Thursday, December 17, 2009


This WSJ article prompted me to organize some disparate thoughts about imagination: Children's Imagination Important for Cognitive Development -

Between my blog and catechism class, I frequently look for images to amplify Bible stories. I'm surprised at how long I sometimes have to search to find an online image that sheds light on what I think the point of the story is. Sometimes I find an image that's better than what I imagine, one that actually deepens the meaning, and those are the best. But to do so I have to cull through lots of well-done pictures that lack compelling content. It matters because the kids use the pictures to refine and expand their imagination and understanding of faith. God necessarily exceeds human imagination; but the bigger the imagination, the more God can be understood, the closer he can be approached. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Two of my favorite classroom stories are the Healing of the Paralytic, and the Prodigal Son. Because the perfect picture is worth at least a thousand words, I seek....The Perfect Picture; in the first case, the Perfect Paralytic Picture. I've looked at a hundred images or more, seeking not an illustration of a paralyzed man being made to walk, but the mystery, the miracle, the hushed wonder of a sin-wracked body and soul being healed together. Here are two Paralytic pix that are fine paintings, but neither of them wins my prize:

This is a lovely one:

Got it? Me too. And this next one as well. It's by James Tissot, who made 350 watercolors in the late 19th century of the Life of Christ; this is one of them. Wiki says: "The merits of Tissot's Bible illustrations lay rather in the care with which he studied the details of scenery than in any quality of religious emotion. He seemed to aim, above all, at accuracy, and, in his figures, at a vivid realism, which was far removed from the conventional treatment of sacred types."

Great composition, it. Thanks.
And now, the pearl of great price by John Armstrong:

Got it? Umm...ehhh...I gotta think about it for a while. Even now, at the hundredth viewing, this one is about more than the first two. It's not all that concerned with the event, per se, but rather the meaning of the event, the truth beyond the facts. As a question I heard in a Sola Scriptura debate put it, what's more important: the text, or the message? Yeah, ok, so in this picture that I love, what's the message?

I have to digress. In the summer of '08, my family took an Alaska cruise, courtesy of My Wife The Energizer Bunny. Among other stops, we visited Hubbard Glacier:

The glacier face is about 300 feet tall, 6 miles wide, and beguilingly blue. It's not the usual.

Cruise ships are alive with sound. People chat, music plays, wind blows, water splashes, tableware clinks, the ship itself hums and thrums. When the glacier first came into view from miles away, people got very excited, the sound level went right up. But over the next couple of hours as the ship carefully crept up close to that weird blue wall, all 2,000 people Just Shut Up. Hardly a sound except the clunk of ice against the hull. No-one spoke above a murmur, and briefly. Total hush at the wonder.

This is how I imagine the moment of the Healing of the Paralytic: a hush at the wonder. The hubbub "we've never seen anything like this before" would come later, as it did on the ship when it eased back out of the fjord. But at the moment when the people realized that Jesus had healed both soul and body, my God, who would have made a peep? That's the meaning I take from the Armstrong image. A sinful wretch floating on a sea of sinners, at the moment of healing. The utter, preposterous wonder of that moment. It's beyond one's grasp. Just shut up.

Speaking of images and meaning, Aristotle formulated the concept of Accidents and Substance as a way of organizing reality. Take, oh, glaciers for example: if water is frozen, we call it ice. The ice-ness is an accident; sometimes water is a liquid, other times a vapor, still other times a solid. But it's all water, regardless of the accidents. Water is the substance. This seems obvious to us, but in 19th-century subtropical India, e.g., people were confused by the product delivered by New England's ice merchants. They didn't understand it was water with a different accident than they were used to. Some referred to ice as "blocks of Yankee coldness." Even observing ice melt didn't change their perception of ice being something quite different from water. It must have taken a huge shift, not just of knowledge, but also imagination, to accept ice as just another form of water.

The influence of imagination on understanding is underestimated.

Some Catholics will be familiar at least in passing with the fact that Aquinas referred to Aristotle's accidents and substances in explaining Transubstantiation. Catholics are used to the idea that while the bread and wine are Accidents, the Substance of the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. To put it in sacramental terms, there's Form, and there's Matter (to digress again, most Orthodox aren't comfortable with such a technical analysis, referring to the Sacraments as Mysteries).

What's this post about? Oh yeah, images. Religious images. More to the point, Bible story images. Why so many are workmanlike, yet some select few are profound, and deepen our understanding of a story. Ehhh...let's consider the second story I mentioned, the Prodigal Son.
Here's a serviceable illustration of the Prodigal Son by Murillo:

Boy howdy, it sure is scriptural: the plea for forgiveness, the ring, the robes, the fatted calf about to be axed.... and a little Fido symbolizing faithful devotion. But I know all that already. I don't need an illustration. I need a portrait.

Here we go, the one that makes the point, by Rembrandt (I saw the original at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, during a Baltic cruise. It's big.):

My Number One work of visual art, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son doesn't even show a scene that's especially scriptural. No plot, no talking, no rings, no time. Instead there is stressless patience, love, and peace. Mmmmm....aaaaahhhh. If we repent, God will forgive us, embrace us and love us forever. Forget the rings and robes. The forgiven son floats in an eternal ocean of love before the father has mentioned baubles or dinner. At last he can rest. This is the meaning of the story. I knew the Facts. Rembrandt shows the Truth.

Aristotle might say Rembrandt has seen past the Accidents and given us the Substance, as does Armstrong in his Paralytic. He might go so far as to say both artists showed us God.

Now where ice, stuff, is concerned, we can get at the substance which lies beyond the accidents pretty easily. But it's harder to get at the substance of truth: one has to have an imagination, like Rembrandt and Armstrong. Ideally a nimble imagination, well-trained by the habits of Christian faith to see God in a man; to see water become wine. Or maybe a Catholic imagination also trained to see water wash away sin; or wine become blood; or bread become flesh.

I want my 6th graders to learn and love the Bible. To know the Substance as well as the Accidents; the Form and the Matter; the Stories and the Truth.

Their eyes can look; they need imaginations to see.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Preparation H

I posted this article earlier this month at: Preparation H » Amazing Catechists

I teach 6th graders. That's my little catechetical world: 11 and 12 year-olds. In keeping with Amazing Catechists' mission statement, this column will be about "the how-to, hands-on, here's-what-worked-for-me stuff that will help our readers to bring their faith and morality lessons profoundly to life"....for 6th graders. Don't you think that's enough introduction? I do. Time to discuss what works in my classroom. Let's start at the beginning.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be a lesson plan."

The most important part of class happens before class: Preparation. It doesn't have to be painful like the title of the article, but you must prepare. Physical preparation: you must write a lesson plan for every class. By that I mean before each class starts you have a written description of what you are going to cover. Reading the chapter a few times isn't enough. Having some key terms on a note card isn't enough. Reading from the textbook during class is a cop-out. And no fair filling time with something other than teaching! Movies are a time-filler! I know I'll get flak for this, but I believe craft projects and games are time-fillers in 6th grade as well. The kids are old enough to learn without diversions such as movies or projects. Besides the fact that they're old enough, every minute of available class time is precious and should never be lightly used. We all know how indifferently-trained in faith many of our charges are; part of fixing that is being prepared to teach nonstop for the whole class period. A lesson plan doesn't just make that possible: it makes it easy.

Now I know everyone has heard "make a lesson plan" before. And then the catechist reasonably thinks: yes, but how do I make a lesson plan? Well, let's look at one of my lesson plans and see how I do it.

