Rod Dreher

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Vacation Notebook

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1. Yes, I really did bring the Brothers K. to read on the beach. And I really am enjoying it! I think that having been immersed in an Orthodox ethos for the past few years helps. I get the Elder Zosima. Plus, I really understand what a Russian-American friend who studies Southern literature said to me earlier this year: that Russians and Southerners are very much alike.

2. I had been thinking that I was El Máximo Pretentioso for bringing a big Russian novel to read on the beach, but as I was leaving the shore today, I passed a fraternity-looking guy carrying a copy of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I think I would have gone for the Carl Hiaasen.

3. When you cannot take any more Dostoevsky, there is nothing — nothing! — like P.G. Wodehouse (not even Saul Bellow). I cannot get through a page of the man’s novels without laughing out loud.

4. I hate the beach, in theory, but boy, am I having fun here.

5. The blender, vodka, rum, frozen strawberries, and other amenities may have something to do with that.

6. If there’s vodka, rum, and frozen cocktail fixings in the beach house, that wine you brought along probably isn’t going to get consumed.

7. Part of vacation is letting the kids eat whatever junk they want, and being able to just not give a damn.

8. Part of vacation is letting the world do whatever it wants, and as a blogger, forcing yourself to just not give a damn.

9. It is interesting to say your long prayer rule while in the surf, but it is something you only want to do once.

10. When the sunscreen says it’s waterproof, don’t trust it.

11. Did you know that Ore-Ida has made astonishing advances in oven-heated crinkle fry technology? Either that, or my tastes have degraded. Dang, they’re good (see No. 6).

12. In Lyon recently, my friend Sordello told me that the blessing of middle age is that hot young women don’t even see you. Because of that wise insight, I have learned to accept that fact that nobody cares if I trundle obesely down the strand, shirtless. I’m a fat old guy who is invisible to all the hotties. Relax and be free, Pops!

13. Old guy sitting under the umbrella next to mine today: “You know, they say that whenever you’re in the water, you’re never more than 60 yards away from a shark.” They say that, do they? Thanks, man.

14. Somebody needs to whip Fyodor Karamazov’s ass. The dude needs killin’.

15. I miss my dog. I know our house-sitter is taking good care of him, but it’s just not right to go so long without my daily Roscoe.

16. Pay closer attention to the SPF factor of the sunscreen you buy. “Oh, Coppertone,” said I. “The smell of that reminds me of going to Grand Isle when I was a kid. I know Julie’s got sunscreen, but I’ll get this for old times’ sake.” SPF 4. I would have done about as well smearing mayonnaise on my skin.

17. The only memorable meal I’ve eaten here was the shrimp salad I made the second day. That’s why no VFYTs.

18. There’s something about the climate here on the Gulf Coast that does a number on vodka and rum. Astonishing how quickly our supply evaporated. Scientists should look into that. Personally, I blame global warming.

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Anna Harrington Update

The child of God Irene Elizabeth Harrington

The child of God Irene Elizabeth Harrington

This just in from Vladimir at the Go Fund Me site:

Just got off the phone with Father Matthew once more, and have a bit of an update! Matushka Anna’s condition was, in fact, a condition known as placenta percreta, which is much more insidious and threatening. Anna required 31 units of blood, which is an amazing amount, but she is now recovering. That brings me to the next request! I’m calling on our friends to pitch in on that as well. Anna is O Positive, but the Red Cross does arrange for equivalency swap outs on donations. This of us who served in the military are fairly aware of how that works; I still have my Red Cross gallon donor card. Any donations of blood received which are in excess of the required amount we have to replace are, as I understand it, credited to some extent towards the hospital bill. I’m not sure how that works in the areas in which you live, but I’ve found the Red Cross to be pretty cooperative. The hospital which is the direct recipient is Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, and it would be for the benefit of Anna Harrington. Here’s their website if you would like to check it out.

I would appreciate it if you are one of our blood donors, that you would update us on this page so that others can see how much progress we’ve made. I do however underscore, there is no such thing as donating too much blood!

Anna will be subjected to a wide battery of tests today, and we’ll keep you posted. The next update will hopefully have more information on Baby Irene.

Suffice it to say that the hospital staff has commented on both Matushka Anna and Baby Irene that this has been nothing short of miraculous.

Thanks be to God,

and in XC

Vladimir (Vova) Saemmler-Hindrichs

Baton Rouge area readers, please go to OLOL and donate if you can. Julie did it before we left town for vacation. They turned me down as a donor because of my chronic mono. Thirty-one units of blood is a massive amount. She very nearly bled to death, sounds like. I remember last week, they were anticipating significant bleeding during the operation — placenta accreta is when the placenta grows through the uterine wall, and establishes “roots” (blood vessels) throughout the abdomen — so they projected needing four to six units of blood.

