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National Poetry Month - Geoffrey G. O'Brien and A. R. Ammons

Today, I have two poetry suggestions. The first--and a poet who I'll be writing about in a forthcoming column--is Geoffrey G. O'Brien, whose People on Sunday came out from Wave Books in 2013. 

O'Brien is a formalist, and we tend to associate formalism with conservatism. But O'Brien uses his regular verse forms--regular, stately seeming quatrains; clipped tercets--for radical ends. O'Brien has been associated with the Occupy Movement, and his collection expresses anger at the ceaseless commodification and endless suffering created by our market economy. Here is the opening to "At the Edge of the Bed":

No one yet has ever chosen misery
Those that seem to have done so
Haven’t any more than they have
Chosen this mist or is it rain

We would first have to own ourselves
Then give up on them entirely
Every day rather than once
And for all …

Several of O'Brien's concerns are expressed here: the sense that, in our current moment, the self is something that is bought and sold, that individual agency has been lost, if not given away. The collection's title indicates O'Brien's interest in what he has elsewhere called "desperate lesiure"--the enforced leisure of weekends and holidays that serves to distract us from a more radical rethinking of the relationship between labor and life. In “Thanatopsis,” O’Brien writes that “we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days,” and his poetry seeks to break out of this bind, to imagine, through collective and creative action, a new and less exploitative world.

The second poet I want to recommend is from an older generation--he passed away in 2001--and his writing expresses a very different aesthetic and spiritual sensibility. A. R. Ammons is an Emersonian: he is interested in the soul, in nature, and in the relation between the two. At the 2013 Commonweal Lecture in March, Christian Wiman quoted from Ammons's "The City Limits," and I'll pay it forward by offering the poem in full. It's a wonderful and clear expression of Ammons's particular brand of poetic and sensual (and spiritual) ecstasy:

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

There is so much to marvel at in this that I'll simply let it stand and close by linking to another, seasonally appropriate poem: "Easter Morning." In it, Ammons opens by meditating on regret, which he memorably calls "a life that did not become," and closes with a vision of the "dance sacred as the sap in / the trees" created by two birds in flight. The ending is as brilliant a rendering of the consolations of form, of the comfort and meaning we derive from the patterns we find amidst suffering, as you'll ever find. You should read the whole thing.

Maureen Dowd Has Opinions About John Paul II

Listen up, everyone, because Maureen Dowd has some serious thoughts about this weekend's big double canonization. You'll find them in her April 23 column: "A Saint, He Ain't" (which, fortuitously, was published just after Alex Pareene's latest blog post detailing "Why Friedman, Brooks, and Dowd Must Go"). It's got all of that trademark Dowd style, which is what makes it so darn awful.

The trouble with Dowd's column is not that she is (as you have probably guessed) critical of the decision to canonize John Paul II. The trouble is that she's writing about it the way she writes about everything else: analysis via insult. Shallow thinking applied to serious subjects is her metier. It's bad enough when her topic is politics -- Pareene's latest post reminds readers of the time she turned a misquotation of John Kerry into a meme, and it is depressing to contemplate just how prominently her smart-alecky-potshot approach figured in the 2004 presidential campaign.

But Dowd's cute turns of phrase and offhand way with facts are particularly painful when she turns to writing about the church, as she does now and then, from her not-that-I-care-but-you-should-care-what-I-think perspective -- and I find her shallow arguments especially irritating when I more or less agree with her basic conclusions.

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Paul Krugman reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Piketty discusses at length the lecture that the scoundrel Vautrin gives to Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot, whose gist is that a most successful career could not possibly deliver more than a fraction of the wealth Rastignac could acquire at a stroke by marrying a rich man’s daughter.[...] You might be tempted to say that modern society is nothing like that. In fact, however, both capital income and inherited wealth, though less important than they were in the Belle Époque, are still powerful drivers of inequality—and their importance is growing. In France, Piketty shows, the inherited share of total wealth dropped sharply during the era of wars and postwar fast growth; circa 1970 it was less than 50 percent. But it’s now back up to 70 percent, and rising. Correspondingly, there has been a fall and then a rise in the importance of inheritance in conferring elite status: the living standard of the top one percent of heirs fell below that of the top one percent of earners between 1910 and 1950, but began rising again after 1970. It’s not all the way back to Rastignac levels, but once again it’s generally more valuable to have the right parents (or to marry into having the right in-laws) than to have the right job.

