Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Woodward: Ash Wednesday

Among the many spiritual adjustments that Lent encourages us to undertake, surely one of the most important--and yet one of the most antithetical to the spirit of modernity--is the re-ordering of priorities that should come with the contemplation of our mortality. It's an image of that mortality, after all, that we get smeared on our foreheads. And although the new liturgy allows a rather bland alternative commentary on the symbolism of the day--"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"--the traditional (and in my opinion preferable) admonition makes clear just what the symbol means:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.

The medieval theme of memento mori was not a morbid dwelling on death but an exhortation to remember, given the fact that each of us will die one day, the things that are eternally important. The ashes on our foreheads will do their job if they invite us to consider what is worth our time here on earth and what isn't. In the haunting line from T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday":

Teach us to care and not to care.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Woodward: Abraham Lincoln

I think it can fairly be argued that Abraham Lincoln was the most subtle thinker and the most elegant prose stylist of all American presidents. Here, in his own words supplied to a Chicago newspaper in June 1860, is an account of his formal education.

"Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want."

All education, in the last analysis, is self-education. Abraham Lincoln simply exemplifies that truth more dramatically than most people.

Care to speculate on how many current members of Congress have "nearly mastered the six books of Euclid"?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Woodward: Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

Marian apparitions don't figure prominently in my devotional life, but I am emotionally attached to two -- Guadalupe and Lourdes -- partly because of the convincingly miraculous nature of the apparitions themselves, and partly because the Virgin reported to have appeared in those two places is so immediately and authentically identifiable in her words and actions as the Mother of Our Lord.

As for the miraculous element, I know of no saner and more commonsensical analysis than Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's, in the little book on Lourdes that he wrote after making a pilgrimage there in 1908.

There is no arguing with people who say that, since there is nothing but Nature, no process can be other than natural. There is no sign, even from heaven, that could break down the intellectual prejudice of such people. If they saw Jesus Christ Himself in glory, they could always say that "at present science cannot account for the phenomenon of a luminous body apparently seated upon a throne, but no doubt it will do so in the course of time." If they saw a dead and corrupting man rise from the grave, they could always argue that he could not have been dead and corrupting, or he could not have risen from the grave. Nothing but the Last Judgment could convince such persons. Even when the trumpet sounds, I believe that some of them, when they have recovered from their first astonishment, will make remarks about aural phenomena.

But for the rest of us, who believe in God and His Son and the Mother of God on quite other grounds--because our intellect is satisfied, our heart kindled, our will braced by the belief; and because without that belief all life falls into chaos, and human evidence is nullified, and all noble motive and emotion cease--for us, who have received the gift of faith, in however small a measure, Lourdes is enough. Christ and His Mother are with us. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Is not that, after all, the simplest theory?

For anyone who wants a painless--in fact, an entertaining and inspiring--introduction to the story of Lourdes, I can recommend the classic movie The Song of Bernadette. In the title role, Jennifer Jones won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Actress, deservedly. And Gladys Cooper and Anne Revere should both have won the award for Best Supporting Actress. My favorite scene is the opening two minutes of this clip, depicting the first miraculous cure.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Woodward: Civilization...

...does have its small triumphs. It will soon be legal to buy a beer in the town where William Faulkner was born.

Not that Faulkner himself was particularly known for drinking...beer. Bourbon was his libation of choice, and he chose it often. He once explained the health benefits of his heavy drinking by pointing out that "there's a lot of nourishment in an acre of corn." He was a very civilized man.

Legal beer sales may seem an inauspicious victory for civilization but, as the article linked above points out, Faulkner himself once campaigned for the measure. And wouldn't it please him to know that from now on, in New Albany, Mississippi, "the human heart in conflict with itself" will at least be able to go get a beer.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Woodward: Renata Tebaldi

Today would have been her 88th birthday.

Hers was one of the most beautiful voices ever to issue from a human throat, and (much less significantly) one of the first sounds that made an opera lover out of me. She recorded prolifically, thank God, which guarantees that her legacy is secure for generations to come.

Here's a sample of what made her one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. The Buenos Aires audience gets a little carried away at that final A flat. But who can blame them?