Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the Footsteps of Saint Thomas

Our pilgrimage in India began Saturday with a tour of sites in Chennai (formerly Madras) associated with the apostle Thomas (the doubter, and legendary writer of the Gospel of Thomas). Local tradition says that Thomas came to India in 52 AD, first to the Malabar coast of Kerala and then on to Tamil Nadu to the east. When the Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century, they discovered Christians in Kerala who venerated St. Thomas. Legend says that Thomas was persecuted for preaching the gospel and hid in a cave. He was captured and taken to a nearby hill where he was killed in about 72 AD by the lance of a soldier of the local king. His body was buried in the city and a basilica was constructed on the spot.

First our large white tour bus took the 14 of us up Saint Thomas Mount where a church dedicated to Our Lady of Expectations was built in 1523 by the Portuguese. (Real pilgrims walk up the path to the top but we're still getting used to our roles.) Pope John Paul II came in the 1980s and preached to a throng of Christians gathered around the hillside. The view of Chennai, a city now of six million, was spectacular. Besides the chapel, the summit contains a large banyan tree, some kitschy religous art, and a store selling religious articles. There has been much construction and reconstruction since my last visit two and a half years ago, and there is now a beautiful side chapel for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated several months ago, but it was locked. The chapel is small and contained a number of Indians visiting and worship. Behind the altar is a cross carved in stone by the Apostle Thomas, and we have seen it reproduced everywhere. It is said to have "bled" during the 16th and 17th centuries. There is also a painting of the Madonna and child, reportedly by St. Luke, which Thomas brought with in to India.

From Saint Thomas Mount, we traveled past the "Prayer Park" down the hill to another smaller hill which is called the Little Mount, and there we visited the cave where the Saint hid from his pursuers. There is even his palm print on the ceiling, and nearby a miraculous well and another bleeding carved cross, according to the nearly toothless attendant who was happy to relate the legends to an audience of pilgrims from America. A large church has been built over the cave and it was filled with Christmas decorations, a large creche and tree.

Our final stop in the footsteps of Saint Thomas was the basilica, San Thome, in the Mylapore superb of south Chennai, not far from the beach where the tsunami of 2004 killed several hundred poor Indians in this area. When I was last here, the large church was under construction, but I was allowed to descend the steps below the altar to see where the saint was buried. But now, after much construction and reconstruction, the church is a gothic masterpiece (where are the Indian architects who can adapt religious buildings to their culture?) and there is a new modern, marbeled entrance to the tomb from the back with a small chapel underground where people prayed in front of the tomb of the saint. There was also a relic, a bone from the Apostle's remains, in a reliquary (just as there was in the chapel on Saint Thomas Mount also). I recalled all the other chapels in which I had prayed at the tomb of saints, in Italy, Mexico, Guatemala and in Vietnam. A sign advertises that there are only two other basilicas built over the tombs of apostles: St. Peter's in Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain built over the tomb of St. James. We wandered around the large grounds where there was much activity. The church was filled with tourists and the faithful. Construction was going on next door, and I watched a woman in a sari pile nine bricks on her head and carry them into the building, again and again. Men in dhotis, folded to look like shorts, bent rebar. A group of children came by our bus and enthusiastically posed for photos. A woman proudly displayed her newly christianed baby while a nun smiled.

Our day ended with a Eucharist in a small private dining room off the "Cafe in the Park" restaurant in our hotel. Father Raneiro, prior of New Camaldoli in Big Sur, told us that the Gospel readings spoke of arrivals which coincided with our arrival in India on a momentous voyage of pilgrimage. We prayed our familiar words of liturgy in a strange land. Afterwards we sat together for dinner, sampling a variety of local delicacies, veg and non-veg. The dessert selection was to dream of!

Most of us our continuing to adjust to the new time zone, our bodies still partly back in London or California. Swami Sivarupananda from Grass Valley was to arrive last night, and hopefuly Sr. Michele's luggage which was left behind in London by British Airways. The baggage snafu took several hours to unravel early Saturday morning and we did not return to the hotel from the airport until nearly 4 in the morning. Because of the lack of sleep, we cancelled mass in the morning and the full tour of Chennai and opted for the half-day tour of sites important to the memory of Saint Thomas.

A few moments stand out. During our long wait at the airport for the plane to arrive with the bulk of pilgrims, a man asked us to take pictures of his son when he came through the gate. He had been studying in Maryland and had not been back home for several years. When he arrived and we took photos of him being greeted by his parents, their joy was unmistakable. They were incredibly grateful. And by the steps to the cave of Saint Thomas at the Little Mount, we watched a group of boys playing a cricket-like game with a tennis ball and a pile of stones. They ran and jumped and screamed and were ever so happy to have their photographs taken. Playfulness seems to survive despite poverty. Our bus passed through areas where pigs and goats roamed the streets and women in bright saris stood by communal wells with colorfully-colored buckets. We saw a young girl dancing for joy to some inner song down a dirt street. The vitality of life is almost overwhelming in India.

This morning we depart for the south. First we will attend morning mass at the San Thome Basilica, and then we will drive down to Shantivanam where a New Year's Eve mass will be held at midnight. Father Cyprian emails that he is waiting eagerly for our visit.

Computers will probably be hard to find in the rural area surrounding Shantivanam, so it will be a few days before I can resume this blog. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all my faithful readers!!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mother India

The view from the window of my third floor room at the Radha Park Inn in Chennai is a typical cityscape in this capital of Tamil Nadu in southeastern India, the country's fourth largest city. Yellow and black three-wheeled autorickshaws, many buses full of travelers, motor-driven and pedaled two-wheeled vehicles, often with three or four people onboard, or a large load of cargo, a few cars and many trucks. And most of all, people. The sides of the street are crowded with walkers and those waiting or talking. India is an overwhelming collage of people.

I arrived from London via Mumbai yesterday. The flight on Jet Airways, India's newest air carrier, was smooth. The in-flight entertainment system, now tailored to each passage, is state of the art. We were given eye shades, socks to wear during the flight, and a small tooth-brushing set, as well as a comfy blanket and pillow. The food was great, and included wine and after dinner mints. When we touched down in Mumbai it was 89 degrees and sunny, a welcome change from London. In Mumbai I needed to pass through customs and take a bus to the domestic terminal. We passed a city of shacks where hundreds, perhaps thousands, lived under the path of landing airplanes. While waiting three hours for my plane to Chennai, I managed to talk my way into a private club and spoke there with an English woman and her Aussie friend who upon discovering that their plane to Varanasi had been cancelled, booked another for Jaipur in Rajasthan. They were flexible travelers, after my own heart.

In Chennai I was met by Mr. Ganesh (an auspicious name!) from Marvel Tours who took me to the modern luxury hotel on the ring road some six kilometers from downtown Chennai. We discussed arrangements for the upcoming tour and later I explored the delicious dinner buffet in the hotel restaurant, sampling a wide range of Indian foods. This morning I met Kay for breakfast. She had arrived the night before on a flight from San Francisco via Hong Kong and Singapore, but was wide awake. She has kindly offered to help me plan the tipping which, given the number of bus drivers and their assistants, hotel and restaurant managers, and guides who will serve us, is no small feat. This afternoon we are going to the central train station to get tickets for Kay's return to Shantivanam after our tour. Last year I learned that western tourists get special treatment and I know where to find the ticket office.

