Holy Saturday, 2011

I wondered darkly at that shroud
That covers one and all from birth
And separates us from the crowd:
The multitude long passed through death.
We living few and worldly-wise
Spare little thought on our demise.

So eager to forget the fact
Of our inevitable doom,
The mention of some artifact
Annoys a cocktailed living room:
“A forgery, you know, it’s certain;
Probably da Vinci’s curtain.”

But later looking at that cloth,
The linen patched by careful hosts,
Amid the streaks of Roman wrath
Where Death in triumph vainly boasts,
I saw the figure of our end:
One death our birth, His wounds ours mend.

How somber was that Sabbath day
When God lay silent in a tomb!
How still the home where Mary stayed
Praying alone in a darkened room,
Remembering all He’d spoken of,
The life to come, His reign of love.

A little over a year ago, I read a book titled Our Lady of Kibeho, by Immaculee Iligabiza (whose first book, Left To Tell, I’ve written about before). I was moved by this account of the Apparitions in Kibeho, curious but from a distance, reserved, wanting to think it over during the course of months not moments. But a seed was planted. It germinated slowly, breaking through the crusty soil of my heart when I was blessed to hear Immaculee speak in person at Sacred Heart University, at a convention for catechists. There she told her story of survival through the genocide, the loss of her whole family and all her friends at the hands of their neighbors, the agonies of her trials, and the ever greater depths of God’s love. To hear her talk of forgiveness, of that absolute necessity of loving your enemies, even those that would kill you, was the greatest insight I have ever received about imitating the Mercy of God. Afterwards, I found myself purchasing a small booklet and beads for the Rosary of Seven Sorrows, about which I had read in Our Lady of Kibeho. I cannot sufficiently praise this devotion, the strength that it gives me, the light that it shines into the darkest corners of my selfish heart, and the deepest peace that comes from God’s Infinite Mercy.

This prayer is intertwined with both the Apparitions at Kibeho, officially approved of by the Church as “worthy of belief” in 2001, as well as with the Rwandan Genocide. It is not a new prayer, dating originally back to the early 13th century and the Servite Order (hence it is also called the Servite Rosary), but it has been newly introduced to the world as a resource for the faithful. Our Lady indicated that it should be prayed so we may obtain contrition for our sins, and through conversion of heart, bring peace and mercy into the world. This call to conversion of heart and repentance is a repetition of the constant teaching of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, as Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro, Rwanda, declared: “the message linked to this apparition is not a new revelation; it is rather a way of recalling the ordinary teaching of the Church, which has been forgotten.” The more I looked into this devotion, the more fitting it struck me for the needs and challenges of our era, which is so blindly, viciously committed to violence, destruction and degradation of Human Life and God’s Creation, contempt for God and His Church, and the Culture of Death. It has been repeatedly promoted as a Lenten devotion, especially since the 18th century. It is a simple set of prayers, once you get comfortable with the structure of the rosary (begin with an Act of Contrition and three Hail Mary’s, announce the Sorrow and say one Our Father and seven Hail Mary’s for each of the Seven Sorrows): minor variations abound, but I follow the one promulgated at Kibeho (instructions here).

This last point, that the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows is especially apropos for Lent, leads me to the purpose of this post. Last Friday, along with other members of St. Lawrence Parish, I prayed this Rosary as part of our vigil of 40 Days for Life outside an abortion center in Bridgeport, CT. I added, as I like to do when praying privately, specific intentions for each decade (I guess more appropriately called a “week” for this rosary), which one woman asked me to write down for her, that they could be prayed again next time she attended the vigil. It is in the spirit of solidarity with those keeping the vigil for Life throughout the whole world, and most especially with the women and men suffering from abortion, that I offer these intentions here. Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!

The Rosary of the Seven Sorrows—40 Days for Life

1st Sorrow – The Prophecy of Simeon – Lord Jesus, unite our hearts to yours through the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, that, like her, we may embrace suffering to end abortion.

2nd Sorrow – The Flight into Egypt – O Holy Family, pray for all those families that are suffering from abortion. May they find their help in the Lord; may He protect them from all evil.

3rd Sorrow – The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple – Lord Jesus, call your Church back from the World to find You in your temple, to hear your word, and receive your Gospel of Life.

4th Sorrow – Mary Meets Jesus on the Way to Calvary – O suffering hearts of Jesus and Mary, pray for us, that we may endure all things to follow the Gospel of Life.

