Some thoughts on the Epiphany…

Some thoughts on the Epiphany this year…

I’ve been rather overloaded this past week with all sorts of images and events I’d rather not to have seen, and I see other things that disturb me mightily.  Epiphany is a time for seeing things, a time of revelation.  When the Magi found the Christ child, they saw they were at a turning point in human affairs.  Their epiphany was that their lives, and the life of the world had changed.  I will not debate whether three actual kings from the Orient actually had this moment, and realized that life for them, and for humankind had changed.  That is what the story presents, though, and it is worth consideration and reflection.  What might it mean to come upon the Christ child (or whatever representation of divinity you’d prefer) and have that moment of oneness, when you know you’d been called, and your heart answered yes? 

The events that took place Wednesday in the Capitol served as something of an epiphany to me.  No, I did not see the Christ child, or even Christian behavior, but I did see something that I cannot unsee, nor can I forget.  People have compared it to 9/11, or to when Kennedy or King was shot, or to Pearl Harbor – everyone who lived through any of those knows where they were when they got the news, or saw the event as it unfolded. 

But this was something quite different – we had fellow Americans, some from Massachusetts, where I grew up, and some from Missouri, where I now live, and some from all over the US.  But these people were doing something that happened only once before – they were storming and violently taking the US Capitol.  The last time this happened was in 1812, when the British took the Capitol.  That was an act of war committed by an adversary during wartime.  This was an attack on a building that all Americans should hold sacred, a temple of what America should stand for, by Americans themselves.  And it was an act which the President of the United States called upon (as did his son, and his future daughter-in-law, and his counselor) his followers to do.  The President’s mob said they felt that he had crossed the Rubicon (a reference to Julius Caesar illegally entering Italy with a standing army, starting anew the Roman civil war). And it was an action that led at least a few Republicans to recoil in horror and condemn the action.  But given the degree of hyperventilation these same Republicans displayed whenever Benghazi was mentioned, the reaction of all Republicans seemed far too mild for what had happened in their workplace, the temple of democracy and the symbol of America.  It still does.

One Senator, Missouri’s own Josh Hawley, though he has denounced the violence in a boilerplate, less than sincere, statement, used that event (admittedly before he saw how bad it got) as a fundraising gimmick for himself.  That same Senator took to wax wroth at Simon and Schuster for canceling a book deal almost immediately, but it took him several hours to extend condolences to the family of the Capitol police officer who died.  For someone who seems so sensitive to any criticism of himself, he seems willfully blind to his own sins, and to the sinful responsibility all Republicans must bear for advancing the cause of the egoist in the White House, overlooking his crimes (and, yes, he committed crimes, whether he does time for them or not), excusing his behavior, and profiting by them (a great tax giveaway to the wealthy at the expense of the needy, judges who will find for corporate interests against the interests of the poor those corporations have injured) as they saw it.  They comforted and encouraged Donald J. Trump in his terrible behavior and in his criminal conduct, nudge-nudging and wink-winking the few times they made comments so oblique it could not be seen as a criticism, and doing absolutely nothing to curtail his excesses. 

When he was called to account by impeachment, and the House team had proven their case, the Republican Senators (all but one) chose to ignore the evidence and to ignore the wise (and prescient) statements by Rep. Adam Schiff that Donald Trump would only go on to do worse and let him go.  That makes them culpable of any and all criminal activity this President has engaged in over the past year.  It makes them all culpable of the blood spilled, the lives lost, and the damage done (physically and psychologically) on Wednesday.  They say they condemn the violence (and I like to think they are decent enough to be bothered, well, most of them); they say they have the families of the slain in their hearts and in their prayers; and then they say we must come together as Americans and leave off partisan bickering.

In other words, they want to move on.  But I think ALL Democrats and any Republicans who have a shred of decency still left them after the past four shameful years need to hold on a minute.  I don’t know how the Republicans feel, but I can see that many of the Democrats remain angry, the way a battered spouse is angry, the way a person of color is angry, the way underpaid workers at Walmart and other places are angry.  And anger, sometimes, has the force of divine wrath.  Let it be with all who feel violated by the vicious attack by goons and thugs on Wednesday.  Democrats should hold strong, as should all decent people, and demand a real move towards racial justice, demand a real move to equity in wages, demand full right to unionization and collective bargaining, demand a fair wage and universal health care for all Americans, full access to the polls for all Americans without undue burdens put there only to suppress the vote.

These are human rights, and those who would be human must demand these rights.  We should not allow those who had no problem trampling on those rights for the past four years (and longer in the case of Republicans in Missouri).  I think we should welcome Republicans who come to help in enacting justice in America, but we should not, as so many battered spouses do, go back to the person who has demeaned and brutalized them.  Half-hearted apologies will not suffice.  Growing up Catholic, I was, and remain fascinated by confession.  Even as a kid I knew that redemption was possible and forgiveness of sins was possible, but only with a genuine change of heart.  Three Our Fathers, Four Hail Maries, and a Gloria will not do. 

We should not make common cause with those who do not respect Democrats or liberals, but call them Communists or some other boogey-man label as a way to frighten people.  Most people, yes, even most Red State people, believe in a fair wage, believe in compassionate and affordable health care, believe in Social Security, believe that corporations who have done harm should have to repair that harm and pay a penalty for what they have done, and yet, these are things which most Republican elected officials have fought for all of the 20th century, and now for all of the 21st century.  They use the argument that “we can’t afford it.”  But we can afford to pass legislation that allows economic meltdowns that hurt everyone.  And we can afford to make sure that the poor get poorer, while the rich get richer.  And we can afford that essential social services, including the Postal Service, die through underfunding and gross mismanagement.  Well, the truth is (and the Republicans know this to be true, if, for their world view, inconveniently so) we cannot.

We can no longer afford to allow someone like Donald Trump to hold and desecrate the highest office in the land, a cruel and hateful man who has perverted that office and squandered any good will the US has in the world solely to enrich himself and to feed his own apparently bottomless need for cruelty.  We can no longer allow the behavior of elected officials who are willing to overlook the crimes and cruelty of the chief executive in order to advance their own agenda of dismantling the social safety net and making desperate people more desperate.  We can no longer allow the privileged to get away with it when they tell the BIG LIE (about socialism, about health care, about social security, about relief, about race).  The cost is too great. 

Some of the most moving images, one I go back to a lot, are those photos taken of the sanitation workers in Memphis on strike (Dr. King was in Memphis to speak to them when he was killed).  In those photos you see a bunch of guys on strike, many in their best clothes, holding up signs that simply read “I AM A MAN.”  It is such an iconic image – that men of color had to state clearly to those who saw them that they were human beings, with rights and deserving of love and fairness, just like everyone else breaks my heart.  But that those workers, with those four simple words, were also proclaiming such status, were putting the powers that would subjugate them by demonizing them by labeling them all sorts of awful things on notice that the politically powerful did not get to define them.  They got to define themselves.  When I think of that, it fills my heart with joy. 

In recent years, that message returned, using different words, no less powerful: BLACK LIVES MATTER. 

To those out there who feel umbrage at the signs that say BLACK LIVES MATTER, there is a solution.  Learn to see people of color as your neighbors, let the one you’ve cast as the OTHER be seen and treated as your BROTHER (and SISTER). See their pain, see the injustice done to them, see your part in that injustice.  If we work to build a just world, signs that state the obvious — “I am a man” and “Black Lives Matter” — won’t be necessary. 

To the powerful who have embraced and promulgated the BIG LIE or stood by giving assent through your silence (here I’m mainly thinking of Church Leaders who’ve been too chummy with power and not embracing the prophetic role of the Church to speak truth to power), there is another way.  Stop telling the BIG LIE.  Those who have the most to lose will need lots of reminders here.  Men like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz feel they have too much to lose to give it up.  So take time to remind them – every day in every creative way you can.  Make it clear that they cannot hide behind the BIG LIE and that ultimately that lie will not work.  Hold them to account, Senate, and show them the error of their ways. The Democratic Senators cannot let them use the BIG LIE and the carnage it creates to advance their own personal causes without comment.  Republican Senators too need to step up, even though that means letting all those lies you’ve embraced and told go.  For the Church leaders, and here I’m mainly thinking of the Catholic Church.  The official church has been far too chummy with corporate power and the legislative and executive power that would protect corporations at the expense of the poor.  That has to stop.  That is not Christ’s work.  You know it is not Christ’s work, and the comfortable lodgings of the bishops of the Catholic Church come at too high a price.  You cannot serve God and Mammon, and right now, among church leaders, Mammon is winning.  Break the deal you made with the Republican party to turn a blind eye to economic and racial injustice just so you can get legislation which criminalizes abortion and demonizes women and doctors. 

This is going to be a long hard and difficult journey for all of us, but Democrats and liberals and socialists, you cannot back down.  Work with your Republican colleagues, but do not roll over for them.  Expose the BIG LIE every time it is put forth.  And you cannot accept reconciliation and moving forward on their terms.  For the past 150 years or so, the Republican party has stood on the side of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  Democrats, welcome them to work with you to make America better and fix the carnage sewn these past four years, but do not accept their lies about voter fraud, about being unable to provide help to the sick, the elderly or the needy.  They are lies, the Republicans know they are lies, and know that, for years, those lies have worked.  Don’t fall for them, and do not let them control the narrative. 

Remember “I AM A MAN” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and make the American dream inherent in those phrases and movements a reality. 


Election 2020 a month away — an Open Letter


I have seen the statements of Catholic politicians and Catholic prelates over the past month stating clearly that Catholic voters cannot vote for a Democrat in the coming election.  I find such election meddling to be as troubling now as I did when several of the Catholic bishops, and especially Justin Rigali, then Archbishop of St. Louis, doing all but excommunicating John Kerry, a Catholic who was also a US Senator, while all but endorsing George W. Bush, a man who had lied us into a war in Iraq, an area we are still mired in. 

