Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

From the annals of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

October 7, 2020

Coincidental, indeed, is the headline of this month’s blog post. It is 171 years old, having been coined in 1849 by French journalist and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

I had decided on that title after reading a passage from Alexander Herzen’s memoir, My Past and Thoughts. Herzen, a Russian émigré nobleman who has been called “the father of Russian socialism,” had made his way to Paris during the revolutionary year of 1848. You don’t have to buy his entire outlook and philosophy to appreciate his literary skills and his powers of observation.

The following passage was written after Herzen attended an evening of drinking and scheming at the Café Lamblin. I quote it without further commentary, other than to opine that he could just as well have been writing about a sizable cohort of the denizens who prowl and streets and the Twitterverses of 2020.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You bet.

“In the café the various habitués of the revolution were sitting at a dozen little tables, looking darkly and consequentially about them from under wide-brimmed felt hats and caps with tiny peaks. These were the perpetual suitors of the revolutionary Penelope, those inescapable actors who take part in every popular demonstration and form its tableau, its background, and are as menacing from afar as the paper dragons with which the Chinese wished to menace the English.

“In the troubled times of social storms and reconstructions in which states forsake their usual grooves for a long time, a new generation of people grow up who may be called the choristers of the revolution; grown on shifting, volcanic soil, nurtured in an atmosphere of alarm when work of every kind is suspended, they become inured from their earliest years to an environment of political ferment – they like the theatrical side of it, its brilliant, pompous mis en scène

“Among them are good, valiant people, sincerely devoted and ready to face a bullet; but for the most part they are limited and extraordinarily pedantic. Immobile conservatives in everything revolutionary, they stop short at some programme and do not advance.

“Dealing all their lives with a small number of political ideas, they only know their rhetorical side, so to speak, their sacerdotal vestments, that is the commonplaces which successively cut the same figure, à tour de rôle, like the ducks in a well-known children’s toy – in newspaper articles, in speeches at banquets and in parliamentary devices.

“In addition to naïve people and revolutionary doctrinaires, the unappreciated artists, literary men, students who did not complete their studies, briefless lawyers, actors without talent, persons of great vanity but small capability, with huge pretensions but no power of work, all naturally drift into this milieu.

“The external authority which guides and pastures the human herd in a lump in ordinary times is weakened in times of revolution; left to themselves people do not know what to do.

“The younger generation is struck by the ease, the apparent ease, with which celebrities float to the top in times or revolution, and rushes into futile agitation; this inures the young people to violent excitements and destroys the habit of work…One must not be left behind, there is no need to work: what is not done to-day may be done to-morrow, or may not even be done at all.”

Sports History I Never Knew: The First Double Axel in the Olympic Games

September 6, 2020

Sonia Henie, the “Golden Girl”

It was the free-skating event, the final program of the competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Sonja Henie knew that she was in trouble.

The “Golden Girl,” Norwegian-born winner of the skating competitions in the previous two Olympics at Lake Placid and St. Moritz, was the big favorite for a three-peat. But in the previous program, the compulsories, a young upstart from England named Cecilia Colledge, nearly bested her. Henie threw a temper tantrum and ripped the judges’ scoring sheet off the wall, claiming she had been cheated.

Colledge, at age 11 in Lake Placid, was the youngest woman ever to compete in the Olympics. She was the first woman to execute a double-rotation jump in competition, a salchow at the 1936 European championships in Berlin. She also invented the camel and the layback spins and the one-foot axel jump. Henie had never faced such a challenger.

Cecilia Colledge, 1937

The two were close on points going into the free-skating program. Colledge went first, and she was superb, using all the creative and exciting leaps and spins in her repertoire. Henie had to be better, or her gold-medal streak would end.

And that’s what the Golden Girl did. She topped Colledge with a double “Axel Paulsen” jump. Invented in 1882, it was so risky that it had never been tried in the Olympics. Paulsen was world champion speed skater from 1882 to 1890. He also invented modern speed skate, with the blade fixed to the boot.

In the double Axel Paulsen jump, the skater takes off in a forward direction from one foot, rotates one and a half times in the air, and lands backwards on the opposite foot.  Henie took the chance; she leapt, spun, landed on her skates, and ended with a split and a cover-girl smile. She kept her gold medal.

After Germany’s propaganda triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games, the skaters went their separate ways. Henie went pro – officially, as she’d made a lot of money with “amateur” exhibitions in Europe already. She came to America in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1941, and made 47 million dollars in film and through skating exhibitions.

