“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The King of the Birds and the Queen of the Universe

Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day we remember that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. It is also the day on which Flannery O'Connor, the great Southern Catholic writer, was born 90 years ago. Thus, it's a great day to dust off your copy of Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and read her essay, "The King of the Birds." It seems like it's about peacocks, but I think it's about the Incarnation.

Simply put, Flannery O'Connor was utterly captivated by the sight of a peacock. Awestruck, mystified, delighted, she chose to raise them in the dozens on her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. At one point, she had forty (a very theologically rich number). Just imagine what that would be like: Exploding fireworks or shimmering cascades of green, teal, cobalt, and gold everywhere you look. And yes, it would be loud. O'Connor describes this for us in the essay:
Frequently the cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me, it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.
Likewise, she describes the various reactions that the sight of a peacock elicits. A man who was treated to a perfect display merely commented on the bird's long, ugly legs. An old woman disliked them so much that she compelled her grandson to slaughter and eat them. But the childlikethe actually young and the spiritually socannot help but gape and enjoy. This is the key to her point: one's reaction to the sound or sight of a peacock corresponds to the state of his or her soul. She does not say this plainly, but this is what I take from it; and it reminds me to allow awe and wonder to come pouring in every chance I get. It reminds me to become like a child if I wish to enter the Kingdom of God. There's no better invitation to be amazed and humbled than today, when the Word became flesh.

We must not be caught emulating the ambivalent peahen, who, as O'Connor describes, fails to appreciate the arching splendor before her, "diligently searching the ground as if any bug in the grass were of more importance than the unfurled map of the universe which floats nearby." C.S. Lewis made this same point in "The Weight of Glory":
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
A failure of imagination is a pitiful excuse. We must train ourselves to look upto appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty wherever we find it, especially when it is right in front of us.

In the Christian tradition, the peacock represents more than one astonishing reality: the Resurrection, eternal life, the communion of saints/the Church. I would like to add the Incarnation as another feather in the cap. (According to five seconds of Googling, I'm not the first person to think of this as demonstrated in the above tapestry and here.) The colors are so reminiscent of the Archangel Gabriel icon which I had the privilege of writing (so much more than painting!) a few years ago. I like to imagine that the Blessed Virgin looked on God's resplendent messenger and saw something similar to a peacock's tail. She was, after all, being offered the whole Paschal Mystery. Surely the Annunciation was dazzlingly beautiful, as so many artists have ventured, filling their canvases with symbols and drama. Perhaps there was even a glimpse of her crown of glory, foreshadowed by the beast's majestic crest, capping off her eternal legacy as Queen of the Universe. And because of her fiat, the peacock's cosmic map is now emblazoned on her veil.


Recently, I heard a talk which pointed out that Flannery O'Connor's fiction is itself like a peacock: it is a bolt from the bluea shocking, unaccountable call to deeper conversion. If you'd like perfect fodder for meditation in these last few days of Lent, read her short story, "Parker's Back," and let the Incarnate Word be tattooed on your soul in time for His Resurrection.

P.S. This is what I was talking about at the end of my owl post last year. Now you know.

Here's a lovely piece from Carrots for Michaelmas about Annunciation iconography. Such good points!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Heaven as Eternal After Party: Inspiration in the Trenches

Half of my life ago, all I wanted was to be on Saturday Night Live. While vacationing with my family, I spent my babysitting money on a coffee-table book about the first twenty years of SNL which I brought with me on the bus every single day of junior high. I looked at it so much that all the pages fell out as I committed each character and skit to memory. My ninth-grade English teacher prompted us to write a brief essay on who we would like to meet most, living or dead, and I chose Lorne Michaels. He was my favorite "creator," after all. I wanted him to make me in his comedic image.

Much has changed since then. I became a serious Catholic instead of a serious comedian (not that the two are mutually exclusive). I still love finding SNL clips posted on Facebook by friends and family, but I no longer plan my entire weekend around this sound. Recently, I happened upon Jimmy Fallon's recap of the 40th Anniversary Special, and it inspired this post. Do watch the whole thing. It's delightful:

Look at Jimmy's face as he tells this story. It glows as if he is beholding the Beatific Vision in his mind's eye. Listen to the ecstatic glee in his voice. He can hardly contain himself as he recounts this streaming parade of celebrities, laughing, and jamming, and being together on the stage. He just lived my teenage dream, and dubbed it, "Untoppable." I said aloud to my computer screen, "This is what Heaven will be like."