Returning to India is a joyous event. I feel somewhat at home, all of the sights and sounds and smells seem familiar. I say this while realizing that I have not yet stepped foot outside. In the car from the airport and in this remote hotel (the windows are sealed in my room and the air conditioning is artifically cool) I was cocooned from reality. Now it's time to go out and test the waters.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Miss Potter's Rabbit

I can't think of a better movie to see during my visit to London this Christmas week than "Miss Potter," the new biopic starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the artist and author who drew and wrote about Peter Rabbit. Much of it takes place in Victorian London, and when when the cameras go out of town it is to the gorgeous Lake District where Miss Potter was responsible for buying and preserving from development more than 4,000 acres of farm land. My father read Peter Rabbit to me and I had many of the books written and illustrated by Miss Potter when I was a child. The film, directed by Chris Noonan, his first since "Babe" in 1995, and written by Tony-winning musical director ("Fosse") Richard Maltby Jr., is being released this month here and in the U.S. for Oscar consideration, but it's no winner. Zellweger's Potter is a bit daffy (though I love her, she has the annoying habit of constantly pursing her lips), the occasional animation is cute, and the romance with her book publisher played by Ewan McGregor is heart-warming. But it's only a nice film, a family film, a travelogue for England, and not a work of cinematic art.

On my last day in England, we met Helen's friend Daniel for breakfast at the Hampstead Tea House, which is run by a Russian whose ears perked up when I told him Santa Cruz could use an olde tea room. And then we took buses from Highgate into the center of London(there is nothing like the view from the top of a red double decker bus, even on an overcast day). Our goal was Trafalgar Square which is graced by a giant Christmas Tree and and the recently installed giant statue of a pregnant woman with no arms (a Thalidamide child, I assumed), put there by the mayor to illustrate the "potential for humanity." I was told it was quite controversial, but I liked it. From there we considered the Impressionist exhibit at the nearby National Gallery and then opted for the Hockney show at the Tate Portrait Gallery around the corner.

I was amazed by the variety of styles in "David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art," and the mediums in which he has worked. It begins with `conventional portraits of his family when the artist was in his teens. His "Mum" is featured in work throughout the show, along with his many lovers and friends in various art and cultural words (include Andy Warhol, and, surprisingly, Lawrence Weshler who was a graduate of UC Santa Cruz before going to write at The New Yorker). I particularly liked his giant figure portraits which looked like human still lifes, often with a vase of flowers and a glass-topped table. And I loved his drawings, particularly in pen and ink. Finally, I found the photo collages fascinating and worthy of his great influence, Picasso (one drawing pictures Hockney with his mentor, whom he never met).

There is a slight red tinge at the edge of the horizon which might indicate that the sun is eventually coming out. But I doubt if it will before I leave. It's time to repack my suitcase for warmer climes and leave behind the scarf, fur hat and gloves, the sweater and warm socks for my return here in February when I plan to zip over to Paris on the EuroStar for two days. I'm going to the airport in sandals, taking the gamble that the streets will not be full of slushy snow when I walk back up Darmouth Hill to Helen's house some six weeks from now.

Bonnie, the beautiful long-haired cat of Helen's house mate Amy, has graduated from hissing to meowing at me. That's progress. Grace lets me scratch her back but not her ears. And Helen lets me do the washing up, something few guests before me have been permitted. I can find my way around London on the buses and tube trains, and I know how to count out change in pounds and pence. Every now and then a memory from my life here forty years ago comes back like a distant relative, and I remember "Swinging London" of the 1960s. The other day I was singing Petulah Clark's "Downtown," a hit of the period, and a young pop singer came on TV singing the same song. She hadn't even bothered to change the arrangement much, give it a hip hop or reggae tinge. Helen and I reminisce about Los Angeles in the early 1960s and the friends, music business and Subud people we knew in common. All I need to feel truly at home now is a rocking chair.

Tomorrow India.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Not for Boxing

Today is Boxing Day, a uniquely British holiday, and I'm washing up the dishes from yesterday's feast. While fisticuffs are not encouraged, Boxing Day can be a time for various sporting events, post-Christmas entertainment, and sales in the stores where yesterday's gift is sold at cut-rate prices.

There are various theories for how the holiday originated, but most involve boxes full of presents or money to the servants and those in occupations that required working on Christmas day. Some people here leave envelopes of money for the postmen and the trades people, and others small presents.

My hostess Helen and I are planning to visit an outdoor festival in Hyde Park today if we can find out more information than the little I learned from spying a poster on Highgate Hill yesterday. We might also take in a movie. I've learned from my travels that one does not have to give up one's addiction to movies, in whatever country one may be found. Last week we went to the Odeon in Camden Town and saw "Pan's Labyrinth," an excellent mixture of fantasy and drama from Mexican director Guillermo de Toro. It explored the difficulties of adolescence through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl dealing with good and evil during the Spanish Civil War. Helen has already vetoed "Perfume: the Story of a Murderer," the new film about an 18th century killer with a keen sense of smell. One of the big news stories here, in addition to the aftermath of the poisoning of a KGB agent, has been the murder of five prostitutes in Suffolk by what the scandal papers are calling the new Jack the Ripper. Someone is now in custody and sex workers are breathing easier. But who wants to see a film about it?

I've spent considerable time in front of a television set, my hostess's entertainment of choice, and I have not yet figured out how it works. There are both analog and digital channels, and various "free view" offerings for those not paying extra. It seems as if BBC has four channels and ITV, the commercial network, has two, but more can be received on the digital side. In addition there are numerous radio channels, all received by antenna rather than cable, and both TV and radio are interactive, allowing the viewer/listener to make selections and talk back. Helen also has a DVD recorder and can record one channel while watching another. But the digital channels come in clear while the analog ones are blurry. We watched the Queen's Christmas day message on a blurry one and I could barely make out her face. I thought it was Helen Mirren. Her message was an encouragement of multiculturalism (Muslims and Hindus were shown celebrating their holidays) , education and inter-generational communication (the Queen is now over 80). Helen recorded the "alternative Queen" message by a Muslim woman and we will watch it today.

I've also failed to understand Helen's explanations about the mobile phone service which seems to be much more technologically advanced than what we have in the States (but then I don't own a "real" cell phone, so what do I know?). Helen and her friends send text messages back and forth since they are cheaper than calls, and the phones can even turn code into simulated voice messages, with sometimes humorous results. The phone numbering system seems a bit bewildering to me. I tried to call London from Oxford but only made a mess of it. I feel like a barbarian visiting the civilized west, and much in awe of flush toilets.

Good news from California. A new bishop has been chosen to replace the retiring Sylvester Ryan in the Catholic diocese of Monterey. He is Richard J. Garcia, the auxiliary bishop of Sacramento, and he will be installed in a colorful ceremony in Monterey on January 30. I am very sorry I will miss it. When we learned that Ryan was retiring at the mandatory age of 75, some of us involved in peace and social justice work were most concerned that we might get saddled with a conservative bishop. Rome is known to do such things. Garcia was mentioned as the best possible person who could be chosen for a diocese that has a large Spanish-speaking population. He will be one of only 25 Hispanic bishops in the U.S. While his parents were born in Mexico, Garcia was born and raised in San Francisco. For a diocese in which immigration (and raids by the INS in the dark of night) is a crucial issue, Garcia is a Godsend. Good things do sometimes happen.

News tidbits: The Druids got to Stonehenge a day early this year. They thought the winter solstice was on Dec. 21, but it did not arrive until a day later. Johnny Depp will play Freddy Mercury, the charasmatic lead singer of Queen who died of AIDs. While Mercury was openly gay, he kept his Indian ancestry a secret. Brits are worried about Bulgaria and Romania joining the European Union shortly, for it will mean an influx of immigrants in search of jobs from those poorer countries. Many of the clerks and waitpersons I've encountered here have had Eastern European accents.