Axel Paulsen

Henie also acquired a massive collection of diamonds.  She turned her back on her countrymen and refused to contribute to the resistance fighters who were battling Nazi occupation.  She also became the biggest booster of a new-fangled ice-grooming machine invented by an American named Frank Zamboni. She ordered two for herself; if she was going to skate at your arena, you had to have your own Zamboni.

Colledge returned to England and continued to compete as an amateur. She drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz. Her brother Maule became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin.

Colledge became a professional skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows. She settled in the United States and coached elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She died, at the age of 87, in 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colledge never married and had no survivors.

And what of Axel Paulsen? He returned home and, after the death of his father, took over the family coffee shop until his death in 1936. The daring jump he invented is now known as the axel – just as all ice groomers are now Zambonis.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Sonia Henie’s touring Zamboni

Henie and her Zamboni, in photo autographed for inventor Frank Zamboni.

The double axel jump

Sonia Henie and George “Superman” Reeves, 1954

Books, Music, and Divine Inspiration: A Reflection on Madeleine L’Engle

August 16, 2020

Author Madeleine L’Engle

One good thing about this infernal shutdown…you can find a little more time for the reading that you’ve always meant to do but somehow never got to.

That’s what happened with me. I re-read A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007). But before doing so, I wanted to read its prequel, The Small Rain, which was written 37 years previously.

I had intended that this blog post be just a review of those two books. But it’s turned out to be a little more than just that. It morphed into a reflection on Madeleine, one of my favorite authors. And I’ve got to make full disclosure about Madeleine L’Engle. I start every day with her.

Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections is a fixture on my morning reading table.  It has 366 entries, all of them excerpted from L’Engle’s literary career that included 60 books along with poetry, journals, and speeches.  She was a devout Anglican, so it’s not surprising that Glimpses has both overtly theological musings as well as some less-direct but spirituality-filled thoughts for the day.

L’Engle was a woman of deep religious faith. But her writings communicate her messages without being the least bit preachy.  And reading her every morning has been, I’ve found, is as good a morning prayer as any I’ve ever made.

Here’s just one sample of religion in L’Engle’s writing. I don’t know about you, but I find things like this spiritually nourishing, and I don’t feel like I’m being preached to.  This is from her book Camilla:

“Listen, Camilla Dickinson, do you believe in God? Tell me about your God. What kind of God do you believe in?”

“Well,” I said at last, “I don’t think it’s God’s fault when people do anything wrong. And I don’t think He plans it when people are good. But I think He makes it possible for people to be ever so much bigger and better than they are. That is, if they want to be. What I mean is, people have to do it for themselves. God isn’t going to do it for them.”

As part of my morning ritual, I also read a daily entry from The Book of Common Prayer and a page or two from one or more of the books of advice and meditations for those who’ve lost a loved one. These latter books were given to me by some kind friends after Mary Ellen, my wife of nearly 44 years, died in December of 2019.

When I told a friend that I’d just finished two books by Madeleine L’Engle, and that they’d given me a tremendous appreciation for the power of music and what it really takes to be a musician, he said that he thought L’Engle only wrote children’s books. Not true, but understandable that he’d think this way.

The book that made her reputation was A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962. It won the Newbery Medal, the highest award for children’s literature.  But L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher, even though she’d already done some well-received books for young adults. The knee-jerk knock on “Wrinkle” was that it was too religious. Fortunately, her agent approached John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was a churchgoer, so he published the book and it “paid for the rent in the offices” according to an article in the New Yorker.

One of the 26 publishers who rejected “Wrinkle” told L’Engle’s agent that he might be turning down Alice in Wonderland.  Indeed he was. The book has never been out of print and has sold more than six million copies.

L’Engle didn’t want to be known as a writer of children’s books. Whenever that label came up in conversation about her work, she’d say to just “write your story,” and not try to target a young audience.

Newlyweds Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin, 1946. She became a renowned author and he a star of stage and screen.

In addition to knowing her music and her theology, L’Engle is well acquainted with both church politics and the world of show business, both concert music and the Broadway stage. She was librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side.  The Cathedral is the site of A Severed Wasp. She was married to actor Hugh Franklin (1916-1986), who starred as Dr. Charles Tyler in the long-running TV soap opera All My Children.

