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Christmas 2012

Nativity by CorreggioFor Christmas this year we’ve chosen the nativity scene painted by Correggio around 1529.  A group of angels overhead has been been cut from this cropped version of the painting. (They are badly composed and unnecessary; we don’t miss them.) It’s sometimes called Adoration of the Shepherds, because those are shepherds  on the left. Almost hidden in the right background is the figure of Joseph — a person often relegated to the margin in paintings of this family. At the time it was painted, the work was valued primarily for what it portrayed and somewhat less for its technique. Nowadays, the work is probably admired  more for its structure and craft than for the event it captures.  The scene is realistic,  no one has a halo and the shepherds are real people. Furthermore, Mary’s face expresses her love for her child, not religious worship as in so many painting which nowadays strike us artificially pious.  Everyone in this otherwise completely realistic and earthly scene is illuminated by the almost blinding radiance emanating from the child; indeed, the woman on the left holds up her hand as if to shield her eyes.  Correggio’s painting makes visual the words that infant will later use to describe himself — “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Correggio’s work reminds us that in this season of darkness and we need all the light we can get, no matter if it’s 1529 or 2012.

The Light of St. Lucy’s Day

St. Lucy processionOur friend Jo Page,  fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor.  She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:

On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.

St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.

Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.

The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.

(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)

Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.

So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?

Well, it’s not clear.

But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:

The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.

In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.

Jo’s blog is at jo-page.com. For a poem about St. Lucy, visit jo-page.com

The Vatican and James Bond

Skyfall movie stillL’Osservatore Romano, the 151-year-old newspaper put out by the Vatican, has gone gaga over James Bond. Or, maybe we should say that the editor, Gian Maria Vian, has taken to heart the Pope’s suggestion to liven up the daily. Some years ago L’Osservatore Romano praised The Blues Brothers, surprising just about everyone, but that was ages after the movie had premiered and, after all, it was a comedy and the plot featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on a “mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. (By the way, though it came out in 1980, the film is still a blast.)

But praising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is different. This time the Vatican newspaper has five different articles related to the movie, all of them laudatory. “Skyfall does not disappoint,” says the Vatican. “The 23rd Bond film is one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time…” Furthermore, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “does not lack any of the classic ingredients which have made James Bond a legend — the title credits song, adrenalin pumping action, amazing hyper-realistic chases, exotic locations, extremely beautiful Bond girls, the usual super villain and the essential vodka martini.” At the same time, Bond himself is “less attracted to the pleasures of life, darker and more introspective, less invulnerable physically and psychologically and because of this more human, even able to be moved and to cry – in a word, more real,” said the newspaper’s film critic, Gaetano Vallini. Not bad, especially when you remember he’s talking about a womanizer with a license to kill.

About the the hurricane Sandy and what it did it did to New York and New Jersey, the paper reported today that ” Sandy mette in ginocchio New York e il New Jersey” or, as we say in English, Sandy brought New York and New Jersey to their knees. Now that’s the kind of metaphor we expect to find in the Vatican newspaper. Frankly, we’ve never thought of  L’Osservatore Roman as a source for movie reviews, so we missed the edition with the Bond mania. We’ve relied on the translation supplied by Britain’s Guardian.

Would It Have Been Better Not To Have Been Born?

Sun in an Empty Room by Edward Hopper Considering our life, would it have been better for us if we had never been born? Maybe you wondered about that. You weren’t alone, though it may have felt that way. The question is very old. In fact, it was debated almost two thousand years ago between the followers of two Jewish philosophers, the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Both men were learned scholars and each established a schools of thought on Jewish law, but they differed greatly on certain points.

In general, Hillel was flexible and generous,  liberal in his views. Shammai, on the other hand, took a strict, narrow view in deciding issues and was zealously conservative. Their followers, like the sage Hillel and Shammai,  frequently differed with each other. For over two years these two opposing groups, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, debated the question: Would it have been better never to have been born? Surprisingly, these opponents agreed: It would have been better never to have been born.

Now that’s a desolating answer.