The New York Times reports that Canada's median income is now at least as high as ours:

Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it. Median income in Canada pulled into a tie with median United States income in 2010 and has most likely surpassed it since then. Median incomes in Western European countries still trail those in the United States, but the gap in several — including Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden — is much smaller than it was a decade ago.[...] The struggles of the poor in the United States are even starker than those of the middle class. A family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution in this country makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.

Louis Menand reviews a new biography of John Updike in the New Yorker:

Updike’s justifications for scoffing and balking at liberal causes were weak. “I distrusted orthodoxies, especially orthodoxies of dissent,” he pleaded in “Self-Consciousness,” which is just a knee-jerk response to knee-jerkers.[...] Updike was not, of course, a racist, a sexist, or a militarist. He was reacting to what he saw as an attitude, but he reacted with another attitude. Contrariness is not a politics.

But contrariness is a literary motivation. Updike told his mother that he abandoned New York and his staff position at The New Yorker partly because he didn’t want to become “an elegant hack.” Updike was not a mere word processor. He had a cultural project. He wanted to rescue serious fiction from what he saw as a doctrinaire rejection of middle-class life and an apocalyptic interpretation of modern history.

Here--let us hold your jacket

One of the curiosities and conundrums of the Ukraine situation is the heated rhetoric from the West along with the lack of interest in really doing anything, except by the U.S., which contributes the largest proportion of NATO's budget (80 percent) while European countries have reduced their military budgets.

Here is the Economist, foremost British opinion magazine, inviting us to take charge: "That is why the West needs to show Mr Putin that further action will be costly. So far, its rhetoric has marched far ahead of its willingness to act—only adding to the aura of weakness. Not enough is at stake in Ukraine to risk war with a nuclear-armed Russia. And European voters will not put up with gas shortages, so an embargo is not plausible. But the West has other cards to play. One is military. NATO should announce that it will hold exercises in central and eastern Europe, strengthen air and cyber defences there and immediately send some troops, missiles and aircraft to the Baltics and Poland. NATO members should pledge to increase military spending."

Going to war over Ukraine is in no one's interest. Yet, as long as the EU, including Britain, offers to hold our coat and stand back, diplomacy and sanctions, such as they are, will be ineffective.

College, receding from reach

One of our most-read stories in recent weeks has been Hollis Phelps’s piece on student loan debt -- the total of which nationwide now surpasses $1 trillion (second only to home mortgage debt), with the average student owing close to $30,000 on graduation. As Hollis notes, a big reason for that is that in real dollars the cost of attending a four-year school has more than tripled in thirty years, while family incomes have stagnated. Commencement is a rite of passage closely associated with this time of year, but for many new college grads and rising freshmen (along with their families) it’s now accompanied by the jolting reminder of just how much is owed or will need to be financed.

During a recent college visit with my son, the voluble and eminently capable tour guide was ultimately asked a general question about financial aid. She prefaced her general response with uncharacteristic bloodlessness: “We are a private, high-priced liberal arts college.” Commend her for being forthright, but the framing—no doubt formulated and tested by the administration—hints at what in a different context might be called multitudes: some people can afford this school, but it may be unaffordable for you; we can help arrange a financial aid package that relies in no small part on loans, but you might be better off applying to a public university.

Of course, paying even for a public, “low-priced” college presents, for many people, a financial burden. A big reason is that public schools are themselves becoming more private in terms of how their operations are funded. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ latest annual report, states are covering less and less of the costs they used to, with students now on average providing almost 50 percent of what’s known as educational revenue—the money that goes to teaching and administration; in some states, students cover as much as 85 percent of those costs. Jordan Weissman at Moneybox:

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Nienstedt deposed.


On April 2, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis was deposed by attorney Jeff Anderson as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was molested by a priest in the 1970s. The plaintiff alleges that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with the Diocese of Winona, created a public nuisance by failing to disclose information about clerics accused of sexual abuse. At a press conference this afternoon, Anderson released a slightly redacted transcript of the deposition. The archdiocese posted the transcript and full video to its website, noting that Anderson did not ask any questions about the abuse allegations that occasioned the deposition.

The wide-ranging and often contentious conversation reveals an archbishop who felt comfortable delegating authority to deal with the abuse crisis--even though he's "a hands-on person"--and who still believes that he and his delegates have done a good job handling the problem. According to Nienstedt's sworn testimony, one of those delegates recommended that conversations regarding accused priests shouldn't be put in writing because they could be discovered in litigation.