Just an aside here…Religion is good business, in my humble opinion. People want it. They may not be official, practicing adherents to any of the major churches or confessional faiths, but they want it. They want to know that they’re part of something much larger than they are. They want to know that their lives have meaning in the “whole vast configuration of things,” as George Bailey put it.

The movie version of Wrinkle, a 2018 production that starred Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, was a disaster.  Don’t bother with it.  On “Rotten Tomatoes,” 191 of 300 people rated it “rotten.” The site’s overall rating was 26%. The summary blurb concluded that the film was “wildly ambitious to a fault, and often less than the sum of its classic parts.”

Duh. What do you expect when you cancel the core value, the religious sensibility?

But I’ve digressed. Too much, as usual. Now to the books that I’ve just finished.

The Small Rain – Lengle’s first novel written in 1945, is about the youthful trials of Katherine Forrester.  The title comes from this anonymous poem fragment that dates back to the Middle Ages:

“Western wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!”

The book ends with her being sent to a boarding school in Europe to study piano with Justin Vigneras, the one teacher who inspired her during her boarding school days in America. Her father, divorced and remarried to a Broadway actress, is a composer. Her biological mother is a famous concert pianist.

Katherine aspires to be as good at the piano as was her mother.  As most coming-of-age books seem to be, there’s much autobiography here.  It includes difficulties in being accepted by peers, youthful angst, boarding schools, living for a time in Greenwich Village, a less-than-idyllic home life.  There are overbearing teachers, lecherous guys, and betrayal in an early love affair.

One of the poignant passages about love is this one. The speaker is another professional pianist who once fell madly in love with Katherine’s mother:

“I believed in her right from the first night I met her, in May, in a small café under the chestnut trees. Beautiful and romantic. Only she never fell in love with me. I was desperately in love with her. It’s a strange thing, how you can love somebody, how you can be all eaten up inside with needing them — and they simply don’t need you. That’s all there is to it, and neither of you can do anything about it. And they’ll be the same way with someone else, and someone else will be the same way about you and it goes on and on – this desperate need — and only once in a rare million do the same two people need each other.

“Those are cheerful words, aren’t they, child? But I’m afraid they’re only too true.”

When we come to A Severed Wasp, Katherine Forrester Vigneras has retired from a distinguished career as a concert pianist. She has returned home to her New York roots, and she’s had a request to give a benefit concert for Saint John the Divine Cathedral. The requester is an old friend, Felix Bodeway, who has retired from his post as Episcopal bishop of New York.

Felix was a character in The Small Rain.  It is hard to imagine him as a bishop in any church. He had been “that lightweight young man she had known a half century ago when they were both living in the Village.” Still, she was open to his approach and wondered “if he would still awaken the long-ago pain which has been part of the past to which Felix belonged. But so much deeper pain had come in the intervening years that all she felt was a vague nostalgia for her youthful anguish.”

The book gets its title from an excerpt from George Orwell: “[A wasp] was sucking jam on my plate and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.”

As the book progresses from that initial meeting between Katherine and Felix, we learn the stories of their lives in the intervening fifty years.  She, now widowed, had married Justin Vigneras in France just before the war broke out.  The Nazis captured them in Paris. Both survived, although Justin was maimed in Auschwitz. Unable to play piano or to father children, he became a composer.  It’s a mystery, not solved until the end, just who was the father of their two children, and just who was that severed wasp.

There is a wealth of detail about Katherine’s preparations for the concert, which she’ll give on the cathedral’s Bösendorfer piano.  Some person or persons does their best to sabotage things, attempting intimidate Katherine by sending horrible things to her in the mail and by breaking into her apartment and slashing an irreplaceable painting.

Felix’s successor, Alwood Undercroft, the new bishop of the Episcopal diocese, bears a strong resemblance to the German army officer who was Katherine’s captor during her imprisonment throughout the war.  There’s also a long-standing postwar friendship and counseling relationship with Wolfgang von Stromberg, a Catholic cardinal whom she and Justin knew as Wolfi.

All in all it’s an entertaining and absorbing tale that succeeds in delivering its moral lessons while, as a blurb on the back cover states, it “weaves the world of music and the international concert stage, the claustrophobic life of a great cathedral close, and aspect of the threatening street life of New York.”

I won’t spoil everything by telling you how the mysteries and questions get answered. But because the title of the last chapter is “Music in the Cathedral,” I guess it’s okay to say that she does go forward with the benefit concert after all.