The mp3 player and the cell phone are ubiquitous in London (and probably now all of the world). On the underground over half the people are listening or talking to someone not present. Is conversation going to become a lost art?

Today is the seventh straight day of overcast skies. While I initially thought that might indicate the possibility of snow and a white Christmas, the temperature remains a free degrees above freezing, just enough to be uncomfortable, but not cold enough to bring the white stuff. London is clearly not a prime vacation spot for the winter holidays. Unless you like indoor entertainment.

Tomorrow I fly to India. One of our pilgrims, who had earlier cancelled because her employer wouldn't give her the time off, let me know on Saturday that she could come after all. As the travel agents had left for the four-day Christmas holiday, this posed a challenge. Thankfully, it has been met and Shelli will be on her way tomorrow as well, when the group from California flies out of San Francisco. I am traveling Jet Airways, an India-owned company, and though I was advised to confirm my reservation 72 hours before departure, that has been so far impossible. The confirmation phone number has packed up and gone on holiday as well. My plane stops in Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now called) for a three-hour layover, but I doubt that the airport lounge will give me much of the flavor of this city. I will arrive in Chennai (formerly Madras) on Thursday evening, a day before our pilgrims descend on the subcontinent. In India I expect to find the sun and the stars once again.

God is With Us

Last night at the packed Christmas eve service in Holy Joe's, the local Catholic church in Highgate, London, we sang "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Taking its cue from Isaiah, the son of God is here called Emmanuel rather than Jesus. Emmanuel means "God with us." And last night I truly understood that the divine had taken up residence within humanity. We are not mere matter in motion, lumps of accidental meat, but rather sparks of the divine light, the Master of the Universe having taken human form.

Christ is born of a young girl who willingly placed her fate in God's hand, and a human father descended from kings. They were denied a place at the table and forced to spend a night in a stable surrounded by the animals. Does this not also enoble all of creation as well? Shepherds on the nearby hills were greeted by an angel who brought tidings of "great joy." And what greater joy, to know that this life we live is not meaningless, is not simply the result of random atoms interacting, but contains a great purpose, to realize the divine, the Buddha-nature, the will of Allah within.

The birth of Jesus is a message to all that we are divine, sons and daughters of God, filled with the Holy Spirit that was given to us at the crucifixtion of Christ. We are in Christ and he is in us and we are all in God. And the good news, the Gospel, is that God, as the Qur'an says, is closer to us than our jugular vein. God, Christ, the Spirit is in the cave of our hearts, and can be heard not in a whirlwind but in a still small voice.

This was what came to me in London on a cool and foggy Christmas Eve, as we sang "hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new-born king." God is with us. Not confined to the heavens, not restricted to words in a religious text, not solely emboddied in a man or woman, or an avatar, but in each one of us. Christmas comes again to remind us to look, listen, and feel.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Foggy Christmas Eve

Seasons greetings from London.

It's foggy and cold here, so much that the planes have been grounded and travelers, along with gift packages, are stranded. When I traveled by train to Harrow last Wednesday the frost on the ground was so thick that it looked like snow. But the sun still comes out for several hours a day, weakly.

It's Christmas Eve and I returned a little while ago from watching the ice skaters outdoors on Hampstead Heath. It's the thing to do when the air is nippy and Santa is on his way. While decorating the tree, my hostess Helen and I watched a wonderful documentary about the most popular Christmas song ever in England, The Pogues' "Fairy Tale in New York." Now I can't get it out of my head. It's not exactly the Bing Crosby kind of song, but if you like drunk Irish punk music, it will make you weep. In an hour I'll walk up Highgate Hill to Holy Joe's (St. Joseph's Church) for Christmas caroling and midnight mass. Hopefully the fog will stay wet rather than icy.

Traveling to London from San Francisco on a British Airways non-stop flight was a breeze. I even got to see the new Pedro Almodovar film, "Volver," on the in-flight entertainment program which had yet to open in Santa Cruz. Penelope Cruz and her co-stars are magnificent, and the film, ostensibly about ghosts who "return," is filled with delightful twists and turns. As with most of his work, it's a woman's film and the men come out looking pretty bad. We men have much penance to pay for our sins.

My first shock at Heathrow was to learn that the dollar continues it's slide against the pound. A week ago the dollars was $1.95 to the pound, and by the time I had arrived it was $2.11. Everything is consequently expensive. The small Christmas tree I bought was the equivalent of $60, and dinner the other night at Chez Rouge in Hampstead, with Helen's friends Arnold Brown (a well-known British comic) and his gardener-artist wife Liz, and their friend Jane who has performed at Edinburgh in a one-woman show, was about the same, for each of us.

On Saturday I took the train ($36 for a round-trip, an hour's ride each way) to Oxford, where my host was Professor Noel King's oldest son Francis. He met me at the station with his 5-year-old son Harry and we toured the town, stopping at first at St. Peter's, the college where both Noel and Francis got their degrees. Francis is an administrator for the oldest Anglican church in Oxford and he took me up in the church tower (he wrote the tourist bochure) where we had a terrific 360-degree view of the ancient university city. It would have been better without the fog, of course. After peeking through the doors of several colleges into the quadrangles where students would gather were it not the Christmas holiday, we repaired to the Turf Tavern for a pint, a watering hole that still boasts that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were their most famous customers. The beer was good. Later, Francis walked me back through the misty fields behind Christchurch College to his house near the canal, and I was treated to a wonderful lunch by his wife Catherine, joined her mother Jillian and boyfriend Ewan, and Richard from Toronto, a former Rhodes scholar (Catherine workes at Rhodes House where the famous scholarships are administered). And of course young Beatrice, Harry's slightly older sister. Oh yes, and Francis showed me where Bill Clinton, perhaps the most famous Rhodes scholar, lived while studying at Oxford. And he was rumored to be a patron of Turf's, where smoked marijuana but did not inhale.

I purchased an Oyster card at Heathrow for travel on the tubes and buses while I'm here now and in February. It allows you to pay as you go, with special low rates, but I spent 15 pounds on trips during my first two days. The London underground is the most expensive in the world, and its different travel zones make it difficult to compute fares. But the trains are frequent and directions easy to understand.

Since I was last in London a year and a half ago, and did the major tourist sites and nostalgic revists (I lived in London from 1964-66) then, this time I've stayed close to my home away from home in Highgate not far from the cemetery where Marx, George Sand and other worthies are buried, with a couple of trips into the city to visit the large Barbican cultural center with its art galleries and theaters, and to take a look at the controversial new British Library building next to the gloriously baroque St. Pancras train station. I found the red brick building modern and bare, but quite spacious and beautiful.

During my trip to Harrow where I visited Shawn Hendrick, the travel agent for Indus Tours who has been arranging the visit of our group from Sangha Shantivanam to ashrams in India, I walked up the hill to Harrow school and past the venerable buildings (Harrow and Eton are considered the top preparatory schools in England) to "The Gerards," a house my family and I rented in 1972 for a month. It's a three-storey Victorian mansion with large trees in front and back, and God knows what possessed us to think we could afford it. At the end of the month the promised job in the British record business failed to materialize and we were forced to sneak away on Christmas Eve without paying the next month's rent in order to catch a flight back to Southern California. But my eldest son remembers the house and so I sought it out to take photographs for him. I remember little. Who can retain memories from almost 35 years back?

May everyone reading these words have a merry and warm Christmas, wherever you may be!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Death of a Music Man

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, died Thursday. Although he was 83, he died not from old age but from an injury suffered when he fell at a Rolling Stones concert in October. Guest of honor at the concert was Bill Clinton who was celebrating his 60th birthday. Ahmet always traveled in the best circles.

