Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lenten Observance

I like very much this op-ed piece from yesterday's New York Times:

Finding Our Way Back to Lent
Published: April 10, 2009

MOST American Catholics were well acquainted with poverty even before the stock market crash of 1929. My mother quit school after eighth grade to add a wage to the family income. Later, she supported my father as he went to night school. Like millions of Catholics, their faith was a source of meaning and dignity at a time when both were in short supply.

The Depression stamped them for life. Born into the aftermath, I was shaped by those years as well. During these past weeks, I’ve worried that we might be facing an unexpected replay of our parents’ and grandparents’ economic distress. But I’ve also been remembering more vividly the Lenten seasons of my midcentury childhood, when I most sharply felt the pull of Catholicism.

I came along well after the Depression, but I understand what Carroll means by "the pull of Catholicism." I feel that strongly during Lent--more so than Easter itself, more so than Christmas (which, it must be said, feels sort of "generically Christian" to me anymore--not secular, just not specifically described by any given component of Christianity). And we all know that I'm not the most observant of Catholics, do we not?

The Catholic theology of damnation was mitigated, if not eliminated, by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The dread of Hell evaporated as Catholics embraced a far more positive, all-merciful God. Those wallet cards disappeared overnight, and we started eating meat on Fridays. The sadomasochist in the sky, divine zapper, was gone, along with the gatekeeping role of the clergy.

Lent remains an important part of the Catholic calendar, but self-denial now, more suggested than required, aims less at penitence than at compassionate identification with, as Pope Benedict wrote at the beginning of this year’s Lent, the impoverished “situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.” Like Lent, today’s economic crisis can help stir that overdue empathy.

I grew up in that golden glow of Vatican II--all but faded now, I regret to report. We were always encouraged to "give up" something for Lent, and to fast and abstain (in those meatless Friday times, the latter seemed a little pointless). I was pretty peeved a few years ago when a local priest, from the pulpit, in talking up the idea of "giving up" something for Lent saw fit to ridicule the notion of "taking on" for Lent instead. I first stumbled upon that notion--that I will purposely do something for Lent, I will take on a task, whether it be committing to a prayer or worship regimen, or working at the soup kitchen, or being more helpful to Mom and Dad--at college. A Catholic university, I might add, and it was that university's priests who promoted the idea! (It was especially annoying, this more recent priest's ridiculing of what I consider still to be a worthy idea, in that he chose to lace it with a comment along the lines of, "If you're like me, you could afford to lose a little weight anyway." Very true--for both him and me--but I'm quite certain that that is not the point of Lenten fasting, abstinence, or sacrifice. If it is...well, then you can keep the whole thing.)

These days, I try to give up a little something, usually the coffee-break snack, and to avoid meat on Fridays. Honesty compels me to note that I have not been 100% successful with either of those. Which, in a way, is the point, is it not? Certainly God doesn't care if I eat a cookie, or eat between meals, or eat a bologna sandwich on a given day of the week. The point of the endeavor, to me, is to make myself stop and think, to reflect on the greater sacrifice that we Christians believe that God made on our behalf. It's not the cookie, it's the stopping to think about the cookie, and what that stopping to think in turn causes me to contemplate.

I tried to explain that some years ago to a pastor (non-Catholic) of my acquaintance who saw fit to ridicule me for passing on the cookies, or coffee cake, or whatever office snack was circulating that morning. With a sneer he informed me that my small sacrifice wasn't "necessary." I informed him that it certainly me.

Lent offers one answer to today’s new reality. The season begins with the word “Remember,” uttered as a blot of ashes is smudged on the forehead. Remembering the transience of life — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — remains the essence of the observance. This year, I received my ashes at the Catholic church across the street from Harvard University, where the basilica was surprisingly overflowing with hundreds of undergraduates — a privileged elite attending to what every person has in common, and wants ordinarily to deny.

The fact that it is so easy for me to suddenly remember, post-cookie, that it's Lent and I had promised myself to give up such things during these 40 days--that is, the fact that I fail to keep my own promise to myself, and fail so quickly and easily--says something to me. Mostly it says that it's important to keep reminding myself. Just as it's easy to forget and eat the cookie, or the bologna sandwich, it's also easy to forget the original sacrifice that begat the Lenten observance in the first place.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The End of the Local Rag?

South Dakota Watch has this item today:
    Apparently the rumor going around the Sioux Falls Argus Leader is that unless they get things turned around, the Argus will be a passed paper by the end of the year.
    Who will we bloggers be able to mock and ridicule if this sad day comes? Busting KDLT's small balls just isn't the same fun.
    And as my wife said this weekend as she picked up the new, slimmer, less content-ladened Argus, "What is this, a high school newspaper?!"

As I commented there, the arrival of every invoice from the local rag (for I have no interest in letting them into my bank account, thanks all the same) prompts either me or my wife to wonder aloud if this is the time we just let it go.

One of these times we're apt to just pull the plug. Unless they beat us to it.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Oh Well, They're Only Facts

So my eye is caught by the headline
and off I go to WalesOnline to read a fluffy bit of an article in which the actor Victor Spinetti is quoted reminiscing about his encounters with the Beatles. All very nice and whatnot, until I encounter this:
    ...the only actor to star in all four of the band’s legendary films.

For one thing, if you stretch a bit, you come up with five films. The stretch is Magical Mystery Tour, which was made for television, but we'll be generous. That gives you:
    A Hard Day's Night
    Magical Mystery Tour
    Yellow Submarine
    Let it Be
(You might argue that Yellow Submarine shouldn't be on the list, since the band's involvement was minimal. But there it is anyway. If I let in Magical Mystery Tour, you have to let in Yellow Submarine.)

I immediately recalled Spinetti from the first two, and assumed he must have had a part in the third--an almost completely forgettable bit of nonsense with none of the charm or wit of the two feature films that preceded it (and I say that as a big fan of the Beatles) assumption that I verified with the Internet Movie Database. But what of the fourth film in the "all four" assertion? Well, certainly he wasn't in Let it Be. Did he supply a voice for Yellow Submarine? Doesn't show up in his IMDB listing.

I think we must conclude that Spinetti appeared not in "all four of the band’s legendary films" but in fact in three of the band's five movies...and one of them not exactly deserving of "legendary" status, either.

But it's so hard to keep things straight! The article's author seems unable to keep the films in order, and unwilling to take a moment to consult, say, IMDB to avoid making stupid mistakes such as appears in this section:
    “I recall in Help! having to say the line, ‘With this ring, I could rule the world,’ and the four of them lying on the floor beside me screaming with laughter and stoned out of their minds.

    “So they had to quickly put the camera close up on me to keep the film going. But that’s ok. That’s what I was there for.”

    His skill for keeping a straight face was something that also came in handy on later Fab Four films like Hard Day’s Night, where he played a nervous TV producer.

Um, what? A Hard Day's Night is the Beatles' first film, from 1964. Help! is their second, from 1965. Whence comes this "later films like Hard Day's Night"? (The writer also can't be bothered with indefinite articles, even when they're part of the film's title.)

Although we're fortunate that Spinetti saved Ringo from drowning on the set of Help!, but it's too bad he couldn't save the Wales On Sunday writer from making careless, amateur mistakes. Oh well, they're only facts.