"You followed his advice, didn't you?" Anderson asked the archbishop.

"In terms of?"

"Not putting things into writing."

"Yes," Nienstedt replied.

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New issue now live

Our Spring Books issue is now live on the website. Robert K. Landers writes on Joyce Carol Oates and "pathography"; Leslie Woodcock Tentler looks at John Cornwell's "secret history of confession," The Dark Box; and John F. Haught considers cosmology's new focus on "multiverses." Also, Rita Ferrone writes on the drop in adult baptisms and communions and the fate of the RCIA, while Colleen Gibson asks: How do you tell a vocation director you're scared the life you feel called to may be dying? Find the full table of contents here

Rooting for Boston, and Team MR8

I'm not usually one to get swept up in marathon excitement, but this year is an exception, for obvious reasons. It seems appropriate that Marathon Day in Boston falls on Easter Monday, so more of us around the country can share in that local holiday and root for the city.

I'm especially invested, albeit from a distance, because my sister-in-law is running with Team MR8, a group of runners that honors the memory of eight-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in last year's bombing. They've raised over $1 million for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation, created in Martin's memory to "honor Martin's message of 'No more hurting people - peace' by investing in education, athletics and community." (Donate here!)

Diane is quoted in this article in the National Catholic Register about MR8 and the Richard family, about whom she says, "Their faith is utterly amazing." I've been inspired by their strength in the year since the tragedy, and I will be praying for them today.

I'm hoping we'll get a local update from Luke Hill. Until then, stay strong, Boston, and godspeed, Team MR8!

Resurrection: cosmic, communal; Hopkins, Karr

For Easter, here are two poems, inspired again by the Christian Wiman interview. The first, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” is, I would argue, neither primarily about Incarnation or about Crucifixion but instead about the cosmic relevance of the Resurrection. It also reminds me of the theology of Maximus the Confessor. The second, Mary Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection,” was one that Wiman himself mentioned in the interview as a poem about the Resurrection. Karr’s poem reminds me of the communal relevance of the Resurrection. And thus, it reminds me of the theology of Augustine of Hippo. Both, of course, are deeply Pauline (cf. Rom. 8 and 1 Cor. 12, among many others, of course)

Be sure to check out Karr’s poem “The Devil’s Delusion” and Wiman’s  poem “Witness” in the latest print issue of Commonweal.

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Happy are those who dwell in your house. [Ps 83:5]... They will possess the heavenly Jerusalem without being confined, without being pressed, without boundaries dividing them from each other. All will possess it, and each will possess the whole....

And what will they do there? After all, the mother of all human activities is necessity... Tell me what they will do there since I don’t see any needs that would move me to act. That I am now speaking and preaching is out of necessity. Do you think there will be preaching there, the kind that teaches the ignorant and reminds the forgetful? Will the Gospel be recited there where the very Word of God is being contemplated? The Psalmist whose desires and sighs express our desires and sighs has told us what they will have in that sighed-for homeland: Blessed are they who dwell in your house; well, then, let him tell us what they will do there: For ever will they praise you. Our whole employment then will be an unfailing Alleluia. [Hoc erit totum negotium nostrum, sine defectu Alleluia.]

And don’t think that you will get tired of it, as happens now if you do it for a long while until some need calls you from this joy.... When death has been swallowed up in victory, when this mortal has put on immortality, and this corruptible has put on incorruption, no one will say, “I’ve been standing so long!” No one will say, “I’ve been fasting so long!” No one will say, “I’ve been keeping vigil so long!” There will be great steadiness there, and the very immortality of our body will be caught up in the contemplation of God. If the word I am giving to you can keep your frail flesh standing for so long, what will that joy do! How it will change us! For we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2). If we shall be like him, how shall we grow weak? To what could we be turned aside? Don’t worry, then: the praise of God, the love of God, will not cloy us. If your love were to fail, your praise would fail. But if your love will be eternal because that beauty will never cloy [insatiabilis pulchritudo], don’t be afraid that you will not be able always to praise the one whom you will be able to love always.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; for ever will they praise you. Let us desire this life. (Augustine, In Ps 83, 8; PL 37:1061-63)