The ostensible reason for such a position was that Bush had voiced opposition to abortion, while the Democratic Party had supported, and continues to support, a woman’s rights over her own body.  But such support for the Republicans was not honest.  Such support was couched in terms of a “reverence for life.”  But the Republican Party, and certainly the post-Reagan Republican Party has no such reverence.  They are willing to use abortion as an issue to get your vote, and they may honestly be opposed to abortion, a premise I am not willing to accept, but perhaps you may accept them on this.  If they had a reverence for life, they would not have supported an unnecessary war in Iraq, which cost American and Iraqi lives (yes, Iraqi lives have value too).  They would not support undermining consumer protection laws which help to keep people safe and provide them with some guarantee that the food they eat is not tainted and the water they drink is not poison (just look at the mess in Flint, MI).  But they do support undermining and even bulldozing such protections, adopting a firmly radical Caveat Emptor position.  They would not support getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, and Medicare, and Medicaid and Social Security, but they are looking to get rid of those ways in which the most vulnerable are protected from the ravages of age and disease.  They would support a fair tax system that would call on the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share, and not let the burden fall on the middle class in this country.  They would support the abolition of capital punishment that is unfairly and even wrongly enforced against people (often people of color, and almost always people who are poor) who cannot afford decent legal representation.  They would support police reform so that the police return to their core function of helping people and making streets safe, but they do not – they are quite brazen in taking a position of the “police right or wrong” get their support.  Well, police who are in the wrong deserve to lose their job, and if they’ve violated the rights of citizens, to be prosecuted, just as priests who preyed on children deserved to be defrocked, prosecuted and kept away from children, because they violated their oaths and were a threat to the community they were to serve (I’m from Boston, so I take that betrayal very seriously). They are opposed to adequate funding for schools and public institutions that make life better, but are all for diverting money to charter schools or to privatizing the government so that those public institutions are undermined and fail. 

I see all sorts of signs as I walk, run, or drive about that proclaim “pro-life voters live her” or words to that effect.  I would claim to be a pro-life voter myself, but I do not believe that “life” ends at birth, and that the responsibility we all have for one another ends when the fetus becomes a baby born.  The gospels have plenty of stories where Jesus calls the Scribes and Pharisees out for their proud support for the letter of the law, while ignoring human need and suffering, for giving in to personal greed rather than generously giving to alleviate human need. 

And so, I won’t be voting for a Republican in this election, not a single one.  From the history I’ve seen, the Republican Party has been the party of corporate greed from the late 19th c. onward.  They are not the party of Lincoln, but rather the party of McKinley, or Harding, or Coolidge, or Nixon or Bush or Trump.  They do not care for their fellow citizens, but only for their rich friends.  They are not a pro-life party, not even close.  And I suspect that many are not even really opposed to abortion – they just know it’s a winning position to take, which means they are hypocrites too. 

I cannot tell you how to vote, and I will not.  I do urge you, though, to consider the whole picture, and not to vote on a single issue, while letting distinctly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic attitudes to govern most policy decisions.  I urge you to pray and to consider your decision before you cast your vote, and that you be honest with yourself and your conscience.  And to those who say, but what about those priests and bishops who claim that voting for a Democrat is a sin, I would answer that priests and bishops do not have that authority.  Your vote is a sacred duty and one that should be discharged as such.  Only you and God can speak to what’s in your heart.  It is your conscience and your relation with God that’s at stake, not the particular view of any given priest or bishop. 

Remember to vote, but do so with love and justice in your heart. 


April 1, yet again…

I think that April 1 (April Fools’ Day) has always been something of a holiday, even a holy day.  This became even more the case when, 8 years ago, I signed the book at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas.

I had been a member of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO for over a dozen years.  There were aspects of that church that seemed then, and a few of them that seem now to give All Souls a homey feel.  I had joined All Souls on the Sunday nearest the feast of All Souls, which I took as an auspicious sign.  In my Catholic upbringing, I had a special place in my heart for All Souls (November 2) Day, even though it was All Saints (November 1) Day that we got a school holiday.  In my youth, Catholic schools closed for all Holy Days of Observation (days where you had to go to Mass even if they did not fall on a Sunday) that fell on a school day.  Of course, we all had to go to Mass, but there was a 6:30 and a 7:30 Mass every day, which left the whole day free to do whatever.  I appreciated the day off, but it seemed a bit like overkill to me that All Saints Day would get holiday (holy day) status.  The focus on that day was of all the saints who didn’t somehow get on the Calendar of Saints with their own Feast Day.  As a kid, I figured those saints, though they didn’t get the recognition of a particular day dedicated to them, got the greatest reward of all — they were in heaven.  They had got the prize.  I figured they didn’t need any particular kudos coming from me.

But All Souls Day was dedicated to the dead, and especially those dead who likely had not yet made it to heaven, but were in Purgatory.  The expectation was that most people (and I grew up in Irish Catholic Boston) would need a long stay in Purgatory before they were ready for the Pearly Gates and beyond.  And on All Souls Day, we were supposed to pray for the souls still in Purgatory, including and especially those recently dead whom we knew.  Those poor souls I figured needed my thoughts and prayers (and a lot more in all likelihood) and so every All Souls Day I spent some time thinking about the souls in Purgatory, even if that meant taking some time from my studies at school, with my mind thinking of the poor souls, while my eyes were apparently fixed to the Math lesson.

And so, to get to go to a church called All Souls — well, it seemed just the place for me.  And for over a dozen years, it was.  I still have fond thoughts for the place and many who are still there.  But troubles brewing in that church, exacerbated by a struggle over an Interim minister, led some in the church to act in a way that lacked a spirit of toleration, of good will, of love, with some people near and dear to me (my wife included) rather badly treated.  I stayed at All Souls when most of those members who had been badly treated had left.  Many came to Shawnee Mission and are still there.  I stayed partly to see a reconciliation process through (it was largely ineffective) and to see the new minister, Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, voted in.  That job done, I chose February 29 (Leap Day) to leave that church, taking a leap of faith, in a way, and taking a break too.  I began this blogsite, which I kept up for some time, but now only occasionally make posts there.  The name All-Soulo was intended to speak both to All Souls (the day) and All Souls (the church) and to the fact that I was now on my own.  I was all solo.

My wife was puzzled as to why I didn’t join Shawnee Mission church at that point.  Well, partly I wanted a break.  But partly, seeing that April 1 was a Sunday that year, and I could join my new community on April Fools, I figured I had to do that.  I shared with no one but Thom Belote, then the minister, my desire to sign the book on April 1. It came as a great surprise to Carla when I got up and headed to the front of the old church to sign the book.  It was even more surprising in that I chose to wear a t-shirt with question mark on the front and exclamation mark on the back.  So I was taking off my dress shirt as I headed to the chancel, revealing the t-shirt surprise within.  I think that even Thom was rather taken aback.  But the question mark seems a sacred emblem or totem in the UU movement, as it should be.  The questioning aspect of Unitarianism may be its primary draw for me.  And the exclamation point — well, if you’re going to do something, do it with enthusiasm.  I feel this is more important in religion than in some other endeavors.

I chose to join SMUUCh because Carla had asked me, because I felt it was important to be part of a community of faith, and because it would mean that Carla and I attended church together.  But I have stayed here (rather than going back to All Souls) because I feel that it lives its love with a bit more fervor, and perhaps is more careful not to bruise others in its pursuit of spiritual truths.  It does better to welcome the stranger and make the stranger feel at home.  It may be that All Souls has gotten better at that than when I attended the church.  All Souls still has a homey feel to me when I visit, but SMUUCh has become my home.

One final point — why April Fools Day?  Doesn’t that undercut the seriousness of my religious commitment or faith?  I don’t think so.  First of all, I take comedy seriously.  I think that comedy goes much further to speaking truth than any other medium.  Second of all, I look to religion to keep my mind and heart and soul focused on the good.  I think we were built for joy and celebration.  Of course, there is trouble and pain in life, sometimes quite a lot, but it is joy I generally hear calling.  And so, of course, April Fools — a time of new beginnings (April) and a celebration of foolishness, with all of its optimistic openness.  That is where I choose to be.


Hamlet, yet again…

Just as Kansas City and environs came to grips with what they needed to do in the COVID-19 time, the weather here was especially cloudy, and then, Turner Classic Movies, as if on cue, screened yet again Hamlet (1948) dir. and starring Laurence Olivier.  And so, I recorded it, and then later watched it.  The black and white cinematography done on a set that seemed only to compound all that greyness perfectly matched the grey outside, and my own grey thoughts.

I’ve seen Olivier’s Hamlet at least a dozen times over the years (which comes from my seeing it in the library and then thinking, “I’ve got to check this out,” or seeing it listed on TCM and thinking, “I’ve got to record this.”  Even when I’m not looking for Hamlet (in any version), Hamlet seems to show up, especially as embodied by Olivier.  And so, I watch it yet again.

And it’s not that I don’t recognize the problems — in this version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t dead, they are totally absent; Olivier and Norman Wooland, who plays Horatio, are far too old for the role of university students, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Gertrude, looks far too young to be Olivier’s mom.  And all the monologs are done in voice-over as if we are “hearing” Hamlet’s thoughts — I guess it’s to make it seem more natural, but the acting that goes with it is a bit over the top — I’d much rather Olivier broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience.  Still, the cinematography and set design is quite striking and affects me as much with each viewing.

This time, partly because of the cloudy world outside, and my cloudy mind within, I was especially struck with the closing of the “To be or not to be” monolog.  Here are the lines I mean:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment/ With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action… (Hamlet III i, 82-87).

Boy, that really sounded loud in my head as I heard these words — phrases like “pale cast of thought” and “sicklied o’er” jumped out at me.  I’ve heard this soliloquy probably close to a 100 times, either through my own reading of the play, or seeing productions or films of the play multiple times.  And yet, this time, in these circumstances, it was this that really jumped out.  No doubt my enforced isolation (the situation of us all) caused these to resonate so much, and how a mighty plague besets us so that many are quite ill also makes the idea of “sicklied” even more relevant.

In the play, and especially in Olivier’s staging of it, Hamlet is a figure who is beset by too reflective a mind.  In a situation that calls for action (the play is, after all, a revenge play, and like revenge movies, they are generally action pieces, full of violent scenes).  And yet, in this longest of his plays, Hamlet spends a lot of time trying to work himself up to action.

For Hamlet, there is a divide between what he feels he must do, and do quickly, and his own hesitancy to act.  For the most part, he views his inaction as a fault.  And in this case,  his inaction may bring about other consequences he hadn’t counted on (the killing of Polonius, the madness of Ophelia), where quick action would have taken care of his uncle without all the collateral damage.

But I wonder — is there not some value to inaction, and to being forced to be inactive, and simply to “be,” rather than to act?  Sometimes quick action is too rash and causes its own troubles, and there is some virtue to patience.

And so, facing at least another few weeks of enforced “inaction,” I’m thinking that, though I love the look of Hamlet, I should look rather to the Buddhist idea — “Don’t just do something — sit there!” as a mantra.


Service — Feast of Immaculate Conception 2019

Here are the words, readings and sermon from the service I did on the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception” at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS on 8 December 2019.

First, the words on “awe,” the theme for consideration in December:

Each month through the year, we as a community take time to reflect on a theme.  We do it here in the service, and the children do it in their classrooms.