We  aren’t rabbinic sages. Far from it.  And if we were to choose a school of thought it might be the  house of the skeptic Michael Montaigne. (We’ll sum up Montaigne for you: The human mind is limited and contradictory. Get used to it.) For solace, we’ll leave you with this stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Stephen Hawking and St. Augustine

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking points out that in the structure of contemporary physics, time doesn’t exist apart from or prior to the existence of the universe, so God wouldn’t have had any time in which to create the universe. So, how did we get here? According to Hawking, the universe just came into being all by itself. There was no God creating it.

It’s interesting to note that St Augustine, who also thought deeply about the nature of time, came to something very like the same conclusion about time and creation. Of course, St. Augustine believed there was a God — “almighty God, the all-creating and all-sustaining, the architect of heaven and earth. ” Or, to quote him directly, deum omnipotentem et omnicreantem et omnitenentem, caeli et terrae artificem.  (Writers in St Augustine’s day didn’t impose capital letters on God, the lower case deum [god] was good enough for Augustine.)

St. Augustine

Saint Augustine

While reading Augustine’s passages on time you get the distinct impression that this extremely sophisticated man is being driven crazy trying to figure out exactly what the nature of time is. (Indeed, he looks pretty sullen in that portrait to the right.) The past, as he notes, doesn’t exist, the future hasn’t even come into being, and the present is continuously vanishing into the non-existent past while advancing on the not yet existent future.

In Book Eleven of the Confessions, Augustine wrestles with the problem of time and has what amounts to  a dialog with his God, saying “For thou madest that very tine itself and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and hearth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was not time.”

And, as he says more pointedly in Chapter XIV of Book Eleven, “There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself.”  The Latin is Nullo ergo tempore non feceras aliquid, quia ipsum tempus tu feceras.  And if we avoid the intimate forms, which are so unusual in English, we can translate that as Therefore, there was no time before you made anything, because you made time itself. In other words, God creates time and everything else. And for Augustine, there’s no paradox here at all. Augustine’s God is not bound within by the rules that fence us mortals.

Isaac Newton’s conception of time was much like St. Augustine’s.  Newton saw time as distinct from all things. “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equable without relation to anything external, ” he said. Most of us live in Newton’s universe, not Einstein’s.  We instinctively envision space undistorted by gravitational forces and we imagine time passing whether or not there’s anything with which measure it.  Einstein himself, though he was able to envision time and space as inseparable and was able to discover relativism where earlier generations had been certain of absolutes, found himself baffled by the discoveries of a younger generation of physicists.  He wasn’t able to accept the fundamental uncertainties and probabilities of the universe as described by quantum mechanics.  Einstein said many times, and with slight variations, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”  The critics at Critical Pages sure don’t know.

No God, No Hope. Well, maybe…

God Creating Stars

God Creating Stars

The physicist Stephen Hawking has answered the prime question of whether or not the universe was created by God. According to Hawking, it wasn’t.*  It’s good to get that question out of the way after so many heads have been bothered by it for so many thousands of years. Here’s the next question — Is a universe without God a universe without any hope? In Dante’s poem, the entrance to hell has an inscription that says Abandon all hope, you who enter here. In Dante’s view, to be without hope is to be in hell. So, what about hope? With that question in mind, Jo Page turned to the philosopher Julian Baggini who has written a bit on that subject. She found his words less than satisfying. Very much less. Here’s Jo in her own words.

When Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the Soul” I think she comes closer to a definition of hope than Julian Baggini, a British philosopher, does in his lips-tightly-pressed-together piece, “Hope Against Hope” in the online magazine, NewHumanist.org.uk.

He engages in some deft word play and studs the article with quotations from everybody he knows and some he doesn’t—Benjamin Franklin, Jean Paul Sartre, a British comedienne, the British comedienne’s mother—just barely saving it from prim-faced misanthropy. But his zeal to dash all hope comes across as mostly overwrought, over-thinking. (more…)

White Peonies

Peonies in blue bowl

The peony, a very old emblem of China, has a role in European mythology as well, for the ancient Greeks named the flower after Paeon, one of Asclepius’s students. Asclepius, the god of medicine, grew jealous of his pupil and would have killed him, had not Zeus saved him by turning him into the peony flower —  a curious kind of salvation. But the record is confused. Paeon appears as a great healer in the Iliad and Hesiod counts him among the gods. Fortunately,  we have the flower itself. Peonies are gorgeous, the large blossoms suggest abundance and their scent is as lush as the blossom. That’s enough.