First I should mention our textbook (which comes with a separate workbook). It's a good one with orthodox, substantial content. It's a textbook for a regular 180-day school year. Uh-oh. Catechism meets 30 times a year....see the problem? To try to use the textbook directly won't work timewise, yet the material must be covered. I don't know if other Religious Ed textbooks are purpose-written for 'Sunday Schoolers,' but isn't it nice to have a worst-case for an example?
The book has 31 chapters. Since not all chapters are created equal, I was able to leave one out without skipping anything important in the book's progression of concepts. I cover the remaining 30, one chapter per class period (more or less).

To begin a lesson plan, I read the chapter (this includes the workbook questions and the support material in the teacher's edition) twice in one sitting with a magic marker & a pencil. The pencil adds comments, the marker both highlights and crosses out. Then I do something else for a while, to get away from it. I won’t pick up the book again until the next day at the soonest.

For the third reading, I sit with a pencil and an 8.5 x 11 legal pad. I now have a pretty good sense of what I need to cover due to my prior notes & marks. It works out for me that one full page of a lesson plan takes me a full class period (50-55 minutes). If the chapter runs, say 4 pages, then each page in the textbook gets about 1/4 of my legal sheet. As I read the chapter, I am noting on the legal pad how I'll teach the material. I add/subtract from the textbook as I see fit. Sticking to a one-page limit forces me to budget what I expect to teach in the allotted time. I itemize the concepts, it keeps them separate: I don't want one huge paragraph. I should get to the bottom of the pad as I reach the end of the chapter.

Here's my class binder open to my plan for Chapter 17, the Last Supper. It's typical. The whole class will be run from what you see here, plus a Bible. Before we consider the notes on the right, look on the left. I've copied the chapter cheatsheet from my teacher's edition, and holepunched it on the right side so it will face my notes. I have noted the terms the chapter wants the kids to know, and pinked them. While roll is called at the start of class and kids settle in, I write these on the board. Also see the four lesson blocks at the bottom; I highlight critical ideas there, it helps me see how I'm doing time-wise. If I'm running behind, I'll usually drop something rather than go faster.

The little pink sheet is some stuff from the prior class I wanted to recap and questions I needed to answer.

Now to the right, The Lesson Plan (drumroll). I have 8 items on the page, it just worked out that way. Being a Last Supper class, Item 1 gives background for Item 2, which is the Passover. I will stick to the original document and ignore the extra notes and changes that I added over the years.

Item 1 notes read: Exodus- Prince of Egypt (Moses & Rameses) Hebrews-famine [Nile] slaves of Pharaoh (Great House), 9 plagues, last plague death of firstborn.

This doesn't tell me what to say, and it's not something I can read aloud. It's simply notes to guide my teaching. Part of this will be storytelling, some acting out, some questions the kids will answer, and no reading. It may vary in detail each year, that's fine. But look, how hard was that? (You answer, "Maybe not too hard.")

Item 2 covers the Passover itself and is a little different: Exodus 11 read, then 12, discuss each part in turn. Conclude unblemished Lamb sacrifice/ eat Lamb/ sprinkle blood/ perpetual institution/ free from slavery/ covenant sign blood
I read from my cheap Bible, but not the whole of the chapters, just parts I've highlighted. (the Bible is cheap so I don't feel bad marking it up.) And I don't read more than a verse or two without asking the kids a question, such as, "suppose pigs were on sale at the market...could the Hebrews just kill a pig instead of a lamb? No? Well, why not? Could they just put red paint on the doorposts? No? Why not?"

Item 4 notes treat the Bread of Life discourse: Jesus- John 6 discuss each part, whole chapter. Count times 'eat flesh.' Recall yesterday's miracle. Note Passover. Peter doesn't understand yet, either. Again, some reading, some storytelling, some acting out, some questions & answers.

Now let's jump ahead to Item 7, which is different.

Item 7 is a diagram that will go on the board, comparing the Passover meals of the Old and New Testaments. It's part textbook notes, and part my thinking. As each bit is added to the board, I ask the kids what goes next, or why two things such as the Lamb and Jesus are alike.

The other lesson plan items are similar enough to these in execution to not need examination. The point is that this and every other lesson plan gets me through the class period without using the textbook, without dead time, and with enough variety and some flexibility to keep things stimulating. It can be tough to write the first one, but it gets easy real fast. Yours may be nothing like mine, that's ok, right? (You answer, "Yes, it's ok!")

What matters is that you write one, and that it works for you and your children.

[Jesus said] "you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." 9 And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? Get started on your lesson plans!"


BTW, once you can compose a lesson plan in your head as well as on paper, you may do something much simpler, such as this; or this.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Remember It Well

I was born in 1957, which makes me, ummm, ehhh.... you do the math. I well remember the Mass in Latin, and also the first Mass in English. Growing up with the Tridentine Mass meant that like all Catholic kids of the day, I learned a lot of Latin. We didn't just know the sounds of the words, but the meanings of many. The missals had the English & Latin on facing pages, parents knew the Latin, no big deal.

One of my favorite lines of that Mass was, "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus/ Lord, I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant (literally, my boy) shall be healed." Of course in English we say soul, not servant. I like servant better: it sticks to the know the story, right?

So when I read recently that the latest changes to the English Mass were approved, I eagerly checked here USCCB - Roman Missal Examples to see if the language of my childhood had been restored.

The only problem is, I remembered wrong. This is the actual Tridentine Mass line:

Dómine non sum dignus ut íntres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea/ Lord, I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed."

Oh. But I had been taught the story of Jesus and the Centurion. I remember the story and the original verse, which is stronger than the Mass version. So at every Mass, even though the Missal said in both Latin and English, "my soul shall be healed," I was thinking, I heard, "my servant shall be healed," while I imagined the scene at the top of the page.

I was truly surprised to learn that the Tridentine didn't say servant. In fact I didn't really believe it until I went home for lunch, where I could check in my father's old Missal: yep, ánima mea/ my soul it is, right there in print. I woulda swore it said servant. But even thinking servant didn't prevent me as a child from knowing that in the Mass the line referred to me, my soul, and not the soldier's servant. I'd been taught the story, how it applied in Mass, and recalled the whole thing each time I spoke/ read that single line.

This little episode makes a catechetical point: one of the best ways to teach is to tell a Bible story. Often the kids will already know all or part of a particular story, but have not learned how it can inform their faith. When a memorable story is connected to the specifics of Catholic faith, faith is strengthened.

When my class learns about the Mass, among other stories we discuss Jesus and the Centurion. Here's how we do it:

Y'all tell me, what's a centurion? A soldier. Yes, what flavor....Chinese? Ha, no a Roman soldier! Yes. Who knows the story of Jesus and the Centurion? Yes, honorary son, tell it. He came to Jesus because his daughter was sick and needed to be made better. Good, half right. It wasn't his daughter....who was sick? His servant! Right. By the way, how many soldiers does a centurion command? No guesses? How many years in a century? 100.... 100 men! Yes. How many cents in a dollar? 100! What language did Romans speak? Latin! So c-e-n-t is Latin for...100! Yes, geniuses!

So let's see: Was the centurion a Christian? No! Well, was he a Jew? No! Oh that's right, he was Russian. No he wasn't, he was Roman! We just said so! Oh yeah, I forgot. Russian, Roman.... aren't they about the same? No! Oh. Well, if he wasn't Christian or Jew or Russian, what did he believe in? He was a pagan. Yes, he believed in a bunch of made-up gods. So if he was a pagan, why was he bugging Jesus? Well, he believed Jesus could cure his servant. Yes. Even if he didn't have faith in Jesus the way the Apostles did, he still had faith, a kind of practical faith. Having faith that Jesus could heal his servant, did the soldier stay home with his servant and pray to Jesus? No, he went to see Jesus and talk to him in person. Yes, because the centurion was made of a...? Body'n'soul! Yes, so if he believed in his soul that Jesus could cure, his body would have to....? Do something! Yes, in this case his body....went to Jesus to ask in person. Yes. He acted on his faith. And this way he could see his faith, Jesus could, and everyone else saw it, too. Did people see his soul? No, but they saw what he did. Yes. Can you see anybody's soul? No, it's invisible. Right, but you can see what people do, including yourself.