I needed that at this point in Lent, just as we need the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday to remind us what all the hardship is for.

Lent is always much more difficult than I plan for it to be. I line up my sacrifices, make my resolutions, struggle to keep them. Meanwhile, I'm met with dozens of "temporal inadequacies" (as a friend recently called them) throughout each of the forty days. They always unfold in a series of small inconveniences, spaced out just enough that I don't completely despair but frequent enough that I lose my sense of direction. Where am I going? What is the point? I remember last year at this time, Screwtape & Co. had tons of fun making me late to things. For instance, I would be driving the same route which, in Ordinary Time, had predictable lights that I knew and depended on as I cruised through the downtown. But one Lenten day, they all conspired and fell into anarchy. Red. Red. Red. Red. Red. I could feel the fiery reflection on my face and I succumbed to rage. I was about to shout out a series of expletives when I suddenly shifted to, "I JUST WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN!!!"

Right. That's what it's all about: making it to the After Party, the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. There the celebrity status will be of a different kind. The people will be supremely talented, but in virtue above all. Perhaps the elect are treated to a Dantesque tour of Paradise leading up to the banquet. It'll be like Jimmy Fallon encountering Jack Nicholson and Cheri O'Teri, but instead John Paul II and Teresa of Avila. (Bill Murray will overlap. I'm on it.)

Imagine the same scene that Jimmy Fallon described but with a different cast: not Princefloating onto the stage, but the Kingfloating onto the altar, addressing the crowd, "Dearly Inebriated...", those words reminding you of the Anima Christi prayer: "Blood of Christ, inebriate me." You look down into your brimming cup and think, "Yes. They have saved the best wine for last."

Honestly, I cannot imagine anything better than a Solemn High Mass mixed with a wedding feast attended by many millions of my closest friends for all eternity. And, very happily, we don't even have to wait until we're dead. We can get a backstage pass to the party now. That is what holiness is, as C.S. Lewis so charmingly put it when he described the "new men":
Already the new men are dotted here and there all over the earth. Some, as I have admitted, are still hardly recognisable: but others can be recognised. Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours: stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off. They are, I say, recognisable; but you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. [...] They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect (but how should I know?) that they recognise one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of colour, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.
From a secular perspective, nearly that whole paragraph could be used to describe celebritythe "It" Factor. There have been times in history when the celebrities and the saints were the same people. The potential for that is still very real, perhaps less within the minds of the fans than within the hearts of the artists, but I would love to see much more of both. Many celebrities do seem to be touched with divinity in some instances. I actually think Jimmy Fallon could be one of these "new men." He is so joyful and kind, hilarious and amazing. He's a fallen-away Catholic. Do you remember that NPR interview that he gave three years ago? He told Terry Gross that he wanted to be a priest. He described with great love the traditional Mass in all its virtues. Yes, he's fallenbut he can get up; he's awaybut he can come back.

Sometimes secular celebrities say or do very surprising and inspiring things. (I tend to gravitate towards this theme as evidenced here and here.) I just saw that Eric Clapton wrote a song to the Blessed Mother while he was in rehab, for example. Maybe that happened because some "Layla" fan repeatedly prayed rosaries for him. It's possible! What prayers and penances were spent on Bryan Ferry (of the British art rock band, "Roxy Music") to prompt this stunning, glorious piece of work?

My Lent has been filled with this video thanks to the friend who recommended it after giving a beautiful talk about mortification. It's a little taste of the After Partythe Marriage Supper of the Lambright here in time.  It is helping me to keep my eyes on the prize, and to keep the peace in the midst of so many temporal inadequacies. It also reminds me to be grateful for the gift of faith, and to pray earnestly for every name in Jimmy Fallon's litany of celebrities. You should do this, too: for the rest of Lent, light a candle each day for the conversion of some artist that you love. Your prayers can make all the differencebelieve that! And should you meet those souls in Heaven, jamming along with the entire Cloud of Witnesses, what satisfaction there will beforevermore!


Here's the post from Busted Halo in which I found the SNL recap clip: What Jimmy Fallon Can Teach Us This Lent. It's a good read.

Here's Stephen Colbert (with a real white beard!) talking about his Catholic faith in a recent interview.

Big news! More audio-recordings of C.S. Lewis have been recovered! Listen to him delivering what became Mere Christianity and weep for joy.

Finally, there is a new edition of Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World , an apocalyptic tale in which unity in Christ is contrasted with the purely-secular unity of a religion of humanity. Pope Francis loves it and you will, too!