Easter and Rebirth

Quem Quaeritis manuscript

Quem Quaeritis mss from Bodleian Library

Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —

[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

Or in English —

Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.

From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.

Atomic Theory In 50 B.C.

De Rerum Natura 1675Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery,  at least in  Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”

To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C.  should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom —  meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.

Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation.  Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same)  those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block  and down below that to nothingness.  That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.

And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort  in Lucretius.

De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands.  Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.

Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.

Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.

The Nature of Things by Lucretius, trans by A.E. StallingsThe most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original.  None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already.  We favor the Loeb edition  of De Rerum Natura  published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.

[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]

The Seven Deadly Sins

The image below is cropped from Death of the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th century painter in the Netherlands. Little is known about Bosch, other than that he did rather well in life. His paintings are frequently religious in theme and often bizarre. He also had a way of populating his works with creepy demons from his imagination, and you’ll find some in the scene below. Clearly it’s a bad moment for the Miser — Death is coming in the door and though the Miser’s guardian angel is trying to direct his attention to the crucifix at the window, the Miser’s hand still grasps at the bag of gold offered him by a weird fish-faced demon. This is Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Bosch's Death of the Mise

Ever hear of the Seven Deadly Sins? Probably. Can you list them? Probably not.  If you also asked Why should I care?  you’re in grave danger of cultural ignorance, which isn’t a sin but merely a deep personal flaw.  Here’s the list, starting with the worst:  Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed,  Gluttony, and Lust.

The concept of Seven Deadly Sins was popularized and woven into European culture in Medieval times and though its importance has certainly faded it’s still part of our European, and now Western, Christian cultural inheritance. There’s no absolutely authoritative list nor is there a wholly agreed upon order and, to be frank, the meaning of the words, what behaviors they embrace, has changed over time. But let’s do our best and not quibble.

The list we’re using is the one used by the  13th / 14th century poet Dante Alighieri in his great Divine Comedy. Dante’s amazing poem is a first-person account  in which Dante himself, accompanied by the spirit of Virgil, walks down through Hell and up through Purgatory and, regretfully leaving the pagan Virgil behind, he eventually sails into Heaven and God’s presence. So this list must be as authoritative as any you’ll find.

The sins are deadly in the sense that they may kill the life of God in the soul and thereby threaten the sinner with eternal damnation. If eternal damnation isn’t one of your cool concepts, you can look at the list simply as a compilation of bad behavior. No one will love you if you’re a proud, envious, angry, lazy, greedy, gluttonous, lecher.

There’s always been disagreement about how to rank most of these seven sins, but Pride seems to top everyone’s list. Overwhelming Pride, you recall, was what drove Lucifer, the brightest of angels, to rebel against God. The 17th century Protestant poet, John Milton, wrote Paradise Lost, an epic that has some great scenes featuring the rebellion in Heaven. When your opponent is God, the odds are truly stacked against you and you may wonder if Lucifer really thought he had a chance of taking over Heaven. In any case,  he was thrown from that high place, fell for three days and nights and landed in Hell where, in fact, he made himself at home. Both Dante and Milton are experts on the subject of God, sin and hell. Milton quotes the fallen angel Mammon as saying that it’s “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”

And then there’s that episode in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent, you remember, ruined the famously weak-willed couple by telling Eve that if she and Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge “your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” It sure is tempting to be like the gods. So again it was Pride, the desire to be higher up, even if it’s forbidden by God, that causes a catastrophe.

When Dante enters hell and starts his descent he finds that hell is constructed rather like a large sports stadium.  No, Dante doesn’t use that comparison, but if haven’t gotten around to reading the poem, that image will give you a good sense of Hell’s geography.  Hell has concentric circles that funnel downward; the least sinful souls are in the topmost circle, and as you descend from level to level you encounter worse and worse sinners. The lowest pit of hell is actually frozen over — the sinners down there committed sins of cold-blooded intellect. Up near the top, where the sinners are less sinful, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca, a hot-blooded couple who succumbed to Lust. As punishment, the  errant lovers are blown this way and that by winds that mimic gusts of erotic passion. Pride, arrogant pride,  is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins and you can sometimes see it on grand display during campaigns for political office. Lust, on the other hand, is the least deadly. There may be some consolation in that.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.