Monday, November 28, 2011

The revised liturgy: medieval words, modern sexism

The bishops have spoken, or at least succumbed. This weekend American Catholics began saying new words at mass. Well, perhaps new is incorrect - the aim of the revised liturgy is to bring back older words that are closer to medieval Latin. In a time when the Catholic church has been rocked by scandals of almost Renaissance proportions, this move is supposed to make American parishioners feel more holy. It is also supposed to bring us in line with European-language liturgies, whose translations are closer to the medieval text.

Yesterday I went to the 10:30 mass at St. Michael's Catholic Community. The Bishop of Joliet, resplendent in purple robes and gold miter, processed medievally down the center aisle behind an honor guard of Knights of Columbus wearing feathery hats. When he greeted us with the customary "The Lord be with you," half of us responded "And also with you" while the other half said, medievally, "And with your spirit." By the end of mass, we had all caught on and were saying the revised words. I didn't feel especially holier. I did, however, feel greater kinship with European Catholics, who rarely attend mass.

Catholics sometimes reproach Protestants for acting as if the Holy Spirit stopped working with the church in the first century, after the New Testament books were written. Tradition, Catholics maintain, is the Spirit's continuing work in the church. Even the Spirit, however, has a bad century now and then, or at least a bad continent. Apparently the words he inspired the Western European church to use in the 11th century were superior to those he inspired the American church to use in the 20th century. So now instead of simple words like one in being and born, we're back to medieval words like consubstantial and incarnate; and instead of affirming our faith as part of the believing community ("We believe in one God ..."), we're back to medieval individualism ("I believe in one God"); and along with with our guilt-ridden medieval ancestors we can strike our breasts and confess that we have sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

And of course we are just as sexist as ever. More so, in fact. A medieval priest did indeed say "Pray, brothers" (orĂ¡te fratres), but not at every mass. More likely those words were spoken to brother priests at  concelebrated masses, not to male and female parishioners at typical parish masses. And the medieval creed did indeed affirm that Christ came down from heaven "for us men" (propter nos homines)Never mind that any 21st-century English-speaker hears that as "for us males," whereas the Latin means "for us humans." Why change good sexist texts that are already close to the Latin words, even if the meanings have completely changed?

Alas, as Fr. Nonomen lamented in Commonweal magazine, "the majority [of parishioners] won’t care. They will dutifully learn all the new responses and musical settings and generally remain unaware of the powerful changes this liturgical language is likely to work on the church their grandchildren will inherit." Or will not inherit, as more and more of us get tired of medievally resplendent bishops making excuses for bad decisions by incompetent men in high places, and quietly drift away.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Flunking Sainthood has to be the most entertaining introduction to spiritual disciplines ever written. For that matter, it may be the only entertaining book ever written in that genre. Never mind—it would take first place even if the field were crowded.

It's been out since November 1st, so I'm coming late to the party. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and then named it one of the ten best religion books of 2011. Emergent pastor and radio host Doug Pagitt interviewed Riess three times. On the Patheos website, Holly Welker wrote that "it's hard to imagine a religious memoir with wider appeal." Welker's review is excellent, if you want to know more about the book. Or hey, just Google "review Flunking Sainthood." Everybody's talking about it.

When her publisher asked her to spend a year reading and writing about spiritual classics, Riess upped the ante: she decided to supplement her reading with practice. She would choose a different spiritual discipline for each month of the year, and she would chronicle the results. Wonder what happened? Note the title.

Instead of commenting on what Riess wrote (click on some links in paragraph 2 above if that's what you want to know), I'd like to suggest different ways this book might be used.

First, of course, you could just sit down and read it. That won't take long unless, like me, you keep it in the bathroom and read it in multiple sittings. And maybe it's good to take it slowly—after all, it's about a whole year of Riess's life. It's so engrossing, though, that if you settle down in a comfortable chair and start reading, you might forget to eat, drink, or pay the bills until you've finished.

Then you might want to do your own experiment. You could pick out a dozen disciplines and investigate them through reading and practice, as Riess did. Or you could choose one or two of the practices that appeal to you and devote six months or a year to making them part of your life.