I worked for Atlantic Records in the early 1970s as their west coast publicity man. But my experience with Atlantic goes back to the 1950s when I listened to 45s and 78 rpm records with their distinctive red and black, and yellow and black, labels: Ray Charles, the Clovers, Arthetha Franklin, Big Joe Turner. Ahmet, together with his partners, producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd, were legends to me, and I felt honored to meet and work with them.

Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi, who was in charge of the jazz side of the label, producing everyone from John Coltrane to the Modern Jazz Quartet, were sons of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. and grew up in Washington, DC, where they frequented jazz and blues clubs in the black ghetto when they were teenagers. Atlantic was started with a loan from their dentist and they recorded musicians in their business office after hours, pushing the desks back and bringing in a tape recorder to improvise a studio. In the 1960s, Ahmet recorded Sonny and Cher on his Atco subsidiary and signed British artists like Cream with Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees, and Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones made some of their classic recordings for Atlantic, and Ahmet helped put together Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I remember driving around LA with Ahmet in a rented convertible, dropping in on musicians who had a song or a tape they wanted the man to hear. Always impeccably dressed, he was almost bald, wore a goatee, and his voice had a high nasal rasp that was unforgettable; it was less of a Turkish accent then a ghetto whine, and he spoke like a hipster. Ahmet cultivated "ears" and I was proud to be one of them, although I never discovered anyone that he signed. Peter Tork in his post-Monkees days was a non-starter. I tried and failed to get him to hear Holly Near, and when I sent a tape of Barry Mannilow's first record to New York it was rejected by an underling who said he was "not hip enough" for Atlantic Records. Mannilow had been Bette Midler's accompanist and she, making a name for himself in the New York bath houses, had been our most hip acquisition. Ahmet signed Judy Mayhan, a California singer with an angelic voice whom I worked hard to promote. She didn't make it but her backup band did. Led by Lowell George, they called themselves Little Feat. But they were signed by Warner Brothers, not Atlantic. I took Lowell to a wild birthday party for Led Zeppelin's drummer John Bonham, and I remember him cringing in the corner when Zeppelin's road manager Richard Cole started throwing guests into the pool, including me and George Harrison. Ah, the daze!

In 1973, Atlantic celebrated it's 25th anniversary by flying the entire company to Paris for a birthday celebration. Ahmet and Nesuhi were the hosts. Stéphane Grappelli played dinner music. I stayed up on speed for three days and went to visit Jim Morrison's untended grave at the Pére Lachaise cemetery with Ian Dove from Billboard Magazine. I got to know Wexler better during my five years, off and on, with Atlantic, and I was in awe of the talents of Dowd, a pioneer with four-track (and more) recording, whose career is profiled in a wonderful documentary, "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music." He could hear sounds from musical instruments beyond the range of human ears and blend them together beautifully.

The Erteguns, Wexler and Dowd sold out to the corporate giants long ago, but kept their hands in. Wexler, a homegrown intellectual who began as a writer and made his reputation with Aretha, lives in Florida and the last I heard he was still talking about music if not recording it. When I heard of Ahmet's death and the circumstances, all I could think of was: Way to go! I hope the Stones were playing one of their hits when he fell.

For more about Ahmet, read the New York Times story here.

Friday, December 15, 2006

And the Oscar for Best Actor Goes to...

Richard Griffiths.


I didn't know either until yesterday when I saw "The History Boys," a magnificent film which comes a very close second to "Little Miss Sunshine" as my pick for best movie of 2006.

Griffiths, however, is even better than the film. In the role of Hector, the obese, eccentric and poetic teacher at a British boys school in the 1980s, he inspires, provokes and appalls. The fact that he is a closet homosexual and likes to occasionally grope his pupils is more of a character flaw than a moral one. They, and the audience, will forgive him his failings because of his ability to teach and interpret history for them in passionate and surprising ways. Quoting A.E. Houseman, Hector declares -- between a musical hall song by one student and an imaginary scenario between several students in a house of prostitution to practice French -- that "all human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use." Hector is the teacher I once wanted to be, and a better version of the one Robin Williams attempted to portray in "Dead Poets Society." Griffiths fills this role of a lifetime with witticisms, mannerisms and expressions that both repulse and delight, and he shambles down the halls of the school in a body that would make Charles Laughton and Orson Welles seem puny.

Hector's foil is the younger Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore). Both teachers are preparing the students for the Oxford/Cambridge entrance exam in history. Irwin tells them that history nowadays "is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment." And truth "is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease." For Hector, however, history matters. He loves the subjunctive view in which the "events" of history can be seen from multiple perspectives. But his is not a superficial look at life, however, but one that engages it head on, while the more youthful Irwin cooly pontificates from his ivory tower (another closet homosexual). It is Hector's personal style of teaching, which uses popular culture as an entrance to timeless truths, that Irwin and the headmaster (a militaristic twit played by Clive Merrison) want to show as out of fashion. But it is the history boys that ultimately benefit from it.

Any film that can features quotations, several of them, from the writings of my favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is unparalleled. Responsible for that, and dialogue that is intelligent, funny and stimulating (all that the same time!) is the well-known British author and playwright, Alan Bennett. "The History Boys" was a smash hit in London and on Brodway and won a record number of Tony awards this year. The original cast comes to the screen directed by Nicholas Hytner who also crafted the stage version.

While the actors playing the boys all do a superb job, the other role of note in the film is that of Dorothy Lintott, an older woman history teacher with a deep voice and a well-worn face (played wonderfully by Frances de la Tour). At one point, exasperated by her colleagues, she tells the students that history "is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket."

Griffiths might be best known as the unpleasant Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films. He is so dominant in "The History Boys" that I can't imagine missing him in other films. If there is any justice in Hollywood, he should be up on that stage on Academy Awards night receiving his Oscar.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Early Stocking Stuffers

Cleaning off my desk, in preparation for two months abroad, I find a pile of magazines, clippings and printouts that contain fodder for irate thought, the juice that fuels this blog.

The Christmas buying frenzy is in full bloom several blocks away. When I was resting in the bossom of a family, I was a pushover for the whole romantic story, and could be seen wearing a Santa Claus hat the entire month of December. I loved reading "The Night Before Christmas" to all of my kids, just as my dad did for me and my brother. But over the years I became disenchanted with the routine of it, with the emphasis on commerce, and I gave up giving gifts and sending cards as a kind of ascetical practice. I meditate now on Christmas as allegory and symbol, as a sign of the birth of the divine on earth, in each of us. But occasionally I catch a glimpse of a Christmas tree or lights out of the corner of my eye, and the memories are overwhelming.

The good Bishop John Shelby Spong has punctured many of the myths about Christmas in a column on beliefnet, "A Religious Santa Claus Tale." All we know of the first Christmas comes from the books of Matthew and Luke. Did you know there are no camels in the story (sorry about that, wise men) and also no animals in a stable surrounding the crib or manger (which IS mentioned)? While Mary is supposedly a "virgin" (a mistranslation, some would say), the ancestors of Jesus are traced through Joseph who comes from the family of David. The Gospel of John refers to Jesus twice as "the son of Joseph." But the Gospel of Mark (as well as the apostle Paul) tells no birth story and what is said about Mary and the family of Jesus is not flattering. All of this only puts our memories in perspective. It does not wash away the simple beauty of the Christmas story.