The month of December, we are invited to reflect on the theme of Awe.  What does it mean to be a people of awe?

Well, when I see the word “awe,” especially capitalized as it is the UUA materials, my mind goes all Old Testament – “Fear of God” and all that stuff.  You know, where you hear the voice of God in basso profundo.  Our God is a personal God.  But Sodom and Gomorrah have gone too far, so, as God might say, “This time, it’s personal!”

That sort of awe doesn’t do it for me.  So, I’m going to bring it down a notch, actually I’m gonna ratchet it way down.  Instead of Awe, let’s consider aww!  You know, the feeling you have when you see a toddler trying to walk.

That sight never ceases to grab me.  From the effort to get upright, to the first few tentative steps, to  the giddy  exhilaration when a few steps becomes a few more steps and the toddler is off, to that inevitable moment when the toddler gets past where that burst of energy has taken him, and his mind starts to realize that it no longer knows what to do NOW!  Just like Wile Coyote half-way across the chasm.  And then, the fall, boom!  A look of confusion, and some shock, and maybe some tears.  And then, up again… The Itsy-Bitsy Spider has nothing on toddlers.

I admit, my aww! lacks the majesty of AWE!  But I get to experience my aww! much more often.  It fills me with joy, it fills me with wonder, it fills me with gratitude to be in this world, that has such creatures in it.

Come, in that spirit of aww! let us worship together.

Then the two readings, the first from the Papal Bull, “Ineffabilis Deus,” issued on 8 December 1854 by Pope Pius IX:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

The second, from Joni Mitchell’s song, “Come in from the Cold.”

Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines
Holding their rulers without a heart
And so with just a touch of our fingers
It could make our circuitry explode
All we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold

Come on in, come on in, come on in
Oh, come in from the cold
I feel your legs under the table

leaning into mine

I feel renewed

I feel disabled

by these bonfires in my spine,

I don’t know who the arsonist was

which incendiary soul

But all I ever wanted

Was to come in from the cold.

I know we never will be perfect

never entirely clear

We get hurt and we just panic

and we strike out

out of fear

I fear the sentence of this solitude

Two hundred years on hold,

Oh and all we ever wanted

was just to come in from the cold.

Come on in, come on in, come on in
Oh, come in from the cold

Do yourself a favor — check out Joni’s performance of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOfJ7S9f2LM

And the sermon proper: “Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception: a Consideration”

“St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester.”  Until I was 17 years old, a freshman in college, that was my response to “Whereabouts in Boston do you live?” Not Meetinghouse Hill, the official neighborhood designation for the area, nor Fields Corner, the subway stop nearest my home.  My college friends, none from very Catholic Boston, found my response quaint, and parochial.  When I lived there, some nearly 50 years ago, well over 80% of the population was Irish Catholic, and St. Peter’s was our church, the center of our lives.  And so, when the Worship Team was working out the schedule, and I saw December 8, “the Feast of the Immaculate Conception” popped immediately into my head and out of my mouth. And when Rev. Rose suggested I might do the homily, it was that feast which stuck in my mind. To put all here at ease – I am not proselytizing for the Catholic Church, nor am I valorizing one approach to spirituality over another.  We are all on our own paths in this church.  I respect that and value that.  That is our strength in this holy place.

But “Immaculate Conception” is what December 8 says to me.  And I’ve learned to listen to the still, small voice within.

A few facts first.  On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, in a papal bull entitled “Ineffabilis Deus” or “God the Ineffable,” declared as dogma that Mary was conceived without “the stain of original sin,” a position NOT universally held in the Catholic Church at the time.  He declared it as infallible (not prone to error), the first time a pope had invoked infallibility in declaring a doctrine proclaimed ex cathedra (“from the chair [of Peter]”).  There is a mistaken sense about infallibility that whenever a pope makes a statement regarding anything religious, his views are considered infallible by Rome.  This is wrong.  Infallibility has been invoked only three times – 1854 on the Immaculate Conception of Mary; 1870 on the question of infallibility itself; and 1950 on the question of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven.

What, you may ask, has this to do with Unitarians?  Many Unitarians do not believe in any deity, and those who do – Unitarian Christians especially – do not believe in the triune God of traditional Christianity, and certainly not in the peculiar spin of the Roman Catholic Church.  I will get to that, but I’m going to keep my old beat-up Catholic hat on for a moment.

As to the actual doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I doubt that most Catholics sitting in the pews think about it, and many who do so assume it refers to Mary’s conception of Jesus, rather than St. Anne’s (Jesus’ grandma) conception of Mary.  Whether they have the concept, it certainly is not something on which they dwell, not even in Kansas City, where the cathedral is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

At the heart of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though, is a clearly dualistic view of humanity, that humans are body and soul, that the body and its desires are wrong and sinful, and that such desires must be condemned and corrected.  The idea of Mary as “immaculately conceived” assumes that the normal method of conception has, in it, a stain, one which Mary, through divine intervention, avoided. In this view, we all come into the world stained. And while I can accept the idea of sin, I cannot fathom nor accept the idea that we are fallen and can only be redeemed by belonging to a particular group, or by holding a particular set of beliefs.

The idea of Mary, “pure and lowly, virgin Mother, undefiled,” as one hymn puts it seems so destructive. By putting Mary on the pedestal of Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church has often cast down other women as unworthy, as base.  The Puritan ancestors of the Unitarians did no better, plastering the scarlet letter of condemnation on many a woman who failed to toe the patriarchal line, or failed to keep her passion hid.  And the body, our glorious human body, was deemed base and corrupt and shameful, while women’s bodies became fetishized objects of the male gaze and patriarchal scorn. But whether elevated as immaculate virgin or despised as the fallen daughter of Eve, women too often were excluded from a true and lasting relation, kept at arms’ length, under watch, but not truly seen nor heard.  And in that, you have a failure to love on a systemic level.  And the failure to love, and to debase others, that – according to my grade school nuns – was sin in its very essence.

But there is another danger (and here my fondness for the church of my youth really sounds the alarm) in the concept of infallibility itself.  It smacks of pride, the idea that one person (any one person) has some lock on truth.  In “Come in from the Cold,” Joni Mitchell states a contrary personal truth “I know we never will be perfect.”  That seems a good axiom to hold onto.  We are mortal, and we are limited in all sorts of ways – by prejudice, fear, confirmation bias – oh, we can count on being wrong a lot.  The way out of that is through dialog, and careful witness to each other’s truths.  Once you play the infallibility card, though, you deny all that, and close the door to future meaningful dialog on the subject.  Many in the Catholic Church in 1854 were not on board with the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; prior to the papal decree, the matter was still an open question. Some of the biggest Catholic saints found the idea of Immaculate Conception flawed and troubling – Thomas Aquinas did not believe in it, nor did most of the Dominicans.  My own name saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, referred to the idea of the Immaculate Conception as a “novelty.”  But after 1854, the matter was closed.  Can truth, or even a truth, be imposed by fiat?  I’m thinking not.

Unitarians, though we do not have an officially stated policy of infallibility, have, in my experience, played the unwritten infallibility card – it’s the one that says, “Them that thinks like me are right and all right, and those that don’t are wrong.”  I am not proud to say that I have played this card myself, and probably will again.  It seems to me, though, failing to witness another’s truth when they have been brave enough to share, even when their truths are different from mine, maybe especially when different from mine, is a failure to love too, a missed opportunity for real connection, and a block on possible growth.

So, where do we go from here?

On the matter of the Immaculate Conception and the matter of papal infallibility – the answer is easy.  We, as Unitarians, don’t believe in either.  And I’ve got to tell you, neither is an issue for many Catholics.  It does not impact or inform their faith path.

On the matter of sexism, or racism, or any other ism that turns one against the other, we must always be on our guard.  We are called to love the world in all its multiplicity and its complexity.

On the matter of Puritanism or any sort of fascination with “purity,” I would urge that we take up Joni Mitchell’s plea to “come in from the cold,” and help others do likewise.  I would urge us all to find a way out of solitude into community. I would urge us all to find a way to love ourselves in our bodies, and move past elevating or condemning others, or ourselves.  The way to build the Beloved Community is together.

And one final thought, as we are coming on Christmas, to cut through all those words that box us in, or keep them out, let us step aside from coldly analytic language, from trying to define, and move into the more holistic warmth of image.  Here, for reflexion, let me end with the most moving image of my Catholic upbringing – it is that of Mary, but not the Immaculate Mary; it is Mary the teen mother embracing her infant son, sharing warmth and love. It is an image you see every day, if we but look, but no less wonderful for being so. Amen.



It’s All Souls’ Day, 2019

All-Soulo entry for 11/2/2019

I’m not sure that I’ve done this consistently.  If fact, I’m sure that I have not consistently posted on All Souls’ Day.  And that seems a shame to me.

In an effort to “Christianize” pagan holidays (in this case, those of the Celts), the Roman Catholic Church declared November 1 as “All Saints’ Day,” a holy day of obligation (you have to go to Mass).  This was to counter the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which we see as Hallowe’en (though that name comes from the Feast of All Saints or All Hallows, with the evening before the holy day, being All Hallows’ Eve).

As a kid in parochial school, I loved getting a day off (holy days of obligation were also holidays in Catholic schools – they aren’t any more, but time is taken during the day to go to Mass) for All Saints’ Day, but, in 6th grade,  I remember coming back to school on November 2 and learning it was “All Souls’ Day.”  The idea was that All Saints covered all those saints who did not make it onto the Church calendar (and there are a lot of those, but a lot more who just didn’t get an official day).  All Souls, though, was dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, souls that hadn’t yet earned their wings.

The story Sr. Paschal told of All Souls’ Day touched me.  The way I figured it in 6th grade – though it was great that we had a holy day to recognize all the saints, even those who didn’t get their own special day, I figured they didn’t need my thoughts or prayers.  They had made it.  They were in the presence of God and in a perpetual state of bliss.  But those who were in Purgatory – well, they may have taken some consolation that they were on the path to Heaven, but it was tough going in the meantime.  They needed thoughts and prayers, and 6th grade me apparently needed to be thinking of those still on the rocky path.

And whenever All Souls hits (even when it’s a Saturday, like today), I cannot help but be back at my desk in Sr. Paschal’s class, being made aware of All Souls’ Day, one more time.

And when I came to Kansas City, and was looking for a Unitarian church, I took comfort that the church I would be attending in mid-town KC was called All Souls.  It seemed a good omen.  As it turns out, All Souls is a common name for Unitarian churches, probably the most common name for UU Churches that have names instead of a geographic designation (e.g. the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church which I currently attend).

I even took pains to join All Souls on the Sunday closest to All Souls’ Day, back in November 1995.