So when he told Jesus about his servant, what did Jesus do? Yes, daughter? Jesus started to go to his house, but the soldier said Jesus didn't have to. Yes, what exactly did the soldier say? Nobody remembers? That's ok, y'all are doing fine so far, let me read from Matthew what he said:

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed." Oh that's like at Mass! You are right, we'll get to that in a minute, don't give it away yet! What's the first part mean: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof"? Well, he doesn't think he's good enough for Jesus to come to his house. Yes, is any of us that good? No.....Right, why not? No takers? It's because we all have something in common, we're all...? Sinners? Yes, so the Roman isn't just speaking about himself, he's speaking about us all. Now the last bit, "only say the word, and my servant shall be healed," what's that mean? He still trusts Jesus to fix the servant if Jesus says he will. Yes. Jesus will heal his servant even if both of them are sinners. And though he trusts Jesus, he still needs to hear Jesus say it out loud, because the soldier has a....body'n'soul! Yes, it helps him if his ears hear the words. His body'n'soul believe together. Just like ours do.

Now at Mass, as you noticed, right before communion we hear this: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." Where's that come from? The story! Yes. At Mass what's this mean: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you"? It means we're not real good all the time. Yes, we sin like the centurion. And this: "only say the word, and my soul shall be healed"? Well, that Jesus can heal our souls? Yes, it's pretty clear. We hear this right before communion to remind us that we as Catholics should have at least as much faith as the pagan Roman, and that Jesus gives us not the body healing the servant received, but...? Ummm, soul healing? Yes, put it another way, please. Ummm, our sins are forgiven?

Yes, genuises, good work! Don't just remember the story; remember what it means.


For those too young to have seen "Gigi," I offer this dab of a song by Honore (Maurice Chevalier) & Mamita (Hermione Gingold). No man ever smiled with such radiance as Maurice Chevalier.

H: We met at nine....
M: We met at eight!
H: I was on time....
M: No, you were late!
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well! We dined with friends,
M: We dined alone!
H: A tenor sang,
M: A baritone!
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Puritan's Grace

My Wife the Energizer Bunny has graciously consented to feed nineteen people tomorrow. As Lord of the Manor, I'll say something about Thanksgiving as a prelude to grace. This year I wondered what sort of reflections the Puritans would have offered at the first Thanksgiving. I Googled around for a while, but didn't find anything that struck me. So I've decided to confect something that I think a Puritan would appreciate, should any Puritans be among tomorrow's cloud of witnesses:
"Sailing to the the New World in 1620, in a New Ark, the Puritans believed they were establishing a New Israel in a New Canaan. They were a new tribe of Chosen People headed for a new Promised Land. Given how they understood themselves through the Old Testament, I wondered what a Puritan might have said at the first Thanksgiving: something that would be particularly appropriate on that occasion, but would also have meaning in a modern context. And I thought of Psalm 128, which I now paraphrase:
"You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands & all shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. May you live to see your children's children in a happy Jerusalem. How blessed are those who walk in the ways of the Lord!"
And then we'll say grace and eat.
* Mayflower by Mike Haywood

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Christmas Carol

I know, it's from 2009...but it's evergreen.

Tonight as I came into the gym where everyone collects before going to individual classes, I saw the Boss (DRE) speaking to one of the little kids' teachers about having her group do some handmade Christmas cards for soldiers. Since every millisecond in our class is to be spent on my fastidiously-prepared lesson plan, there's no time for such trifles....although it's fine for the kiddies. But as I approached, the Boss looked my way. I put my "no" face on instantly, but to no avail. My kids should make some cards, too. All right, I guess. Five minutes should be enough time, I can put stuff on the board while they play.

Once in the classroom, I opened our storage bin of class supplies, and there's nothing to color with, only pencils and pens. I said, uh-oh, no colors, guess we won't do cards; we'll have regular class! O routine! O lesson plan! But my able assistant Madame Bouncer unearthed a fine box of color markers from the bowels of a closet, and I was beaten. Paper and markers were passed out along with some instruction. My kids are between 11 and 15 or so; the older ones, especially the boys, weren't diving into this little project with the energy of the 11-year-old girls. I wanted them to get it done.

I said, "Look, don't be tentative or shy about drawing something. I'm an architect, I get paid good money to draw and color pictures all day long. You can do it, but you have to start drawing now. I used to teach college students in architecture school. If I had 10 students in my studio and they started a new project, say a dentist's office, after an hour only 2 people would have drawn anything at all. I'd ask the other 8, what are you waiting for? Draw! They'd say, "I don't have a good idea yet." I'd say, "Then draw a bad idea." So I want you to do the same thing. Draw. Draw Santy, or a Christmas tree, or baby Jesus, but draw. If it's bad throw it away, there's plenty of paper. A bad drawing gets you closer to a good one. And think of the soldiers in the freezing cold in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, how happy they'll be to get a Christmas picture from you. It'd make their Christmas. When I was your age I did the same thing for soldiers in Vietnam, we heard back from some of them. I've even made cards for my wife. Remember, love creates; love doesn't go shopping. Make something good."

So even the self-conscious boys got busy, and soon you could hear a pin drop. The only sound was the clicking of the color marker caps on and off. Click click click click click....A few bad ideas were wadded up as preludes to better ones. After 10 minutes, there was no letup in focus or energy. Mme. Bouncer quietly walked around, indicated I should have a look. I did. Good God in Heaven, they were doing the beautiful, serious work that only children can do. Unique, substantial, careful, thoughtful, imaginative. What soldier wouldn't be thrilled to receive one of these? Then 20 minutes: click click click click, still intense. I accepted that the time was being better spent on making cards than covering class material. By 30 minutes, the first cards were being turned in, and full bladders fled to the bathrooms. By 35 minutes, we started on a shortened lesson plan. It was fine. When class was over I told them they'd done good work, and that if they were my children (which I think they are most of the time) I'd give them all a hug and a kiss.

Thank goodness for my DRE, my bouncer, and my dear students. Thank goodness I stayed out of the way.

I love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Every Christmas I reflect on Ezekiel 36:25: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. How well it applies to Scrooge's change of heart. How much I'd like it to apply to me. And I ponder this last line by Dickens: " was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
The best class is when the teacher learns from the student; I've already received my Christmas present for this year. So I wish an early 'Merry Christmas' to all our soldiers.

And to all a Good Night.

(at top is a scan of one of my students' cards)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Timespace Liturgy

One of the key concepts in 6th grade Wednesday Sunday School is that our worship at Mass connects directly, physically to the unceasing worship that goes on in Heaven. I use the term 'Holy Tornado' along with some blackboard sketching to show a temporary timespace continuum between Heaven and Earth. (see Trou de Ver) Our prayers go up, zhhhhhpp! Jesus comes down, shhhhhhp! Then after a few minutes, bzhht! the connection is broken until the next Mass. The kids dig the science-fiction-movie sounds.

I use this line from Eucharistic Prayer I to reinforce the point:

“Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in Heaven.” Until now I've always drawn this concept on the board. From now on I also have some art to show.

Look at that great image I stumbled upon recently at Tiber Jumper's blog. It differs from similar Mass pictures I've seen since my pre-Vatican 2 childhood. In addition to the crucified Christ made present, it shows an angel ascending to heaven in the midst of the Mass. I imagine the painting is directly inspired by that line from the Eucharistic Prayer, which itself must be partially inspired by Judges 13, and descriptions in Revelations of activities around the altar in heaven, e.g., 8:3-4 which is covered in class:

"And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."

And check out the upper half of the image....the angel is being caught up (raptured!) by the swirling timespace winds of the Holy Tornado! Who knew?!