5th Sorrow – Mary Stands at the Foot of the Cross – Lord Jesus, even on the Cross you forgave your killers and all those who rejected and abandoned you: please forgive and bring conversion of heart to all abortionists and those steeped in the sin of abortion.

6th Sorrow – Mary Receives the Dead Body of Jesus – Mary, as you received the dead body of your Son, receive also the souls of those killed by abortion, that their suffering and death may be united with Christ’s, and bring about an end to abortion.

7th Sorrow – The Body of Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb – Lord of Life, bring hope to the hopeless, especially those women & men suffering from abortion.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!

 

After two days disappeared in a feverish NyQuil haze, I work up this morning to sunlight seeping through the blinds and thought: what better way to prove to myself that I’m no longer sick than by playing in the dirt? It was, I declare, a success. Soil was quite workable, in spite of the recent dusting of snow and the temperature hovering in the low 30s. I read in my Organic Gardening magazine that there are microbes of some sort in soil that, when in contact with human hands, provoke a chemical release of dopamine—that’s right, getting your hands dirty really does make you feel better! Well, in this case, the cold is just about kicked, and it always feels good to look at a finished, planted garden bed.

Snap Peas, Carrots, Spinach, Swiss Chard, and Broccoli Raab

The first experiment of the year is really the first experiment of last year… Between work and night classes and everything else, I never got around to harvesting my 2010 leeks. I was less excited about them than the previous year, as I had sown them directly in the garden (in 2009 I started indoors in early March), and they were noticeably thinner. “Oh well, I’ll just turn them over in the Spring” I thought. Would you believe these hardy allia overwintered under 3.5 feet of snow and ice! I wonder, if I just acted like they were supposed to be there, would they keep growing? So I top-dressed them with some compost, trimmed the stalks, and will proceed as if everything were going according to plan.

Behind the freshly sprouted garlic, last year's leeks endeavor to keep on growing. How will they taste? I'll let you know in another 7 months!

Biggest lessons learned from last year:

1. Deer are evil, except when they’re dinner. Otherwise, they’re probably eating your vegetables. I’m installing a deer fence this year—something I’ve fought largely on aesthetic grounds, but I hated not having any beans, and the stunted squash harvest was enough to make me consider investing in a hunting bow.

2. Mulch makes the difference. Less weeding. Less watering. Less worry. I laid up two extra bales of mulching hay in my secret evergreen hiding place, where the hay slowly rots into a moist, mucky matting that will soothe the shallow roots of my nightshades, and just about everything else I’m planting this year.

3. The right interplantings make for happy (garden)bed-mates. Carrots love peas and tomatoes. Dill and Yarrow attract beneficial insects. Catmint and Catnip frighten bad bugs. Hey, I didn’t invent the short-cuts, I’m just taking them.

4. Plant more flowers. (this one really needs no explanation: to paraphrase Mother Teresa, there’s no such thing as too many flowers!)

5. Cover crops. I first experimented with Annual Rye Grass last March, and it did a great job keeping the weeds down until I was ready to plant my veggies. In November (probably a month or two later than I could have), I planted Winter Rye, which survived the snow and is growing still (but not as thickly as I would have liked). Scheduled for this year: Red Clover and White Dutch Clover, which both add Nitrogen to the soil and have the added benefit of attracting bees (and other beneficials).

There’s probably more; I’m always learning. Which is yet another reason (if you can call them that) why gardening is, in my view, the ultimate expression of passion for life.

Three years ago I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. My grandfather helped liberate a camp in WWII, and I felt I would dishonor his memory if I didn’t go and see what evil he had seen up close. Let alone the 12 million murdered in the course of the war. I walked in numbed horror through the vast complex of primitive bunk rooms that served as a dehumanizing holding tank for the gas chambers and furnaces. I stood at the gates and measured the distance with my eyes, a straight line of train tracks ending on the very threshold of the killing factory, shocked at the breathless efficiency of the whole place. 1.1 million killed, in just three years, in one grim location. In at least three of my graduate courses, the professor specifically brought up Auschwitz for discussion, and three times, my class was surveyed, “Has anyone been there? Tell us about it.” Three times I kept silent, not really able to give words to what it was like, how I felt, what I thought, remember, and so forth. For me it was too intense of an experience to be discussed lightly.