It took 31!

Miracle. God bless those surgeons and nurses and all the doctors.

If you haven’t made a financial donation yet, please consider it. The Harringtons have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchange, but heaven knows what kind of expenses they are going to face by the time it’s all over. Baby Irene has only one eye, and one nostril, and will need many surgeries.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, friends, for your prayers and generosity!

UPDATE: I posted this photo above because Father Matthew already posted it and others on his Facebook feed.

UPDATE.2: A new photo of Baby Irene. Please remember her and her mother, both in the ICU, in your prayers:

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Why I’m Slow Posting Comments This Week

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Ran into a reader first day on the beach — hey Beth!

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An American Creed

A Christian friend who works in big business sends me this “American Creed” he once wrote:

We believe in one Market,
Objective and Free,
maker of assets and security,
of all that is prosperous and possible.
We believe in the one true force, the Invisible Hand,
the Logic of the Market,
eternally co-existing with the Market,
regent of riches, assurance of efficiency,
trumpeter of technology, power behind politics.
Through him all transactions are made.
For us and for our prosperity
he gives value to all money
and enables all commerce;
by the power of the American Dream
he becomes incarnate in the hearts of all free men.
For our sake he guarantees the equitability of all commerce,
he re-assures all the laborers,
emboldens all the entrepreneurs,
and casts aside all the idle.
He ensures all debts will ultimately be repaid.
He is revealed in glory in America but his kingdom has no end nor boundary.
We believe in the American Dream, the hope and giver of the life abundant,
who proceeds from the Market and who with the Invisible Hand is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through Adam Smith and his economists.
We believe in one holy and universal Spirit of Growth.
We acknowledge the cost and risk of our choices.
We look for the extension of credit,
and the affluent life that is certain to come. Amen.

My friend, a cultural conservative, adds:

Although our society’s migration on sexual morals is troubling, being in the financial sector, I’ve long thought that consumerism and its underlying philosophy is as big of a cultural hurdle to serious Christian’s life as liberal sexual norms.

I did my best to write something an authentic American Dream enthusiast would agree with 100%. The sad thing is, I suspect many Christians I know wouldn’t even have a problem with this philosophically–just have issues with its format as a creed.

Thoughts?

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Great News!

I’m thrilled and relieved to be able to pass on to you all that both Anna Harrington and her baby Irene are alive. They are in intensive care, but they’re going to make it. Baby Irene was born with some serious birth defects, but she’s here, and she’s going to live; that’s the important thing. Irene’s mother had a long and very difficult surgery, and lost a lot of blood, but pulled through and is now resting in the ICU.

You can imagine how relieved we all are. Thank you for your prayers and for your donations to the Go Fund Me account set up to provide help for the Harrington family in this time of great need. They have a very long and difficult road ahead of them. People from all over the world have been giving to help this missionary family. I hope that at least some of you can come down to St. Francisville one day and meet them, and see what your generosity has helped do for the Harringtons, and for the people they serve. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

And above all on this day, thanks be to God, and glory to Him for all things!

UPDATE: From the GoFundMe site, these updates by the man who started the campaign:

Well, it’s been one heck of a day. This morning, Father Matthew checked Matushka Anna in, and after the usual long registration procedures, Anna was given a main line IV. I don’t have all of the details yet, and probably don’t understand a lot of them, so I hope that Matushka Elizabeth chimes in and gives us a better update. In summary, the Harringtons are the proud parents of Irene Elizabeth, who despite being delivered rather early, came in at a pretty good birthweight right over five pounds. Father tells me she is pink, has a steady heart rate, and stable respiration. She is missing one eye and part of her nose, but is very much alive. The hospital has not yet done the functional genetic testing, but we are praying fervently that what issues she has are cosmetic, and we are guardedly – and prayerfully – optimistic. The team of attending surgeons did a spectacular job. Modern medicine has come a long way, and cosmetics can be dealt with. More on that to follow.

Anna also made it through a very complex and dicey multihour surgery and lost a tremendous amount of blood. Her condition is known as placenta previa, and in her case, the placenta actually invaded and interwove itself into internal organs. This operation, too, was extremely complex, almost as complex as brain surgery, for the simple reason that the interweaving just makes for more opportunities to miss something in the surgical removal and in the tying off of blood sources. Anna did sustain some significant damage to some organs, some of which will be permanent, but, thanks be to God, she made it!

I will not post any photographs of baby Irene yet, because we want to wait until Anna is out of sedation and has the opportunity as Irene’s mother to be the first to smile upon the new citizen of the world. Father tells me that Anna is expected to be brought out of sedation possibly tomorrow, but she still has quite a bit of intensive care to go through. As mentioned, she lost a tremendous amount of blood.