If anything beats catechizing 6th grade I want to know what it is.

Tempus Fugit

Yesterday I spent a few hours hanging wallpaper: up & down the stepladder, kneeling to cut & measure, crouching to trim. By the evening my legs were achy & stiff. Later my wife & I were preparing to watch a dvd. I was sitting on the sofa, had to get up and walk across the room to flip a light. I got up slowly, walked over to the switch and announced "I'm over here now." I flipped the switch, walked back to the sofa, slowly sat down, and said "I'm back here now."

My Wife the Energizer Bunny said, "You say it like it's an activity."

I said, "For me, simply being is an activity."

We're either sleeping or laughing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baby Night

During the year there are assorted topics (e.g., Christmas, Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Visitation, Adam & Eve, marriage, Original Sin) that involve having children. On these occasions, I use my 3" plastic fetus to emphasize the baby in the womb is a baby, a person, and to get the kids accustomed to the idea that a weird-looking fetus is no less a person..."hey, were y'all persons when y'all looked like this plastic fetus? Oh yes indeed we were!"

Each year I try to line up a pregnant couple for class. Before the baby is born, I bring in an ultrasound and introduce the baby (by name when possible). We briefly discuss the person-ness of the baby and compare the ultrasound to the plastic baby. I tell the kids they'll have the chance to hold this baby in a couple of months (many 6th graders have never held a baby) and ask the parents (mostly the mother) questions (typical: did it hurt?). The kids should develop an intuitive understanding of the personhood of the baby from conception through birth.

Yesterday was Baby Night, and as is usual for Baby Night, it was a great class. To start things off, everyone cleaned hands with sanitizer. All but one student who was under the weather held baby Avery, the second daughter of my brother Knight (of Columbus) Michael. Avery is about 2 months old, so she was able to make eye-contact with each child who held her; we've always had a baby who can do this, it matters. Baby-holding takes place in the back of the classroom so everyone else can pay attention to the evening's subject matter, which in this case was the 4th Commandment. Because it was also Baby Night, the parent-honoring was was briefly preluded with this:

God is Love. In the beginning God was alone, so what did he do? He made everything. Yes, he created everything. Love always wants to create, because love comes from God, who is Love, and thus Love.... creates? Yes. My daughter Alexandra has a boyfriend who loves her. Her birthday was on Saturday, what did he do? Well, what does love do? Umm....create? Yeah, so?...he made something? Yes, what do we make on someone's birthday? A birthday cake? Yes, he made her a cake. Loves wants to create, to make. A drawing, a poem, music, a cake. That's why a gift we make is usually more meaningful than something we buy. So if love creates, and husbands & wives love each other, what does their love create? Babies? Yes, so remember: baby Avery, who you'll get to hold tonight, is a creation of her parents' love for each other.

(This all is elaborated on in our Adam & Eve class, Dirt & Ribs, and elsewhere, but it's good to get a bit of it in front of them now, while the baby reinforces it physically.)

After everyone had held (and even re-held) the baby, Michael said his family was going be celebrating Avery's spiritual birthday soon, and invited the class to her Baptism. We'll spend next week's class on Baptism, using this as a guide: Blood & Water. Having an upcoming baptism gives some urgency & seriousness to the information.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sabbath Mode

One class each year is devoted to the Third Commandment, keeping the Sabbath holy. For a given Catechism subject, we review any Old Testament sources, how it was understood in the OT, how it was treated by Jesus in the NT, and how it's understood today. The Sabbath class is a nice example of letting the Bible tell most of the story (with comments and discussion, of course). It's good for the kids to hear a sweep of Scripture from the earliest treatment of a subject to the last; gets them used to thinking comprehensively about the Bible, as opposed to fragmented thinking about just this or that verse; and it shows a consistency of thought between the Bible and the Church.

This post overlaps thematically with this one, Sabado, which emphasizes Q&A, while this one treats the Bible sources.

The Bible passages are taken from my text file for the class. If I have numerous passages in a class period such as this one, I collate them ahead of time in a file; it saves a lot of deadtime I otherwise spend flipping to the right pages. I should also mention that I do not like to refer to verses: time permitting, I quote passages. Context matters.

Genesis 1-2:
31 God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed--the sixth day. (Evening starts the day, and still does for observant Jews)
1 Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.
2 Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested (shabbated) on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.
3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested (שבת) from all the work he had done in creation. (notice Genesis twice says God shabbated for emphasis)
Exodus 20:
8 "Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. 9 Six days you may labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God.
11 In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
(The Bible often repeats concepts for emphasis)

At this point we discuss how seriously Jews took this commandment, and that by Jesus' day, there were 39 rules about what could not be done on the Sabbath. I mention Joe Lieberman and contemporary Jewish Sabbath observances such as not driving, flipping light switches, or changing TV channels.

In the NT, we see Jesus changing the emphasis of the Sabbath:

John 5:
2 Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep (Gate) a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. 3 In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be well?" 7 The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me." 8 Jesus said to him, "Rise, take up your mat, and walk." 9 Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked. Now that day was a Sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who was cured, "It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry your mat."

(Probably the 'Jews' in this case are Pharisees, the rule experts. Can you imagine getting on a lame man's case for carrying his mat?)

15 The man went and told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well. 16 Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work."

(Even after God finished the work of creation, he still had to work to maintain it in existence)

18 For this reason the Jews tried all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.

Luke 14:
1 On a Sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. (They're waiting for Jesus to break a Sabbath rule)
2 In front of him there was a man suffering from dropsy. 3 Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees, asking, "Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?" 4 But they kept silent; (they've learned not to argue with Jesus) so he took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him.
5 Then he said to them, "Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?" (Even the Pharisees will break the rules if they think something good needs to be done immediately)
6 But they were unable to answer his question.

Luke 6:
1 While he was going through a field of grain on a Sabbath, his disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. (I act out rubbing the chaff off of the kernels)
2 Some Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"
3 Jesus said to them in reply, "Have you not read what David did when he and those with him were hungry? 4 (How) he went into the house of God, took the bread of offering, which only the priests could lawfully eat, ate of it, and shared it with his companions." (I briefly tell the story of David and the showbread, 1Samuel 21)
5 Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath; the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (Jesus has authority to say what's ok on the Sabbath: the wellbeing of people is more important than the rules, which have become an end rather than a means)

6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him. (Their hearts are hardened against Jesus and his message)
8 But he realized their intentions and said to the man with the withered hand, "Come up and stand before us." And he rose and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" (They don't want to lose an argument with Jesus)
10 Looking around at them all, he then said to him, "Stretch out your hand." He did so and his hand was restored.
11 But they became enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.

Why do we observe the New Testament Sabbath on the first day of the week, Sunday, instead of the last day, Saturday?

Mark 16:
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. 2 Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. (We see that Jesus rose on the first day, Sunday. So every Sunday is a little celebration of Easter)

Acts 20:
7 On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread, Paul spoke to them because he was going to leave on the next day, and he kept on speaking until midnight. (Years after Jesus ascended into heaven, we see the first Christians participate in the Last Supper on the first day, Sunday. So we too participate in the Last Supper at Mass on Sunday)

Oh, Sabbath Mode....I almost forgot. That's an optional Kosher feature of many modern appliances, such as refrigerators. Since opening a fridge can turn on the interior light, or make the compressor start up, it's understood to be work. But a Sabbath-mode fridge can be set so that during the Sabbath the inside light won't come on, nor will the compressor start when the door is opened....thus no work is done per the modern understanding of the 39 rules. I bring an ad like this Sabbath mode oven or this Sabbath Mode Kit for Refrigerators to show the kids I am not making things up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sticks & Saints

Sons & Daughters, last week when we discussed prayer, we learned that not all prayer is worship: some of it's just....what? Talking to someone. Yes...who do you talk to? Jesus. Who else? Saints? Yes, who else? My grandma? Yes, I talk to my Grandma, too. When I talk to her in heaven, am I worshiping her? No! No, of course not. I worship only God. Is my Grandmother in Heaven a saint? Yes? Yes, everyone in heaven is a saint. Am I sure Grandma is in Heaven? Well, you hope she is. Yes, I hope so...I believe so. Is St. Peter in Heaven? Yes. St. Paul? Yes. Joan of Arc? Yes. St Francis? Yes. Yes, I bet he's kissing birds and patting squirrels on the head right now (you girls just love Francis, don'tcha...uh-huh). How do we know Francis is in heaven when I'm not sure about my grandma? The Bible says so? Good guess, but no. God says so? Mmm, sort of, yes.