My favorite Catholic theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, spoke on abortion and war to a Pax Christi conference and the talk, "'Consistent Life Ethic' is Inconsistent," was published in the Nov. 17 National Catholic Reporter. It's a breath of fresh air. She points out that Catholic ethics is absolutist when considering the rights of the fetus and relative when speaking about the rights of the born. Because of its stand on birth control, Catholicism "both forbids abortion under any circumstances and is a major cause of producing the situations that cause it." Ruether is concerned about the Church's less than rigorous stand on war, environmental destruction, and lack of access of clean water, education and health care by the world's poor. "Catholicism speaks softly and carries no stick when it comes to untimely and unjust death after birth...Putting the ethics of life before birth and life after birth more in sync with each other would help overcome the credibility gap from which Catholic teachings on ethics now suffer." Ruether disagrees with the Church that life begins at conception (why are there no funerals for miscarriages, I wonder) but laments abortions occuring after five months pregnancy. She argues that women often have little power to resist pregnancy and advocates that women's moral agency be recognized by Catholicism.

Now that Bush Senior's panel of experts has both condemned the war in Iraq but cautioned a go-slow approach (who wants to be the last soldier to die in this lost cause?), there are some impassioned and ironic columns on the report's import by our most excellent commentators. I can recommend Frank Rich's column in the Dec. 10th New York Times, "The Sunshine Boys Can't Save Iraq," and Patrick Cockburn's piece in the London Independent on Dec. 13, “The Americans don't see how unwelcome they are, or that Iraq is now beyond repair; The main purpose of Bush invading Iraq was to retain power at home.” Also excellent on this tragic topic is Mark Morford's column Dec. 13 in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Our Path to ‘Victory’ Ends in Defeat." El Presidente Bush, of course, is threatening to ignore the report, or at least postpone a decision on any changes until he leaves office two years from now. The howling for his blood, however, grows louder, and defections mount from even his own party. Will Karl Rove be forced to commit hari kari? Seriously, though, we must demand that George W. Bush be accountable for the crimes committed in his name, for the slaughter and the torture and the abrogation of human rights. The buck stops at his desk in the Oval Office.

I've written before about the reasonable letter that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to Bush which was ridiculed by administration spokesmen and largely ignored by the media. Ahmadinejad, who has a doctorate and was a professor before entering political life, wrote another letter on Nov. 29, this time to "Noble Americans." I found it quite enlightening and persuasive. He writes about Palestine, Iraq and the torture and mistreatment of prisoners, as well as recent elections, and even refers to Cindy Sheehan, though not by name. He criticizes the US administration, not the American people, for crimes perpetrated in their name. Ahmadinejad is obviously a thoughtful and intelligent man, and I think we should not only listen to what he has to say, but talk to him and others in Iran's government. There will be no settlement in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine or Iraq, without the help of Iran and Syria (which was recommended by the panel of experts).

There is no better moderate spokesman on Israel's behalf than Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun. The journal of Jewish thought will publish an interview with former President Jimmy Carter in its January issue and Lerner wrote a letter of praise, "Thank You, Jimmy Carter!," on Dec. 6 which was reprinted by Common Dreams. Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has been slammed by the powerful Jewish lobby which has successfully prevented any U.S. government since Carter's from a sane policy on the Israel question. Lerner takes a middle road, but supports Carter, "who is speaking the truth as he knows it, and doing a great service to the Jews." Unfortunately, according to Lerner, "this peace is impeded by the powerful voices of AIPAC and the mainstream of the organized Jewish community, who manage to terrify even the most liberal elected officials into blind support of whatever policy the current government of Israel advocates." Rosemary Radford Ruether gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz some years ago in which she argued that the struggles in the Mideast were over land, not religion. Amos Oz in a recent book, How to Cure a Fanatic, says much the same thing. Carter, in his book, says that the Jewish policies toward Muslims is not the result of racism but rather "the desire of a minority of Israelis to occupy, confiscate and colonize Palestinian land." Acceptance of this would change the face of diplomacy in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi, the new leader in the House for the Democratic Party, is an unqualified supporter of Israel.

Alexander Cockburn, Patrick's brother, is not hopeful. In his Dec. 18 column in The Nation, "Gaza and Darfur," Cockburn compares the two crisis regions and seems to liken Darfur to the poster animal of the environmental movement, the baby seals. "Darfur is primarily a 'feel good' subject for people here who want to agonize publicly about injustices in the world but who don't really want to do anything about them," Cockburn writes. Darfur is not a U.S. problem, there is no political risk in sounding righteous about genocide there, and it's "also very photogenic." Gaza is very different. "It is Israel, America's prime ally in the Middle East, that is on a day-to-day basis, with America's full support, inflicting appalling brutalities on a civilian population. " Cockburn points to the "activite complicity" of the U.S. in permitting "terrible crimes wrought by Israel, as it methodically lays waste a society of 1.4 million Palestinians." Compared to this, Darfar is a distraction.

Since I wrote on Mel Gibson the other day and his slasher flick which slanders the Mayan people, I've read an excellent perspective from Earl Shorris in the Dec. 18 issue of The Nation on this topic, "Mel and the Maya." Read the article, but avoid the film.

And finally, I want to recommend an interesting interpretation of America's history and failed promise by Andrew Bacevich in the Dec. 1 issue of Commonweal. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, writes on "Twilight of the Republic? Seeds of Decline, Path to Renewal," arguing that "our corrupt age requires a new reformation." A decline in the march of progress, from the Empire of Production to the Empire of Consumption, from a "war on terror" that is just the latest phase in an expansionist project that is now three centuries old, however, is not a bad thing. Bacevich believes that we should "give up once and for all any pretensions about an 'indispensable nation' summoned to excercise 'benign global hegemony' in the midst of a uniquely opportune 'unipolar moment'." As a consequence of a new reformation, America might one day actually live up to its professed ideals. He's a bit dogmatic about America's "cultural assault on the world," a favorite position of the Christian and Islamic conservatives, but a prophetic read nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"¡Viva la Virgen!"

The cry went up from the crowd of Latinos at the pre-dawn mass in Holy Cross Church this morning on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "¡Viva la Virgen!" The hall was filled with families who braved a heavy downpour of rain, many small children dressed in Mexican costumes and young women with ribbons in their braids. The mass was preceded by Las Mañanitas, songs to the Virgen led by a mariachi trio, followed by the Rosary, all in Spanish. A large copy of the original painting of Guadalupe on the inside of Juan Diego's tilma or cloak was hanging to the right of the altar, surrounded by dozens and dozens of roses in every color. Many people knelt down before the icon during the service. Afterwards, a reception was held in the church hall and hot chocolate was served, along with Mexican sweet breads.

Octavio Paz, Mexico's Nobel laureat for literature, has written that "the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery." When I traveled in Mexico two years ago, I encountered two icons everywhere I went, that of Guadalupe and that of painter Frida Kahlo. Discovering that I had a five-hour layover at the airport in Mexico City, I thought long and hard about where I would go, either to Kahlo's Blue House in Coyoacan to the south, or to the Basilica de Guadelupe in the north of the city where the original image hangs on the wall behind the altar. I chose the latter. The streets were filled with pilgrims, and in the wide plaza many of them were on their knees. The Basilica that Sunday morning was packed to overflowing, and I walked around the side to a door where pilgrims and tourists interested in viewing the picture could enter. We were carried quickly by the icon on two moving walk-ways, but many remained standing at either side, staring up at the Virgin with tears in their eyes. I was overwhelmed by the power and respect the Virgin of Guadalupe has in the popular religious imagination.

