ask another a question, and then loudly clap his hands, after which the monk ques-tioned is to reply. That clap is something of a reset, a call to the moment, to clear away the misty thoughts and encourage one to reply with a fresh mind. And when I find my mind wan-dering here, the whistle of the train has a way of calling me back.
The whistle of the train also brought to mind the song “Five Hundred Miles” by Hedy West, a song I had recently heard wonderfully sung by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Stark Sands in the movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. And as the news of Thom’s impending departure for North Carolina was still relatively recent, the opening section of this song brought to mind one of the functions of trains in song – trains are the means by which someone leaves – they are going, and then they are gone, and there is nothing but memory. “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow, a hundred miles.” I rather doubt the claim of 100 miles. I’ve lived in Kansas City for 20 years, and never hear this train whistle, except when I’m at or near church. I’ve never even heard it at the Oak Park Mall, or the Oak Park library, which are much closer to the tracks than my home in Waldo. But whether true scientifical-ly, or not, that piercing wail of the whistle as a symbol of loss, of missed chances to connect with another, does ring true, and for a while still, the whistle that brings me back to where I am, will also recall me to where I was sitting, house right about 6 rows back, inner aisle seat, Thom Belote at the lectern, when I first heard that whistle. And so, that whistle will remain, for some time – eventually, it will fade — a sign of both presence and absence.
But this will not be a sermon or service on the topic, “my minister done left me.” Though I love the blues, I’m not much of a bluesy person by nature, and though howling at the moon, or the whistling of a train may provide a good release, I want something more in my sermons. So let’s see what else trains might suggest about being Unitarian-Universalist, and about where we are. So, back to “Five Hundred Miles” for a minute. In that first section, I find myself in the “you” role. I’m not the speaker, the “I” on the train, but the one left. But, by the second stanza, with the “you” long gone, I find myself being the “I” – there’s no one else to be here. And what about the “I” of the second stanza – well, here we have a guy (well my “I” is a guy, but there’s room for more than one “I” here – there may be no “I” in “team,” but there are four in Unitarian-Universalist), away from home, far away from home, and missing it terribly, yearning to get back. This guy needs, and doesn’t have, a home. In the 22 years I’ve been a Unitarian, since I first “signed the book” at May Memorial on December 12, 1992, I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve heard say about May Memorial, or Meadville UU Church, or All Souls, or SMUUCH, that they had been looking their whole lives for such a place and finally found it. So, like the “I” on that train, we have a home for which we yearn. For many of us this place is that home, no longer yearned for but found. It’s good to have such a home and good to be such a home to many more, a welcome and welcoming station for all.
The third stanza I find a bit harder to shove into some correspondence with UUism and with us here. After all, we all have shirts upon our backs (by the way, thank you, all for wearing shirts — it would be awfully distracting for me up here – and if I might recommend to the board – “no shirtless Sundays”) and we all have some possessions. But let’s be clear, some here do feel the material pinch of our straight-ened times, and we should be mindful of that; besides, there are other types of poverty than financial. In any case, the “I” of this third stanza is not just poor, but rather ashamed. He (or she) cannot go home because of the stain of poverty – “Lord, I can’t go back home, this a way.” Many in this room have known some stigma in their lives which kept them separate from community, a stigma inflicted from without – others judg-ing us as falling short, or from within – seeing common human frailty as an awful and awfully personal and shameful flaw. In response, I’d like to recall little Edward on the isle of Sodor. He could have let others’ views limit him, and keep him from community. He didn’t. I’d like to suggest we be more like Edward. Conversely, I’d like to suggest we not be like Gordon, overly proud and lording it over others – shame has two sides, and both hurt community.