Class, what's this? A stick. Yes...about how long is it? A yard. See how I've put a couple of marks on it, that makes it a....yardstick. Yes. How about this little stick, how long is it? A foot. Yes. It's a footstick, right? No, it's called a ruler! Oh yeah, a ruler....what was the topic? Saints! Oh yeah.

Since we're talking about saints, here's a word for y'all: canonize. When someone becomes an official saint, they are 'canonized.' Let me draw this for ya..... here's Jesus in the clouds in heaven....couple of angels. Let's see, where are saints' bodies usually? In the ground!'s a buried saint's skeleton. Here's the cannon. So when the person becomes a saint we load the skeleton into the cannon and BOOM, shoot the bones into heaven. That's how they are canonized.....yes, what? That's not true, is it? Umm, no. Thank you for thinking. But they do get canonized. (canon & cannon go on the board.)

Canonize comes from a Greek word, kanna, it means 'stick'. We get our word 'cane' from kanna. A straight stick, which like my yard-stick & foot-stick is good for....measuring stuff! Let's see, pretend we're in the Middle Ages, I'm a ropeseller, and you want to buy some rope.

Daughter, how much rope do you want to buy? Well, c'mon, speak up, how much? Uhh...10 feet? OK, 10 feet. But look, I've decided to use my real foot to measure, which is shorter than the foot-stick. Is that OK with you? No! Why not? Cause it's too short! Too short? It's 10 feet! No it isn't, your feet don't count. Well, I think they do. Who are you to say I can't use my own foot? Oh, alright then, let's be fair: I'll use your foot. No, that's worse!

So what's so special about the footstick? It's a ruler, not a footstick. Oh yeah...what's special about the ruler's foot? It has to do with a king's foot. Yes, that may be about the inches? It's how long a king's nose was. Maybe so...anyone else? An inch is as long as part of the King's thumb. Yes, another definition of an inch was 3 kernels of wheat lined up. So, in medieval England could anyone decide for himself how long a foot was? No! Who decided? No guesses? What's this footstick called? A ruler. So...who made the rules in England? The ruler, the King! Yes, so how come the King gets to decide? He's the King! (That's about as far as 6th graders can take this.)

Yes, the King makes the rules because he has authority. But if I wanted to use shorter feet in my rope business, would the King come straighten me out? Daughter, would you just phone up the King and have him come over? Cuz he's busy in London chopping off his wife's head, he can't get here for at least a week. No....I'd tell the police! Yes, or maybe you'd tell the Sheriff, like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood. The Sheriff has authority to make me use the right measure. Where's his authority come from? The King? Yes. He runs things for the King using the King's rules. The Sheriff can't say I can use a shorter foot. He mostly enforces what the King already decided. And over the centuries, can the different Kings change the foot to whatever they like? No, it has to stay the same all the time. Right. Even Kings don't have authority to do stupid stuff, they have to maintain what's right and true.

So for the measuring stick to work, it needs an Authority to back it up. And the Authority, the Ruler, needs a Representative to enforce his rules. If we make up our own minds about the rules, the rules are useless. Your foot, my foot, the King's foot; if they all count then I can just throw out my stick.

So what was the topic again.....? Saints. Oh yeah. Canonizing saints. Tell me, what's kanna mean in Greek? A cane, a stick. What kind of stick? A measuring stick. Yes. In English a rule, or a person in charge of rules, or something that never changes, can be called a canon....not a cannon. So when we say a saint is canonized, like the tough-guy St. Joan of Arc, we mean he or she measured up...yes, what? Joan of Arc was a girl, not a guy. Yeah? Well, I still think she's a tough-guy Saint. Anyway, once the Church says a saint measured up, that will never change, just like the length of a foot is unchanging. The books in the Bible are like that, too. They're called the Canon of Scripture, because nobody can ever take any books out or put any in.

In the case of measuring up, canonizing saints, who's the King? The Pope! Good guess, but no. Does a King have a boss? No! And does the Pope have a boss? Ummm....God? Be more specific, please. Is Jesus his boss? Yes. So if the Pope's not the King....? Jesus is the King! Yes, good. King of...? Heaven! Yes, how about something on Earth that Jesus founded? "Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I build my....? Church, church! Yes, before Jesus ascended to heaven he set up His Church. Since he wasn't going to be around in a physical, human way after ascending, he needed a Sheriff to mind things...who would that be? The Pope? Yes, and maybe some deputies since the pope can't be everywhere at once. They'd be the.... bishops? Yes. They have authority too.

So when the pope or the bishops use the kanna, the measuring stick, the rule, to keep the Church in order, can they just do whatever they like? Can they say, "This week we're taking 3 books out of the Bible, and adding 2 new ones?" Ha, no! Right, no more than the President can say a foot will only have 10 inches.

When you have the King's authority, or the President's, or Jesus's, you can only use it to do....what?

What's right.

Yes. And in the Church's case, mostly to enforce what's already been permanently decided....(I wave the kanna), what's been..? Canonized!


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Babies in Eden

Earlier this year one of my students observed that if Adam & Eve hadn't sinned, and been thrown out of Eden, none of us would exist. I responded that yes, to the extent that Adam & Eve's (or any human's) exercise of free will affects (and even effects) the future, if A&E were today still sinless in Eden, I, for example, wouldn't exist. My parents had to exist, meet, marry, etc. which wouldn't've happened in an Edenic world. But there would still have been other people, just not you or I.

But weren't A&E alone in Eden, she asked? Uh-oh. Sometimes I think on my feet, and sometimes I decide the best answer is: I DON'T KNOW! That's what I said this time, and added it was a great question, and I'd have an answer next week.

Next week:

Sons & Daughters, y'all remember last week a question about whether or not there were other people in Eden with Adam & Eve? Yes. Oh, you do...I'm impressed. Well then, tell me who were Adam and Eve? They were the first man & woman. Yes, and who'd God make first? Adam. Yes, and God made him from....dirt! Good, and Eve was made second, from....Adam's rib! Yeah, and what's usually better, to be first or second? First! And what's better, to be made from dirt, or a person's rib? Umm...a rib! So who had the advantage between A & E? They're about the same, I guess. Yes, pretty equal. So, were they cousins? No, there weren't any cousins yet. Oh, yeah, I forgot. Were they brother & sister? No, they were married! They were husband & wife! That's right!

Here's a question: what's the First Commandment for us? Love the LORD thy God & have no other Gods before him. Yep. And what was the first commandment for A&E? Well, we said it already: LovetheLORDthyGod&havenootherGodsbeforehim! Ha! Wrong! Trick question! Who did God give the Commandments to...Adam? No, Moses! Who came later, Moses or Adam? Uhh, Moses! So did Adam know anything about however-many Commandment thingies?, they didn't exist yet! Right! So back to the trick question....what was the first commandment for Adam & Eve? IknowIknow! Don't eat the fruit! Ha-Ha, I am the King of Trick Questions! No! That came later! But that's a good answer.