Last week I went to see "Guadalupe," a new film by Santiago Parra, an Ecuadorian who lives in Barcelona. The story includes a Jewish businessman who is also a Guadalupaño, a devotee of the Virgen, and a Muslim researcher who reveals information about the history of Guadalupe as he writes a TV script. Contemporary events are interspersed with scenes of Juan Diego's vision of the Virgin in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac outside of Mexico City and Miguel Sanchez who first wrote down the story in 1648. Juan Diego, who was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, speaks in the film the native language Nahuatl. Parra said he got this idea from Mel Gibson whose actors spoke Aramaic in "The Passion of the Christ." Asked for proof of his vision by the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Juan Diego follows Mary's directions to a field of roses where he picks an armful, wrapping the blooms in his cloak ,and delivers them to the bishop. Inside of his cloak, as the roses (this was in December when there were no such flowers in Mexico City) tumbled out was the image which now hangs in the Basilica.

Now I am challenged by the idea of miracles, and although I am impressed by the impassioned popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe throughout the Spanish-speaking world, I find it difficult to believe that God sent the mother of Christ to the indigenous people of New Spain at precisely the time when Spanish priests were attempting with Bible and sword to convert the Aztec people to Christianity. The many injustices of this mass conversion of the "pagans" are well known to anyone who has read the writings of Bartolome De Las Casas. But the interesting thing about Guadalupe is that she empowered the conquered people to claim Jesus, or at least his mother, as their own. She is seen as the "first mestiza" and the "first Mexican," the progenitor of a new race of people blended together from European and Indian in a way that never occured in the more racist America to the north. Guadalupe's image was held aloft by Mexican revolutionaries, from Hidalgo and Morelos to Bolivar and Zapata, to unite the country. Writer Judy King has said, "The Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that binds this disparate nation into a whole." A Jesuit has written, "We say that we are more Guadalupaños than Mexicans. We say that because our Lady Guadalupe is our symbol, our identity."

But is this symbol real? Did Juan Diego (if he ever existed at all) really have a vision of the Virgin Mary and did her picture appear miraculously in his clock? The writer and filmaker of "Guadalupe" marshal all the evidence of the side of belief. They admit that her name is probably from the Arabic and that there is a Virgin of Guadalupe in Spain. But they cite a Nobel prize winner in chemistry who said in the 1930s that the fabric of the cloak was not from a known mineral, vegetable, or animal source. Claims have been made about the eyes of the Virgin in the image which are said to contain images of witnesses present when the cloak was shown to the Bishop. How could such a fragile material survive for over 500 years without any apparent deterioration?

No counter arguments are given in the film, but there are many. The hill of Tepeyac was the site of the home of an indigenous goddess named Tonantzin. Most mysterious is the 117-year gap between Juan Diego's vision and the first written report (an earlier document has been declared a blatant forgery). An art restoration expert in 2002 found there was nothing unusual about the cloth or paint used for the picture, and another researcher claimed he could identify at least three distinct layers in the painting, one of which was signed and dated. The original showed striking similarities to the Spanish version, and the fabric was composed of hemp and linen, not agave fibers as has been believed. But most telling, to me, is that Bishop Zumárraga's memoirs contain no mention of Juan Diego, although he did write: "The Redeemer of the world doesn't want any more miracles, because they are no longer necessary."

So, what if Juan Diego's vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a fabrication? What if it was intended to coopt the power of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin in order to win converts for Christianity, and
what if it was used for political purposes on the part of homegrown revolutionaries to unite citizens of the newly created nation of Mexico. And today, the Virgin of Guadalupe provides a center and a home for strangers in a strange land, undocumented immigrants in the United States who are trying to maintain their identity under the threat of persecution and deportation? There is historical truth, which tells us what "really" happened, and there is religious truth, which gives our lives meaning. If you were suffering and were looking for salvation, which would you choose?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mel's Anti-War Slasher Film

No, I didn't go to see "Apocalypto," the third film in Mel Gibson's "bucket o' blood" trilogy this past weekend. For the past month I have been watching the previews for this film about the last violent days of the Mayan civilization, before the Spanish Christians arrived with sword and Bible to finish the cruel Indians off, and I was almost seduced into seeing it. You will not be surprised to hear "Apocalypto" was the box office champ, pulling in gross ticket sales of over $14 million. But this was far short of the more than $80 million Gibson earned on the first weekend of "The Passion of the Christ." Both films, along with his "Braveheart," are reputed to the most bloody and violent films ever made. This may perhaps say more about the film-going public than it does about Mel Gibson.

I have been enjoying the reviews, though. My favorite so far was written by Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. He's concerned about Mel.
It would be inappropriate and probably inaccurate for any critic to pronounce on the mental health of a filmmaker based on his movie. Yet no description of "Apocalypto" can even begin, much less be complete, without noting -- say in a colloquial, nonclinical, anecdotal sort of way -- that it seems like something made by a crazy person. It's unrelenting, a succession of blood-soaked disaster, an artfully designed parade of cruelty that would make the Marquis de Sade get up and say, "Enough already."
LaSalle adds an "Advisory": "This film contains nudity, decapitations, forced sex, throat cuttings, arrows in the neck, arrows through the mouth and a scene in which a jaguar bites into a man's head. Sensitive viewers may find some of this disturbing." Indeed! The reviewer for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Lawrence Toppman, was no less subtle:
The film is a middle finger thrust at everyone who said the violence in "Braveheart" and "The Passion of the Christ" was too extreme. It's "Braveheart" without historical significance and "Passion" without spirituality, though it dabbles in both, and it represents as brazen an act of career suicide as I can recall from a star director. If he were a first-timer, he'd never work again.
I didn't see POTC (as the insiders call it) either. As far as I'm concerned, the message Jesus brought was about love, not blood, torture and cruelty.

So what's up with Mel? He is reputedly a talented and skilled filmmaker, and not a bad actor, if you like the characters he's played in the Mad Max and Lethel Weapon series of films. His regressive Catholic views are well known and he got in trouble recently for making anti-semetic remarks while being arrested for drunk driving. He may be an Australian, but he's also a good old boy, and apparently the conservatives in this country have seen him as one of their own. LaSalle, in his blog, wrote that his critical review of "Apocalypto" is being criticized from the right by people who seem to think that Gibson is standing up to the liberals in Hollywood by making a film they wouldn't like. "I think there are a lot of people," LaSalle wrote, "who see in Gibson someone they respect for one reason: They think Gibson is as stupid as they are. And they want to believe that being stupid is no obstacle in the pursuit of a successful life."

The film could be seen as a conservative critique of modern culture because it is about the decline and fall of a corrupt and cruel society (one that lacks American family values). It begins with a quote from pop philosopher Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." But the early publicity for "Apocalypto" hinted that it was somehow an anti-war movie, even though the actor had been a supporter of President Bush in the past. Last September, Gibson took a print of his movie to a science fiction and horror film festival in Austin. There for reporters he drew parallels between the Mayan civilization on the brink of collapse and America's present situation. "What's human sacrifice," he asked, "if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?"

Whoa, Mel! The next time you're in Santa Cruz, will you stop by the anti-war demonstration at the Town Clock and shake our hands, like the anti-war politician Dennis Kucinich did a few weeks ago? Now I get it, your movie is really an allegory, and the Mayan tribes slaughtering each other are stand-ins for the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq. But wait a minute. Who are the Spaniards meant to symbolize? They come into the Americas with horses, guns, steel helmets, and disease germs, and proceed to pacify (i.e. kill off) all the warring tribes, the Mayans as well as the Aztecs and the Incas. Are they supposed to be us? If so, then Iraq is a crusade, right, for justice, Christ, and western superiority? But then...

