Modern Letters

Triduum and the Exxon “Christ”: A Sentimental Education

It’s obvious to any reader of this blog that I do not keep a very frequent posting schedule. But if anything has regularly scratched the posting itch here in the past few years it has been the Christian observance of the Sacred Triduum, the three liminal days between death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Maybe it’s because the events of the Triduum provoke everybody from the artist and poet to the musicianwayfarer, and theologian. Or maybe because it really provokes the teller and listener of stories. Liturgically, the Triduum is considered one event, one extended narrative. Michael Sean Winters explained today (emphasis mine),

At the close of tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, there will be no final prayer and closing blessing or dismissal. After the Sacred Body of the Lord is carried to the Altar of Repose, and venerated there, the ministers will depart in silence. Tomorrow, at the beginning of the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, the ministers enter and leave in silence and there is no “In the name of the Father…” at the beginning of the liturgy and no closing blessing at the end. After the profound reverence before the cross, the presider immediately intones the opening prayer. At the end, all is silence. On Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil, the service again begins abnormally, with the lighting of the Paschal fire. Only at the end of the Vigil Mass do we return to normal when the presider imparts a blessing and the people are dismissed by the deacon… the significance is obvious: The Triduum is one, long, continuous prayer just as the work of salvation, the Paschal Mystery, is one event, one mystery.

I began this Lent by dipping into a literary reader for Lent which declared that “Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy…” The article begins by quoting Thomas Merton: “Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Or, to put it in an other’s way, to be surprised by joy.


Lent is always especially needed to exercise in me this capacity to be surprised. An ever present temptation, favored by the Pharisees, but much older in origin, has a familiar ability to kill this capacity in me- that is, when I reduce Christ to what I can measure by my own ideas or sentiments. “Christ” becomes only what I can think or feel about him. The unfortunate result is I’m left merely with an object for my own manipulation, rather than a person who changes and moves me. And this brushes up against a temptation at least as old as Simeon the Magician offering to buy the power of God’s spirit from the apostles- the comoodification of the divine (turns out it’s older than Marx). In the end, by predetermining the possibility of this “Christ” to what I know I can expect, surprise is not just rendered unlikely, but not possible.

Old stumbling blocks, but the old ones tend to stick around and thrive in the present when the joy of encountering the noun, the fact, the person Christ has so many multiplications of the adjective, “Christian”, to wade through. It had one writer bamboozled, i.e. Walker Percy, author of the last and greatest self-help book, and fellow resident of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” American south, who wrote,

The Christian novelist is like a man who goes to a wild lonely place to discover the truth within himself and there after much ordeal and suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news and so tells him the news with authority. He, the novelist, believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio-TV, more commonplace than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays any attention to him.

So how is one to distinguish the Exxon “Christ”, sold to the relief of whatever parameter of thoughts and feelings we’re content to hold onto, from the actual person of Christ who- Christians profess- lived, died, rose again, and provokes us now?


                              Here’s the real sentimental education.

Last summer I picked up this card in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (you can see the actual painting in my video post from the same church) and I found on the back of it the following, attributed to Saint Augustine:

Your steps are your sentiments,
Your path is your will,
By loving you arise,
By neglecting you fall,
You are on earth, but in heaven, if you love God.

Whoever wrote it was onto something good. When we identify the steps- our sentiments- as the path itself, or even the object of love, you can properly speak of sentimentality, and this misidentification is exactly what Simeon’s Exxon-Christ exploits. But possibly-Augustine cautions us, this doesn’t mean you should discard sentiment altogether. Abusus non tollit usum. Abuse does not preclude proper use. Rather, he proposes, these sentiments are the phenomenon that can lead you out of that vicious circle when they are recognized for what they are- steps, which point beyond themselves, lead you out, that is educate you, on a path formed by your choice to love or neglect… what? God, he says, pulling no punches. This seems to thrust us back to our original problem, since this means the steps can lead away from God, but something new is introduced here, for it also means they can lead to God, and that we can choose this, throwing a wrench into the gears of Simeon-hucksters everywhere- to know you are free. So our sentiments themselves can be educated, i.e. turned, or converted, if you like, to the reality of the person they originally responded to.