OK, lets read a bit from Genesis. When you hear the first commandment God gives A&E, say it out loud.

"Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over....IknowIknowbefruitful&multiply! Yes, be fruitful & multiply....weird commandment. How would A&E grow fruit off themselves or need to know how to multiply? Stratopops, it means to have babies! Oh yeah, that's right...why didn't God just say so?

Anyway, A&E are in Eden, they just got created.....have they disobeyed God yet? No! So if they're obeying God they must be.....having babies? Sure, unless you can imagine A&E saying, "God we'd like to be obedient'n'all, but we wanna lay around on the beach, check out the pizza buffet, relax some...since we can't die we'll be fruiful later on, in 50 years or so...what's the rush? Don't worry, we're gonna obey ya!" Ha, that's silly.

Yes, so my guess is Adam and Eve had kids in the Garden before they sinned and were thrown out. They were just being obedient....up until they weren't being obedient. And after they sinned and were being thrown out, God said to Eve,"I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing," which sounds to me like she had already birthed some kids without lots of pain.

I don't think the Church has firmly decided about A&E having kids in Eden. It's an interesting question, but it doesn't affect whether we go to heaven or not. The Church has decided about whether husbands & wives, like A&E, should be fruitful & multiply, though. What's that decision? That husbands & wives should have babies?


Friday, October 9, 2009

Einstein & Mozart & Wagner & Me

No, not that Wagner. But yes, that Mozart.

I was reading this article earlier today Music and the Rise and Decline of Western Civilization and got a kick out of this (edited) excerpt:

"Einstein was not as fond of Beethoven as he was of Bach, Mozart and Schubert. According to Walter Isaacson, “What Einstein appreciated in Mozart and Bach was the clear architectural structure that made their music seem ‘deterministic’ and, like his own favorite scientific theories, plucked from the universe rather than composed. ‘Beethoven created his music,’ Einstein once said, but ‘Mozart’s music is so pure it seems to have been ever-present in the universe... I feel uncomfortable listening to Beethoven. I think he is too personal, almost naked. ...[Einstein] was critical about other composers in ways that reflect some of his scientific sentiments: ......Wagner had a ‘lack of architectural structure I see as decadence’; and Strauss was ‘gifted but without inner truth."

I've only posted twice about music: here Liebestod about Wagner; and here Beim Schlafengehen about Strauss. So I perked up at Einstein fussing about both of them in particular. The article's pretty clear about why Einstein favors Mozart over Wagner; and it made me think about why I'm the opposite of Einstein.

I agree with Einstein that Bach, Mozart, et al do a great job of using music to discover and express the beauty and rationality of the universe. I appreciate that sound frequencies which are proportional to one another in a geometric/mathematical sense are also beautiful to the ear when played together, or in sequence. Why should that be true, except that God deliberately created the universe to be rational, systematized, intelligible, and also beautiful? That man can find reason in beauty is ever fascinating. (Google "Pythagoras chord" for more on this.)

But I don't ever get the feeling that Bach & Mozart are going beyond the system (not to imply that they could). Yes, the universe is a window on the Mind of God; to perceive the Divine Clockwork through the creation of beautiful music is a wonder indeed. But we humans are more than just part of the universe, we're part of God as well, who 'naturally' transcends, and is in no way limited by, his creation. In other words, in a small way now, and in a big way later, we'll share with God the transcending of the universe. That's the point of our current existence: to transcend it (with a lot of help).

That's what I sense in Wagner & Strauss. Through their predecessors they know the beauty inherent in the system, the rationale, the rules of the universe, the Music of the Spheres. Then they wonder: what is the nature of beauty that is not bound by these rules, these rhythms, this system? What is the music that transcends all that? What music is God composing that isn't limited by the conditions of human existence? Can we, as bits of the transcendent God, compose some as well? Create beyond Creation? We exceed our own understanding....can you hear that?

The universe and its rules are finite....human imagination & creativity are not.

And I suppose that Einstein, focused on understanding the Universe, wasn't too keen on music that tries to go beyond it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Apheresis fin

Heard from my 'handler' today, total count was 5.5 million 'babycells', more than the 5 they asked for, so I am feeling great! When there's news of the recipient's condition, I'll pass it on.

All in all, a great experience; I'm staying on the donor list.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Apheresis 6

A mixed bag. Arrived on time, went straight to the hookup, full of optimism. Started the left arm needle, couldn't get a connection. Started to do the clammy-palms-raining-sweat pre-faint shtick and got tense which adds to the problem...apparently tension makes the veins smaller. And the nurses are stressing: they murmur (they're all dear women) "is it this way?...I think it splits, I'm in it, but we're not gettin'...if we go deeper...yeah but I don't want to go through the bottom.....this one's gonna blowout, too.....Do you want a wet rag, darlin'?" Yeah, thanks. After a couple minutes of futility, out came the needle. Took a dopey pill. After fifteen more minutes, try again, breathe through your nose....slowly.....this time ok. What a baby. It never changes. My wife stroked my forehead...she is so beautiful. What a consolation at a time like this. The right elbow needle just slides in, never a problem.

Latest news is there were only 3.5 (million) babycells taken on Monday. The nurses had estimated a count based on yesterday's blood volume in the apheresis room, predicting a full haul of 5.0. But no biggie, we'll make it up on day 2, today. But today we got a late start due to the trouble with the left arm and then 15 minutes for the sillypill to work. So by the time the courier showed up a couple of hours later to escort yesterday's 3.5, plus today's makeup, we hadn't processed enough blood to be sure on the basis of bulk, and of course no time for an accurate count either. Yeah, but I feel fine, why not run some more? Dogs bark, but the caravan travels on: the courier took what had been 'fuged out thus far.

So we're back home...not sure how this will work out for the recipient. Maybe enough to do the job, maybe not. However I'd expected to feel right now, this isn't it.

Regardless, my part's done. I guess I got my drama.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Apheresis 5

I had imagined I'd blog during the Apheresis process, what a naif. They started with the needles so fast I didn't have a chance. First were the usual two shouts of Filgrastim. Next a stick for another round of bloodtests.

The the main event: laid on an upgraded blood-donor bed...nice pillow. Got a needle in the right elbow to send blood to the apheresis centrifuge; then another in the same arm to return blood sans stemcells back to the body. Both hurt about like a blood biggie. But then the second point started to hurt real bad andgotwayworseinahurry;eye-bugging, off-the-map pain; I was about to grit my teeth through the top of my skull. Apparently that vein had "burst", and wouldn't work. Someone asked if I was feeling pain: Hell yeah, I'm 'feeling' pain, but so what? The process has to continue regardless. But they shut that vein down and found a vein in my left forearm...after a couple minutes it started blowing out & hurting like hell. So then they used a vein in my left elbow. Thank ya, Jesus. For the next 4 hours it was essentially just like giving blood from two arms, very manageable. I was getting a relaxant in the return line so was pleasantly dopey. It's after 9pm now & I'm still on the 'relaxed' side. I'm correcting this post at a 1 typo per word rate.

As it turns out I have to donate for another couple of hours tomorrow before going home. Since we were going to be here another day, I asked our shuttlebus driver about places to see within walking distance of the hotel. Based on his input, we spent about 90 minutes strolling through Old Salem (settled by Moravians), with houses dating back to before the revolution, and the adjacent Salem College. All beautiful, and recommended.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ikon Writer

Recently I saw the above ikon ('scuze me, I like the k, it looks more Greek) at the local Catholic high school ( I'm not used to seeing ikons with English on them; plus, it's a Western (Roman) Catholic school, and who are those guys impersonating the Trinity? Who painted (wrote) it? The school Chaplain ( told me it was someone I already knew, a member of our parish, married to one of my brother Knights (of Columbus). Wow, who knew we had an ikon painter (writer!) in our parish? How cool is that?