I’m very fond of Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro.” It involves my favorite form of train travel – the subway, and it describes what, for me, is the key element of religious ex-perience – revelation. In a moment, Pound, in a Metro sta-tion, seeing a car full of people come in, experiences that moment as a wonderful wholeness, in which the individuals on the train disappear and become rather the “petals on a wet black bough.” I’ve known a similar experience myself – on the Red Line of Boston’s T, which ran in my youth between Dorches-ter and Cambridge, one spring evening in 1972. As I sat in the train, heading home from a trip to Harvard Square, I felt this amazing sense of oneness with the world all the while retain-ing a sense of myself as unique. The moment happened as the train came out of the tunnel to cross the Charles River on the Longfellow Bridge. As the skyline of Boston appeared on the far side of the Charles, I became aware of the change in the lighting in the subway car. In the near total darkness of the tunnel, the lights within the car had served only to enlighten the passengers and cast their image against the glass. All be-yond was dark. Alone – I was a fairly lonely teen – I could see the other dozen or so passengers, each caught up in their own world, but was also aware of their reflections all about me. When the train came out of the tunnel, though it was night, those reflections dimmed somewhat in the midst of the lighter darkness of the spring night without. The Boston sky-line came into view through the windows. And I became espe-cially aware of the lights in all the buildings facing. There was the Massachusetts General Hospital, with lights going on and off as staff moved from room to room in their rounds, and many lights were still on, in all the brownstones along Stor-row Drive, which runs along the Boston banks of the Charles. And at that moment I felt a kinship of sorts, with my dozen or so fellow passengers, in our well-lit cocoon, none of whom I knew, or ever met, but also with all those unseen people be-yond in those lit rooms across the river. We shared a moment, though they would never know. The feeling lasted no more than a minute, probably less. The train soon came into Charles Station, and would soon be subterranean again, and with the stimulus gone, the moment past. And yet, that moment had a profound effect on me, and the memory has stayed with me ever since.
When this church was dedicated a year or two ago, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar made much of the fact that this congrega-tion’s first home was in a converted milk barn, which he took as symbolic of the role of the church to nourish, and that we had now moved to a converted school, which he took as symbolic of the role of the church to educate and to spread the message of its good news. Well, today, I’d like to consider the fact that we are so close to train tracks. Well, what do trains have to teach us? What lesson might we learn there? Well, if we look at the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, we learn that the railway is a place of diversity, from little Thomas and Edward to big Gordon, each with important work to do, each bringing different gifts to a common enterprise. On the is-land of Sodor, the stories tell us, all trains have their parts to play, it is important that each use his/her gifts, and is also important that each recognize the special gifts of the other trains. Big Gordon, we recall, eventually learns the lesson of the interdependence of engines, even if he doesn’t admit it in the story, “Edward and Gordon,” while Edward never loses sight of his inherent worth and dignity.
In many of the movies I watched as a youth and continue to watch today, trains often play a part. A note to Hollywood – if you want to be sure of my visit to the theatre to see your film, put a train in your trailers, and I’ll be there. Star Wars Episode VII: Get Poor Chewie Off the MTA – yeah, ba-by! Many films demonstrate the universality of the rails, both how they connect one place to another, and also how they provide transportation for everyone. The wealthy can afford private cars of their own, those less fortunate ride in the day coach, and the destitute find a way to ride the rails by hopping aboard freight trains. There are countless songs about the latter, and others that allude to it – e.g. in “Ear-ly Morning Rain,” where the singer/narrator laments that “you can’t jump a jet plane, like you can a freight train.” In the days before the superhighways, and before air travel became more common, trains did provide an interconnected web of rail, and made it possible for anyone to get up and go. They also sent out a siren’s call wherever they passed and tooted. For children in schools across the country located near train tracks, such as the children of the Bonjour school, the place which has become our church, the train and its whistle sent forth an auditory call, however brief, to all within earshot of the world at large, the world beyond. That whistle sent out a seductive invitation – one that could be acted only in the imagination of the children then, but one day…
In trains, in movies, it is quite common for strangers to hang out together in the club car or dining car and get to know one another. You don’t often see this in films focused on plane travel or bus travel. There people are often shown together, but not connecting with others. And in films about baseball teams, or baseball heroes, there is often a scene or two of the team traveling from New York, or Boston, or Phila-delphia to the West, to St. Louis or Chicago, Cleveland or Cincinnati gathered in their own private car looking forward to the upcoming series, or celebrating their hard-won victory or licking their wounds after a shattering defeat when the se-ries was over. And in boys’ books about college athletics – such as those which detailed the adventures of Frank Merri-well, or Dink Stover – the same sort of camaraderie would be built in the train taking the team to “the big game.”