But the further I got into this book, the more I thought that it really needs to be read with friends. Do you already belong to a book group, a prayer group, a support group, a study group? Your group could read and discuss Flunking Sainthood all at once or—much better—read a chapter each month, try out the spiritual practice described, and meet to share your experiences (this will work especially well if you enjoy laughing). As Riess says in her powerfully personal Epilogue,
One of the main lessons I learned this year ... was that I was ... an idiot for trying so much of this by myself rather than in community. Spiritual practices help the individual, sure, but it takes a shtetl to raise a mensch. There's a particular kind of hubris in the DIY approach I took to all of these spiritual practices, most of which weren't intended to be tried alone.
In fact, Riess makes it easy for you. You don't have to jump in with both feet: January is about choosing practices. February, when the liturgically inclined are probably feeling guilty anyway for not doing more about Lent, Riess looks at fasting. December is about generosity.

But she doesn't make it mindlessly easy. There are no thought questions, prayer starters, or similar irritants.  Flunking Sainthood is a memoir, not a tool. Riess comes across as a friend, not an instructor. And even though she says she flunked every practice she tried, she also learned a lot along the way—though not what she expected to learn—and her readers will learn a lot too.

If your taste in spiritual discipline runs to hair shirts and beds of nails, you probably won't care for this book. As an honest, funny, irreverent introduction to time-honored Christian practices, however, it can't be beat.

Full disclosure: Jana Riess is a friend and colleague. I used to be on the editorial board of her publisher, Paraclete Press, and Paraclete sent me a review copy of Flunking Sainthood. Actually, Paraclete sends me review copies of just about everything they publish, and I rarely review any of them (recent exception: Sarah Jobe's delightful Creating with God, which I reviewed last month). Publishers and authors never pay me for writing reviews. I'm poor, but honest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

RIVAL TO THE QUEEN by Carolly Erickson

Years ago while visiting friends in Warwick, UK, I went out for an early morning stroll. Not far from their house I saw an interesting-looking old church, and, being a tourist, I wandered in. In a side chapel I spotted two tombs topped by splendid full-color effigies. These turned out to be the likenesses of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Lettice Knollys.

I was enthralled. A lover of all things Tudor, I knew that Leicester was for many years the boyfriend of Queen Elizabeth I. I knew he had been accused (and acquitted) of murdering his first wife in hopes that, once she was out of the way, the queen would marry him and make him king. I knew that when he finally gave up all hope of marrying power, he thumbed his nose at Elizabeth by marrying her beautiful cousin. I had no idea, however, that Robert and Lettice were entombed just down the street from my friends' house.

Nor did I expect to find snarky 17th-century doggerel on a wall plaque across from their tombs, extolling Lettice as once "fairest in the land," and going on to describe her as
She that in her youth hath bene
Darling to the Maiden Quene,
Till she was content to quitt
Her favour for her favouritt.
The 38-line poem, signed "Gervas Clifton," is headed by this inscription: "Upon the death of the excellent and pious Lady Lettice, Countess of Leicester, who died upon Christmas-day in the morning, 1634."

Brief explanation: Lettice, Elizabeth's first cousin once removed, attended the queen. At court she met the queen's "favouritt," Robert Dudley. Eventually Lettice's husband and Robert's wife both died, and Lettice and Robert married secretly. The queen found out, of course, and all hell broke loose. From then on Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with Lettie, though she continued to welcome Robert at court.

You'll learn all that and more - much more - in Carolly Erickson's newish historical romance (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback and Kindle) about Lettice Knollys. Some of what you will learn is factual. Some is invented, but possible (Lettie's adventure in Frankfurt, for example). Some is distorted through Lettice's lens (e.g., the extremely unfavorable portrait of Elizabeth) - and justifiably, since the story is told entirely from her first-person viewpoint. Some is just plain wrong (e.g., the account of Devereux's downfall), as you'll know if you've read Erickson's own history of the era, The First Elizabeth (1983).

I appreciate Rival to the Queen for bringing to life a nearly forgotten but important woman whose very long life spanned the reigns of Henry VIII (who may have been her grandfather), Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I, and James I. I appreciate it for putting faces on entrancing rapscallions like the Earl of Leicester and his stepson Devereux, and for making Tudor political intrigues slightly easier to follow. I was uncomfortable, however, with Lettice's mindless and perpetual attraction to ill-behaved men, and the way all female characters including the queen seemed to think of little besides their own beauty and their ill-fated love affairs. I wished Erickson had included more details about daily life at court and at home. And as for the scene where Lettice's brother, Frank, plucks a drowning girl out of the sea and discovers ... oh, I won't spoil the surprise. But it was really cheesy.