The other three Harrington children are at home with Matushka Elizabeth Philo’s mother, also the wife of a priest. As many of you know, Matushka Elizabeth will stand as baby Irene’s godmother.

Friends of the Harrington family, friends from the Church, and concerned world citizens who have opened your hearts and poured out tremendous generosity, I humbly thank you for responding to these unworthy efforts. We’re not out of the woods yet. It is our intention to make sure that the Harrington children, all four of them, are taken care properly, and that Anna, after her long and arduous recovery, is able to be there for those children without having to be concerned about having to choose between required medical procedures and putting food on the table or making sure those little tykes can go to school. It is also our intention to selfishly make sure that Father Matthew, a priest who truly is the archetype of the Toiler in the Garden, is there not only for his family, but for us, because we need the type of role model he is, and we can learn from the manner in which he selflessly shoulders these tests and burdens, much like Job.

That we can do. We ask you to continue to remember this dynamic and modest priest, and his family, who sacrifice so much for us, by engaging in a little sacrifice ourselves.

We call again for your continued prayers, as well as your support, to make this a reality. I want to thank all of you who have sacrificed already, and I especially want to thank all the priests who have commemorated the Harringtons in the Proskomedia. Just remember, the prayers of laity are also golden, and we appreciate all of them.

Our campaign has achieved the $30,000 level. In conversations with a dear friend who also went through a complex birth, that’s a meaningful sum, but won’t come close to the needs. Please pass this campaign to your networks if you feel it is appropriate. And those of you who have already done that, thanks for your efforts.

In XC

Vladimir Saemmler-Hindrichs

And:

Dear friends of the Harringtons, colleagues, members of the Church, and men and women of good will!

After reviewing the initial reports of the complex yet successful surgery that Matushka Anna and Baby Irene have gone through and discussing them with medical professionals among my own friends, I’ve decided to update the immediate goals of our campaign.

Father Matthew and Matushka Anna are much too modest to ever ask for anything, and are overwhelmed by your showing of love, support, and prayer. It remains up to us to make this happen, and I know we, God willing, can do this. Please activate your friends and networks, and let’s graphically show them that we take care of our own, much as Father takes care of us, and in imitation of Him, as He takes care of us.

In XC,

Vladimir (Vova) Saemmler-Hindrichs

Here’s the GoFundMe link.

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Was Father Really a Bad Catholic?

At a funeral in Amite, La., the other day, an openly gay man living in a same-sex marriage was denied communion at his mother’s funeral. From the Baton Rouge Advocate‘s report:

Tim Ardillo said he was standing next to his mother’s coffin leading his young son to receive a blessing when the priest presiding over the funeral Mass denied him communion.

The longtime Catholic said the priest told him it was because he married outside the church, but Ardillo doesn’t think that’s the whole story.

He believes he was denied the sacrament because, as is stated in his mother’s obituary, he is married to a man.

The priest in question, the Rev. Mark Beard, of St. Helena Catholic Church in Amite, did not return multiple calls seeking comment in the week following the July 10 funeral.

Ardillo said the church passed out a quotation from 1 Corinthians at Mass the next Sunday, which states, in a portion highlighted in red ink, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks in judgment of himself.”

Ardillo said he has since received an apology from the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which directly oversees the Amite church, and a personal apology from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, though Aymond’s office declined to comment on the matter for this story.

Ardillo told the newspaper that he has been away from the church for a long time, and that he had looked forward to receiving the Eucharist at his mother’s funeral so he could be in touch with her through the sacrament. More:

He said he still believes in the Catholic faith but isn’t sure of his “place” in the church.

Toward the end of his mother’s life, the two would pray together; she signed the cross on her leg when she couldn’t lift her hands higher. They prayed the rosary together the last time they saw each other, Ardillo said.

He had thought the funeral would serve as a reintroduction into the Catholic community, but not anymore.

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have it in me.”

I don’t want to quote the entire story (read the whole thing), but you should read this part concerning the priest who heads the Canon Law Society of America:

As a practical matter, Keeler noted that a priest or Eucharistic minister can’t possibly know the marital standing of everybody in line. He also raised more philosophical concerns.

“This is not a weapon. Communion is not a reward for good behavior,” he said. “It’s the food for weary souls.”

He used an example of a priest who has read in the newspaper that a parishioner has embezzled millions of dollars. The woman may have atoned for her transgression, and even she should receive the sacrament if she puts out her hand, Keeler said.

“How am I to know that she is not in a state of grace?” he asked.