When I made a parting of ways from All Souls Church, some seven years or so ago, I decided to start posting in a blog I would call All Soulo.  The name was a reference to All Souls itself, but also to the fact that, religiously, for a time, I was now “solo,” without a clear religious home.  That is no longer the case, given that I am a member at Shawnee Mission UU Church, but there will always be for me a sense of solitariness.

From 2nd grade on, I was aware, sometimes painfully and terrifyingly aware [I was 7 after all] that the world I experienced would, in some ways, always be my world, and would not exactly match the world of any of my friends.  At some level, I would always be alone.  Over the years since 2nd grade, I’ve come to accept that existential loneliness.  At times, I even find it comforting.

Still, the loneliness I experienced did drive me, as a Catholic boy growing up, more into the arms of Mother Church, where I could be part of group, be part of a team.  Even on All Souls, when I became aware of those souls caught up in their pain and loneliness, and I tried to hold them in my heart, and mind, and soul, I got some sense of being together in the struggle.  Never fully together, never fully being at one with my fellows, my God, or the universe, there was still some solace to be taken from being part of the communion of saints, or rather, the communion of souls.

In popular culture, as a kid, I was drawn to those shows that featured a team or a group, or at least a pair of people working together.  My favorite TV show was Combat! (yes, it had an exclamation point, which looked like a bayonet), a show that focused on a squad of army infantryman in France during WWII. In comic books, I was drawn to titles like The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and the Justice League of America, which all focused on teams.

And, of course, I had, and still have, a strong positive feeling for unions, where workers band together to fight for better conditions, better wages, knowing that they are stronger together.

For me, I’ll always be on the solo-ensemble continuum.  I’ll always yearn to be part of a team, part of a group, and to help the group thrive, but that existential loneliness never goes away, though it doesn’t often loom over me.  In fact, that loneliness I feel may even help me be more aware of others in their loneliness cocoons. And it may give me a little edge when it comes to helping to build community.

And so, on this All Souls’ Day, I’m feeling a little lonely, though not particularly blue.

Maybe I’ll listen to Bob Franke’s “For Real” later.  It straddles that lonely/community divide rather nicely.  You can hear Mr. Franke sing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xqTWDSGe9U

Or you can listen to Lui Collins’ version, which is, perhaps, more beautiful, if no more real: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PJ-ZsIbxWQ



Notes on Mary Renault’s “The Mask of Apollo”

Below are notes on Mary Renault’s “The Mask of Apollo.”  I thought they might be of use to the members of the Great Books KC group.  I have page numbers and brief snippets from the text with commentary.

Some notes on Mary Renault, The Mask of Apollo (NY: Pantheon, 1966).

Quotation from Plato at beginning of book – comes from Greek Anthology.  The philosopher Plato was also a capable poet, despite the fact that he banned poetry from his “republic,” out of concern over its emotional impact (which gets in the way of rational and calm reflection).  He had hoped to create a “philosopher king” to show how things should be done.  That hope did not come to pass with Dion and the younger Dionysius in Syracuse.

The quotation likely refers to the play The Trojan Women or the Hecuba of Euripides.

3 “second roles” – in Greek tragedy, the convention was that all the parts were performed by three actors (plus any number of non-speaking performers). The first actor (protagonist) generally had the most important role (s) in a given play; the second actor (deuteragonist) had the next most important; the third actor (tritagonist) had what was left. In the case of Euripides, the third actor would often do the messengers, which roles had a lot of information and emotional content.  I imagine that the three actors would consult on who would do which role – the protagonist might want a particular set of roles because they matched his skill set, and so he might take roles that would ordinarily go to the second or third actor.

4 “Agave…Cassandra…Niobe” – Agave, the mother of Pentheus, has a great scene at the end of the Bacchae when she comes onto the stage with the severed head of her son on a stick; Cassandra has a great moment in the Agamemnon; we don’t have any surviving play in which Niobe plays a part, but as her myth deals with a woman who foolishly brags she’s a better mom than Leto, because she has 14 kids to Leto’s 2, and then loses all her kids because Leto’s children, Apollo and Artemis, kill the 14, she would make a great emotional role for an actor.

5 Lenaia – there were two festivals in Athens when plays were performed, the City Dionysia (in late March/early April) and the Lenaia, done in February. In the 5th c., the City Dionysia was the more prestigious of the festivals, but by the 4th c. this may not have been the case, as much of the drama was now revival of plays by the big three (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides).

Polyxena – a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba.  In the Trojan Women she gets a great moment where she bravely accepts that she will be sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles by the Greeks.

The Sacrifice at Aulis – this is likely the play we know as Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides.  In it, Agamemnon finds out that he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis to get good winds to go to Troy (they are stuck in Aulis on the Greek coast).  She is tricked into coming by being told she is to marry Achilles.  When Achilles learns of the trick, he is angry and offers to defend Iphigenia against the Greek army.

7 Andromache – the play referred to here is likely The Trojan Women, where Astyanax, the toddler child of Andromache and Hector, is torn from her arms and taken away to be thrown from the city walls (all action happens offstage). This would be a non-speaking role for a child.

8 “Lay down the circled shield of Hector” – in The Trojan Women, the dead Astyanax is brought onto the stage in Hector’s shield. Here the chief actor is reminding Nico to “play dead.”

9 “Be quiet, you little bastard. You’re dead.” — the actor playing Hecuba in The Trojan Women gives a sharp reminder to Nico to remember he’s supposed to be dead.

11: “even as a third actor, one must have the range…” – the third actor has the less important roles, but in most plays, each of the three actors is playing 2 or more roles, and so has to have some range to do different characters in the same play.

“I would be like the little orphan in The Iliad” – in the Iliad, as Andromache weeps over the dead Hector, she laments that her son, now that he has no father, will be treated ill at banquets.  As the grandson of King Priam, I don’t see that happening.  Besides, he gets tossed off the walls of Troy before that happens.

13 The Myrmidons – this play does not survive – it deals with Achilles and his men (called the “myrmidons,” apparently because they are as numerous as ants.

Pappasilenos – the chief satyr in a satyr play might be Pappasilenos (the old Silenus, an elderly satyr).

14 “two or three modern plays, without chorus” – we have none of these tragedies written after the death of Sophocles and Euripides (died 406), so we don’t know what these were like. Some were straight melodramas, with no mythic element at all; others simply dispensed with the chorus. Given that Greek tragedy seems to have developed from the dithyramb, a choral poetic form performed by a chorus/choir, one can see why 5th c. tragedy still had a large role for the chorus, though their presence to us seems strange.  Eventually, it was decided to dispense with the chorus altogether (no doubt to spare expense as much as for dramatic reasons).

15 Thebans throwing Spartans out of their citadel. After the Peloponnesian War (ended 404 BCE), both Sparta and Athens were quite weak. The city state of Thebes rose to prominence from 371-362 BCE (period called the Theban Hegemony).  During this time, the Thebans under Epaminondas and Pelopidas defeated the Spartans.  This gives us our time for the novel – in the 360s BCE.

16 Agathon and Sophokles – Agathon has the bad fortune of being the 4th best Greek tragedian, as the Library at Alexandria kept only official copies of the top three. Agathon has some meaning for this group in that Plato’s Symposium takes place at the victory banquet/drinking party for Agathon following his first first place prize at the City Dionysia in 416 BCE. Sophocles is one of the famous three.  Both Agathon and Sophocles were attracted to young men.

17 Philokles’ Hector – I know nothing of this play. If it is not made up by Renault, it is a play which has not survived.

19 first revival of Aischylos’ Eumenides … time of Alcibiades and Nicias: there are some things here I find puzzling – would the Eumenides (Part III of the Oresteia trilogy, following the Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers) be performed alone? Maybe.  The time of Alcibiades and Nicias is likely 416 BCE or so.  The original production of the Oresteia was in 458 BCE, and Aeschylus won first prize.  As Aeschylus died in 456 BCE, it may be that by 416 the dearth of tragic talent was being felt and so revivals began.  Apollo has a big part in the play – he advises Orestes to go to Athens for trial, and he serves as Orestes’ defense counsel at Athens.

21 battle between the Greeks and the Kentaurs – the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs was a common artistic motif on temples. At the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, the scene serves as metopes (short panels on the outside of the temple beneath the pediment, separated by triglyphs) – here’s a brief video: https://www.ancient.eu/video/173/battle-of-the-lapiths-and-centaurs-parthenon-metop/ – I always think of “Stations of the Cross” in a Catholic Church – it also serves as the sculptural group of one of the pediments on the temple of Zeus at Olympia – see here: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/temple-zeus-olympia-west-pediment. At the wedding of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths (you remember him from The Bull from the Sea), the centaurs tried to kidnap the bride and the female wedding guests, and a battle broke out between the Lapiths and the Centuars.  It was a popular motif as it represented to the Greeks the battle between Greek rationality and control and barbarian excess.

24 Aeschylus’ Persians – the oldest tragedy we have in its entirety. It was first performed in 472 BCE. Aeschylus himself fought at Marathon, and likely at Plataea.  The play is set in the Persian court, and the messenger delivers news of the Persian loss at Salamis (a sea battle).

25 “In vain man’s expectation; God brings the unthought to be, as here we see.” I don’t know what play this might come from. I don’t recognize it from any Euripides’ play.  The sentiment, though, is key to Greek tragic thinking – even people who have a good run of it can have everything turned over by the gods.  It fits the Persians, as Xerxes and the Persian court think they are invincible, until the Greeks give them what for.

28 Great War – this is the Peloponnesian War

Theodektes’ Amazons – we don’t have any play by this tragedian surviving.

29 “the revolves turn smoothly; the reveal runs out on oiled wheels” – in Greek tragic performances, scenes could be changed (e.g. the Eumenides begins in Delphi, and then moves to Athens) by having painted backdrops done in panels that could be turned (the “revolves”). What Renault refers to as “the reveal” is generally known as the ekkyklema (the “wheeled thing”) – it would be used to reveal an interior scene. In the Agamemnon, for instance, the audience and chorus can hear the killing of Agamemnon and Cassandra taking place inside the palace.  When it gets quite, the doors of the palace open up, the ekkyklema is wheeled out with the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra (here played by extras) and Clytemnestra standing bloody and triumphant over the bodies atop the platform.  Here’s a diagram showing the mechane and ekkyklema: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjVxoH6zpTkAhVGb60KHdO_ArgQjRx6BAgBEAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Ffobisia2019.weebly.com%2Fgreek-history.html&psig=AOvVaw0X9YdlYUwDyTHXzQSvptW-&ust=1566499337631679

32 “most famous sponsor in the world” – this refers to Dionysius of Syracuse, who like his predecessor, Hieron, spent quite a bit on getting first quality art, music and drama, to his court and to his city. It was in Syracuse (under Hieron) that Aeschylus died in 456, as he did his victory tour of Oresteia – the story goes that an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head as he sunbathed, taking his bald head for a rock.