Maybe I should stop reading historical romances.

I did love Erickson's sly humor in the Epilogue, however. Lettie is in her nineties, and once more she takes up her pen to complete the story she had abandoned 33 years previously. Her great-grandson Gervase pays her a visit:
I must note here that Gervase ... is not a very good poet, though he fancies himself one. His verses are stale.... I am not a poet, but if I were, I would at least attempt to be original.

Gervase has attempted to write my epitaph in verse. He takes undue pride in his few lines. Pray God that when the hour comes, and I am laid in my grave, someone will have the good sense to prevent those lines from coming to light.

Monday, November 14, 2011

BLUE NIGHTS by Joan Didion

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.... You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming ... yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise....During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.... Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Only a "connoisseur of catastrophe," as John Banville describes Joan Didion in his New York Times review of her latest book, would see long, lazy midsummer evenings as a harbinger of doom. Life is good, Didion might have thought in 2003. She loved her work, her marriage was great, she knew lots of famous people, she was a famous person, she traveled the world and stayed in the best hotels, she wore designer labels, she had interesting friends, her daughter was now married to the love of her life ...

So of course a pessimist like Didion would expect it all to crash around her ears, maybe all at once, probably without any warning except the inevitability of loss. "Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?" she asks.

And indeed, as readers of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, will recall, Didion's charmed life screeched to a halt one week late in 2003. The first words of that book are the first words she wrote after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a massive coronary event:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The evening her husband died, December 30, John and Joan had just returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, had been lying unconscious since Christmas day. The flu had turned into pneumonia, which had brought on septic shock. She would not come out of her coma for two more weeks; she would never regain her health.

Dunne's funeral was delayed until late March so Quintana could attend. Two days afterward, she collapsed from a massive hematoma in her brain and was rushed into surgery. In June of the next year, 2005, she was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis. In late August, shortly before Magical Thinking was published, Quintana died. Didion was now childless and a widow.

Blue Nights is about Quintana as Magical Thinking was about John. Didion wrote the earlier memoir in 88 days, finishing it about a year after her husband's death. Blue Nights comes six years after Quintana's death: Didion needed the time to grieve and to heal. Yet of the two books, Blue Nights feels more immediate, more agonizing, more raw.

Still, as The Economist's reviewer noted, "even when she writes about the hard drama of her own life, such as the sudden death of her husband followed by the death of her only daughter, her stories manage to be larger than her own grief." Blue Nights is not only about Quintana. It is about the losses of old age; the radical contingency of human life; parental guilt; adoption; fear; time; illness. It is about missed occasions for gratitude.

If I owned my copy of Blue Nights, I would underline these words:
We wished them happiness, we wished them, health, we wished them love and luck and beautiful children. On that wedding day, July 26, 2003, we could see no reason to think that such ordinary blessings would not come their way.

Do notice:

We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as "ordinary blessings."
Blue Nights is a poem about appreciating the moment.

"Ms Didion has translated the sad hum of her thoughts into a profound meditation on mortality," wrote The Economist's reviewer. "The result aches with a wisdom that feels dreadfully earned."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steve Forbes's Prostate vs Mehmet Oz's Heart

Last week two articles highlighted America's split over health-care policy. One likened the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force* to a "death panel" and argued that we need more free enterprise in our health-care system. The other lamented the tens of millions of Americans who do not have adequate health care and argued that our inability to come up with "a health care reform law that we can all live with" is "a failure of basic morality."

The first article, "The Department of Health and Human Services' Death Panel" (Forbes magazine, 21 November 2011), is by Steve Forbes, a publisher and businessman whose net worth is estimated at $430 million.

The second article, "Enough Is Enough" (Time Ideas, 31 October 2011) is by Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and media personality whose net worth is estimated at $7 million.

I'm pretty sure both writers are part of the 1%. Both were graduated from Ivy League universities: Mr Forbes with a history major from Princeton, Dr Oz with an undergraduate degree from Harvard, an MD from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Both are Boomers: Mr Forbes was born in 1947, Dr Oz in 1960. But despite the similarities, their views on health care couldn't be further apart.