The priest, however, would almost certainly have known from the deceased woman’s obituary that her son was married to a man. Is it reasonable to assume that Ardillo had repented of his same-sex marriage in the time between the publication of the obituary and the funeral?

I don’t know the Catholic priest in question, and can’t know what was in his mind. But it is part of the sacred calling of priests to guard the Eucharist. In my Orthodox parish, our priest is very serious about not receiving the Eucharist unworthily. He has us all going to confession regularly. I have never seen him deny anyone communion, but I don’t doubt that if he thought any of us was in a serious state of unconfessed sin, that he would not let us receive — and that this would be for our own good. Because our priest and our church takes communion so seriously, we in the laity learn to do so as well. We have been warned that if any of us are traveling and go to the liturgy in a Russian Orthodox parish, we should not be surprised if we present ourselves for communion and the priest withholds it from us, unless we have spoken to him ahead of time and assured him that we have had a recent confession. The priest would not be doing this to punish us, but rather to protect us, and the Eucharist.

By his own admission, Tim Ardillo is not a practicing Catholic, and hasn’t been for years. He did not seek communion because he wanted to commune with Jesus Christ, but because he saw it as a means of feeling connected to his late mother. He seems to believe that the Eucharist is an entitlement. Perhaps Father Beard didn’t know any of that, but he certainly knew that Ardillo was living in what the Catholic Church considers to be a state of very serious sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that those Catholics who are not in a state of grace may not receive communion. That priest, Father Mark Beard, would have compromised his conscience giving communion to someone he had strong reason to believe was not in a state of grace. According to Scripture, Father Beard would have been complicit in Ardillo’s sin, and could not have claimed ignorance.

Had Father Beard given Ardillo communion, and a conservative Catholic complained about it, I could accept the priest explaining that he did so as a gesture of mercy to an unrepentant sinner at his mother’s funeral. But it is hard for me to see that Father Beard did the wrong thing here, by obeying the Catholic Church’s own teaching about the Eucharist. His bishop, and the Archbishop of New Orleans, have publicly thrown him under the bus, however. The rationale that the canon lawyer quoted in the story gives means that there are practically no circumstances under which a priest can deny anyone the Eucharist.

I feel very sorry for Father Beard, and for the priests of those two dioceses, who will not be able to count on their bishops backing them up if they choose to obey the Church’s teaching.

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Praying for Abortionists

Bishop James Conley, on the Planned Parenthood brunch buddies video:

For decades, I have prayed outside of abortion clinics. During the days of Operation Rescue, I went to jail with brother priests and faithful men and women. I have seen men and women on their knees in snow, and rain, and blistering heat, praying for unborn children suffering agony and death. I have prayed for their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents. In the best circumstances, I have seen women turn away from abortion—choosing life, and choosing freedom.

Of course, I’ve prayed for those who perform abortions, or facilitate them. I’ve prayed for their conversions. And I’ve celebrated when men and women like Dr. Bernard Nathanson and Abby Johnson turn away from the practice of barbarism.

But until this week, I have never really grasped the degree to which people in the abortion industry are enslaved, corrupted, and abused by the culture of death. In the debate over Planned Parenthood’s legal compliance, and in the quibbling over the methods of the Center for Medical Progress, the people performing abortions should not be forgotten.

Anyone who can casually discuss tearing children to shreds while having lunch and a good cabernet is a victim of the father of lies. Anyone who thinks that divvying up murdered bodies does “a little bit of extra good” is a captive subject of the dictatorship of relativism. This video reminds me that anyone who traffics in abortion loses a vital and beautiful spark of humanity. Evil coarsens us and deadens us—robs us of the freedom life offers.

Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1941. He spent four months there before dying a martyr’s death. During those four months, Father Kolbe was beaten with regularity. His cellmates were beaten as well. He prayed for his captors. He asked his cellmates to do the same. He reminded them that the same evil that destroyed the bodies of prisoners was destroying the souls of his captors. Many of the guards were young. Many of them were conscripts. Many of them chose profoundly evil acts, with full moral culpability. But each one of those who tortured Father Kolbe was a human being, an immortal soul, who had been seduced, ensnared, or possessed by the lies of the Evil One.

Father Kolbe prayed for his tormentors. They were not his enemies. Their salvation was the prize he hoped to gain by the witness of holy love, and holy martyrdom.

Read the whole thing. 