34 “Lysias the orator” – we have speeches by Lysias, who was a famous orator at the end of the 5th c. and beginning of the 4th c. BCE. He is a master of the plain style.

37 Hippolytus with the Garland – this was the 2nd play of Euripides that told the story of Hippolytus (which we saw in The Bull from the Sea) – the first was Hippolytus Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled). It does not survive. The second. Hippolytus Stephanophoros (Hippolytus carrying a garland) does survive.  It was first performed in 428 BCE and won Euripides 1st Prize (he only won 4 times in his career).  It’s my personal favorite of the Euripides’ plays.

Helen in Egypt, Medea, Alkestis – All three plays of Euripides survive – the Helen was performed in 412 BCE – it is a tragedy with a happy ending – it’s a rescue play, with Menelaus finding Helen in Egypt (the gods created a phantom Helen who went with Paris to Troy, while Helen was whisked off to Egypt for the duration of the conflict – the idea seems to have originated with Stesichorus, a lyric poet who wrote a play about slutty Helen, was then blinded, and who then wrote the “palinode” (“retraction poem”) in which he said that all that stuff about “slutty Helen” was a lie, and that Helen was a good wife, who remained loyal to Menelaus while stuck in Egypt, while a phantom went to Troy.  He then got his eyesight back.  The Medea is Euripides’ most famous play, and was performed in 431 BCE.  Euripides came in third, I think in part because the play gets us to sympathize with Medea (a woman and a foreigner) who then goes on to kill her kids.  I think that Euripides may have been the author who first suggested Medea killed the kids (the kids die in Corinth, but not necessarily at Medea’s hands), so the original audience might have been blindsided and found that Euripides had tricked them.  The Alcestis (438 BCE) is the oldest surviving play we have of Euripides.  It has a happy ending and is largely comic.  It may served in place of the satyr play.  The play features a great scene with a drunken Hercules.

41 Apollo Longsight – Apollo is a god marked by his distance.  The most common epithet for Apollo in Homer is “who shoots from afar.”

42 age of Pericles – Pericles was a strategos (lit. “general”), an elected official in Athens in the 430s BCE – he recommended the Athenians stay within their city walls while the Spartans attacked and let the Spartans wear themselves out.  The strategy backfired when a plague broke out in Athens, killing many, including Pericles himself.

44 Nico playing Apollo in the Myrmidons – we have here one of the perils of playing a god on the stage – gods often “flew” onto stage held aloft by a crane off stage. This practice was called the theos ek mechanes, which becomes in Latin, deus ex machina – lit. the god from the crane.  Euripides’ tendency to end some of his plays with a god coming in to save the day, or set the story back on the correct path, is what gives the deus ex machina its current meaning as an unexpected positive turn of events (e.g. the cavalry coming to the rescue in a Western).

59 “Did Achilles grieve for Hector? And here’s only a Thersites dead.” The point here is that Nico should be happy that someone who did him wrong is dead (just as Achilles was glad of killing Hector). The villain here, though, was more like Thersites, the only common soldier who has lines in The Iliad – he’s a guy who heckles Agamemnon, but gets the beat down by Odysseus in Iliad, Book II.

60 Hector’s Ransom – we don’t have this play, and there may have been no such play. The plot, though, is obvious. It would be a play in which Priam goes to Achilles to ransom his son’s body, based on Iliad, Book XXIV.

64 “show men and women as they really are” – this alludes to a quotation regarding Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles, the most heroic of the tragedians, “showed men as they should be,” while Euripides “showed men as they really are.”

66 Delphi Peace Conference – I’m guessing this has something to do with peace negotiations between Thebes and Sparta during the war for Theban hegemony.

68 — there is a famous bronze statue of a charioteer – this is the one Renault is thinking of: https://ancient-greece.org/art/chiarioteer.html

71 Plato’s lecture – Plato, like Aristotle, gave lectures. Where we have only lecture notes for Aristotle, we have only dialogs of Plato (starring Socrates), but Aristotle wrote dialogs (don’t survive) and there likely were lecture notes of Plato (don’t survive).

73 Academy – this was the name of Plato’s school, which met in a gymnasium and olive grove just outside Athens, named after a hero, Academos.

77 The Drinking Party – this is a dialog of Plato’s we know as Symposium. It is the discussion of Eros – “what is Eros?” at a drinking party in honor of Agathon’s first first prize at the City Dionysia in 416 BCE.

78 Harmodius and Aristogeiton – these were two young men (lovers) who killed the tyrant Hipparchus in 514 BCE, and they are grouped with Achilles and Patroclus and Orestes and Pylades, two pairs of best buds from Greek legend/myth.

85 passed by the selectors – at the City Dionysia and the Lenaia, only a certain number of plays were chosen for performance. In the case of the City Dionysia, three tragedians were chosen, each of whom got one day of the festival in which to mount 4 plays (3 tragedies and a satyr play). After the 5th c. I’m not sure that the selection process was quite the same, as it seems individual works were chosen, and maybe fewer plays were performed.  But anyone planning on putting on a show would go to a board of selectors who would choose the plays (or playwrights), and then they would assign a rich person to be the choregos (lit. chorus leader, but more like a producer) to outfit the show and train the chorus.  The playwright would generally get the actors he wanted to perform, though in a period of revival this may have been done by the selectors.

87 the quotation “A young man fallen on the field” – this comes, perhaps indirectly, from the Iliad. It’s a common trope in Greek poetry about the handsome corpse of the fallen young warrior, contrasted with the shriveled old corpse of an old guy.

Odeion – lit. “music hall” – this is a smaller roofed theater on the Acropolis, located near the Theatre of Dionysus.

88 “my chariot entry after Hermes” – in the Iliad, Hermes, in disguise, guides Priam and his chariot through the Greek camp to Achilles’ tent.

90 “Bellerophon” – this hero rode Pegasus to fight the Chimaera. No surviving play has Bellerophon in it, but there likely was a tragedy about him. The key moment would be the moment where, using the crane, Bellerophon, riding a painted mock-up of Pegasus, would be swung in – if something went awry, it would be the cause of much laughter and cat-calling.

92 Parodos – the entry ramp on either side of the stage, the word can also stand for the opening of the play, when the chorus enters.

96 skolion – a drinking song, which would be sung in succession, with each person adding a stanza.

98 mumming in the Italian style – there was some native Italian farce called the “Atellan farce” which would have been quite a bit broader than the comedy Greeks would have seen in the 4th c. (generally comedy of manners). Not sure that the Atellan farce was going on in the 4th c. BCE, though.

Zeus with a big nose and phallos – this may refer to a satyr play, or a Greek old comedy, where characters or the chorus had great big clown phalli (think of knee-length socks filled with something to make them floppy), or perhaps Renault is alluding to Plautus’ play, Amphitruo, a comedy of errors in which Jupiter (Zeus) and Amphitryon, Alcmena’s husband, show up on the same night to have a little nookie with Alcmena. As Jupiter is disguised as Amphitryon, and Mercury (Hermes) is disguised as the servant, we have a comedy of errors situation of mistaken identity multiplied.  NOTE: Plautus was around in the 2nd half of the 3rd c. BCE, which is quite a bit later than this.

100 Great Harbor… Great War – in 416, Athenian forces set out to take the city of Syracuse, which was allied to Sparta. As Sicily had food to spare, which could be given to Sparta to aid in the war effort, Athens had to take it out. The general, Nicias, though, was not a good general.  And Athens’ best general, Alcibiades, had fled to Sparta to escape capture and prosecution for the mutilation of the Herms.  Though the war went on for another 10 years, and Athens rebounded somewhat from this loss at Syracuse, this battle was seen as the turning point in the war.

111 “a web of guest-friendship…” – the concept of xenia (“guest friendship”) is a key one among the Greeks. One sees it a lot in Homer’s Odyssey – one is supposed to treat the stranger as an honored guest, and the stranger is supposed to return the favor when his host shows up at his door. It makes sense that actors would share such a bond.

112 Iatrokles – interesting name for a doctor as it means “physician glory.”

115 hundred and third Olympiad – the only common reference point the Greeks had to date events was the Olympic Games, which started in 776 BCE and happened every four years after that. Other than the Olympic Games, each city-state had its own way of determining year based on who was ruling at the time (it would be like us saying things like “in the third year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency”). The date here seems to be 364 BCE or so.

116 “Not quite Sophokles – except where it is Sophokles…” There were no laws against plagiarism in the ancient world. And it was quite common to recycle great lines and put them in a new context. The idea would be that such inclusion would bring to mind the previous context of a famous line so that the alert audience member would be rewarded and catch additional sub-text. These days, you can see a certain amount of this in various superhero films where there are oblique references to things outside the plot proper, and the careful viewer is rewarded because s/he picks up on the references.

125 Praxiteles – perhaps, along with Phidias, the most famous Greek sculptor. It was Praxiteles who first did a female nude statue of Aphrodite, and Aphrodite was afterwards always depicted nude.

143 Orpheus – we don’t have such a play extant, and I don’t know the name Eucharmos. I do like that Nico pretends to play the cithara, but they have a real citharist off-stage actually playing the music.

150 grasshopper’s summer – likely a reference to Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant

153 Roman cohort – as this book takes place around 460 BCE, I’m not sure that Rome would have much of a presence (if at all) in Sicily. Rome is not really a power in the area until their victory against Carthage in the 1st Punic War (ends 241 BCE).

162 Eurpides’ Orestes in Orestes – this is a wild play (originally performed in 408 BCE) that goes so far off the rails, the deus ex machina at the end of the play forcibly wrenches the story back to its normal parameters.

174 Rupilius – again this seems to be an anachronism – why would a Roman be a mercenary serving in Sicily?

Karneios, Metageitnion – these are the Spartan (Dorian) and Athenian names for a month that roughly corresponds to August (keep in mind that the Greeks are not following the Julian or Gregorian calendar).

178 “one cannot go everywhere with Euripides…” – the point here seems to be that Euripides is the tragedian of the big three most affected by the time in which he lived.  His Trojan Women (Troades) is actually an attack on Athenian power politics in the Melian incident (Athens killed all the men on Melos and enslaved all the women because Melos wanted to remain neutral in the Peloponnesian War and would not ally itself to Athens).