Pope Francis said it much simpler yesterday, “In these days may we not only observe the Lord’s Passion, but truly enter into its mystery, making our own the sentiments of Christ. In this way, our Easter will indeed be blessed.”


In the article which I quoted from at the beginning Winters has a suggestion as to how to enter into it in this way: re-live the experience of his disciples.

We must let ourselves experience these events sequentially, as the disciples did. Tonight, we must go into the Upper Room for a meal, aware that something is in the offing, but unsure of what that something might be… Tomorrow, we must acquaint ourselves with the despair, the fear, and the confusion of the apostles: This was not how things were supposed to turn out! … At the Great Vigil, or Sunday morning, whichever service you attend, try and wonder at the sense of surprise the disciples must have felt. When we discover the empty tomb, do we feel the need to go and search for the Lord? Do we recognize Him when we encounter Him? Do we let Him call us by name, so that we might recognize it is He? … Can we say and sing with Paul (and with Handel): Death is swallowed up in Victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?

This is why I need the to follow the Triduum. Because this sentimental education is a process. It’s not automatic, as if I could “get” Christ by formulating an idea or feeling a particular way all the time. It begins by encountering a person, and if we know anything from literature, art, theology, philosophy, our own lives, the drama of the person is revealed through the events he undergoes. Only by entering into this drama, with all the risks it entails, can I possibly see something new, something like joy.

Walls, Travel, and Hospitality


Ethika Politika just published my essay, “Why Do I Build the Wall?”, which involves a lot of different things (a review of a really impressive folk opera rendition of the Orpheus myth made it in there) but is really about the Incarnation as wrecking ball.

It began percolating a while ago at the Front Porch Republic conference last fall. During the Q and A’s the subject of hospitality popped up indirectly, in an exchange that went something like this (generously paraphrasing from memory here):

College Student: Mr. Berry where does the value of traveling to expand your experience fit in your vision of returning to your roots?

Wendell Berry: Well if you look at one the great traveling classics, the Odyssey, what happens? Odysseus experienced one trial after another, almost getting killed each time, until he finally has the relief of returning home.

This got a good chuckle. Of course, Berry has written at greater depth on this very question in the Odyssey, especially in his great essay, The Body and the EarthBut there too his main focus is on the end of travel- getting back home- and so the student’s question was still unanswered. If “expand your experience” only means the consumption of experiences then there is no meaningful answer, but another practice dear to the hearts of many localists presented itself. So I jotted down, “What about travel and hospitality?” and returned to the Q and A.

Maybe the value of travel can be measured in not in the number of exotic photos taken but the depth of hospitality shared. Perhaps the great gift of being in a strange place away from home is the opportunity to practice hospitality, which, according to Paul of Tarsus anyway, it needs. When you travel aren’t you learning to be a guest in another’s land and home? Isn’t the happy traveler the one who learns not to take and control but to receive what is given on its own terms, the one capable of being surprised- not only frustrated- by the unexpected? You could object that this actually describes letting others practice hospitality, but hospitality isn’t such a one way street after all. Isn’t it a paradox that in receiving the hospitality of your host- dinner, lodging, their company- you can’t avoid, in some way, also receiving their presence, and in that simultaneously making the host your guest too?

A friend recently loaned me Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer to read, and I was struck by the way he kept returning to the virtue of hospitality. In one paragraph he writes,

Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.

And a few lines down he sums it up,

Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest.

But if he is right in describing this as a virtue then that means that hospitality isn’t something that happens automatically, that it takes work and work which will initially be awkward before it becomes beautiful, because if it is a virtue then it is also an art. Every ballerina had to take those first clumsy baby steps to, one day, pirouette.

And, as I found in this essay into those awkward steps, this understanding of hospitality might have some surprising implications for all us distracted and tired travelers.

Saecular Xmas Playlist 2014: Birth or Death?