So last month on her Facebook a reference to an ikon seminar led to a series of posts, not about ikons per se, but ikon-writing, i.e., from the writer's standpoint, not the viewer's. I liked the content, and what follows is an edited version of Q&A that ran over a week or so:

Why are those three people in the ikon the Trinity?

"Icon of the Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev, prototype. (Sometimes called Old Testament Trinity) This is based on the Biblical account of the hospitality of Abraham from Gen. 18. Since the beginning of the Church, this passage has been interpreted as a theophany of the Holy Trinity. In the passage the three "men" (three separate and unique persons) act as one, in perfect relationship with each other and united in one perfect will and
voice. Rublev greatly simplified the prototypes before him, focusing on the persons of the Trinity rather that the action of the event itself. Those icons that focus on the event itself are usually titled, "The Hospitality of Abraham," and often contain both Abraham and Sarah, sometimes a servant, and other details of the event itself like serving bowls."

Can you comment on icon-writing, not in general terms, but personally?

"Icon writing is a contemplative process in and of itself, but I also join it to Carmelite spirituality: Praying the Offices, Lectio, Sacraments, trying to be aware of God in all I do. Specific to iconography, I pray the "iconographer's prayer" before I start; bless my work and myself with the sign of the cross; during the process of writing the icon I try to stay focused on those who need my prayers, esp. the individual for whom the icon is intended; pray to God to guide me in the decisions related to the icon, re: colors, design, etc.; and last but not least, I try to connect with the subject itself."

How do you make this connection?

"I learn as much as possible about the saint or subject if I am not familiar with them, meditate upon the subject and his/her life and how it applies to my life. I pray through the icon while writing it. All this is done during the day, in silence or with appropriate sacred music or religious programming, in solitude (very Carmelite). In addition, because I deal with so much physical pain, I try to join that to my work and offer all to God. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity once described herself as a "Praise of Glory." I hope God sees what I do and who I am as a "Praise of Beauty," referring to God as the One who is Perfect Beauty and Truth."

Speaking of Beauty, how do icons differ from stained glass images and statues?

"There is more of a theological difference in Orthodox thought than in Catholic, in my opinion. In Catholicism, the distinctions are a little more blurred due to the influence of various art movements to express faith and belief. So let me address this from a somewhat more Orthodox viewpoint.

"Icons are not decorative art or representational art, although they do utilize symbols and symbolic meaning. An iconographer's task is not to create something new, but to carry on the tradition that has come before, using prototypes that have been passed down from generation to generation. When one looks at an icon, one sees the icon that has come before it, and the one before that, and the one that has come before that and so on, until one sees *through* the icon to the the original individual, or saint, or scene. So as one "looks through" an icon, one is connected to the subject in a real and powerful way as a living entity. It is comparable to the Word of God in Orthodox thought. That is why iconographers are said to *write* icons. They are proclaiming Salvation History, but instead of using words, they use color and line and visual composition.

"In Western art, one doesn't have this kind of developed theology or the canons which guide iconography. That is why, if one looks at a traditional icon in Orthodoxy--no matter the media--it will generally look the same, whether it is written 1000 yrs ago or today.
One is not to impose one's personal interpretation upon the work. In stained glass and sculpture, the individual artist does original, interpretive work. These disciplines certainly may draw from iconography, but are never considered icons themselves."

BTW, Madame Ikonographer and her husband share their conversion story here:

Converts have all the fun.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Apheresis 3 & 4

Two uneventful days: the shots in the morning, a bit more intense lower back pain easily managed with Ibuprofin. Where's the drama, the sensation of bones churning out what the nurses called "babycells"?

Oh well....tomorrow is the big day.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Apheresis 2

Got a couple of shots of Filgastrim. No blood taken. Small of the back aches. Bones in my head hurt. Interesting...not a headache in the typical sense. The nurse came to the house, turns out she was from Houma, La. where I lived as a child. It's my family's hometown on my father's side. The nurse & I attended the same Catholic church and school, St. Francis de Sales, now a co-cathedral, although I think I'm a good 15 years older.

Anticlimatic day.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Apheresis 1

Yesterday my 17-year-old daughter Alexandra gave blood for the first time. I am so proud of her. She got in the car after school, had the bandage on her arm. Made no big deal out of it, just helping out, didn't faint or get nauseated (not nauseous....nauseous means something else), had a great first experience. Good girl. Never toots her own horn. Did I mention Alexandra is my daughter?

Her experience prompts me to comment on something I'm doing along the same lines that's way less common, but useful and interesting: I'm in the last stage of donating blood stem cells to someone who has non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

I don't personally know anyone who has done this (thousands have donated, it's common enough, and isn't heroic like donating a kidney) and don't know much about the how the whole process will turn out; I'm curious and apprehensive.

If you want to know more about non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, check online. For the donating part, this is a good article:

I'm going to blog over the next 5-6 days about the donation process. I figure, if like Alexandra the Daughter, this first experience is a good one, I'll be inclined to do it again; and maybe you, Dear Reader, will consider signing up to be a Potential Stem-Cell Donor as well.

I think it was in 2007 I was at the blood center, and was asked if I'd sign up to be a Potential Bone Marrow Donor. Yeah sure, why not...."potential," right? Nurse swabs my gums for DNA, no needles (always good), and hey, I'll never get called anyway! That's easy.

Then in 2008 I was a potential match. "Mr. Kollwitz, do you remember signing up in 2007?" Ummm, yeah....? "You may be a match for someone, still up to donating?" Ehhh....OK. (S***! What were the chances?!) "Thanks, can you drop by LabCorp for some bloodwork? We'll let you know in a month or so if you're a match." These people on the phone are so cheery! Needle fun!

Off to LabCorp to get stuck. I'm a fainter, but the nurses distracted me, "My sister's having a wedding in Charleston next month, there's a lot of family stuff going on down there I could do without....d'ya think it's ok if I don't go?" "Well, I know what you mean, my sister had to hire a cop to make sure our mom stayed away from her wedding.... I'd advise you to not go, say it's too far." "Yes, but....." "Uh-huh, then maybe..." All done! You can go!

A couple of weeks later: no match! Thank ya, Jesus!

Then a few months ago: new potential match! Back to LabCorp for a needle summit! "Hello,, somebody else this time..."

A week later: I'm a match! Yes but...what about "potential"?

Then I spend a day up in Winston-Salem in August (2.5 hour drive, not bad): paperwork, urine, more needles, physical, chest x-ray, chat with doctors: "Now if the bone pain gets too bad during the 5 days you're getting the Filgrastim injections, call this number and we'll get you some narcotics." What!? Narcotics!? "Relax, most donors don't need 'em; we just want you be comfortable." Oh, thanks...I guess.

The schedule calls for injections of this Filgrastim synthetic protein starting on October 1. Filgrastim stimulates bone marrow into producing loads of blood stem cells which are to be centrifuged out of the blood on October 5 (and the 6th if necessary), then delivered to the anonymous recipient (I don't want to know who or where). Sounds cool doesn't it? Oct 1-4 shots are local. Sunday evening Janet & I (yes, I have to bring someone) go to Winston-Salem, spend the night there, go to the hospital for the last shots Monday a.m., followed later that morning by about 4 hours of apheresis. Apheresis (ἀφαίρεσις) is Greek for 'many needles.' Just kidding, it means 'taking away' (more or less). That's the centrifuge business. See Wiki for apheresis: I'll be doing the Continuous Flow Centrifugation (CFC) version. I understand apheresis has pretty much replaced the old-fashioned routine of slurping a bunch of marrow out of a donor's hip.

So, today is October 1. FedEx delivered a box of chilled Filgrastim yesterday. Took the box today to the local Cancer Center. I got another round of blood tests, and two shots of Filgrastim in the arms... tiny needles, practically painless...great nurses, Carolyn and Christy. No bone ache or incapacitation. I feel a bit thickheaded, jetlaggy, but changed the oil in the car this afternoon with no problem.