181 Alcibiades and Socrates – this is hinted at in the Symposium – Alcibiades was probably the most gifted Athenian politician of his generation, but he was something like Bill Clinton, a sort of bad boy, but with charisma.  His association with Socrates was one of the bits of ammo the prosecution had when they went after Socrates for “corrupting the youth.”

189 Tiresias “has a blind-man mask” – I don’t know of there being such a mask, but all Greek masks would have made visibility an issue.  I once played in Aristophanes’ Wasps in a mask, and I had no peripheral vision at all, which made movement about the orchestra challenging to say the least.

193 thyrsos – this is the staff that followers of Dionysus carry about.  It’s a long staff, with a large pine cone affixed to the top.

Know yourselves – this is an allusion to the inscription at Delphi – gnothi sauton (“know thyself”).

195 “Euripides wrote this play in Macedon…” – Euripides left Athens and spent the last few years of his life in Macedon.  Plays he would have written there would have included the Iphigenia at Aulis and the Bacchae and the posthumous production of these plays got Euripides one of his four first prizes.

202 “Portrait masks are for comedy” – in the production of the Bacchae described, Pentheus is shown in a mask that is clearly the face of Dion.  Tragedy did not have masks based on individuals, but comedies, especially the highly political comedies of Aristophanes, did.  Aristophanes’ The Clouds, for instance, which makes fun of Socrates and his work at the “Thinkery,” would have a Socrates mask on the main actor.

205 “he found a pack of paper with dead flowers pressed in it…”  This seems to me to be anachronistic.  Greek books were papyrus rolls, and though papyrus was made in sheets (which were glued together to form rolls of 30-50 sheets).  Pressing flowers seems to be something for a culture familiar with the codex (books with paper, papyrus or parchment sewn together with a binding).

210 Pythagoreans against flutes – this is also a festival in honor of Apollo, and Apollo is associated with the lyre and cithara, stringed instruments.  Flutes and wind instruments were seen as wild, and the notes were blended together, which is quite different from music on a stringed instrument, where there is a mathematical progression from string to string, and where each note is sounded individually, allowing for a clearer sound.

214 Aphareus’ Atalanta in Kalydon – I know nothing of this play; it may be made up.  The basic story of Calydon is that of Meleager, a man who is killed by his mom.  Atalanta, the most famous of ancient tomboys, was a huntress who went on a great boar hunt with Meleager.  After he killed the boar, he presented Atalanta with the boar’s skin and head as a trophy – you can see a statue showing this in the Nelson-Atkins.

215 Ariadne Forsaken – I know nothing of this play, but it would be a good topic for a Greek tragedy.  Ariadne is left on the island of Naxos by Theseus and then found and saved by Dionysus.  The story has been turned into opera.

221 Plato put on a choral ode – we don’t have much in the way of verse by Plato, but he was apparently a pretty good poet.  Apparently there were choral odes (narrative poems sung by a chorus or choir) that were part of the City Dionysia.

222 Euripides’ Chrysippus – this play does not survive.  Chrysippus was a young man that Laius (the father of Oedipus) fell in love with.  He kidnapped the youth, but the young man’s father cursed Laius that he would die at the hands of a son.  Chrysippus himself commits suicide.  Here Nico suggests that Euripides wrote this while he was courting Agathon (the # 4 tragedian, whose victory party is the setting of Plato’s Symposium), which suggests some unrequited love action going on.

223 “we are citizens since last year” – I’m not sure how this would work – my understanding of Athenian citizenship was that there was no naturalized citizenship among the Athenians.

224 “young Troilus pleading to Achilles…” – the Troilus we know, either from Chaucer or Shakespeare, is in love with Cressida.  When Cressida proves false, Troilus angrily goes into battle, where he has the misfortune of meeting Achilles.

Daidalos – there is a story of Daedalus getting rid of a clever apprentice like this.

225 Epidaurian festival – the best surviving Greek theatre is the one at Epidaurus.

233 “a written scheme of his oral teaching” – this sounds like something we do have in the case of Aristotle, but not in the case of Plato.

241 Aischylos has departed from him … — in the Iliad, it is clear that Patroclus is the elder of the two, and that he was sent to Troy to be a clearer head for his hot-headed young friend, Achilles.  But outside of Homer, no doubt with the idea of the veteran soldier and his young protégé, I think people generally think that Patroclus is the younger of the two.

249 Madness of Herakles – this is likely the play by Euripides, sometimes called Heracles, sometimes Heracles Maiomenos (Heracles Enraged).  If so, the play is by Euripides.

258 Achilles Slays Thersites – Thersites is the only common soldier who gets a line in Iliad.  He mocks Agamemnon and Odysseus beats him silly, to the amusement of the troops.  This play does not exist.  I find it interesting that there is discussion on whether to make Thersites sympathetic.

261 “gnawed by rats…At least he deserves a vulture.”  Prometheus was set upon by Zeus’ eagle that came every morning to eat his liver.  As Prometheus was immortal the liver would grow back overnight.  Modern painters sometimes have a vulture (or two), as other myth figures are beset by vulture(s).  I’m thinking that the sentiment here is that a vulture, at least, is a bird and more imposing than a rat.

262 “for the fourth” – there are only three actors, but it is possible a fourth was there to serve as an understudy.  Some scholars feel that Pylades in Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers would have been played by a fourth actor, but that’s the only one I can think of, and it may be that Aeschylus just had a silent actor speak Pylades’ two lines (which would itself be pretty radical).

264 “rota for rehearsals” – I’m not sure what a rota is – ordinarily it would be some sort of wheel (what the word means) or spinning thing, like a stage platform that can be turned, but that doesn’t seem to be what the author is saying here.

269 Polymachos’ version… the Barnstormer’s Delight:  I’m guessing that this is a particularly memorable version of the death scene from Sophocles’ Ajax, that Polymachus was a famous actor, but I don’t know.

270 Arch-Druid:  not sure how much contact the Greeks or Romans would have had with the Gauls at this point that they’d know about Druids.

273 like sailors everywhere, democrats: I guess sailors are seen as more egalitarian than soldiers, as their time on ship makes them an entity unto themselves and all have to work together.  In Mutiny on the Bounty, though, there doesn’t seem to be any democracy at work.

278 “All the great festivals are holy to Hermes the Light Fingered.”  I’m guessing this is a way of saying that there was a lot of pickpocket action at festivals, so that smart travelers deposited their money at a bank which would be more secure.

280 Isokrates: I don’t know who this figure is.  The most famous Isocrates (a famous Attic orator) was working decades later than the time of this novel.

281 “by casting pebbles”: one form of divination involved casting pebbles.  Unlike the oracle at Delphi where Apollo was seen as the god of prophecy, the pebble casting method (sort of like the I Ching, I guess) was associated with Hermes (god of luck, and also a god associated with pebbles).

Leonideion, with the other lions: here we have a pun, as the name of the state hostel, Leonideion, means lion’s den.

282 Diagoras the Runner: don’t know of this figure.  There was a famous Olympic athlete, Diagoras of Rhodes, but he was a boxer.

283: on the west gable stood Apollo, stern and beautiful: this is the West Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.  It features a ramrod still Apollo, one arm outstretched, putting a stop to the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs who are shown in animated battle all about the rigidly still Apollo.

291: The wolf, as everyone knows, is a creature of Apollo:  I have to say, I don’t know this.  The wolf does not seem to be an animal one would associate with Apollo.

303 “a man with gravitas (a Roman word, which I think means dignity of soul)”: Gravitas is one of the key Roman virtues – it usually means “seriousness of purpose,” and is opposed to levitas which indicates the opposite.  In the story of the grasshopper and the ant, the grasshopper demonstrates levitas, and the ant gravitas.

311 “Having found a quiet clean inn…” ancient inns had a really bad reputation.  This must have been quite the popular inn, if it was really clean and quiet.

315: “It is the nightmare of every touring actor that he may be caught in some town during a sack.”  I can’t imagine this was that common of an occurrence.  There would have been cities that got sacked, but I’m thinking that most actors would avoid such towns.

320 “clutching the earthquake lever…” – I’m not sure what to make of this.  There were likely some devices that would make sounds (like thunder, or the rumbling of earthquakes), but a lever sounds like something that would cause some shift, to suggest an earthquake.  And I can’t imagine such a device in ancient theatre (even one that big bucks had been spent on).

336 Know yourself. Nothing too much.  These are the two famous inscriptions at Delphi: gnothi sauton and meden agan.

341 “I as Ulysses”: say what?  Ulysses (Ulixes) is the Roman name for Odysseus.  I can think of exactly 0 reasons why a Greek would say “Ulysses.”  I’m also not sure if Ulysses was even a thing, yet.  Roman literature, which began with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Latin by Livius Andronicus around 260 BCE, is still 200 years in the future, and I’m not sure if the word Ulysses (Ulixes) even exists at this point.

347 “The Offering Bearers” – I’m not sure but I’m guessing that this is Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the second play in the Oresteia trilogy, which would be an unusual standalone play.

353 “masks of the Furies in The Eumenides” – this story about women having miscarriages when the Furies appeared is usually told of the first performance of the play, in Athens in 458 BCE.  I have to say that it only makes sense in the first instance – we don’t see the Furies at first, so there would be a reveal to their masks.  Once the play is famous, though, the audience is ready for it.  The story is likely made up, as women probably were not allowed in the theatre in Athens in 458.

Chapter 24: On Alexander – it was said that he slept with a copy of the Iliad (my guess is one roll, as twenty four rolls would be too tough to sleep with or on).  He did actually offer a sacrifice to Achilles at Achilles’ supposed tomb when he attacked Persia.  And it does make sense that he would not quite understand why Achilles, the better man, did not simply strike Agamemnon down, as being a lesser man who brought his troubles on himself.



Church Improvment

On 28 July, 2019, I did a service at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS.  My topic was on how improv might inform our church experience.  The service included some wonderful music by “Flagship Romance,” the hymns, “When the Spirit Says Do,” “Simple Gifts,” and “Just as Long as I Have Breath,” and two readings, one from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which the wise woman Shug tells her friend, the narrator, Celie, about the color purple, and the nature of the divine, and Gelett Burgess’s nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow.”

The sermon went as follows:

Sermon – Church Improvement

“[God] not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

“What it do when it pissed off?” Celie asked.

“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back… It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.”

These lines from The Color Purple I find to be among the most beautiful and profound religious statements I know. They could also be lines about improv.

One of the maxims or “rules” of improv is “Don’t prepare, just show up.” For improv to work, you have to show up, you have to be present. If you’re distracted or preoccupied or have some fixed idea, that will get in the way of you playing a part in building a scene. You’ll miss some key information your teammate just pitched. Or you’ll block the scene in some way. It’s a sure way, as Shug puts it, of missing the color purple in a field.

