My friend Patrick O’Neill is serving a year in a federal prison, for attacking a replica of a nuclear missile at a south Georgia navy base in April of 2018. (A post with more about that protest is here.) It’s part of his peace witness as a member of the Catholic Worker movement.
Most of us don’t think about the missiles a lot. But there are enough just at that one Georgia base to kill pretty much everyone in the world, on fifteen minutes’ notice.
Yeah, the risk of nuclear Armageddon did not disappear with the fall of Soviet communism.
Patrick and several others did think about the missiles, tho, and it led to Patrick reporting to the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio just about when Joe Biden was being inaugurated.
Doing time is tough. And nobody can do it for him. Patrick has a good deal of jail experience; and one lesson is that it doesn’t get much easier. There are a few ways to be supportive from outside. Mine is to send Patrick reading matter. Reading can dull some moments in the overwhelming tedium of confinement. So I have sent him a few of my books. (Hey — a captive audience; the best kind.)
It can help a little. Patrick said so, in a note that arrived this week:
‘Let all you do be done in love’— St. Paul
Good Friday [04/02/2021] Day 18 in the SHU (solitary)
Hi Chuck— My Lenten Journey will take me past Easter — I’ve done a lot of time (20+ jails, 6 prisons), but this has been the worst. Before the SHU [NOTE: SHU = Special Housing Unit] I spent 4 days in a hospital with 2 armed guards with me at all times who kept me in leg irons, and my left hand attached by chains to the bed, one chain attaching my leg irons to the bed . . . . I had to pee in a plastic bottle while chained.
When I asked one guard to use the bathroom he said, “Do you have to do Number Two?” He would not have unchained me otherwise. And the leg irons never came off except for 15 minutes when I took a stress test on a treadmill. And now I’m in the hole for Covid quarantine.
[Note: It’s no surprise that Patrick came down with Covid. Since March 2020, The New York Times has tracked every known coronavirus case in every correctional setting in the United States. . . .
A year later, reporters found that one in three inmates in state prisons are known to have had the virus. In federal facilities, at least 39 percent of prisoners are known to have been infected. The true count is most likely higher because of a dearth of testing, but the findings align with reports from The Marshall Project, The Associated Press, U.C.L.A. Law and The Covid Prison Project that track Covid-19 in prisons.
The virus has killed prisoners at higher rates than the general population, the data shows, and at least 2,700 people have died in custody, where access to quality health care is poor.
The deaths, and many of the more than 525,000 reported infections so far among the incarcerated, could have been prevented, public health and criminal justice experts say.] Back to Patrick:
“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.
While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .
. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.
It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .
[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter. But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .” He walked out. Left just in time, too, because, someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]
My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.
For him, the Ghent altarpiece
. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.
[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.
In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Revelation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.
. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing toward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.
The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.
Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.
But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.
However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.
In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.
One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).
I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.
Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.
In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there—
— A junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.
I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.
I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.
But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.
Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.
At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is evoked and repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.
Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?
One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.
The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up deservedly as, well, trash.
The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.
Yet what will happen to that mound of old reliquaries?
The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.
Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.
But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions from the overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.
Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.
Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundineeds to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust”(Genesis 3); they already have it.
As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.
I admit that the tourist spectacle of Las Vegas, the very shamelessness of its gilt-edged tawdriness, stirs a certain repulsive fascination for me.
But that aside, my sense of the city is that it combines a manifestation of the Beast of the Apocalypse with a showcase for the Seven Deadly Sins.
The photo below shows Lust, but even greater is greed (primarily on the part of the hordes clustered around the gambling, including me mthe other night for $2 worth)
Then there are legendary buffets that cater to gluttony (I went for a very Chocolate French pastry by the Eiffel Tower.)
Pride, in the form of hubris, pervades everything. It shows above all in the confidence this endlessly lavish, spectacle of pointless, metastasizing consumption can be plopped down & maintained in the middle of a desert.
This hotel has it right: it’s a mirage. And the Mexican section of “The World’s Largest Gift Shop” jauntily shoves at customers the underlying reality of it all: memento mori! Eat drink & be merry, suckers, because tomorrow. . .