In documentaries (a lot made by the British government in the 1930s) such as Night Mail, for which W.H. Auden composed the poem which Carla and I read, we see the important day to day (or night by night) function of the trains and how they serve to connect people in business as well as in personal matters. In those films, a lot is made of the schedule, and of all the steps that must be taken by men and women all down the line, so that the trains stay on schedule and perform their important work. And so, we come, full circle to Thomas and his friends.
What does that mean for us? After all, we are sitting here – you physically, and me in the lazy boy recliner of my mind, and not traveling. The train moves in the background from time to time, but we are not on that train. Our station-ary status, however, is, itself, an illusion. We live our lives on a spinning globe hurtling through space, whose move-ment is so internalized we don’t feel it. And every moment of our lives various parts of our bodies are ever working, the synapses in our brains firing, the heart pumping, the lungs expanding and contracting. The nerves throughout our system are always scanning and perceiving and helping our brain to interpret. Even as we sit, we are ever in motion. Besides, we look at life as a journey, not as stasis. Most of us in this room identify as Unitarian Universalists, and we see our-selves as part of a movement, not a monument. So maybe the train, with its whistle, can stir us from our reveries, remind us where we are, and, perhaps remind us of our journey. And the train can be a useful metaphor for church, and Unitarian-Universalist church especially. For we would be moving, but we would also be in community, and would spend time together talking, laughing, singing. And the train, as a means of transit, offers room to move unlike buses or planes, includes the largest group of travelers, it moves fast, but not so fast that we don’t have time to sit and chat.
Those of my generation, pushing 60, and those trailblaz-ers who’ve pushed up to 60 or beyond, recall a time when rail travel was still common – those in the Northeast still know this. But through the 1960s and later, rail travel in most of the US declined, and upkeep of the lines was not maintained. It got so that schedules were meaningless, as the train was rarely, if ever, on time. People stopped looking to trains and have turned to other means of transit. And herein lies a cautionary note for us. Our Unitarian Universalist line, and the Streamlined SMUUCH Express, are the way to go for most in this room. But we are not just passengers on this train, we are shareholders as well, and the workers who keep the enter-prise going. To keep this train in tip-top shape will require effort. I have no doubt we are all up to the task. Let us look to this job not as some burden dropped our already ex-hausted shoulders, but as a great opportunity and the adven-ture it can be, one we enthusiastically undertake, shoulder to shoulder with one another, making an extraordinary effort to-wards the common good.
I did finish Breslin’s book, and I do appreciate his desire to not let the authorities and their short-sighted attempts to keep the whole sex abuse matter quiet for their own political reasons be the final word. There are two ways of viewing the Church — the traditional view sees the clergy as the rulers and the rest of us the ruled, but the other view looks on all of us as the Church. In that case, it is possible for the ruled to stand up and make their voices heard, and that is the best way to avoid the situation that has gone on for too long.
But I have to admit that, on the last day of Lent, I played hooky. I watched Liberal Arts, a film starring Josh Radnor — I guess I was feeling a longing for Ted Mosby. In the film, he plays the same sort of guy he played in How I Met Your Mother.
I’m glad that I watched Liberal Arts. As a film about people who are very much bound by books, and what that might mean, the film did speak to me as a person who’s spent his life in education and in libraries (and book stores, too). My reflections on Lent this year were book related, as was last year’s reflections on Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. And just about anything I say or feel is likely filtered through books or film. I’m very much like Woody Allen’s film geek in Play It Again, Sam. His lover, played by Louise Lasser, leaves him at the beginning of the film because he’s a watcher, not a doer. The same might apply to Radnor’s character here, who is a reader, and not a doer. And yet, over the course of the film, Radnor, the reader, grows up and learns to say “yes” to life, a lesson he learned by a near romantic fling with a college student sixteen years his junior, who is part of an Improv Group. And I think that the # 1 rule of Improv is a good rule for living one’s life — say “yes” and add to the scene. That saying “yes” is what the “leap of faith” in my own tradition is all about. And when I think of the victims of abuse, one of the saddest things about them is that their experience as children, saying yes to an authority figure who abused their trust, has taught them to be very wary of saying “yes.” And some may never get that back, which is something no apology, however deeply felt, from their abuser, should any such apology come, will restore. But I think that some do learn to say “yes” again to life and love despite their experience.
