The good monsignor

At one level, what follows is an amusing anecdote about childhood. At another, it tells you all you need to know about religion at ground zero, away from the ponderances of theologians.

When I was a child, I went to St. Philip Neri School, the beginning of 12 years of Catholic education. For the most part, it was an excellent education, sometimes in ways no one there could have predicted, or would have acknowledged. I’ve long since stopped being a Catholic, but I miss some of the trappings of the church.

I’m thinking particularly of Confession, the sacrament. Even as early as the first grade, we children were marched to the church next door every Friday morning to confess our sins.  It’s a ritual that, on balance, is a good thing in a general way, a kind of cleansing of the spirit, a renewal and a chance to start over repeated frequently enough to have a continuing effect. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side is that some people used its recurring absolution as a clean slate on which to write more transgressions; think Mafia, for example, or Mussolini or Franco. Of course, you could circumvent the need for regular redemption with good timing. It’s said that Constantine put off baptism and confession until his deathbed, realizing that as emperor of Rome there was no way he could avoid any number of sins per diem.

At the other end of the spectrum were we children. Our problem was that there was nothing to confess half the time. Disobedience, yes, there was always that, but it felt a bit repetitious after the first dozen or so times. There were always “impure thoughts,” but, honestly, at the age of seven or eight, we had no idea what they were, except that they had something to do with girls and boys. I suspect it was the priests who heard our confessions that needed to meditate on that more than we did, at least until the sixth grade or thereabouts.  So, we made up fictitious lists of sins. The priests must have thought we already had one foot in hell to hear all the things we did in a week.

Of course, it was not always so. I remember one Friday morning in the third or fourth grade when, as we marched across the playground to church, my best friend told me he had something terrible to confess, and he hoped he could be forgiven. The day before, he had been accosted on the way home by a public-school boy, a bit older and larger than he was. It happened, in that curious way that beggars belief, that he had a fork with him, who knows why. As the older boy lunged at him, my friend struck out with the fork. It stuck, and drew blood, albeit not much. The older boy’s eyes got huge, and he pulled out the fork, threw it on the ground and ran away, crying. My friend was sure there was major time in purgatory in store for him, if not hell itself.

Well, as it happened, as we lined up in front of the confessional to wait our turn, in came Monsignor Busald. He was the pastor in the parish, which at the time ran to four or five other priests, any of whom could have been hearing confessions that day. But no, it was Busald.

He was ancient, a bit crabby, and no longer given to keeping up appearances. He reserved the daily 5:30 AM masses for himself, and he was the only priest in the parish who would make the altar boy go in the back to get more wine in the middle of mass. He was also hard of hearing, and like many such people, talked more loudly than necessary.

And so, it came about that when my friend entered the confessional, full of trepidation, we heard everything.

“Mumble, mumble, mumble…”

“What? Speak up, boy!”

“Monsignor, I stabbed a boy with a fork!”

Outside the confessional, it was all we could do to stifle our laughter, while the good sister whose name is lost in the mists of time, our teacher, turned crimson with embarrassment.

There was an uncomfortably long span of silence. Then, the monsignor:

“Was he Catholic?”

“No, Monsignor, he was protestant.”

Another awkward silence.

“Well, that’s all right then. Next!”

The new Puritans: like the old Puritans, but without the excuse of religion

“The difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” according to Will Rogers, “is the Democrat is a cannibal. They have to live off each other, while the Republicans, why, they live off the Democrats.”

Here’s the great irony of our political age: fundamentalist conservatives are willing to overlook almost any moral transgression in the interest of advancing their agenda, while we in the opposition gleefully kill our darlings for the slightest whiff of incorrectness.  The Right may be hypocritical, but the Left is downright prudish, conflating the most minor peccadillos and verbal gaffes with Trump/Epstein scale abomination.  How on earth did this happen?

It happened because we, the left and leftish, have poured disdain on the right for the sin of hypocrisy. We have, in fact, made hypocrisy our favored attack, second only to accusations of moral transgression, and, since we’ve been harping on this ad nauseum instead of arguing the merits of our positions, we can hardly ignore transgressions among ourselves. This is especially true since a favorite tactic of the Trumpist variant of the right is to accuse its enemies of its own failings. In effect, we’ve created a moral standard, burnished it with a zero-tolerance ethic, and handed it to the right to use as a primary weapon against us. Lost in all of this tu quoque badinage is any discussion of the real world merits of our policy differences.

Brilliant.

 

 

 

 

Christmas among the alien hordes

I’m an immigrant. A friend recently asked me what Christmas was like in my family. What started out as a short answer kept growing longer and longer. Here’s the result.

When I was growing up, I lived in two countries at once; outside the doors was America, inside was Latvia. It was a permeable border, at least in one direction. We children tracked in a lot of America, stuck to our shoes, so to speak; very little went out in the other direction.

Latvian culture is peasant culture. Every tradition we hold dear, every quirk of character or demeanor, every inexplicable Latvian habit, beloved or belabored, ultimately relates to the fact that we’ve been under someone else’s thumb for centuries, right up to recent history. I won’t go into detail; it’s readily accessible on Wikipedia, and this is a Christmas story.

