The Dead


Sometimes those of us cursed with Irish blood just end up a drunken, crying mess at the end of the night.

“What,” my friend asked a religious the other night, “is the difference between being sad and having a spirit of sadness?” He replied that a spirit of sadness permeates everything you do and that it leads you to live your life completely without hope. Where (diagnosed, clinical) depression fits into all of this, I think, is a post for another day. The friar’s words caught my attention. Last night I convinced some of my friends to watch The Dead, the film adaptation of Joyce’s short story in Dubliners. One friend astutely pointed out that everyone but Gabriel seems to miss something, have a lack or a wound that they mourn over, and at the end he laments that he has never felt such deep love for someone or something. But the Irish approach, as I’ve come to know it through generations of sadness in my family, is quite dangerous. It leaves you always trying to escape, discarding the present completely. It plunges you into a world of drunkenness and emotions and stasis. It’s everything I’ve written that Christians should not do.

There’s a deep romantic beauty to the Irish outlook on life, and yes, I tear up when Greta talks about Michael Furey and during Gabriel’s last speech when he sees so little difference between the living and the dead. But ultimately Joyce’s characters are stuck in a quagmire they believe they have no control over. In a perverse way it can be fun to throw one’s hands up, say “life is terrible,” and then drink oneself to the point of oblivion. But this is not sustainable, because nostalgia becomes one’s god, and when it comes to gods, the human heart has a limited capacity for how many it can worship.

God is never powerless unless we force him to be. Nothing shall be impossible for him. The past, present, and future can all be healed and glorified through him, but we can’t cling to sadness because it feels good and safe and familiar. That is part of the lie that sadness tells us: that only fools are happy. It’s not so. Foolish are the ones who have let their lamps burn out because they no longer wait in expectation of the Bridegroom. The wise rejoice because they know the hour is close at hand.


Another Poem

Recited in John Huston’s “The Dead,” although I don’t think it appeared in the original Joyce:

Donal Og

Translated by Lady Augusta Gregory, from an eighth-century anonymous Irish poem


It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage

A Poem for Christmas

by Joseph Brodsky, translated by Seamus Heaney

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.
Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.
And to feel the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;
and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel’s folds,
the bundled up Infant and Mary and Joseph.

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession
as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in
and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;
(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant
no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn’t earned it yet.)

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
immensely in distance, recognising Himself in the Son of Man:
homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.

Fr. Walter referred to our yearly nightmarish Thanksgiving travels as a pilgrimage, and I thought of the magi, who of course would have set out long before the Nativity to find the Christ Child.

This is the sixth Thanksgiving I’ll be flying home alone to Florida (non-consecutive, I spent one odd turkey day in Rome), and let me tell you, it gets old fast. I love my family dearly, but the rush-home-come-back-oh-look-it’s-Christmas shuffle has given me a the holiday blues for the past few years. I want to be cooking a turkey for my own family, and I know that that’s a big part of my discontent.

We the magi have begun our trek, and even our most intense holiday longings (for gift, family, spouse, child) cannot supersede our longing for transcendence, seeking the Infant who will save us, the God-Man we recognize even if we have yet to meet Him. The reason the holidays can disappoint is that they are only the means to a mystery that is still being lived out: the Incarnation continues.

Thank God for our unfulfilled space.  If I were content, how would I know myself? How would I remain God-needing? It is lack that engenders hope of fullness.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Catholic

I attended the second in the series of the Catholic Artists Society’s lectures on Saturday night. My favorite part was when Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. answered a question about “coming out of the closet as a Catholic artist” with: “What is a Catholic artist? I don’t even know what that means!”

The sweetest part of the night was when I ran into an older woman I had met at a CAS event this past summer. She’s an illustrator for children’s books about the pope and she even got to meet Benedict XVI and give him a copy of one of her books. She just sent him her latest book with a note in which she mentions meeting a young woman (yours truly) who shared the story of how moved she was by his visit to Yonkers in 2008.

Best day ever.

Art, Faith, and People Who Enjoy Boxes

Maureen Mullarkey’s latest on her First Things blog has some original thoughts! Hurrah!

Most interesting to this “Catholic Artist”:

What is beauty? The question is better left to philosophers. It is a bootless one for artists to brood over. It does nothing to enhance the work of an artist’s hand. It is the experience of beauty—sensory, emotional, psychological—not any definition that makes an artist’s work intelligible to himself. Herself. Creators of the greatest beauty possess it by instinct. Yet, the question has become a species of branding device among Christian, particularly Catholic, artists.
Why do we Catholics brand ourselves so much? I was delighted to see that the Catholic Artists Society, which is big into traditional liturgy and has organized some phenomenal events, was pairing with Greg Wolfe of Image who–gasp!–lets atheists write fiction for his magazine. One acquaintance who attended the lecture told me that “some of his friends” didn’t like Wolfe’s lecture, and I replied, a little too aggressively, that I knew exactly which friends those were and all of the boring reasons they didn’t like it.

Catholic non-artists have taken an interest in Catholic artists for a variety of reasons. Off the top of my head, they include:
1) Someone stop the ugly of Vatican II, please,
2) A false notion that good art can be used for marketing, because when tourists see The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel they convert to Catholicism,
3) Didn’t there used to be Flannery O’Connor? People liked her, right?

I’ve taken to heart what my literary theory professor told me sophomore year of college: “Once I got a PhD, I stopped writing poetry.” Constantly analyzing myself-as-Catholic-artist will do little to help my art, methinks. And sure, I could go read Maritain, but maybe my time would be better spent sitting and writing.

In sum: Catholic branding, it’s the worst.