Archive for June, 2014

A World Forever Breaking Down:
Upon Hearing the Dreams and Visions of Isaac the Blind
Fr. Larry


Lately as I drive alone here and there along the North Coast of San Diego in my VW Beetle, I have only one CD I play over and over again – Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Visions of Isaac the Blind as performed by The Kronos Quartet. It is music that is entirely earthy and ethereal at the same time. Sometimes it is quiet and sad; sometimes it is a dance of frenzied passion. Mystically it gives wonderful expression to a line from an apocryphal psalm: “No one sings as purely as those who are in deepest hell.”

And I find myself reflecting on something Golijov said of this beautiful and enigmatic work in an interview, “I have this image,” he said, “of my great grandfather who shared my bedroom when I was seven, I’d wake up and see him by the window praying with his phylacteries in the early light. I think of his always praying, or fixing things, his pockets full of screws. I remember thinking three of his children are dead; how does he still pray? Why does he still fix things?” The question, then, woven into the melodies of this astonishing composition is: “Why this task? Repairing a world forever breaking down?”

My own struggle with Golijov’s question is one of the big reasons I have not blogged for such a long time. Trying to revitalize a mission church requires an enormous amount of energy, energy that as an old man I don’t always have, so that is certainly a factor, but being a work of love it is not as significant a hindrance as sheer discouragement with those who have it within their power to do so much good, but act instead out of so much selfish ambition and blind self-will — or as with the Democrats so little courage or passion.

How is it I have wondered, that Republicans were able to sing Amazing Grace as they gathered to consider how to use the threat of a government shutdown, no idle threat it turns out, to remove the Health Reform Law from the books. It has to be the epitome of cruel irony when people of wealth and power take a Christian hymn, written by a repentant trafficker of African slaves, meant by him to inspire hope, compassion and astonishment at the generous goodness of God, and use it as cabal music – “pep music” for a meeting to scheme against the millions who have no access to medical care. If there are people who know of a better way, by which I do not mean a more self-serving way, to provide quality medical care to every sick or injured man, woman and child among us – let’s go for it. But, to appropriate the words of the evil Vinzzini in The Princes Bride, to say in the name of the holy, “Cut the rope!” is, as Vinzzini is also fond of repeating, “Inconceivable!” Of course Iago tells Vinzzini that he doesn’t think Vinzzini really knows what that word means – perhaps I don’t either.

U.S. Congressional Representative Stephen Fincher in explaining why he wanted to dramatically reduce funding for The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (food stamps) rather disingenuously argued: “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.” Poor Mr. Fincher must feel himself caught in a terrible and painful bind. More than most of us Fincher is, as a Congressional Representative, “Washington.” According to his tangled logic he is both the robber and the robbed. Actually, Fincher is not all that much against “Washington,” by which I assume he means the duly elected government of the United States of America, “taking money from people in the country to give to others in the country.” Stephen Fincher is in fact the second largest recipient of Farm Subsidies in the history of the State of Tennessee – “Inconceivable!”

With only a slight modification I agree emphatically with Fincher’s statement. I believe unequivocally that it is not only the “role” but a natural moral imperative of citizens, of Christians, of humanity to take care of each other – generously and compassionately. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and disabled, sheltering the dispossessed is nothing less for the secular humanist than a definitive mark of what it means to truly be human, and for those of us consecrated to the spiritual path of a religious life and faith, it is indicative of what it means to consecrate one’s heart to God. Five billion dollars was cut from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program. For a family of four participating in the program this means twenty-one fewer meals per month. It increases the food insecurity (there’s a nice euphemism) of 22,000,000 children and 9,000,000 elderly persons, and will insure that many veterans and their families will, at times, just have to go hungry. “Inconceivable!” And inconceivable that President Obama would sign a farm bill into legislation requiring further cuts. I guess it could be worse. We could live in Afghanistan or Pakistan with American drones blasting the hell out of our little children. But I digress – I guess.

Fincher further justified his economic violence against the poor and the working poor with a Biblical quotation – II Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you,” writes Saint Paul, “we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Fincher, who claims to be Christian, has been derided for his misuse of Scripture, his appalling and seeming deliberate misunderstanding of the Bible, and his egregious theology. But it seems to me that there is more at stake here than a simple misunderstanding of a Biblical text – there is something wicked. Using the word of divine goodness to justify the evil of making life difficult for someone vulnerable – “Inconceivable!”

Between 2009 and 2012 significant gains were made in the U.S. economy. The problem is that 95% of these economic gains went to the richest 1% of the population. Globally, the 85 wealthiest people in the world possess the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3,500,000,000. The wealth of the richest 1% of the people in the world is now 65 times the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. The trouble with this is not simply that some people have, materially speaking, a little higher quality of life than others – some folks drink beer while others drink champagne, some divide their time between three or four mansions and some live in a three bedroom two bath condo, or that some drive a Prius and others a Tesela, or that some send their sons and daughters to Harvard and others to the nearest Community College or State University, but that many are unable to read even if someone were to give them a book, walk all day to find drinking water, and live and die like stray dogs or starving cats on the street. Oh well, if they complain there is no bread then in the words of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake.” “Inconceivable.”

Now here I go with that very flow of consciousness that carries me into the soul battering rapids. The thing about Marie Antoinette leads me into thinking about a comment of the same genre Barbara Bush once made. After touring the Astrodome in Houston, Texas which had been set up to shelter the victims of Hurricane Katrina; after walking through the sea of cots set up for the suffering; for people who had lost, family, homes, jobs, much loved pets, all their possessions, and any sense of normal security Barbara’s best response was that since they were underprivileged to begin with “this was working out very well for them.” It shows that same thinking, that same mentality, that same lack of either sympathy or empathy as another one of her infamous observations. Barbara indicated in another interview that she didn’t pay much attention to the news reports on the war in Iraq. “Why,” she asked on this occasion should she “waste her beautiful mind thinking about things like body bags and death counts.” “Inconceivable.”

What has always been self-evident is that poverty and powerlessness tend to have a dehumanizing effect on anyone without a strong spiritual grip. What is not so obvious, but increasingly borne out by psychological research, is that money and power are also dehumanizing. Without a grasp on the life of the spirit, money and power suck one into the insanity of narcissism. Not long ago most of the major news sources reported the story of the seventeen year-old boy who killed four people, and I think injured two others, in a drunken car crash. He was sentenced at the time to a $450,000 a year rehabilitation center as part of his ten year probation – no jail time. A defense psychologist had testified the boy (Isn’t it interesting that a female rape victim who is sixteen or seventeen is a “woman” but a male whose reckless narcissistic behavior kills innocents is a boy?) was suffering from “affluenza.” His privileged and pampered up bring, it was argued, left him with a sense of entitlement that impaired his judgment as shown by the fact this his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit and that he was driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone. “Inconceivable!”

Why this task then, this labor of, “Forever repairing a world breaking down?” I suppose everyone has to answer this question in his or her own way. For myself I can only say that in spite of the discouragement it is for the same reason that Golijov’s great grandfather was not only always repairing things but also praying in the early light of morning. It has something to do with the mysterious desire, that acknowledged or unacknowledged, exists in all humanity for intimate communion, for union, with God; for that experience of God C.S. Lewis once described “as immediate as the taste of color.”

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