Patricia Ryan Madson, professor of theatre emerita at Stanford, in her book, Improv Wisdom (I owe a lot to this particular book) speaks of her own default position as an academic, that of a critic. Academia encourages critical thinking and judgment, but criticism and judgment can separate us, one from another, one being the judge, the other being the judged, and such an attitude can shut down all that improvisatory excitement and wonder. As Madson puts it, “While the critical method sharpens the mind, it dulls the heart. We fail to see what is right, what is working, what is good.”

As Shug sees it, missing the color purple is a sign you are cut off from the world, apart from the world rather than being a part of the world, and that pisses God off. But then Shug’s God doesn’t do what many of us were trained to think God does when pissed off – there is no smiting here! God continues “always making little surprises” for us. In other words, there’s another chance to engage, to be present, to improv. And there’ll keep being chances, as Shug puts it. Or as Lin Manuel Miranda put it, “Love is love is love is love.” It’s ever present. Judgment and critique can blind us to that, and thinking of ourselves only in terms of judgment – “I’m too ornery to be loved;” “I’m beyond redemption;” “I can’t stand that guy” –keeps us from being present and seeing the color purple.

Tied to this idea of presence is the importance of teamwork in Improv. In Improv, you work (or play) in pairs or small groups. If the improv is going to work, it’s going to work because you work as a team. If you hog the spotlight, or try to dominate the skit, it will likely fail. If you succeed, you’ll succeed as a group, as a team. There is a joy in success, but joy is multiplied when success results from team work. In a great improv group, the various members don’t just try to look good. They aim at making their fellow players look good. The players all have each other’s back, and that engenders trust, a trust that helps each go just a little bit deeper.

And if a given skit fails, and sometimes they do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how well you work together. Well, then, there is solace and comfort that you are not going down alone. The spotlight is not on you alone. And improv groups often encourage people to fail, at least in practice, to experience failure, and to embrace it. Just as clowns in the circus, when they mess up, might take an exaggerated circus bow, “Ta Dah!” we can do so too. Patricia Madson tells of a basketball coach who teaches the circus bow “ta dah” to his team. It helps them get past their mistake by admitting the mistake and proclaiming it. That coach knows his team is fully in the game when he sees and hears his players letting loose with “ta dahs” during an actual game. I once taught at a high school that found its way to eligibility for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records for most consecutive losses by a high school basketball team. When we got to the crucial game, and then lost the game, the principal announced a day off in celebration of Uni High having won as losers. That was a brilliant response, and a ringing endorsement of Uni High’s philosophy that everyone who wanted to play on a sports team could, even if they were athletically challenged.

Lastly, let us consider the first rule of improv, which I had considered as the title of this service. It is the most important rule or maxim out of a good dozen or so, and is the closest to a hard rule. It is “Say yes… and…”

In The Color Purple, Shug helps Celie through her hurt and doubt by pointing out to her the beauty of the world, a beauty Celie can access by noticing it, and saying yes. Shug demonstrates the color purple in herself by extending an offering of friendship to Celie.

In Improv, almost anything goes, but for improv to work, the players must agree to say “yes … and.” They must say yes to the fictive world the first player suggests by how he or she opens the skit. And they must be willing to build on that suggestion, to help realize the shared world. So, if player 1 begins, “Oh, who’s a cutie pie? Who’s the cutest purple cow in the whole world?” You see, I did get to the purple cow. What should player 2 respond? Possible responses might be “moo” or shaking one’s head while making a cowbell sound. What player 2 should not do is say something like, “No, you’re wrong my friend, I’m Eddie Iguana, the mightiest iguana in Arizona.” That denies player 1’s suggestion, and brings the skit to a halt. Player 2 may have had a great idea for Eddie Iguana, and I have to say, I’m sort of intrigued by the mightiest iguana in Arizona. But improv is not just about your great idea. You’re on a team and you just stepped on a teammate’s suggestion. You didn’t accept your teammate’s gift. You didn’t help build a fictive world he or she began. And, on a personal note, you lost a chance to see where that path might go. Eddie Iguana can wait. He can be in another skit, and maybe he’ll grow into something even more amazing – Eddie the Purple Iguana.

Am I saying you should always say “yes… and…” No. On the operating table, if you hear your brain surgeon quip to a nurse, “Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along,” that would not be the time to say “yes … and…” to the operation. That would be the time to seek a new brain surgeon. And get a new anesthetist while you’re at it, as you shouldn’t be hearing anything – you should be knocked out.

And when you get an invitation to be part of a hate group, or to engage in fear mongering or to endorse cruelty to people and especially towards children, don’t just say no, say “hell, no!” Aside from times when you put yourself in mortal danger, or moral danger, where “no” is the better path, try to say yes when you can, yes to yourself, yes to your lover, yes to your family and friends, yes to fellow travelers you meet on the path.

I once saw a Ted talk on improv and, specifically, on saying “yes … and.” The presenter stated that “’No” can take one down a path of comfort and safety. Yes, though, can put you on the road to adventure.” And when I consider the words of the covenant we speak every week [NOTE: the words of the covenant at Shawnee Mission UU Church are “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another], the words “quest for truth” always jump out at me. In my head I hear the faint echo of John Williams’ Indiana Jones theme. And I didn’t say that alone. And it wasn’t just me saying those words. We all said that we’re on a “quest for truth.” That sure sounds like the road to adventure to me. And we claim that we do what we do as a church “so that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.” When someone has opened up and shared something deep and profound, something brightly purple to her, or mood indigo to him, and we say “no” in some way, we are rejecting not only that idea, but we are excluding that person, maybe only for the moment, but the heart has its own timetable, from our fellowship. And we occlude that person’s truth from our vision. We pass by the color purple in the field and don’t notice it. Whether we believe in a pissed offable God or not, when we miss the color purple, we miss a lot. The good news is that the world abounds in beauty and wonder, and your life abounds in plenty of chances to be present, to work together, to make each other look good, to be a part of the world, and not apart from it, to be present, and to be a present to others. All you’ve gotta do is say “yes … and…”


Nothing But Net: the Morning Offering, a Yuletide Dream

To help you get a sense of what I’m talking about, you may want to consult these readings, these hymns as well as Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Leo Kottke’s “Jack Gets Up” – available on YouTube.


Morning Offering: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/morning-offering.cfm

The Sparrow in the Hall, from Bede’s story of the Conversion of King Edwin:  https://www.csun.edu/~sk36711/WWW/258/Bede.pdf (go to page 4, second full paragraph).

Hymns “In the Bleak Midwinter,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0aL9rKJPr4

“Be Ours a Religion” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMSfYU5-E2M

“Good King Wenceslas,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElO6auK1GYw



For a number of years in the 1960s, “every day in the morning, when I got up, and I crawled out of bed”, I would dimly catch sight of the “Morning Offering,” which adhered to my headboard, floating as if a thought balloon over my head.  Imagine the wooden backdrop behind me as that headboard, and the “Morning Offering” I’ve affixed (proportionally sized of course) as the 3” x 2” sticker on that headboard.

You see, Sr. Joseph Robert, my second grade teacher at St. Peter’s School in Dorchester, MA, had given every member of our class a sticker that had printed on it Fr. Gautrelet’s prayer that I read as the first reading today.  Sr. Joseph Robert spent some time talking about the prayer, though I don’t remember her words.  I do remember that she directed us to put the sticker on our headboard, so that, when we got up, we’d see the Morning Offering and say the prayer.  The logic was similar to putting your shoes under your bed so that, when you knelt down to get them, you’d remember to say your prayers.  I never mastered the shoe placement – rarely were my shoes under my bed, or even together — and my morning routine, more often than not, involved looking for one or both of my shoes, my only prayer being “Please, God, let me find my shoes.” 

Nor did I read the words of “The Morning Offering” more than half a dozen times – though that was the point of the headboard placement —  but I was very much aware of that sticker stuck on my headboard.  I’d received an assist from my mom, who noticed the sticker soon after I’d secured its place.  I was sure that she’d be proud of me and what I had done.  She was not happy.  She approved of prayer, of course, even calling me to task for my not being a prayin’ man.  When I was in college, I recall her saying, probably to my college roommate, that “Bernard doesn’t believe in the efficacy of prayer.”  Still, she was bothered that I’d marred the esthetic beauty of the headboard. When I made my go to argument, “But sister said…,” I think she just sighed, shook her head, and rolled her eyes. Sr. Joseph Robert’s high hopes for the prayer, and my mom’s dismay at the sticker seared that prayer’s place in my memory, even today, some 55 years later. 

Some five or six years ago, soon after I first became part of the Worship Team, Thom Belote, then our minister, asked me if I’d like to do a service.  I said, “Sure.”  He asked me if I had an idea for a topic – I answered “Maybe something on the Morning Offering.”  He was puzzled, as the Morning Offering was not covered at Harvard Divinity School.  Having said that, I figured I’d better review the text of the “Morning Offering.”  At the next meeting of the Worship Team, I informed Rev. Thom that I would still like to do a service, but it definitely would not be on the “Morning Offering.”  There was no way I could do a service on that. Working for “the intentions of the Holy Father this month” spoken from a Unitarian pulpit.  Yipes!

And yet, here we are. 

To put you at ease, I will not be calling for you or me to work for “the intentions of the Holy Father” this month, or any month.  Even as a Catholic kid, I did not have access to the papal to do list. Besides, while I felt sympatico with John XXIII, I didn’t feel that with later popes.  As I recall, Sr. Joseph Robert framed her discussion of “the Morning Offering” in terms of the central core of the prayer, the “offering” itself – “I offer thee all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.”  At the time, what struck me was that we got to offer up our failures and disappointments. When we had a bad day, or were feeling especially sad, we could offer that pain and suffering up to Jesus, who knew something of suffering, and, in so doing, we would feel supported and somehow better. Whenever I came home somewhat dispirited – it happened a lot – I was a lonely kid, sort of nerdy, and nearly totally useless in sports, oh, and I worried a lot, too, like Charlie Brown – I would go to the room I shared with my brother, Neill, and there on the headboard I would spot the “Morning Offering.” I’d take inventory, and mentally tie up my package of disappointments, think, “Well, sister said…” and drop that mess in Jesus’ lap, or toss it out into the void.  My disappointments spread out across the universe didn’t seem so big, and I could let go some of the sadness.  As I got older, I would even imagine people all over the Archdiocese doing the same thing, people I’d never met, and likely never would, but to whom I felt some kinship.