Toppman, in the Observer, wonders:
Is he saying these Mayans are like Americans today, fighting amongst themselves while a terrorist threat masses beyond our borders? That's an interesting idea, though it makes the Spaniards -- who brought over the Christianity that Gibson fervently espouses -- into terrorists.
What worries me more than filmmakers like Gibson who are raising the slasher film to high art is the audience for this stuff. I remember when my two older boys were teenagers and they talked me into taking them to a midnight screening of "Dawn of the Dead," an early vampire slasher classic. I was horrified and appalled, while they, along with the rest of the young audience, found the blood and gore screamingly funny. Slasher films have come a long way since then (LaSalle called POTC "the Jesus chainsaw massacre"), and they seem to be more popular than ever. We're awash in blood and circuses on the screen and the barbarians are in the lobby.

It might be that horror and slasher films are the modern day equivalent of ghost stories, and that we laugh at them to asuage our fears and ease our anxieties about the terrors of everyday life (accidents, disease, mental illness like maybe Mel's). Rudolf Otto wrote about this in The Idea of the Holy. Ghost stories give us some inkling of the awesomeness of the divine. On the other hand, films like POTC, "Braveheart" and "Apocalypto" might numb us to the cruelties so prevalent in the world despite the march of technological progress. I know the link between pretend violence on the screen and real violence is not yet proven, but what are we teaching our children? On the other hand, why is it that any kind of bloody cruelty can be shown on the screen while our media routinely censors the photos and videos coming out of the Middle East? Why is fake slaughter more acceptable than the real thing?

Friday, December 08, 2006

What's So Original About Sin?

Today is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. According to the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Mary, the mother of Christ, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. In one of the only two dogmas proclaimed as infallible by a pope, Pius IX declared in 1854 that
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
The other infallible dogma is the Assumption of Mary, proclaimed in 1950 by Pius XII.

Why is Mary so highly favored? Because as the presumed Mother of God, generations of theologians as well as humble believers could not believe that she was, like the rest of us, tainted by original sin. In addition, she was not stained by sex. When the stories of Jesus began to be written down, two of the texts, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, speak of her as a "virgin" when she became pregnant. Even death could not touch her, for she was assumed body and soul into heaven, according to the teachings of the Church.

As a humble follower of the Roman Catholic path (with frequent diversions down side roads to Buddhism and Hinduism), I find all of this very hard to take. And I write this not to denigrate the power and influence of representations of Mary. I see the focus on Mary balancing somewhat the patriarchal drift of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. An icon of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has empowered Latinos for generations, returning some of the independence and self-determination they lost at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. And Mary is an exquisite symbol for openness to the divine and the incarnation of the Holy Spirit within each of us. What bothers me is that the Church commits the sin of hubris by making her special. Who can identify with the Mother of God who remains unblemished by original sin?

I also have a problem with the notion of "original sin." According to the RC Catechism:
By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.
Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin".
As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin.
Much of the theology for this comes from St. Augustine who had a very Manichean (black/white, good/evil) view of human nature. Matthew Fox has countered this idea of sin as a crime which requires atonement with his theology of "original blessing," which cites God's blanket approval of his creation from the book of Genesis.

The idea of sin encoded in our DNA for something done by the primal man and woman, and for which only a blood sacrifice can set things aright, seems absurd to me. The Greek word for sin in the New Testament is hamartia which literally means "missing the mark." Salvation or redemption, in the perspective of this translation, would be a correction of aim so that the target could be hit, or the goal achieved. This I can understand. And Mary is a paragon for the straight shooter.

While we're on Mary, let's discuss her virginity, another translation error. There are two words for virgin in Hebrew, 'almah, which can also mean young woman, and bethulah, which is more properly translated as virgin. This was is turn translated by the Greeks as parthenos, which means strictly virgin, and by Jerome into its Latin equivalent, virgo. The more familiar passage about Mary's virginity in the Gospel of Luke is patterned after Isaiah 7:14 where the word used is 'almah. Only Matthew and Luke speak of virginity. Neither Mark nor the letters of the apostle Paul, written years earlier, make any mention of it. Quite likely the idea was borrowed from neighboring pagan religions in order to show the superiority of the Christian way.

Because Mary's virtue is dependent on the absence of sexual relations with a man, the history of Christianity has been marked by a hatred of sex and the body. And some of us are struggling to reconcile our spirituality and our sexuality with the help of the Gospel message of reconciliation and love, not desite it. In the reading for today from Luke, Mary responds to the news that she bears the divine son within her by saying to the messenger of God, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." May we all so freely choose to follow the will of God, free of the noxious label of "original sin."

Martin Buber's "Thou"

I have struggled for many years with the word "God," trying to determine if it has a meaning for me. Most atheists, like their contemporary spokesmen Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, want to argue that the word "God," like "unicorn," refers only to a figment of cultural imagination. Most of the People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe that the word points to something real, as real as an atom, a rock or the sun; indeed, it stands for the supreme reality. I stand in the middle, between a rock and no place, wanting to know God but doubting the existence of that being described in a word.

For several years I have gathered periodically with a group of people to study the writings of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber with Ken Kramer, a retired professor who taught religious studies at San Jose State University. Kramer studied with Maurice Friedman, Buber's former student and biographer, and he wrote down some of his
insights from a lifetime of reading Buber in Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue, in 2003.

Buber, who was a scholar of Hasidic mysticism as well as a professor (and considered a founder) of existentialism, experienced what has been called "God" as the "eternal Thou." In his book "I and Thou," published in 1923, he contrasted the dialogue of I and Thou with the monologue of I and It. Any connection between creation, humanity and the divine, was a dialogue, an encounter, a meeting, and it could not be idealized or objectified. God can not be a thing, a point of reference for a word coined by humans. "Real faith," he writes, "begins when the dictionary is put down." (Buber quotes from The Way of Response, 1966).

I find the thought that God, or ultimate meaning, cannot be captured in words to be liberating. It is what attracts me to apophatic theology which argues that God is ineffable and can only be referred to be negative statements, i.e. God is not an object, etc. Thomas Merton, in one of my favorite quotes, speaks of the encounter with God through contemplative prayer, or meditation, as an earth (and word) shattering experience:
Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center of the existential altar which simply “is.” In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because God is not a “what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962, 13).
I'm sure Buber would agree with this, and no doubt Merton was familiar with Buber's writings.

Much religion and spirituality is other-worldly, focusing on the spirit or soul and the afterlife or the cycle of rebirth. There is a depreciation of the body and the world, whether it be in aesceticism or celibacy. This ignores the counter-idea that creation is good, all of it. Refreshingly, Martin Buber argues that we encounter God only in and through the world and our neighbor.
...the God of the universe, the God who loves His world, only in the measure in which he himself learns to love the world.
God speaks to man in the things and beings that He sends him in life; man answers through his action in relation to just those things and beings.
God speaks to every man through the life which He gives him again and again. Therefore man can only answer God with the whole of life – with the way in which he lives this given life.
Buber wrote in German and the translations of his thought into English can be dense and often difficult to understand without multiple readings. In this respect, he resembles his fellow German philosopher Heideggger. Buber died in the mid-1960s, before inclusive language became more common, and so there is a persistent "he" in his work that is distracting to today's ear. But I find his grounded and embedded descriptions of God to be worth the trouble of interpreting his prose.

"God," Buber writes, "does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” We meet God in the minutae of daily life, when we bring our whole self into dialogue with the other, a neighbor or even with nature. In this way we "hallow" life, make it holy, and God comes to be in the process.
Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you…Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet Him…He who loves brings God and the world together.