But one of the great things about this film (which was not a great film, but a good one) is that Radnor’s character, when the college sophomore wants to sleep with him, doesn’t say yes. And though it is painful in the moment, and as we watch it, we’re thinking, “D’oh!” I think we realize that he made the right decision. The film opens with a line that “He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow!” And, in a sense, it’s true. The more we know the more that stuff can get in the way of living life. But there is such a thing as wisdom, and learning can lead to wisdom. And pain, to a good end, is better than pleasure to a bad end. There is a danger in only doing stuff that makes us feel good. Life is not all joy, and would not be much of a life if that’s all we knew.
And I thought of Improv and what it can mean to someone who’s read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies. I think that Improv can teach us (or maybe help us learn is better) how to take our life experience, but also all those words and plots and everything else we have in our heads, and play with that, to enter into a dialog with authors, and each other about ideas presented in literature. We can learn to be better in our use of language, become more poetic, and more graceful, and that’s a good thing. So, Happy Easter — a real time of new beginnings (so much more so than New Year’s Day, in the midst of winter). And my thoughts this Easter will be with the abuse victims, but also with James Martin, SJ, and Josh Radnor.
In one of the final chapters, Breslin speaks of talking with a Katherine Grimes, MD, a psychiatrist regarding the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. The conversation turns to the matter of the seminaries — Breslin notes that the local seminary is likely to only graduate two seminarians in that year (around 2004, when the book was published), and Grimes opines that the main reason for the drop in seminary enrollment is that the sex scandal has made it clear that predators will not get away with their predatory behavior so easily. “They’re busted,” she says, and know it.
Though that is part of the problem, I think that the matter is bigger than that. I had a good friend who would have made an excellent priest, but he also wanted to be married. He is currently married and has a family and seems to have done all right, and his family has all turned out quite well. If the church had allowed (or allowed now) married priests, there would be quite a few more priests. And a priesthood of good men (and women) would offset predators in their midst. But many of the good people chose marriage over the priesthood. So a lot of good people were frozen out. And as the Catholic Church is the chief authority in the world of Catholics, when that was undermined, many people turned away from the Church, and many who would have entered seminary, chose not to do so, as they could no longer be sure of their faith. It’s a major problem. And I’m not sure it is one that is easily overcome.
On p. 153, Jimmy Breslin quotes his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a New York politician, and Jewish, after pointing out the Catholic (esp. Irish Catholic) obsession with the Jews as some dark force subverting everyone else, and taking control of medicine and finance. This is a position which Breslin refutes, suggesting that he’d like to slap some Irish Catholics around to snap them out of their fixation.
Eldridge’s quote: “Religions were conceived to ensure an orderly society. They are pure fantasy developed to explain the origins of humanity and provide hope for a future. Your Catholic Church and philosophers brilliantly conceived the ultimate threat of hell. What better way to ensure obedience than to threaten people with the ultimate threat of hell.”
I’m not sure that I agree with Eldridge entirely. I think that religion does serve as a means of control, and certain people and institutions use the threat of eternal damnation as a means of keeping people in line and to intimidate others. Even for those who believe in hell or other form of post mortem punishment, I’m not sure the threat aspect always works — e.g. Dante, who seems to have believed in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, does not endorse the idea that those whom the Church condemns as going to hell, actually end up there, while popes and other church leaders, who were not so condemned during their lives, do end up there. Even assuming there is a place of punishment, the Church has no power to determine who will end up there. What the Church does have, and certainly did when I was a kid in Irish Catholic Dorchester, is to declare someone persona non grata, so that the person is shunned by the community. That is a mighty power to have. But even outside of a Church community we can isolate or label someone who doesn’t “fit in.”