Steve Forbes is irate with what he calls a "committee of 'experts' [scare quotes in original] appointed by the Department of Health & Human Services," because "this group recently declared that men should not be routinely screened for prostate cancer." See, Mr Forbes recently had a routine exam which led to removal of his prostate, and he is convinced - medical research be damned - that routine prostate exams save lots of lives. What is more, he is sure that the HHS research is all about "rationing and saving money," and that "what we need in health care is more free enterprise, not Soviet-style controls." He does not explain why he is opposed to the government's saving money, or why he thinks free enterprise would be less interested than the government in doing so.

Let's say Mr Forbes is right, the researchers are mistaken, and all men should get regular prostate exams. I am wondering how free enterprise will encourage that, given the ever-increasing number of uninsured Americans. Mr Forbes has endorsed Rick Perry for president; both men believe that health care is best handled by the private sector. It's not working so well in Governor Perry's Texas, however, according to a September 8, 2011, article in the L.A. Times. Insurance premiums are up - "when compared with incomes, insurance in Texas is less affordable than in every state but Mississippi" - as is infant mortality. "More than a quarter of Texans lack health insurance, the highest rate in the nation." Texas has some of the best hospitals in America for the rich and the well-insured, but "nearly a third of the state's children did not receive an annual physical and a teeth cleaning in 2007, placing Texas 40th in a state ranking by [the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund]." I don't imagine Texas, despite its governor's faith in private enterprise, will be offering free prostate exams any time soon.

Looked at another way, how would a federally managed health-care system prevent men from getting regular prostate exams if they really want them? A PSA test can cost as little as $45. If insurance companies, those pillars of private enterprise, stop subsidizing such tests on the grounds that the federal government says they have no proven value, will it be such a hardship for men to pay for their own tests? The poor might not be able to afford them, of course, but they're mostly uninsured and aren't getting them anyway - unless they are enrolled in some government program like Medicare or Medicaid. Yet Mr Forbes doesn't seem worried that those very programs may be cut back by politicians who favor a free-enterprise-based health-care system. His logical contradictions make the head spin.

Mehmet Oz, by contrast, doesn't serve up any ideology in his article. If he cares whether our health-care system is based on free enterprise, a single-payer system, or some combination of government and private business, he doesn't say. His article was sparked, not by a personal health crisis, but by what he saw when he volunteered at the "CareNow Free Clinic in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, where more than 700 doctors, nurses and health professionals had turned out to serve the local community."

During this four-day event, according to the CareNow website, "1,000 patients per day [were provided] with medical, dental and vision care they would not otherwise have received. A total of 7,200 procedures were performed, from dental fillings and root canals to medical exams and podiatry; from eye exams and prescription glasses to mammograms, Pap smears, immunizations and other services. Everything was offered at no cost to the patient."

Dr Oz, who has also volunteered at free clinics in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas, saw a "tide of disease and despair" in Los Angeles. A young mother whose children were insured by the state but who had no insurance herself. A young man with untreated, out-of-control diabetes who had no idea how to treat it. A woman who had lost her job and her insurance two years before, and was "too ashamed to seek help for a mass she felt in her right breast. Now the tumor had replaced her entire breast and blasted through the skin." Dr Oz writes:
At what point, I wondered that day and still wonder now, will we finally say enough? ...  I don’t underestimate the complexities of implementing a health care reform law that we can all live with. As with most entitlement programs since the Great Depression, we will have to perfect health care reform over time, just as Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits and others were.

But we’re not perfecting the law; we’re fighting over it. Politicians dither and people die. Lawyers argue the merits of this or that technical point, and more blameless Americans grow sick and slip away.
Which is the real "death panel" - a government agency concluding that routine PSA screenings save few lives, or a health-care system that, favoring industry profits over human needs, leaves 50.7 million Americans uninsured?
*The USPSTF, according to their website, is
an independent panel of non-Federal experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine and is composed of primary care providers (such as internists, pediatricians, family physicians, gynecologists/obstetricians, nurses, and health behavior specialists). [It] conducts scientific evidence reviews of a broad range of clinical preventive health care services (such as screening, counseling, and preventive medications) and develops recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems. These recommendations are published in the form of "Recommendation Statements."