I didn’t go alone but with two other students, both with sharp probing minds, and we couldn’t talk about it then, only weep. The place made you feel weak, like all the life energy was being sucked right out from you, and the ground wavered with each uneasy step, and the weight of all that death and hatred bore in to your very heart, and it felt as if you might not be able to walk out again, only crawl. Breath came in whispers, and the sunlight and breeze was as incongruent as would have been mirth. Numbness made your face feel thick and dull, as from hours of crying, and a buzzing tremble begun somewhere behind the eyes shook the flesh of your cheeks and lips.

In my classes others were able to share. I was impressed by something that I heard each of the three times it has come up, and which, now that I think on it, is oft-repeated in any number of situations: “never again.” I wonder at that. Something aspiring to admiration stirs within me at the apparent resolve, but each time I hear those words, the intended weight falls flat, hanging like a limp balloon. Never again. I can imagine any number of people saying, in response to a plain-English proposal of the Final Solution, “never would I allow this.” There were, no doubt, many who, detecting what was afoot, did say some such thing. Didn’t stop it. Could wide-enough “never again” resolve stop such a thing from happening ? I don’t know. The 20th Century wasn’t called the Century of Genocide for nothing.

I’ve been reading about the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, that’s 50 years later, after the world was supposed to have learned it’s lesson, right? Nearly a million dead there, too, in a country no bigger than Maryland. One Rwandan Tutsi, Immaculée Ilibagiza, passed through that darkness, losing her parents, two brothers, countless other friends and relatives, to a massacre at the hands of their neighbors. And she writes, and speaks (if you’re ever fortunate to have her in your area, attend!), of forgiveness, of love. I know I’m not that forgiving, that courageous. Humbling to be in the presence of such a generous heart.

Numbers, especially big numbers, often fail to make an impression on us. There are diverse opinions why: we see too many big numbers every day, we hear too much bad news so we just tune it out, numbers too big for the average human imagination aren’t felt as something real, etc. I don’t know much about that either. Seems to me that what would overcome the disconnect would be to simply reflect on it honestly, to let the weight of such a thing sink in. I’d say we’re more guilty of not thinking about such things than any other explanation offered for the phenomenon. If we really thought about it, we’d have to face the truth of it, and the truth in this case hurts. It shames us. We are right to be shamed by it. Not just because we do not act to prevent wide-scale evil, but because that evil derives from the human heart. From our hearts, too.

Today is an anniversary of sorts, or a mockery of an anniversary. 38 years ago our Government sanctioned the prenatal killing of unwanted or otherwise defective children, and the death toll is numbing. Over 50,000,000 of our brothers and sisters put to death at the very beginning of their lives.  That’s one sixth of the current population of the United States. When I hear “never again,” I want to believe it, that we are capable of fulfilling such resolve, but am compelled to ask: do you really mean it? 50 Million. What a staggering figure. 50 million lives. They deserve honest reflection, at the very least, from this world that isn’t good enough to love them.

… telling the truth is a revolutionary act. ~ George Orwell

I’m having a serious crisis in faith… with journalism as a medium for truth. The predictability of the press to deliberately distort everything the Holy Father says makes me that much more disinclined to trust their veracity in matters secular and even trivial. If I can count on media magnates across the board, from the grayed throne-room of the NYT to the lowliest errant reporter in the AP, to inevitably and even knowingly misrepresent the truth (which is just a fancy way of saying “to lie”) regarding the teaching and actions of the Universal Church, who unites some 1.2 billion souls worldwide, why should I trust them in a scoop on a newly elected Congressman or even a story about a local Boy Scout troop?

There is, most likely, more going on here than meets the eye, but rather than simply cry foul, I feel compelled to point out the obvious consequence of abuse of power in the information age: I can’t trust the news. Period. I am intensely skeptical of everything I read. I always want to ask, Prove it. Show me the data. Don’t just refer to some study; I want a link to the published journal so I can read it myself, and then read the credentials of the authors and see if they’re up to the same noxious manipulation of the public’s perceptions of reality as the cruds at CNN and Fox News.