It’s at the end of the book and at several points in the book that the author’s love of music, and of its awesome power and beauty, shine through. I could appreciate this part even though I know nothing about the musical pieces she cites – or how, for instance, her getting up in the middle of the night and soothing herself by playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier must have sounded and felt.

At such places in the book, L’Engle’s words call to mind many of her meditations that I read daily in Glimpses.  She sees God’s handiwork everywhere – clouds and galaxies up above, oceans and streams and sun-warmed rocks and insects here below. To inspirations like these, I can relate.

And though I have no artistic talent, I can also relate to the words of Bishop Undercroft, spoken to Katherine at a welcoming dinner:

“I am often awed by the artistic temperament. It sometimes seems to me to be a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling, and the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a Michelangelo David or a Beethoven symphony.”

As for the musical life of the book’s protagonist, this is a memory of her husband that comes back to her when she’s playing The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Prelude and Fugue, before she can return to bed:

“Justin had turned to composing as well as nurturing Katherine’s talent, maturing her, expanding her, never forcing or manipulating, but helping her serve the gift for which she had been born.”

I’ll close by quoting the last couple of paragraphs of the book. I suspect that this feeling of Katherine’s is one that’s felt by many performing artists as they take the stage. It’s something that I’ve never felt and will never feel, but that’s okay too. I did so vicariously as I put this book down.

“Katherine…glanced once more at all those people she’d known for only a few months. Between them all they held a great many secrets. Between them all they had worked out as much peace as the human being is likely to have.

“She turned her mind away from them and focused it on music. The rustlings in the stalls and throughout the crowded nave stopped, and there was anticipatory silence.

“For Katherine, as she held her hands over the keyboard, there was nothing but the piano, and she and the sensitive instrument were no more than living extensions of each other.

“When the music had fully entered into her, she began to play.”

The Story of the Red Easter Egg, Why We Have Colored Eggs on Easter, and Who Should Have Been the First Pope

April 10, 2020

Mary Magdalene is my favorite woman of the Bible. She, courageous and steadfast, should have been the first pope instead of Peter.  The legend of Magdalene and her visit to the Roman Emperor Tiberius is the source of the tradition of coloring Easter eggs. As it turns out, there may be at least a grain of historical truth to that story.

It is known that Mary of Migdal was a wealthy woman. That she had a title, unlike most women of her day, shows that she was an important person. I’ve been to her home town of Migdal, right near Capharnaum on the Sea of Galilee. Until the Romans obliterated it in the brutal war of revolt around 70 A.D., Migdal was a prosperous town renowned for its dried fish. The local fishing entrepreneurs sold dried fish to places as far away as Damascus.  Mary was probably a fish-monger.

Migdal’s recent archaeological excavations revealed a synagogue that quite probably was the place where Jesus launched his public career.  Mary became one of his loyal followers. In all likelihood she contributed some of her considerable wealth in support of his preaching and ministry. And who knows? They may have traveled together and been extremely good friends.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

When the Romans crucified Jesus, all of the apostles fled the scene. Not his mother Mary, and not Mary Magdalene either. Legend has it that Magdalene was the first person Christ appeared to after his Resurrection.  She ran to tell the apostles that she had seen the Lord. They didn’t believe her until they ran to the tomb themselves. She was a believer; they had to be convinced.

Though it is not officially chronicled anywhere, the story goes that Mary Magdalene stayed around and was a leader of the followers of Jesus in the dark and difficult early years after his death. And here’s where some of the possible historical truth mixed with the legend comes in.

First, the legend.  Because she was a wealthy woman, she was able to get an audience with the Roman emperor Tiberius. She supposedly went to him to denounce Pontius Pilate for being so cruel at the trial of Jesus.  At that audience, she also said that Christ rose from the dead and that she had seen Him.

She held out an egg to the emperor and said “Christ is Risen!” To which Tiberius replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life from the dead as there was of the egg in her hand turning red. And the egg promptly turned red!

Interior of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. The canvas with painting of Mary and Roman Emperor Tiberius hangs above the iconostasis.

That’s a nice story, and that’s why we have colored Easter eggs.  But here’s the grain or strand of potential truth. The Jews of Palestine did send word to Rome that Pontius Pilate was a thoroughly bad guy and that they would not put up with him as governor any more. They may have threatened to revolt. But whatever they said worked. Tiberius agreed that that trial was unlawfully conducted. Pilate was fired from his job and soon disappeared from history.

Somebody had to carry the message or lead the delegation. It could have been Mary of Migdal, the richest woman in town.