. . . Oh, but there is no tomorrow in Vegas.
Only one of the Seven Deadlies eluded my prying gaze here: sloth, acedia. Every where I turned, people were working hard, from the pimps on the corners, to scurrying hotel clerks, the dealers at the craps tables,–even most of the revelers crowding the Saturday night street appeared diligent to the point of obsession in their-pleasure seeking; I certainly was.
But what about the culminating deadly sin of Anger/Wrath? Seemingly it doesn’t fit the city’s painstakingly maintained image of naughty fun.
But fear not: it’s right offstage, just up U.S. 95 at what is reputed to be the biggest U.S. Killer drone facility, Creech Air Force Base. (There was a round of little-noted anti-drone protests there early this month, and a “Sacred Peace Walk” from Vegas to Creech is underway this week.)
We Interrupt These Lenten Meditations for a Few Stray Words of Wisdom:
I’ve not read any of Saul Bellow’s novels, or non-fiction either.
But the following quote from a new book of his essays may force me to banish this ignorance. It comes out of his reflections on life & culture among the outwardly well-educated, usually solvent and seemingly liberal:
“People who have the best of everything also desire the best opinions. Top of the line.” He added: “As the allure of agreement — or conformism — grows, the perils of independence deepen. To differ is dangerous.”
That says so much in so few words, one can only add a few more of his stray comments:
Lenten Meditation: Bartram faces A Murderer, Alone
IT may be proper to observe, that I had now passed the utmost frontier of the white settlements on that border. It was drawing on towards the close of day, the skies serene and calm, the air temperately cool, and gentle zephyrs breathing through the fragrant pines; the prospect Continue reading Lenten Meditation: Bartram Faces A Murderer, Alone→
Human & Animal Hunting From Bartram’s Travels, by William Bartram, 1791:
I AM sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet whichimplies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary action without any premeditated design or contrivance, this we term instinct which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.
[Been very busy & traveling the past couple weeks, so haven’t kept up with my fellow-traveler/Spirit Guide, Friend William Bartram.]
But here he is, talking about plants, and especially trees. And one kind of tree jumped out at me from his list, the Live Oak. That’s because I’ve seen and been captivated by some magnificent specimens thereof, in a cemetery in Alabama.
There’s lots of human history in that graveyard. But we’re gonna skip all that here, and just dwell on the chlorophyllic history. The place is only a few acres, but I think I could wander in it for hours, maybe days.]
Bartram & The Seminole King From Bartram’s Travels, published 1791 Alachua Indians
AFTER crossing over this point or branch of the marshes, we entered a noble forest, the land level, and the soil fertile, being a loose, dark brown, coarse sandy loam, on a clay or marley foundation; the forests were Orange groves, overtoped by grand Magnolias, Palms, Live Oaks . . . with various kinds of shrubs and herbacious plants . . . .
William Bartram, A Quaker Lenten Journey: Up To His Ass In Alligators
William Bartram, traveling by canoe alone, somewhere in Florida, circa 1773. What I’m reflecting on: this was what he most wanted to do, what he felt was his leading. (I have divided some of his long sentences & longer paragraphs, for modern readers. The spelling is original.)
THE evening was temperately cool and calm. The crocodiles began to roar and appear in uncommon numbers along the shores and in the river. I fixed my camp in an open plain, near the utmost projection of the promontory, under the shelter of a large Live Oak, which stood on the highest part of the ground and but a few yards from my boat. Continue reading William Bartram: Up To His A** In Alligators→
I’ve taken a fancy to do some traveling for Lent this year. I plan to join William Bartram, an independent-minded Quaker naturalist and artist, in a journey through much of the southeast U.S.
This is not the Southeast of today, but that of 1773, so technically there wasn’t a U.S. yet; whatever. Bartram spent four years wandering the Southeast, drawing plants and animals, maps, and doing sketch portraits of Indians he visited with, and he visited with many.
I call him a “Divergent Friend” because he went his own way, following his own leading. He was not a “rebel” or a troublemaker; yet he was hardly typical or “normal” either.