This is not a new observation: Jean Baudrillard argues a fascinating case exploring (and deploring) media-filtered reality in his short, provocative book: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. He wrote almost two decades ago: “We are all hostages of media intoxication, … our site is the screen on which we are virtually bombarded day by day.” He could have been writing about the internet. I wonder what he would say about “news” items “going viral”…

Such shenanigans in the Press place an unsustainable and even unbearable burden of verifying the truth on the viewing/reading public. I simply do not have the time or even the desire to verify the facts of every story that is reported. Yet there is, time and again, ample evidence demonstrating that I cannot trust the media to report the truth, especially when it comes to the stories that interest me the most. It’s not so simple as playing ‘opposite day’ with the media: surely there is a great lack of consistency in when half-truths and open-lies are fed to an intellectually passive public. But there is no litmus test (that I know of) to administer to a story, except to do the hard work of tracking down the primary sources and reading them for myself. Sure, there are some individuals out there whose make that leg-work a little easier through excerpting and linking (most recently, I think of Elizabeth Scalia’s news aggregations peppered with analysis of the media’s pope-condoms frenzy).  But even with the help, reading that much takes a lot of time, a tremendous amount of time when you consider all that is going on in the world that we are, for better or worse, culturally expected to stay on top of.

In the face of widespread informational malfeasance, I honestly don’t know what to do. My wife, who is fond of pointing out that your information is only as good as your source, recently shared with me an activity from her Intro to Research course. In it, the professor invited the class to take the popularized versions of “scientific” studies from credible-looking magazines or journals, track down the actual study, and evaluate how well-founded the study actually is. A simple question is all it takes: is is rigorous, reliable research? The answer, all too often, is “no.” But it still makes for attractive headlines.

*     *     *

I’m reminded of my favorite scene in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (4.iv), in which Autolycus woos gullible villagers with his penny ballads for sale:

AUTOLYCUS

I hope so, sir; for I have about me many parcels of charge.

Clown

What hast here? ballads?

MOPSA

Pray now, buy some: I love a ballad in print o’
life, for then we are sure they are true.

AUTOLYCUS

Here’s one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer’s
wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a
burthen and how she longed to eat adders’ heads and
toads carbonadoed.

MOPSA

Is it true, think you?

AUTOLYCUS

Very true, and but a month old.

Stimulating conversation is better than caffeine, and I’d gladly forgo coffee, my daily drink, for a regular thought-turning talk like tonight’s. Like coffee, the effects on consciousness are felt in full force only after the initial pleasure of imbibing has filled the stomach, or the mind. Inspired, or perhaps just enthused, I’ve decided to take a fresh look at yet another long-cherished belief: Stevenson’s (and others’) maxim that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Or as we Americans like to say: it’s the journey, not the destination.

Few moments stand out with such radiant permanence in my memory as those of the day of my wedding, and not least among them is the best-man’s speech at our reception, given by my brother. In it, he recounted our trio’s trek, he Cole & I, along part of the Great Wall, and how perplexed and even frustrated he became with our perpetual meandering. We were I think the last three people to rejoin the group at the end, and in such a heat as to make stones sweat. Those of you who have known me for some time, or even a short time, have probably discovered that I meander without ceasing in both thought and conversation, and my endlessly tangential chatter has furrowed more than one brow in impatient irritation. His epiphany came, as we were photographing and discussing whatever all lay before us, that for us, it is the journey and not the destination that is the primary pleasure, and he wished us the very best on our journey in marriage.

I will in no way risk tarnishing such a rare and beautiful piece with idle thoughts: let me say right off that Stevenson’s reminder that “true success is to labor” is and has and always will ring true in my ears and in my heart. In fact, I only wish to add to the inherent sense and strength of that observation by pointing out a pitfall that may waylay the most stout-hearted but fool-hardy traveller, and that is in thinking that there may be such a thing as a journey with no destination at all. This is in all likelihood a dull nub of a point for me to make, but I know I’ve believed or spouted such gibberish (and worse!), and would gladly expunge the dried up excess of this mindless heresy from my person once and for all.

It is perhaps more accurate to say that the danger is in forgetting that there is such a thing as a destination, that it is intrinsically necessary for a journey to take place, and that to be without one would be like having a compass but no magnetic north. For the one points always toward the other; and without the other, there’s no cause to bring the one about in the first place. It would be like saying that a person may eat without digesting—vomiting being the forceful interruption of digestion—or to live without ever succumbing to Death. In fact, the heretical nonsensical desire of which I speak is a sort of lusting after immortality, or existence without growth. It is truly a heresy, which is a claim that overemphasizes one truth at the expense of other truths, both in that it is manifestly false and in that it leads to other falsehoods. It is seeking a means without an end, which isn’t seeking at all. It is a malaise upon the soul; it could be called sloth. It is worse than idleness; it is closer to idolatry.