And that not fitting in, but sticking out, that’s pretty scary. That intimidation has been used for groups that have been marginalized for millenia. One of the things I don’t fully get is what the tipping point is — for some people known to have done wrong are lionized in the press, or on the Internet, and come away with reputation intact, while others are demonized and their reputation is in tatters. Chris Christie seemed unstoppable at the end of last year, but with the Bridge scandal and other things now being reported more widely, his reputation is now tanking, and he seems stalled, if not stopped. Certainly public opinion has changed for Christie, but what was the turning point, and who is responsible? I’m not sure that any one person is responsible. The Greeks would look to chance or fortune which would change, so that a powerful individual would reach a peak of some sort and then fall. And that force seemed somewhat impersonal, and something that might or might not hit, and when it hit, it might or might not be deserved. In the case of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church — that stuff had been going on forever, and people knew about it at some level. The reputation of the Church gave priests and other church officials the benefit of the doubt, which gave them cover, publicly, for a while. And that was wrong, but was the way things were. And now, when every priest is viewed with suspicion, we have a situation that may also be wrong (in that the assumption of guilt is there, even if undeserved). For Breslin, once the veneer of respectability and near-infallibility began to wear off, it had a ripple effect. If a lot of what he had been taught was not TRUE in some big way, there seemed no reason to believe in a lot of what the Catholic Church preached. And I think that Breslin wanted to hold on to some of those beliefs, and a belief in the Church, which seems to be why he’s wrestling with all of this throughout the book.
The thing that really jumped out at me in today’s reading from Breslin’s book was his discussion of the impending sainthood of Mother Teresa. At this point, she is still Blessed Mother Teresa, with one more attested miracle required for sainthood. Breslin spoke of when he met Mother Teresa, at Holy Cross College in May of 1976. She received an honorary degree from the college for her good works and Breslin delivered the speech to the graduating class. As I knew several people graduating that year (I graduated in 1977) I was in attendance for Mother Teresa’s degree and Breslin’s talk. Like Breslin, I am amazed that two people I saw in the flesh, Mother Teresa and John Paul II (when he did his first US tour, I attended Mass in Grant Park [about half a million in attendance]). And I keep recalling Cassius’ lines about Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play that a guy that all the senators knew, a guy they hung around with, was now considered almost a god. Tough to believe for people who knew the guy way back when. And Breslin says he did some research on the attested miracle, the disappearance of a cancerous growth from the stomach of some Indian woman. And it turns out that the miracle may not have happened, that the woman may have had only some stomach ailment that passed naturally. Breslin mentions it, not to discredit Mother Teresa, though he does point out that some of her positions did not help the poor of India, and that stuff should be better known, but to point out how the Church largely ignores stuff they don’t want to hear, which is convenient for them, but does not advance the cause of truth.
In the next few chapters, Breslin tells the story of how he learned the story of some of the worst of the serial abusers, John Geoghan and Paul Shanley. In the case of Shanley, he indicates that failure to act on removing Shanley by Archbishop Medeiros may have had something to do with “dirt” that Shanley had on the archbishop. That’s something I’m going to have to look into. Even assuming that is the case, what is the excuse for the rest of the church hierarchy who knew something about Shanley not coming forth. Did they all have some dirt on them? Were they just following orders? Any explanation seems pretty weak. After all, they had a responsibility to the children of the Archdiocese of Boston, and to other areas to which these priests may have been sent. And they failed that responsibility. To what extent is the system corrupt, with priests looking out for one another no matter how bad? To what extent is a system that puts so much authority in the head of a diocese bound to fail, as the archbishop, if compromised, will result in all sorts of bad decisions in the levels beneath him? For what would keep the church (or the church hierarchy) keeping such a guy in any position of authority? After all, this is the same church that puts the kibosh on anyone who challenges church teaching in written form. Hans Kung, a reputable Catholic theologian, lost his “Catholic” theologian label, though he continued to teach theology at the University of Tubingen, because of writings of his challenging church authority. But he was not a monster in human form. And how significantly do the misdeeds of people like Geoghan and Shanley put the lie to everything the Church teaches, and how significantly do the misdeeds of the Church leaders who fail to take corrective actions undercut the authority of the Church and its teachings?
I think that, when you hear of all this, you certainly think that Shanley and Geoghan are monsters, but they are clearly sick individuals. What is the excuse for those who saw but did nothing? The church martyrs bore “witness” (what martyr means) to the truth of the Christian message against persecution. But what happens when the church leaders, all of whom should be martyrs in some way or other, fail to live up to that role, and become accomplices of those acting criminally and using the church as cover? And what happens when those leaders flee to Rome (as did Cardinal Law of Boston) to remove themselves from criminal prosecution and even from answering questions? It is enough to make one quite angry.