That's it for today. I hope to post something each day, especially something during the apheresis Monday. The hospital's wireless, and Janet teaches Art History online, so we need the laptop to be with us regardless.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


This is a post about Wagner.

No, not that Wagner, this Wagner:

I like opera (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the pretty stuff, the accessible stuff: Verdi, Puccini, Bizet's Carmen, Cav & Pag, that lot.

I like classical music (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the likes of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tchaiko, R. Strauss, sacred music, 20th century Brits.

I don't spend much time or money on Wagner. I agree with Mark Twain that Wagner's music is better than it sounds: as Twain said, having attended Parsifal, "The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing." And afterward: "Seven hours at $5 a ticket is almost too much for the money."

And yet after decades of marinating in, reflecting on, being transported, enlightened, educated & ennobled by classical music in general, and opera in particular, I return again and again to eight minutes of Richard Wagner, the final aria of Tristan und Isolde: Der Liebestod. I'm old enough now (or stupid enough) to propose that this eight-minute song is the greatest work of art ever created by a human being. Higher than not just every other piece of music, but all architecture; all literature; all drama; all painting & sculpture. The best. The one.

Please note: I'm not saying Liebestod is the greatest thing man has ever done; it's the greatest work of art.

I tell you now, I will drop dead if anyone would draw this conclusion having listened to Liebestod once. A more likely reaction would be one had endured it, outlasted it, survived it. The music wanders, shapeshifts, restless, weird....unmusical? The voice & orchestra meander around one another. The lyrics, detached. Yet taken as a whole it's also intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, alluring, immense, pointing to something unclear. If music were seen and not heard, St. Paul would say, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood."

Through repeated listenings spread out over decades, Liebestod has become less dim; clearer, but not fully so. As Paul says, full understanding will come.

To give the reader some background, Tristan und Isolde is a tragedy not unlike Romeo & Juliet. In the final Liebestod scene, Isolde mourns over the body of the beloved Tristan, then dies from sorrow. Yeah, yeah, been there, seen that. But Liebestod (love-death) is about much more than Isolde's grief on so many levels at the same time, bears a range of ideas and emotions through mutually-supporting elements of the music, the voice, the plot, the lyrics. The appeal is very, very intellectual; but also powerfully emotional at a primal level. Liebestod grabs onto some ancient, pre-language, pre-culture, time out of mind part of humanity we can't fully understand, the dirt that God breathed life into; and stirs it. From desolate despair to eternal serenity in eight minutes.

And the scale. It veers from the Isolde's miniscule focus on Tristan's eyelids (are they opening? is he alive?) to a vast, horizonless expression of joy, a release from life's grinding, sorrow-wracked struggle, to transcendence. All the passions of love, life, God, death & eternity explode, detonate at a galactic scale, then fade, leaving a gentle residue of God's infinite love. No kidding. I'm still moved to tears, looking at a computer screen.

But don't take my word for it, listen again to the curmudgeon Mark Twain:
This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.
But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
I know what he means. There's no substitute for repeated exposure to the work.

And I'll quote 1Corinthians again, because Liebestod always reminds me of Paul at his most eloquent:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away......So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Rather than link to one of the online videos of the actual opera, I offer this performance, depicted on the album cover at the beginning of the post:

YouTube - Karajan - Ultimo Concerto - Wagner Liebestod

It features the conductor Herbert von Karajan in what I understand is his last performance. He chose to spend the final eight minutes of a 60-year career in music conducting Liebestod (von Karajan died about a year later). The heroically beautiful Jessye Norman sings Isolde's death, and von Karajan expresses the winding-down of his own life through Isolde's: eight minutes, two minutes, two seconds....done. I believe this is the greatest artistic moment in human history. All the elements combine: singer, conductor, orchestra, composer, audience, building, culture, to show what human beings can achieve. How Man still cooperates with God to create beauty that must exceed our own limitations, even at the close of a century that endured the Godless scourges of Communism, Nazism, and worse. This is the wonder of the West. The centuries of accumulated knowledge; lifetimes of rigorous training; the sacrifice of time & money; the systematizing of music; the exactitude of the instrument makers; the preposterous invention of a symphony orchestra; building a concert hall; all this tremendously expensive resource-devouring effort, all this, this fabulous waste just to crack open an eight-minute window into the Mind of God. But it is worth it.

But don't watch it yet! Wagner takes getting used to....sometimes a lot of getting used to. You may decide to first watch this more accessible piece:

Here is the Prelude to Das Rheingold. In the opera it expresses the flowing water of the Rhine river. In the video it accompanies the exquisite, wordless opening scene of The New World, directed by the auteur Terence Malick (I will not digress about Malick), possibly to a greater effect than in the opera:

YouTube - The New World - Vorspiel

A last note: I haven't said much about Liebestod's lyrics. They absolutely contribute to the complete experience, but at least to start, there's no way to deal with either the German or the English while also trying to take in the rest of the work. The words are at the bottom of this page:

Richard Wagner - Libretti - Tristan und Isolde

BTW, feel free to post your own choice for the #1 work of art if you have one. It doesn't have to be music.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Betrothed at Birth

I have an arranged marriage. As long I can remember, Janet was my betrothed actually, but that was just a detail. We didn't take vows until the appropriate time, but regardless, the decision had been made for us by our parents when we were only a few weeks old. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't already know who my wife would be; it was just a part of everyday life. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and came to know each other as well as.... married people, more or less. But when I became a young adult I rebelled against my parents' plans: went out with other women, paid no attention to my betrothed, wanted to make up my own mind, shop around. As it turned out, I chose to marry Janet, and that was the right decision. In retrospect, I never really doubted the betrothal, but isn't it important to decide on your own? On one hand I envy people who chose to marry whomever they wanted without the nudging of their parents' preconceived presumptions; but on the other hand, my parents chose wisely. If I had exercised my own autonomous judgment, would I have done so well? I don't know. But I think of the thrill other people must have had, picking freely from a sea of potential mates. But then again, because we were betrothed, we had a much earlier start on our marriage's foundations. We'd been part of each others' lives, imaginations, visions of the future since were were tots. How could you compensate for that in a marriage between two people who'd first met only a couple of years before the wedding?

I am kidding marriage was not arranged.

Our church has a lot of converts, including my wife. I, on the other hand, am a Cradle Catholic. I didn't experience the great sea change of conversion, the drama, the turmoil, the Sturm und Drang....the awful autonomous choice. At best you might say I'm a revert, returning with an adult's commitment to the faith chosen for me as a baby by my parents. Sometimes, like today, I was talking to a couple who came into the Church this past Easter. How exciting: they're like people in the New Testament, hearing the Good News, making the leap of I'm like the kids who were baptized as part of their households: whoop-de-doo.

And yet...I grew up in the Church. I'm soaked in the culture, have a Catholic imagination. The Church is in my bones, like marrow. How wonderful is that? The Pope, saints, Body & Blood, holydays, Confession, Latin, incense, Sacraments, Calvary with a crucifix, Bible stories learned from statues & stained glass windows, Easter and Holy Week bigger than Christmas, Good Friday veneration of the cross, getting whacked by nuns, Jesus in his little house, Hail Marys, praying to my dead (sorry, sleeping in Christ) relatives, apostolic succession, celibacy, all as normal and familiar as breathing. Based on my experience with languages, it's like the difference between one's mother tongue and an acquired one.

I am not going to digress on language.

So I was trying to explain to these adult converts today about why a Cradle Cat'lic might envy them their journey, and used the marriage analogy above; which also reminded me of why I shouldn't be so envious of their journey, but rather be thankful for my own.