For in the sticky clutches of the Lotus eaters, there can be no pursuit of anything at all; there can be no pursuit. The Self is the only object which is viewed, toyed with lazily, by “doting fingers of prurient philosophies pinched and poked,” an obsession festering into an addiction, which “does not recognize anything as absolute and leaves as the ultimate measure only the measure of each one and his desires,” devolving into despair. I have cast off the dark cloak of Meaninglessness: let its sparse and ragged threads dissipate on the rocks. To travel hopefully is to believe that one may arrive; a summer without end is a dreadful drain, and leisure cannot be enjoyed except it alternate with work. Life is indeed a journey, a “search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.” I travel hopefully because we were promised, on good authority, that those who seek, find; to arrive must therefore be to find, Goodness, Beauty, Truth.

A strange thought occurred to me tonight, and I can’t get to sleep until I tease it out to its logical conclusion. The whole thing started when I said to myself: “After all, I do not even know where I go when I sleep!”  Now that’s a queer statement indeed: for it is clear to me that it is both true and untrue, and perhaps deeply confused. It is untrue in what is the easiest sense to grasp: that intellectually, by logical inference, I observe other human beings—my wife, say—fall asleep, then wake up, never for a moment ceasing to be herself all the while. In fact, it quite often happens that, when I’m in her sleeping presence, I am simply overwhelmed with love for her, as if she appeared to me even more intensely herself while asleep (and thus, more intensely to be cherished =). So in that respect, my claim of ignorance is untrue; I know in this sense that I remain wherever I happen to be when I sleep.

But there’s another sense in which it is undeniably true that I do not know where I go when I sleep. In this sense, the truth turns on what I mean by “I” as opposed to my material body. I do not mean, in this case, my soul as “I”, as if I worried that my soul wandered unbeknownst to me while I slumber—this hypothetical falls under the same criteria as my material body: because of what we call the psychosomatic union, it follows that my soul remains united with my body so long as I live (barring miraculous exceptions, which aren’t so much breaking the rule as side-stepping it altogether). No, what I mean is something more basically physiological: the “I” that exists via consciousness. In other words, the part of me that can think consciously with grace and thanks to my highly functioning cerebral cortex. Now this “I” certainly does disappear while I sleep. I have absolutely no idea where it might go, except by comparison to similar situations of unconsciousness: anyone who has been knocked out, even for only a few seconds, will know this perhaps even more acutely than from our regular nocturnal bouts of unconsciousness.

But a lapse in consciousness, be it naturally occurring, self-inflicted, or the result of a vicious knock on the noggin, does not a complete absence make. The truth of my original claim in this limited I-consciousness sense doesn’t negate the certainty of the sense in which it is untrue in the limited I-material-body sense. Depending on the sense of “I”, my claim is both true and untrue. Not too helpful.  That seeming contradiction bothered me right away, no sooner than I said those words to myself, and it dawned on me that I’m probably just confused about the nature of “I”, which is surely a mystery in the older, liturgical sense of the word, literally meaning ‘that which surpasseth human understanding.’

If I had to pick which point I’m most confused on, I would have to say that I’m all-too-inclined to think of “I” in the second sense outlined above: circumscribed by consciousness. This seems like a rational assumption to make, except that, like most assumptions accepted without thought, it is utterly irrational. It makes no sense in the slightest to say that I, the whole and comprehensive human being who is called Christopher John Yarsawich am exclusively the product of and to be wholly found within the firing of a select group of neurons in the frontal lobe of my brain. If that were true, then it would be utter nonsense to speak of my body, or my subconscious, or my superego: none of those things are by any stretch of the imagination the property of my waking brain’s epiphenomena (which is just a fancy word for “we don’t know how it works but it does”). If anything, the reverse is more nearly true; but neither is truly true. My reptilian brain and my dislocated index toe are just as much a part of “I” as my sense of self which bubbles up out of my superfrontal gyrus.

So where do I go when I sleep? I think I answered that question, but I can only see it when I stop assuming that I already know the answer. I really do remain where I am, my sense of self takes a break along with most the rest of my body’s parts and functions, and sleep is just another part of the total mystery called Life. The true/untrue paradox outlined above is itself a sign, like a post in the woods, pointing to the only perspective from which all of the parts can be seen as a whole: the summit of the mountain, Objective Truth. We ourselves are a Mystery to ourselves: only God knows us wholly.

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