These holy days that are celebrated after the resurrection of the Lord symbolize the future life after our resurrection. Just as the days of Lent before Easter symbolized the labor and troubles of this mortal life, so these happy days symbolize the future life when we will reign with the Lord. The life symbolized by the forty days before Easter is the life we have now; the life which is symbolized by the fifty days after the resurrection of the Lord we do not yet have; we hope for it, and in our hope love it, and in that love the God who promised it is praised, and these praises are our Alleluia. For what does “Alleluia” mean? It is a Hebrew word, and it means “Praise God.” Allelu is “Praise”, and Ia is “God”. When we praise God with our Alleluia, we are stirring each other to the praise of God.  With hearts more in tune than the strings of a lute, we praise God, sing Alleluia. (Sermon 243, 8; PL 38, 1147)

The Christic Imagination – VI

"Then the other disciple, who had arrived at the tomb first, also went in. And he saw and believed."

Fourteen hundred years later an English woman, Julian of Norwich, pondered the meaning of what she had seen years before during a night of prolonged sufferings. She concluded her account in her book, The Shewings, with these words:

And I saw full surely that ere God made us he loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be. And in this love he hath done all his works; and in this love he hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting.

In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein he made us was in him without beginning. And all this shall we see in God without end.

Easter blessings Urbi et Orbi!


The Christic Imagination – V

The prayer at the Easter Vigil that follows upon the seventh reading (from the Prophet Ezekiel):

O God of unchanging power and eternal light, may the whole world know and see that what was cast down is raised up, what had become old is made new, and all things are restored to integrity through Christ, just as by him they came into being. Who lives and reigns forever and ever.


“And you, Lord God, compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and most merciful, and true” (Ps 85:15)–because hanging on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Whom did he pray? For whom did he pray? Who was it that prayed? Where did he pray? The Son prayed his Father; the one crucified prayed for the wicked; amid all those insults not just of the words but of the death inflicted; hanging on the cross as if he was stretching out his hands in order to pray for them, so that his prayer might be directed as incense in his Father’s sight and the lifting up of his hands be like an evening sacrifice (Ps 140:2). “Long-suffering, and most merciful, and true.” (EnPs 85, 20; PL 37, 1096)


No part of Christian faith is more contradicted than the resurrection of the flesh. To meet such a denier, he who was born to be a sign of contradiction (see Lk 2:34) raised his own flesh, and he who could have so healed his members that their wounds would not appear preserved the scars on his body in order to heal the wound of the heart’s doubt.  But there is nothing in the Christian faith that is so vehemently, so persistently, so obstinately and contentiously opposed as its faith in the resurrection of the flesh. Many Gentile philosophers debated at length about the immortality of the soul and in many and varied books they have left arguments that the human soul is immortal. But when it came to the resurrection of the flesh, they did not waver but quite openly denied it, arguing that it is impossible for this earthly flesh to ascend into heaven. (EnPs 88[89]/2, 5; PL 37, 1134)


Augustine, after speaking about the warfare between the flesh and the spirit:

I want the whole to be healed, because I am the whole. I don’t want my flesh to be eternally separated from me, like something foreign; I want it to be entirely healed with me. If you do not want this, I don’t know what you think of the flesh; I guess you think it comes from some unknown place, as if from an enemy nation. That’s false; its heretical; its blasphemous. Mind and flesh have a single artisan. When he created man, he made them both, joined them both; he subjected the flesh to the soul and the soul to himself. (Augustine, Sermon 30, 4)

The Christic Imagination – IV

There is the cryptic article of the Apostles Creed: "He descended into hell."

There are the enigmatic and controverted verses of Scripture: "For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water" (1 Peter 3:18–20).

Little more.

Over the centuries Holy Saturday had contracted liturgically, leaving little breathing space between the desolation of Good Friday and the exuberant joy of Easter. Within living memory of some (many?) who read this blog, the Easter Vigil was celebrated Holy Saturday morning, with the risen Lord proclaimed amid song and tears of joy at noon of Saturday.

Pius XII's restoration of the full scope of the Triduum happily returned Holy Saturday to its proper place and proportion. But what is that place?