St. Nikolai Velimirovic, a Serbian bishop imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau, once composed this prayer:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

 

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Learning in Place

Living history: Sienese boys in medieval costume, preparing to parade at the Palio
Barbara Rosenblit, Your Working Boy, and journalist Luca Fiore, at the Palio eve dinner in Onda

In Charleston last week, a reader of this blog told me how much he enjoyed my blogging from Siena, and the Palio. To have a glimpse at such a different world was a delight, he said. Of course I agreed. That week I spent at the Palio was one of the great pleasures of all the travels I have done. The horse race itself was the least of it; the joy of Sienese culture, and observing (even participating in) communal rituals that come from the Middle Ages — well, who gets to do that, ever? The Palio is a living tradition, an organic link to the city and its culture as it existed many centuries ago. What a rare and beautiful thing in the modern world.

What brought me to Siena was not, in fact, the Palio, but the chance to sit in on two days of Dante courses taught by Ron Herzman and Bill Stephany, two American Dante scholars administering a marvelous teacher training program. Here is a description of the program, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities:

A five-week seminar for sixteen school teachers on Dante’s Commedia, to be held in Siena, Italy.

This seminar immerses participants in studying Dante’s Divine Comedy in its historical, political, theological, philosophic, and artistic contexts, under the direction of William Stephany (University of Vermont) and Ronald Herzman (State University of New York at Geneseo).  In addition to exploring the Middle Ages and how the poem reflects its period of creation, the seminar examines Dante’s responses to recurrent human concerns: the potential for good and evil, the possibilities for spiritual transformation, the nature and purpose of political institutions, and reasons for reading and writing. Meeting four times a week in three-hour sessions, participants examine at most five cantos per session, allowing them to “crawl through the text,” building canto on canto, and thereby to read and discuss the poem as carefully and completely as possible. The co-directors point out that by setting the seminar in Siena, a town that has preserved its medieval character, “we coordinate the study of Dante’s text with the study of relevant artistic monuments [and topographical elements] in an ongoing way.” Dante’s native Florence is easily accessible from Siena; additionally, scholar-led trips have been organized to relevant sites in Rome, Orvieto, Ravenna, and Assisi. The three-volume facing-page translation of the Commedia by Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez serves as the principal text for the seminar. The directors orient participants to online resources for Dante study and provide a small traveling reference library of secondary materials for the teachers to use, in addition to arranging for participants to have access to all University of Siena faculty libraries as visiting scholars. Participants give group presentations and complete written projects.

I joined a diverse group of American teachers for this summer’s seminar. As longtime readers of this blog may recall, the terrific Great Courses lectures on Dante, by Ron Herzman and Bill Cook, were instrumental in opening up the Commedia for me. The idea of being able to spend even just two days learning from Herzman was a thrill. Plus, Ron’s colleague Bill Stephany had kindly spent his morning to me and my friend Casella last fall in Florence, giving us the Dante tour of the city. To be able to hear him lecture on Dante was a treat.

It is hard to overstate the value of both being in Florence, where Dante lived and where so many of the events and personalities in the Commedia happened and lived, and of being shown those places by a Dante scholar. From my post last fall recounting our morning with Bill Stephany:

One of the first places we stopped by was a building that was a medieval guild hall. Bill pointed out that for the Florentines of that era, a man who practiced his craft became a co-creator with God. Bill showed up reliefs on the building’s façade, each one celebrating a different craftsman. I better understood, then, why Dante was so harsh on usurers for being “violent against nature;” in this way of seeing things, the moneylender’s trade is unnatural.

We walked on and soon came to the house of the Guelph Cavalcante, whom you’ll remember sharing a tomb in Hell with his Ghibelline enemy Farinata degli Uberti (see our discussion of Inferno 10). “If this is where Cavalcante lived, I wonder where Farinata’s place was,” I said. Bill pointed just ahead, and led the way.

It was just up the street and around the corner — or would have been, if it were still there. After the Guelphs came back to power, they had the body of Farinata (who, recall, led the Ghibelline army in the Battle of Monteperti, in which they slaughtered 10,000 Florentine Guelphs and seized control of the city) exhumed, burned, and his ashes thrown in the Arno. Bill said they dismantled the Uberti family’s house and used the bricks to help build a city wall. And the city fathers passed a law forbidding anyone from building anything on that land, in perpetuity.

That property is still vacant, all these centuries later. It is now part of the Piazza della Signoria, next to which you’ll fine the Uffizi museum. “Think about it,” said Bill. “These men were literally neighbors in life, but even though they live in the same tomb, they won’t even recognize each other in death.”

On we walked toward the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge, at the foot of which there occurred an infamous murder. It was Easter Sunday in the year 1215. Earlier, Buondelmonte, an arrogant young Ghibelline, had injured someone from the Amidei family, a powerful Ghibelline clan. It was decided that Buondelmonte could make reparation for his deed of dishonor if he married a young woman from the Amidei. On the day he was to ask for her hand in marriage, all gathered on the piazza for the event, but Buondelmonte passed by her, and instead asked for the hand of a Guelph girl. The Amidei swore revenge.