This nonobjectified God is a far cry from what we find in a literalist reading of religious texts. I realized this last week when I went to see "The Nativity Story," Catherine Hardwicke's new film of the birth of Jesus. I had high hopes for a new rendering of the timeless story of the incarnation of the divine on earth. Hardwicke directed the gritty "Thirteen" which portrayed the stress and anguish of teens growing up in contemporary culture, and she chose Keisha Castle-Hughes, the girl from "Whale Rider," to portray Mary. Scenes were filmed in Morocco and she used dark-skinned local actors to portray the Semitic people of Jesus's time. The Christmas story has always moved me, ever since I listened to it among the other Biblical stories on the radio show "The Greatest Story Ever Told" when I was a child in North Carolina. Mary is the perfect example of someone open to the will of God, open to the divine within. Surely this story can be told in many ways. Jean-Luc Godard made a valiant attempt with his film, "Hail Mary, " in 1985, which was highly criticized by religious conservatives.

But it was not to be. Hardwicke's film is a cartoon, a cheesy attempt to bring a King James version of the event to the screen with tacky effects more common to movies made in the 1950s or earlier. The angels, with their white robes and curled hair, backlit to emphasize holiness, are laughable. Likewise the star, a made-in-Hollywood creation. Castle-Hughes either cannot act after all (her facial expression seems frozen into a grimace) or she received poor direction from Hardwicke. Only the three wise men are vaguely interesting. Writer Mike Rich, a Native American who has written a number of family-oriented films, makes one half-hearted attempt at humor. When Mary, whose premature pregnancy has upset their village, leaves on a donkey with Joseph for Bethlehem, Joseph says, "I bet they're glad to get rid of us." Surely there were other ways to make these eternal characters believable.

This is what happens when you try to turn myth (in the highest sense of the word) into literal reality. For the same reason, many novels come out flat and one-dimensional when transfered to the screen. Martin Buber alerts us to the dangers of turning God (and her manifestations) into an object. The divine can only be described obliquely in stories and parables, in prayers and song. Not in factual history. All attempts to represent God are designed to fail (perhaps this is why Islam prohibits it). And if we cut off the spirit from the flesh, both wither.

Tomorrow is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, a piece of dogma that escapes my attempts at understanding. It seems to me a mistake to make Mary special; her importance for us humans is in her ordinariness. (And maybe this could be said of Jesus as well.) Next Tuesday is the more plebian Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day very dear to Latinos. A film version of her story, "Guadalupe: The Miracle Revealed," is opening at the Nick. Tomorrow I will try and say something about Mary's significance for women, the poor, and especially for Latinos.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent: Watchful Waiting & Being Here Now

How can we be prepared for what's coming from the future while at the same time be fully present? It's a paradox, a koan if you will, at the heart of the Christian call.

As a convert to Roman Catholicism, I did not grow up with the liturgical year which begins today with the first Sunday of Advent. Every December, since I was confirmed more than twenty years ago, I scratch my head and try to remember what Advent is all about. My faith has yet to be fully formed. The word means "the arrival of something that has been awaited." For Christians, this is the birth of God on earth. So during the four weeks of advent we anticipate the coming of Emmanuel, "God with us," on December 25, Christmas.

Right away there is a problem. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a linear religion, with a beginning -- the creation of the universe -- a middle -- the incarnation of the divine in a human being -- and an end -- the Second Coming and Judgment Day. But the liturgical year, the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection, are cyclical celebrations. Linear time is a relatively new, Western concept. You can't have Progress without history. Clocks are sacred objects. In the philosophies of most of humanity, however, time is cyclical. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation are more forgiving. If at first you don't succeed, you have an eternity to make it right.

This paradox of time and eternity pervades Christian dogma. The Kingdom of God is coming, but it is already here, within us. Jesus was born in time but is reborn in the hearts of his followers, and he comes to us every day in our neighbor. In the Eucharist Christ is consumed, again and again, an eternal sacrifice for our salvation. And, we are told in the scripture readings for today, he will come again "in a cloud with power and great glory" to judge us at the end of days. We pray that God will "protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ." But we are also told by Jesus that "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." We bear the divine within the cave of our hearts; for the Muslim, Allah is "closer than our jugular vein." How can we possibly reconcile linear time with cyclical time?

Despite having to live in it, I am not very fond of linear time. And even though I have a doctorate in history, I do not have much faith in reconstructions of the past. No, I am more attracted to the idea popularized in the 1960s by Ram Dass: be here now. Buddha taught that dwelling on the past and the future brings added suffering. We desperately try to avoid pain and relentlessly pursue pleasure, and in the process we ignore the present. But in cyclical time, presence is everything.

"Watchful waiting" is the sonorous description of the treatment I've chosen for my prostate cancer. It means keeping an eye on my PSA numbers from blood tests and noticing any changes in urinary function. But mostly it means living now, in the present, trusting that my cancer is slow moving and does not require invasive surgery or radiation.

Buddha means "the awakened one" and his teaching was designed to wake us up. In today's reading from Luke's Gospel, Jesus tells us to "be vigilant." Elsewhere he tells us to "stay awake," to be alert to what might come. This attitude does not dwell on the future but rather savors the present. For it is only when we are truly awake, and resting in the presence of the divine spirit within and without, that we are fully alive.

This Advent season I look forward (mindfully, in the present) to more than just the birth of Christ (stripped, hopefully, of most of its consumerist connotations). In two weeks I leave to spend the holiday in London followed by a pilgrimage to Shantivanam and several other ashrams in India. This is my third trip and I will be leading a group from my sangha in Santa Cruz. We met last Thursday for a ritual to inaugurate our pilgrimage, which included mass, seated on the ground Indian-style, and a feast. Last night several of the pilgrims gathered for a potluck dinner, and to trade travel tips.

Before my departure, there has been a flurry of activity. Yesterday was the annual Christmas parade in downtown Santa Cruz and there was a procession of antique cars interspersed with groups of kids
in costumes who showered parade watchers with candy (to the point where one child asked his mother if it was Halloween). There was a large blowup of Santa on a surf board (despite what Huntington Beach thinks, we are still "Surf City"), and, inexplicably, two bands of bagpippers. The merchants, unphased by Buy Nothing Day the day after Thanksgiving, were no doubt happy at this kickoff to the Xmas shopping frenzy.

After the parade, Shirlee and I went to see "Shut Up & Sing," the new documentary about the Dixie Chicks and the furor they caused by daring to criticize El Presidente Bush on the eve of the Iraq debacle three years ago. The film was made by Barbara Kopple, who won an Academy Award in the 1970s for her documentary "Harlan County U.S.A.," and Cecilia Peck, Gregory's daughter. Not only did "Shut Up & Sing" document the free speech issue in depth, but it is perhaps the best film I've ever seen about a musical group, managing to show the humanity of the artists while at the same time showcasing their music. After hearing that the conservative country music audience had boycotted their music, I bought the group's "Taking the Long Way" CD just on principle, even though I hadn't been a fan. This excellent film shows a group of strong women taking control of their lives.

Last night I was also in the company of a group of strong women, at a benefit for Shekhinah Mountainwater, an author and leader in the goddess and wiccan movement, who is battling uterine cancer. My daughter Molly, who read her book Ariadne's Thread when she was 12, was one of the performers, along with Shekhinah's son, Frey Faust, an internationally known dancer who is also Molly's dance teacher. The hall was filled with Shekhinah's tribe of crones along with younger women and a few supportive men. I confess to feeling a little out of place when feminists celebrate the goddess without mentioning any need for trans-gender community, but I was proud when my daughter sang two songs, one about witches, in a strong clear voice.

May this Advent season be a rich time of anticipations and presence for all.