One suggestion is that it is a time of contemplative wonder mixed with dread. Perhaps what I am gesturing towards finds expression in that magnificent ancient homily, read at this day's Office of Readings/Tenebrae Service:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

The Christic Imagination - III

All of the recent posts on the Triduum and Anthony Domestico’s interview with Christian Wiman have brought me back to one of my favorite living poets, Geoffrey Hill. In the interview with Wiman, Domestico classifies two types of Christian poets: those who emphasize the incarnation and those who emphasize the crucifixion. In the second camp, Domestico quite rightly places Hill. And so I thought dotCommonweal readers would be interested in two of Hill’s poems. “Canticle for Good Friday” comes from his first collection For the Unfallen (1960) and “LACHRIMAE ANTIQUAE NOVAE” comes from Tenebrae (1978). Hill’s Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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St. Cecilia's in Detroit: Patron Saint of Basketball

Paul Wachter has a lovely piece on Grantland about "The Saint":

“If you were a player in Michigan, you had to play at St. Cecilia,” said Earl “The Twirl” Cureton, a Detroit native who won two NBA championships with the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets in a professional career spanning from 1980 to 1997. But even after he’d made the NBA, Cureton returned each summer to St. Cecilia’s to play in the church gym’s pro-am league.

“It didn’t matter what you had done that season in the league,” he said. “You still had to prove yourself back at the Saint.”

The rise of St. Cecilia's basketball program began during the 1967 riots when the parochial school's athletic director, Samuel Washington, Sr., opened the gym so his children and their friends could be safe.  Wachter writes about both the legendary players and games at St. Cecilia's, and the distinctively Catholic ethos that allowed basketball to flourish at "The Saint".

Unobligated generosity

[In Book 13 of his De Trintate, Augustine addressed the theme of our redemption by Christ. He introduces the subject by asking a question that may have been asked in every generation–it is still being asked today. As the following excerpt indicates, he was concerned to eliminate from the beginning the misunderstanding that has plagued some presentations of the atonement and I once heard summarized in these terms: “God was so alienated from sinful human beings that it required the blood-sacrifice of his Son before he could forgive them.” As always Augustine approached the subject on the basis of Scriptural teachings that he accepted as posing the real terms of the question.]

Some people say, “Did God have no other way to free human beings from this wretched mortal condition than that he should want his only begotten Son, God co-eternal with himself, to become man, to take on human soul and flesh, to be made mortal, and to suffer death?” To refute them, it is not enough to assert that this way by which God deigned to free us through “the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) is good and befits the divine dignity; we must also show, not that no other way was possible to God, since all things are equally subject to his power, but that there was not and ned not have been any way more fitting for healing our wretchedness.

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The Christic Imagination - II

In her reflection on the Good Friday Liturgy Rita Ferrone writes:

The choice of John’s Passion is pivotal. Jesus reigns from the cross. His hour of glory is on the cross, for it is not simply an instrument of his humiliation and suffering but the access point of life and salvation for those who believe.

Bach's faith-filled imagination sublimely proclaims this truth in the majestic opening chorus of his Saint John's Passion, "Herr, unser Herrscher:"

The hammer-like repetition of "Herr, Herr, Herr" and the sinuous melodic line that follows resounds both plaintive and triumphant.

Lord, our sovereign Lord, your glory reigns in every land. Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are ever glorified, even in the most profound humiliation.



National Poetry Month - Mary Szybist

I could take the easy way out and tell you to read Christian Wiman, whose words are currently featured in the magazine. But instead I'm going to suggest Mary Szybist, whose 2013 collection Incarnadine won the National Book Award.

In Incarnadine, Szybist returns again and again to the Annunciation--or, it might be more accurate to say that she returns to "the annunciations," since she's interested not in a singular incursion of the eternal into the temporal but in an intersection that is more habitual. Think of Eliot's Four Quartets. There, Eliot describes epiphanic moments as "hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses," and goes on to claim that "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." For Szybist, the hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Annunciation, and this revision hints at some of the collection's major themes: motherood; the female body; the bewilderment and ecstasy of being called by love.

Like Wiman, Szybist is haunted by transcendence: yearning for something beyond her that can't be articulated completely but must be brokenly, desperately gestured towards. Take these lines from "Yet Not Consumed":

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The Liturgies of the Triduum

It’s Holy Thursday. The Paschal Triduum is about to begin this evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. For Catholics these are our “high holy days,” a single celebration of the Paschal Mystery spread out over three days, the center and high point of which is the Easter Vigil.

How important is it to get to the three great Triduum liturgies? For a lot of Catholics, it’s getting harder and harder, because of work.

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