The “Morning Offering” did not just offer me solace, and a place to drop my crap; it also was a call to action.  For I was also called to offer my hopes and dreams and actions – oh yeah, and prayers – sorry, ma.  And before me, each morning (“every day in the morning when I got up and crawled out of bed”), there was the call, waiting for my response.  I never verbalized, never spoke aloud, and rarely even subvocalized call or response in my brain, but I know I saw the morning offering every morning when I got up, and when I saw it, at some level, I know I was thinking – another day, a day of possibilities, a day to be offered up to Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  When I get up these days, there is no “Morning Offering” sticker affixed to the headboard, but it still comes to mind.  I can see it “in my mind’s eye,” as Hamlet says. Here’s a day to be offered up, yet again. 

It was because I see that sticker, or feel what it meant to me in my youth, that the “Morning Offering” popped to mind when Thom Belote asked, “What would you like to do in a service?”  And it’s because that sticker stays stuck that I have finally gotten to it today.

 That sticker and that prayer were, for me, ultimately not about the Roman Catholic Church, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  They were about community, offering me a sense of belonging to the larger community and the world beyond my immediate locus of pain and hurt, which empowered me to let a lot of that hurt go in real time.  And they were about my part in that community, that it was imperative that I do my part, that I am not helpless, and may even be helpful.

In the early 90s, when I chose to join the Unitarians by signing the book at May Memorial Unitarian Society of Syracuse, there were two immediate causes: one was a memorable Easter Sunday service given by Nick Cardell, Jr., entitled “What if they found the body?”; the other was my learning of the seven principles, and especially of the seventh principle, which speaks of honoring the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  At the time, I did not hear the echo of the “Morning Offering,” but it’s there.  The interdependent web is that divine lap, with or without a big G god, which can help see me past my loneliness, when I feel lonely, and can offer solace in community when I feel dispirited.  And the idea that I, that we, are a part of that web offers us a challenge as well.  If we are a part of that web, what positive effect can we have?  What can we do?  That’s the challenge, and if we think of the enormity of the task, we will likely find ourselves overwhelmed and find it all impossible. 

I’d recommend starting small.  In the fourth stanza of Rossetti’s beautiful “Christmas Carol,” the poet contrasts a metaphysical plane, where live angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, which she slyly dismisses – they “may have” been there – with the immediate reality of an act of love, Mary kissing her child.  What is the answer to the cruelty, greed and destruction we see in the world?  I don’t have “the” answer, but an answer is right there in that verse – a kiss, a hug, a kind word, an encouraging smile, even tears shared. 

That is our choice, too, and our chance – “What shall I give?  Give my heart.”   When I hear the final stanza, with my Unitarian cap on, I trip up a little bit on “If I were a wise man, I would do my part.”  Aside from the sexism in that statement, I think I’m pretty smart, I could maybe call myself a wise man.  Perhaps many of you feel similarly about yourselves.  I know I’m always impressed by the mental acuity of the people I meet in this place.  We are a place chock full of wise men and women.  And doing my part – that’s a tough call to resist.  Doing duty, though, is not enough.  The call is to go all in – Rossetti says, “What shall I give… Give my heart.”  And we sing those words, and in so doing, take the words in to work their magic.

That focus on “my heart,” though, runs the risk of putting the spotlight on “me,” which can easily lead to my putting me above others, which cuts us off from community.  And that is an awful prospect.  Whether we put ourselves above others on a pedestal, or lose sight of others by focusing hard on our mistakes, as Joni Mitchell does so beautifully and so painfully in “River,” it’s very much the same.  In so doing, we deny a belief in the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Rather than undermine the fabric of community, let’s join King Edwin in the mead hall.  In the story, the focus is on disconnection.  Our lives seem cut off from what came before and what came after.  We are like the sparrow in the hall, and are like Edwin who imagines the poor bird.  For some, knowledge of a happy afterlife in a heaven beyond offers the solace they need.  It provides some surety for a life that seems parenthesized by the great unknown.  Let me suggest that we let the mysterious parentheses go for a moment, and turn attention to the hall itself, a room like this.  Outside it’s cold, sometimes grey, or dark, and forbidding, but here it’s warm and inviting.  A working HVAC system has something to do with that, and Jay Hetz’ care in stoking the fires.  But that’s not the warmth we come here for.  Rather it’s the warmth we feel in community, the sense that we are supported here, and the invitation we feel to be that warming presence for others.  And so, for me, though my mind can imagine that “sparrow flying through the hall,” I find myself distracted and mesmerized by the loving glance of another, kind words spoken, laughs and tears shared, and that is enough.

And what about Charlie Brown?  What are we to make of him, lying there on the ground, having failed, yet again, to get a chance to place kick a football?  Well, we don’t see it, but we know what Charlie Brown does.  He gets up.  I could see him going home, disappointed and disheartened, and maybe he had something at home like the “Morning Offering” where he could set his burden down.  Fall was always hard for Charlie Brown, but Spring was just around the corner, and with Spring, baseball, and the team of misfits he brought together, year after year. Let’s take our leave here, Charlie Brown with his team, King Edwin with his people, and we here, a part of our tight-knit beloved community.



If you act now…

If you’ve watched any late night or early morning TV, you’ve heard vendors pitching some product.  They often end their pitch with the words, “If you act now…” and offer some additional incentive to anyone who bought the product within the next hour or so.  Some of these TV pitches may be fine products, but many leave a lot to be desired, which is why they’re being pitched late at night or early in the morning when resistance is down.  The words “if you act now…” serve as the carrot, while strong attestations in a deep baritone warn, “not sold in any stores,” so that if you don’t act now, and forget the contact information, you’ll never get this chance again.  I assume that this technique works wonderfully in pushing product, especially product that you might not purchase with more time, more rest, more consideration.

I have to admit that’s the feeling I often get when the Republican Congress wants to push product on their colleagues or on the American people.  I’m getting that vibe quite strongly in the Brett Kavanaugh matter.  Rather than giving this confirmation sufficient time to be considered, and for the voluminous amount of material Judge Kavanaugh has written, quite a bit of it as a partisan hack for Republican politicians, or in a political cause (the politically motivated pursuit of Bill Clinton, for instance, or the Florida recount in 2000), to be read and mulled and processed, so that senators can fulfill their constitutional obligation, which is to advise and consent on the nomination, as befits any appointment, but certainly any appointment that is a lifetime appointment and can have effects for a generation.

When the Founding Fathers, and especially the framers of the Constitution, set up the Judiciary as an equal and separate branch of the government, they did so, in the hopes that the Judiciary could serve as a check on the excesses of the executive and legislative branches.  The justices of the Supreme Court were given lifetime appointments, in the hopes that, freed from reliance on either the executive or legislative branch for continued employment, they could be truly free and independent.  For those who claim to be originalists, that was their goal, and it’s a good goal.

But from what I can see of the current “originalists” on the court, they do not embody a truly independent mind or spirit.  They do not truly examine laws and procedures to see if rights are being observed and the constitution is being adhered to.  Rather they are pushing an agenda that is more in accord with the 1890s than the 1790s or the 1990s.  They are pursuing an agenda which defers to billionaire class, a class largely following the example of the late 19th c. industrialists, who made their money often by shady business practices, often inhuman treatment of workers, and total disregard of any effect their practices would have on the environment.  For those billionaires there was no concern for clean water, or clean air, or a healthy workforce.  For them, all that mattered was their own profit and their own privileges, both to be guarded jealously.  It combined the worst elements of capitalism with the worst elements of feudalism.

And if we look at the opinions of the current “conservative” members of the court, they show a tremendous deference to the wealthy as opposed to the poor, to the powerful as opposed to the disenfranchised, to their people as opposed to the people.  I’ve heard several candidates compare themselves to baseball umpires, simply calling balls and strikes.  If so, they are largely calling balls on behalf of the rich and powerful, and strikes on those who are not, and calling out those who might want to unionize and strike.

Will Judge Kavanaugh be any different from the current conservative group?  Based on what writings of his have been available to the public, he likely will be worse.  He will certainly be a lot more conservative than Justice Kennedy, and probably more conservative than Chief Justice Roberts.  This will cheer those among the wealthy who value their money and power more than the rights of others, for he will certainly side with them.  For those who aren’t wealthy, don’t have privilege or influence, the result will not be good.

No matter what he’s said to the Judiciary Committee about settled precedent, he really doesn’t care about that.  He’s on the record as saying that Roe was decided badly, that US v. Nixon was decided wrong, and that bad precedence (in this case, precedence he disagrees with) can be overturned.  As state legislatures in some states pass laws allowing thousands in their states to be disenfranchised, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  As some states fight against the Affordable Care Act, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  As some states pass laws making it impossible or nearly so for women to get access to birth control, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  With Kavanaugh on the court, life will likely get harder for the majority of Americans, but not the wealthy, not the powerful.

And what about the President who nominated him?  Clearly Mr. Trump wants there to be Justice Kavanaugh to undercut any attempts to put a check on him, and he will get what he wants.  For all those who claim they are originalists, I call their bluff.  If there is one thing the Founding Fathers (all the Founding Fathers) hated and feared, it was unchecked power in the hands of any man (they were not forward thinking to support equal rights for all, irrespective of gender or race).  In the 18th c. those visionaries were unable to imagine a time when wealth could be concentrated so much in the hands of the very few, and so could not imagine the undue influence that the super-wealthy have on our politics.  I feel that they would be horrified by some of the pronouncements on behalf of corporate America.  As to the court giving nearly unlimited power to the president, I know they’d be horrified.  But that’s what they could expect with Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh’s deference to presidential authority and power, a deference he did not display when Bill Clinton was president and he was a more than eager soldier in Republic efforts to bring President Clinton down, is the one area where I think we can safely assume the horror, disgust and anger of the Founding Fathers, and that is something EVERY senator who is thinking about confirming this man at this time should consider before consenting to the nomination.

As to aspects of Mr. Kavanaugh’s personal life, I’d rather not get into that mess now.  But as to his fitness for this office, he must be judged unfit, not because he doesn’t have the legal credentials — he has those in spades, but because a judge is more than the law school he went to, or the grades he got.  There are grave doubts that all would receive a fair hearing from him; the disadvantaged would not be heard, the advantaged would have one more advantage, and the President would simply get a pass.

One final note: it is clear that Judge Kavanaugh has lied to the Judiciary Committee before.  He may have lied to the current committee as well.  For most people, falsehoods uttered in pursuit of a job result in failure to obtain employment, or the termination of that employment.  For a judge, and for one who wants to sit on the highest court in the law, clearly any falsehoods uttered should be considered as disqualifying.

I hope that a handful of Republican senators have the decency to do the right thing here.  Just once, I hope they can resist their corporate overlords and do the right thing.  I remain hopeful.