A Christmas playlist with appearances by Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, Ella Fitzgerald, and others, including a brief appearance by T.S. Eliot’s magi:

All this was a long time ago, I 
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, 
We had evidence and no doubt. I had 
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different…

Everywhere we feel somehow at home


WE stand in a double and contrary relationship to objects outside ourselves. We stand to the world and all its contents as when God brought the animals to the first man for him to name. Among them all Adam could find no companion. Between man and the rest of creation there is a barrier of difference, which neither scientific knowledge nor moral depravity can remove or efface. Man is of another make from every other earthly creature. To him they are foreign. His kinship is with God.

On the other hand he is related to everything that exists in the world. Everywhere we feel somehow at home. The shapes, attitudes, movements of objects all speak to us, all are a means of communication. It is the incessant occupation of the human soul to express through them its own interior life, and to make them serve as its signs and symbols. Every notable form we come across strikes us as expressing something in our own nature, and reminds us of ourselves.

One of these image-objects strikes me, and I think most people, as having more than ordinary force and beauty. It is that of a lighted candle. There it rises, firmly fixed … distinct against whatever background, consuming in the little flame that flickers above it the pure substance of the wax in softly-shining light. It seems a symbol of selfless generosity. It stands so unwavering in its place, so erect, so clear and disinterested, in perfect readiness to be of service. It stands, where it is well to stand, before God.

It stands in its appointed place, self-consumed in light and warmth.

Yes, of course the candle is unconscious of what it does. It has no soul. But we can give it a soul by making it an expression of our own attitude.

Stir up in yourself the same generous readiness to be used. “Lord, here am I.” Let the clean, spare, serviceable candle bespeak your own attitude. Let your readiness grow into steadfast loyalty. Even as this candle, O Lord, would I stand in your presence.

– Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs

Making a Home Fit For Humans

I’m in Louisville, KY to attend Front Porch Republic‘s annual conference tomorrow. The topic is Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond Food, with Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry giving the keynote address.

I don’t think I would have discovered FPR several years ago if Berry hadn’t already sparked in my mind the kinds of questions that FPR has made it its job to explore.

I remember when I first encountered Berry’s work. I was visiting my older brother at university and picked up his copy of Berry’s agrarian essays, The Art of the Commonplace on a whim. The writing drew me in at once in both its simple elegance and the writer’s keen vision, which was clear and challenging, but not closed and self satisfied. Reading him, like other great writers, felt something like all the windows in a house being flung open by a strong breeze that rushes through, kicks up the dust, and smells very old and very fresh.

Needless to say I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s events. This is what’s expected:

A Front Porch Republic Conference

Chao Library, University of Louisville

September 27, 2014

Welcome: 9:00-9:15

 Panel 1: Going Home 9:15-10:30

Jeff Polet, Hope College
Jason Peters, Augustana College
Katherine Dalton, Louisville, KY

Panel 2: Educating for Place 10:45-12:00

Jeffrey Bilbro, Spring Arbor UniversityJack Ray Baker, Spring Arbor UniversityJohn E. Kleber, University of Louisville

Lunch 12:15-12:45

 Keynote Address: Wendell Berry12:45-1:45

 Panel 3: Politics for Place 2:00-3:00

Susannah Black, New York, NY
Justin Litke, Belmont Abbey College

 Panel 4: New From FPR Books  3:15-4:30

David Bosworth, University of Washington
Bill Kauffman, Batavia, NY

Surprised by Schubert in the Sanctuary of Oropa

In July some friends and I accidentally discovered a Schubert concert was playing the same evening we arrived in the beautiful Sanctuario di Oropa in Piedmont. Turns out not all those who wander are lost.

The New Ark Orchestra with the Choir Academy of the Voice of Piedmont was rehearsing the ”Kýrie eléison” (“Lord, have mercy!”) from Schubert’s Mass in G Major D.167, in the Chiesa Nuova of the Sanctuario di Oropa in Biella, Italy. Behind them is a painting of the black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary brought to Oropa in the 4th century A.D. by Saint Eusebius of Vercelli. The statue, enshrined in the ancient church below the upper basilica, has been an object of veneration ever since.

The text along the base of the cupola is part of the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, which Mary exclaims to her cousin Elizabeth who declared, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary replies (the inscribed text is capitalized),

“Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
timentibus eum.”

“My soul glorifies my Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour,
The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him.”