You’re already familiar with one of our traditions: cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside, and decorating it with ornaments and lights, candles in the old days, electric lights now. That was a Latvian thing long before it caught on elsewhere. If you’re skeptical that such a tiny backwoods place could affect the great imperial cultures of Europe, remember that most of them tramped their way through there at one time or another, leaving their own distinct footprints, but also taking one or two habits back home.

As a result, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much in our living room that was different from yours. Dig a bit deeper, though, and things get a bit odd. There was a Latvian version of Santa Claus; I think “Old Man Christmas” would be an adequate translation. He was not significantly different from the American version, except that to get the presents he left under the tree, children had to sing a song, recite a poem, or otherwise entertain the adults. In our house, thankfully, that didn’t happen much. In fact, there was no Santa nonsense of any kind. I once got into big trouble at my school in the first grade for telling the other children there was no Santa. Sister Paul Marie, who spent a considerable part of the day admonishing us to always be truthful, scolded me for ruining their Christmas. I was mortified and confused.

We were Catholics, due to an accident of history that had my father’s region of Latvia under the control of Poland at the time the rest of the country, run mostly by Germans, was busy converting to Lutheranism. Before either of them, Latvian religion was essentially animistic paganism. Our gods were forces of nature.

My father took to Catholicism like a fish to water; my mother, still secretly a believer in the old religion, barely went through the motions. She also had Rom ancestors somewhere in her line and indulged in tarot cards and the like. She often “didn’t feel well” when it was time for church.

Except Christmas. Christmas had midnight mass. If you’re Protestant, you missed out on one of the great ritual pageants of religion, especially in my day, when it was all done in Latin. The music was magisterial: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven with an enormous, magnificent choir that materialized out of nowhere at Christmastime and dissolved again for the rest of the year, accompanied by an organ that could compete with arena rock for room-filling capacity. The mass itself was performed by three priests in their most ornate vestments, embroidered and gilded affairs that would be the envy of Liberace. They were attended to by a squadron of altar boys, including some older boys returning especially for the privilege. It was a solemn high mass, and the liturgy was sung by the priests, a rare treat when it happened to be Father Frey, who had a beautiful tenor voice. It was later rumored, when he disappeared from the parish, that he had run off with one of the nuns at the school, probably not true, as they were all accounted for. All the same, we took great comfort from the possibility that even he might be human.

Every year we bundled up at about 11:30 PM and trundled out the door for the long walk to the church, always in deep snow (at least in my memory). Once I had heard that a friend’s father had been found frozen to death the night before, after passing out on the sidewalk on his way home from the bar. The place where he had been found happened to be right on our usual route to the church. On that occasion we walked solemnly past the spot, which I was surprised to learn looked no different from normal, then continued on as our spirits slowly lifted again. By the time we got to the church, filled to the rafters with warmth and light, we were ready for the spectacle. It was a full hour and a half later when we slowly walked back home, tired and bedazzled.

But the real story of a Latvian Christmas is the food. If the living room looked as American as anyone else’s, it was full-on old country in the kitchen.

There were piparkūks, which were ginger snaps with a nip to them. It took three days of fermenting the dough before they went in the oven. There were pirāgi, often translated as bacon rolls, a woefully inadequate description of something that was half pastry, half bacon and onion with lots of salt and pepper. There was cottage cheese cake to munch on between the piparkūks and pirāgi and a huge bowl of nuts by the tree just in case you foolishly wandered a bit too far from the dining room.

The centerpiece was the truly transcendent goose, basted with sweet vermouth and roasted to crisp perfection by my mother. She later told us she had gotten the recipe from the Reader’s Digest cookbook, but it was Latvian all the same. No real Latvian cook would pass up a mouthwatering recipe from anywhere, or fail to transform it into something undeniably Latvian.

This was accompanied by sauerkraut stewed with a hambone, sweetened with apples, and fermented several days in the back porch, in short, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the kraut you may be familiar with from the supermarket. Boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga mixed together with butter formed a delicious dish I remember as being called something like “chivich,” but none of my friends or acquaintances, Latvian or not, finds that name familiar; perhaps another cookbook inspiration.

Dessert was incomparable. Usually bubert, a billowy, eggy pudding enhanced with ķīsel, a luscious sweet fruity sauce, made with rhubarb when it was available.

Then, out the door past the dormant-for-the-day snowshovel to the white, snow covered park, our personal tundra, with the sledding hill in the middle, where we slid recklessly down the slope and across the road at the bottom, almost never all the way into the frozen creek on the other side.

And, that, my friends, was Christmas among the wicked foreigners.

A Christmas message

Philosophers, mystics, and even cognitive scientists seem to agree that there is no reality, that it’s all an illusion.  The vague, ambiguous category of persons called neuroscientists will take it a step further, and insist that consciousness itself is an illusion.  If you ask them what, exactly, is it that’s having the illusion, if not a consciousness, then you’re subjected to that look that combines disappointment, concern, and pity.

And yet, If I’m driving my illusion down the road, I can’t steer it into your illusion coming the other way without resulting in the two of us having substantially the same illusion about the outcome.

On the other hand, if the whole thing is my illusion only, conscious or not, I am, in effect, God. In which case I refuse to generate a Son just to send him down for you to torture to death and then coopt for your own purposes.

Merry Christmas.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.