On Easter Sunday of that year, Buondelmonte crossed the Ponte Vecchio on horseback, coming into the city to be married later that day. Assassins from the Amidei and an allied family, the Lamberti, leaped out and murdered him in cold blood, almost at the doorstep of the Amidei family home. Do I even need to tell you that Buondelmonte’s family home was just around the corner from the Amidei? That murder set off the bloody Guelph-Ghibelline wars in Florence, which lasted for generations, and tore the city apart. Dante’s exile came almost 100 years later, as a result of the factional conflict. In the Commedia, Dante writes at length about how the fratricidal and communal hatred within families, between neighbors, and between political factions, destroyed so many lives and so much of the greatness of Florence. In Inferno 10, Dante makes the point that these men, Farinata and Cavalcante, who had been neighbors were so lost in their own worlds on earth that they couldn’t see anything they had in common. Both men were Epicureans, men who philosophically denied the afterlife, and who were therefore committed to believing that this world is all that exists. Consequently, they loved the things of this world unnaturally, to the point of destroying the peace of the city over their own passions.

The point Dante makes throughout the Commedia is that the Florentines had become so caught up in pursuing their individual, familiar, or partisan goods that they ceased to see the humanity of their fellow Florentines. Thus when one faction would fall from power, the rivals taking power would sometimes destroy the houses of the losers. It wasn’t enough for the Black Guelphs to take power in Dante’s Florence; they had to send White Guelphs like Dante into exile and seize their goods.

I knew this before I came to Florence, of course, but I don’t know that anything would have prepared me to understand the magnitude of Florence’s tragedy like coming here and seeing how intimate these associations were, and how physically close these families lived to each other. How could you do these things to someone you knew so well? They did. All of them did.

Because Siena is only an hour’s drive from Florence, the fifteen or so American teachers on this summer’s program will have, or by now will have had, the same experience: seeing the same places they’ve only read about, and doing so in the company of men who have made studying Dante and bringing him and his world alive their life’s work. To underscore a point I made in the earlier blog post, there’s nothing like seeing how small the medieval core of Florence was to appreciate the intensity of the passions that destroyed its community. Casella and I stood in the very spot where Buondelmonte’s assassins hid. We visited the small piazza where the riot took place that ultimately led to Dante’s exile. And on and on. Being there in Florence incarnated the people, places, and insights of the Commedia as nothing else could have done.

Though I was only in Siena for four days, I quickly discovered why it makes more sense to situate the Dante program there than in Florence. Siena maintained its medieval character — the architecture, the streetscape — far better than Florence did. This was not on purpose, not really. The Black Death devastated powerful Siena, and it never recovered its former glory. It fell into economic and political crisis, one that lasted centuries, and led to its massive diminishment. The blunt truth is that Siena ceased to matter to the flow of Italian history, and because it was so poor, the Sienese couldn’t afford to tear down their medieval buildings and put up modern ones.

The point is, if you want to see the world that Dante saw in his time, the best place to do so is Siena. True, Siena was the great rival — indeed the hated enemy — of Dante’s Florence, but Siena in the 21st century looks a lot more like Dante’s Florence than does Florence today.

On my first day in Siena, I got a lesson in the enduring power of factionalism in Italy. As I’ve mentioned here before, Siena is divided into 17 districts, called contrade.  The contrade of Siena date continuously back to the Middle Ages. The same contrade you see today, sending horses and jockeys to compete in the Palio, also sent troops to fight for their city-state in the same wars in which Dante himself fought. Today, the contrade are mostly nothing more than neighborhood associations, but that phrase does not do justice to the power of contrade in the imagination of the Sienese. It would be like calling the Atlantic Ocean a pond. People in Siena are extremely passionate about their contrade, most of whom have a declared enemy contrada — some more than one. Because Ron Herzman is a member of the L’Onda (The Wave) contrada, the American group became de facto Onda contradaoli. 

Onda’s hated rival is the next-door Torre (Tower). The seminar classroom is within the bounds of Torre. Ron warned us not to wear Onda colors inside Torre, certainly not on the week of the Palio. That’s how passionate the Sienese are about their contrade.

All of us connected to the seminar were able to experience that Palio week, in an intensely personal way, the power of civic passion to unite and to divide. Please take a look at this post I wrote from Siena, in which I talk about Siena, contrade, and the common good. Living the Palio that week with the Sienese made some of the political and social questions at the heart of Dante’s Commedia come vividly to life.