Poetry in Santa Maria del Populo in Rome


I happened on this gem of Latin poetry in Rome in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Populo, with the help of Tyler Lansford’s book, The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. (Multas gratias tibi ago! Sorry about misreading your name in the video.) It would have been painfully easy to accidentally overlook this inscription if I were not looking for it already.

My first encounter with the Eternal City was through a ten-day Latin class here, which I participated in last year. Our professors guided us through inscriptions throughout the city, from pilgrim tombs to palace terraces. They showed us why this place is rightly dubbed “eternal”: it is always speaking.

Yes, Rome can seem a mute pile of incomprehensible ruins on first meeting. We can soften it with nostalgia’s rose colored glasses but is this view really satisfactory? If you look and listen closer (and perhaps borrow a Latin dictionary) Rome begins speaking with you: caesars, saints, polemics, popes, even the obelisks themselves. And what she says often runs deeper than just another species of historical artifact. What these Rovere brothers, buried here in the same tomb, want to tell us is an excellent example- the tenderness and concord that unites them cannot be communicated through a historical point on a timeline, but only through the form of this poem and its timeless beauty .


1. The epitaph reads, in four lines of hendecasyllables:

(Just as you could say that our harmonious souls and faithful minds were one, so our commingled ashes follow in the same way, and it will please us that they are believed to be of one body.)

2. SEQUENTUR is properly translated in the future. I read it here in the present.

3. The obelisk of Ramses II seen in the beginning of the video is one of the speaking obelisks, with fascinating and conflicting (or, you could say, developing) voices. One side bears Caesar Augustus’s inscription gifting the obelisk to the sun, another bears Pope Sixtus V’s inscription berating these pagan origins, and the last side, appropriating and transforming its predecessors, has the obelisk speaking for itself, declaring that it rises “More august… and joyous, before the sacred shrine [Santa Maria del Populo] of her from whose virgin womb during the return of Augustus arose, the Sun of Righteousness” (Lansford, 345). Perhaps a video on that if I’m ever fortunate enough to be back in the Eternal City.

Chaucer and wayfaring to Saint Anthony’s


“The proverbe saith that many a smale maketh a grate.” – the Parson, Canturbury Tales.

Last weekend in Padua on a somewhat Chaucerian pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Anthony. Soon after he died construction began for the magnificent basilica which now honors the monk who advised, “Attribute to God every good that you have received. If you take credit for something that does not belong to you, you will be guilty of theft.” This, I think Anthony may agree, includes the good of quaffing a beer with a friend in view the basilica’s observatory-esque domes after sprinting after trains and trams most of the morning to find the way here. Luckily it’s difficult to stay lost for long in Anthony’s home town.

More photos here.

A Wayfarer’s Notes In Italy

A Wayfarer’s Notes In Italy

Leaving for the land of popes and pasta tomorrow. If you’re interested in following along you can check this tumblr account where I’ll be posting notes when I am able.

Appreciator of Bourbon and Benedictines would have been 98


Walker Percy, southern writer and bourbon eulogist was born today in 1916.

The photo of Walker Percy’s grave marker was taken by a Louisianian friend. Its austere, elegant directness betrays its location, a Benedictine abbey. Walker Percy died a lay oblate of the St. Joseph Benedictine Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana.

That Percy found a home with the Benedictines at the end of his life is no surprise. We readers of Percy continue to love him for his own direct assessment of our times, woven in cunning patterns of indirect humor. He had something of the wry wit and simultaneously very low and very high opinion of man found in monks.

Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are Johnny Carson and find yourself caught in an intolerable one-on-one conversation at a cocktail party from which there is no escape. Which of the two following events would you prefer to take place: (1) That the other person become more and more witty and charming, the music more beautiful, the scene transformed to a villa at Capri on the loveliest night of the year, while you find yourself more and more at a loss; or (2) that you are still in Beverly Hills and the chandeliers begin to rattle, a 7.5 Richter earthquake takes place, and presently you find yourself and the other person alive and well, and talking under a mound of rubble.
If your choice is (2), explain why it is possible for a true conversation to take place under the conditions of (2) but not (1).”*

Happy birthday, friend.

* From that wonderful little book that should be handed out to college graduates along with their degree, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.


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