At one of the street dinners within Onda’s bounds that I attended, I sat next to a past graduate of the Siena program, Barbara Rosenblit, who is a Jewish school teacher from Atlanta. She was a delight to talk to. She told me that the Siena course seeded within her a love for Dante that has borne good fruit in her school, and beyond. I asked her how she made the profoundly Catholic medieval poet relevant to modern Jewish students. She discoursed at length on the roots of the Commedia in the Hebrew Bible, plus the universal lessons about human nature found in the poem’s cantos. Barbara conveyed a mad, joyful passion for Dante, one that was born right here in Siena over a decade ago, when she arrived on the NEH program to study with Ron and Bill. This morning, as I write this, I’m thinking about all the schoolkids in Atlanta over the years who have benefited from what Barbara learned in Siena.

In San Francisco, Callen Taylor, another teacher and graduate of the Siena program, started a Saturday morning Dante Club for her students, most of them immigrants from struggling families. It turned out well for all of them. And to think it all started in Siena! Though I was only there for a few days, I quickly understood that studying Dante here was an irreplaceable experience. The Commedia moves out of your head and into your bones here. I can easily imagine how after spending a few weeks in the summer encountering Dante on this program, set in Italy, teachers return home to America converted, as missionaries for Dante, whose great poem is one of the highest peaks of Western civilization.

So, it was a shock to learn from Ron Herzman that this summer’s program would be the last one in Siena. Wait … what?! True. The National Endowment for the Humanities will still fund the program, but won’t be funding it overseas. I’m not completely sure about this, but the sense seems to be that there’s political pressure from Congress not to be spending taxpayer dollars on humanities programs that take place on foreign soil.

If true, this is a shocking waste of an opportunity, and the sacrifice of an excellent program at the altar of a dull-witted political correctness. Herzman and Stephany could teach these classes in upstate New York, or anywhere in the US, and they would be well worth attending. But there is nothing like studying Dante in Siena — especially because Ron Herzman has so many deep and longstanding personal connections there, which he uses to give students a back door into real Italian life (e.g., all his students, and hangers-on like Sordello and me, became temporarily part of the Onda contrada thanks to the efforts of Ron and his team, and were able to experience the power of communal passion in a way that mere tourists cannot possibly do).

How does a mere horse race come to be seen as the epitome of civic life, and one’s tiny district of a small city turn into the most important thing in the world? Is this hyperlocalist patriotism a good thing, or a bad thing? What makes the difference? How can people who are friendly neighbors for most of the year become fierce and sometimes violent rivals during Palio week? Each contrada brings its Palio horse into its local chapel for a blessing on the day of the race. Is this mingling of the sacred and the profane a scandal to religion, or does it invest political life with transcendent meaning? Or both?

And so forth. To be in Siena, especially for Palio week, is to live out many of the questions at the heart of the Commedia. There is no substitute for it. It makes the Dante’s words leap off the page and come to life. To remove the program from Siena would be like telling a celebrated marine science seminar that it could no longer study in the ocean, but had to confine its investigations to a classroom.

I deeply hope that the NEH will rethink its decision. I have seen up close and personal the tremendous value of this Dante program, and of holding it in Siena. I discovered my passion for Dante without benefit of Siena, but I did have Ron Herzman as one of my main Virgils. To have been able to have him and his colleagues be my Virgils in Siena would have been a priceless gift. This is what the humanities endowment is supposed to do. According to the NEH website:

Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.

I stood with this year’s NEH group in Siena’s medieval Palazzo Pubblico, under the famous 14th-century frescoes of the Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government, listening to Bill Stephany lecture on the meaning of vice and virtue to politics and statecraft in the Middle Ages. Where else on earth could the moral vision at the core of the Commedia have been made so vivid, as standing under these images in the room in which Sienese justice was delivered?

Sometimes, you just have to be there. Please, NEH, reconsider the wisdom of ending the program in Siena. Because what happened in Siena, and in Tuscany of the late medieval period, was so important to understanding Dante’s world, it matters deeply to Western civilization. Siena’s history is our own, in a real way. Don’t cut off future groups of American teachers from the blessing of studying Dante and his world in Siena. The NEH program in Siena makes the abstract concrete. There is nothing else like it. It is a treasure. So let’s treasure it.

Barbara Rosenblit, Your Working Boy, and journalist Luca Fiore, at the Palio eve dinner in Onda

Barbara Rosenblit, Your Working Boy, and journalist Luca Fiore, at the Palio eve dinner in Onda

 

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The Power of Caritas

11150313_679507868861206_2126188519048767168_nI’m headed to sleep very soon, and I just checked the Go Fund Me for my priest, Fr. Matthew Harrington, and his family. The fund is over $20,000! It humbles and delights me more than I can say to see so many names from this blog’s readership on the site, and I know well that many of the “Anonymous” donors are … you.

I cannot convey strongly enough how much need there is here. The family of five — soon to be six — gets by on the salary of a rural missionary priest. Anna, the priest’s wife, had to quit her job because her medical condition, with the high-risk pregnancy, was so dire. The baby, who will be delivered on Tuesday morning, is severely handicapped, and because of medical complications, Anna will face hours of risky surgery immediately after the baby comes.

And, if everything succeeds on Tuesday, the family will come home from the hospital facing enormous need. That’s where we all come in.

The reason I live in St. Francisville today is because I saw the power of community, inspired by love, lift up my cancer-stricken sister and her family, and carry them through the fire. This is a different situation, but in most ways, it’s the same: a family is in great need, a need far, far beyond their ability to manage, and has nothing to rely on but the power of God and the caritas of their neighbors.

Thank you, my generous readers, for being their neighbor.

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Feminism for Fools

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This is really quite something. Michael Sonmore wants you to know what his open marriage taught him about feminism. It starts like this:

As I write this, my children are asleep in their room, Loretta Lynn is on the stereo, and my wife is out on a date with a man named Paulo. It’s her second date this week; her fourth this month so far. If it goes like the others, she’ll come home in the middle of the night, crawl into bed beside me, and tell me all about how she and Paulo had sex. I won’t explode with anger or seethe with resentment. I’ll tell her it’s a hot story and I’m glad she had fun. It’s hot because she’s excited, and I’m glad because I’m a feminist.

Before my wife started sleeping with other men, I certainly considered myself a feminist, but I really only understood it in the abstract. When I quit working to stay at home with the kids, I began to understand it on a whole new level. I am an economically dependent househusband coping with the withering drudgery of child-rearing. Now that I understand the reality of that situation, I don’t blame women for demanding more for themselves than the life of the housewife.

Still, as a man, I could, if I wanted to, portray what I’m doing as “work,” and thus claim for myself the prestige men traditionally derive from “work.” Whenever I tell someone I stay home with the kids, they invariably say, “Hardest work in the world.” They say this because the only way to account for a man at home with the kids is to say what he’s doing is hard work. But there’s a subtext in the compliment that makes it backhanded: We both know no one ever says it to a woman. Mothers care; fathers provide care. The difference is crucial. Despite my total withdrawal from the economy and the traditional sources of masculine identity, I can still argue I am a provider. I provide care.

In this way, my masculine self-image was stretched but not broken. Diaper bag notwithstanding, I was still a Man. It wasn’t until my wife mentioned one evening that she’d kissed another man and liked it and wanted to do more than kiss next time that I realized how my status as a Man depended on a single fact: that my wife f—-d only me.

More:

Feminism always comes back to sex, even when we’re talking about everything else. The point isn’t that all women should be sexual adventurers. Celibacy is as valid an expression of sexuality as profligacy. The point is that it should be women who choose, not men — even the men they’re married to. For my wife, the choice between honoring our vows and fulfilling her desires was a false choice, another trap. She knew how deep our love was, and knew that her wanting a variety of sexual experiences as we traveled through life together would not diminish or disrupt that love. It took me about six months — many long, intense conversations, and an ocean of red wine — before I knew it, too.

When my wife told me she wanted to open our marriage and take other lovers, she wasn’t rejecting me, she was embracing herself. When I understood that, I finally became a feminist.

Yes, if by “red wine” you mean “Kool-Aid.” Good grief, what a pathetic creature, and what a wicked wife. Imagine this story flipped, and it being the account of a stay-at-home wife and mother who was rationalizing her husband’s flagrant cheating with multiple women. Would that seem like feminism to you? Or is “feminism” what we call “women doing whatever the hell they want, and men meekly accepting it”?

The cultural left (as distinct from the economic left — hello, Hector!) seems to have a habit of valorizing any kind of sexual perversion.

Read the whole thing. 

In related news, I don’t feel sorry for anybody here, except the spouses and children of the men and women who participated in this thing:

Hackers have attacked the cheating website AshleyMadison and are publishing sensitive data belonging to the company’s millions of users online.

The unknown criminals have threatened to continue leaking data until the website is closed down and have delivered a stark message saying: ‘Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.’

AshleyMadison encourages people to cheat on their partners and uses the slogan ‘Life is short. Have an affair’ to get people to create an account.

Speaking to KrebsOnSecurity, ALM’s chief executive Noel Biderman confirmed the breach and said the firm was ‘working diligently and feverishly’ to remove its intellectual property.

He said: ‘We’re not denying this happened. Like us or not, this is still a criminal act.’

That’ll teach ’em.

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