Many icons painted in the Byzantine Catholic style show Mary Magdalene holding a red egg.  So too does the canvas above the iconostasis in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, on the slope of the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane.   The iconostasis, in Eastern Orthodox churches, separates the nave from the sanctuary. The canvas shows Magdalene in the court of Tiberius. In her hand she holds a red egg.

I’ve been to Jerusalem twice, and both times the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene was closed to the public. I’m sorry that I didn’t have a chance to go inside.  The church is unmistakably Russian, built in the Muscovite style with golden onion domes.

It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria Alexandrovna by her son, Czar Alexander III and his brothers. Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, brother of Alexander III, and his wife Grand Duchess Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt), grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and sister of the last Empress of Russia, presided at the consecration of the church in 1888 as representatives of the Emperor.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth and commissioned the Russian artist Sergei Ivanov (1864-1910) to paint large murals depicting the life of Mary Magdalene. They were brought to Jerusalem for the consecration and hang in the church today. The painting with Magdalene, Tiberius, and the red egg is just one of them.

The synagogue at Migdal, the archaeological site that is called “Israel’s Pompeii.”

And there you have it. Mary Magdalene, the courageous and wealthy woman who should have been the Catholic Church’s first pope, gave us one of the best examples ever of steadfastness and loyalty. She also gave us the Easter egg.

The Last Holdout

February 1, 2020

One more evening of candles in the windows!

It’s February 1, and my Christmas wreaths and candles are still up. Everybody else took their decorations down a month ago. I’m the last holdout, and there are several reasons for it. I’m waiting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Candlemas Day. It’s a minor religious celebration, as far as Catholics are concerned. I think that’s too bad.

Tomorrow also happens to be the day of the world’s greatest pagan feast, the Super Bowl. And it’s Groundhog Day in America, another tradition that we imported from elsewhere. More on that later.

As for Candlemas Day’s religious significance, we should make a little more of it. Why? Because it marks yet another occasion that shows just how close we, Catholics and Christians, are to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What Mary and Joseph did on this day, 40 days after Jesus was born, was to fulfill their religious obligations as devout and loyal Jews. The little baby they brought to the temple wasn’t an Irish Catholic; he grew up Jewish. If more of us took that to heart, we’d be better equipped to combat the vile contagion of anti-Semitism that is awakening again.

The Gospel of Luke spins the Jewishness out of the event that Catholics call The Presentation of the Lord. How the story was told seems to me to be the first time that the essential difference between Christians and Jews was expressed. Is Jesus divine, and the Redeemer of all mankind? Catholics say yes, Jews say no.

That family disagreement has led to untold and utterly needless suffering down through history. It would be so much better if we could just wait until Judgment Day. Then when the Messiah comes, we just ask him “Hey, buddy, have you been here before? Or is this your first time?”

One of the many paintings of The Presentation of Christ. This one is by Simon Vouet. It was commissioned by France’s Cardinal Richelieu around 1640 for the Church of Saint-Paul-Louis. It now hangs in the Louvre.

The Jewish Rite: Purification and Redemption

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication as prescribed by the Torah. According to the Book of Leviticus (12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered “unclean” for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised.

By the way, Catholics used to call January 1 The Feast of the Circumcision. Now it’s The Solemnity of Mary. Another needless distancing from our Jewish roots.

The Jewish mother continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40 days, the mother and the father came to the temple for the rite of purification, which included the offering of a sacrifice — a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. For a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves sufficed. That’s what Joseph and Mary offered. (Lk 2:24).

Also, Joseph and Mary were obliged by the Torah to “redeem” their first born son: “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me’” (Ex 13:1).

The price for such a redemption was five shekels, which the parents paid to the priest. This “redemption” was a kind of payment for the Passover sacrifice, by which the Jews had been freed from slavery.

The Catholic Rewording: Consecration to the Lord and Identification as the Messiah

St. Luke in the Gospel does not mention this redemption, but rather the presentation of Our Lord:

“When the day came to purify them according to the law of Moses, the couple brought Him up to Jerusalem, so that He could be presented to the Lord, for it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord’” (Lk 2:22-23). So the focus is on Jesus’ consecration to God.

The verb “to present” (paristanai) also means to “offer,” which evokes Jesus being presented as the priest who will offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to free us from the slavery of sin, seal the new and eternal covenant with His blood, and open the gates to the true promised land of heaven.

Luke also tells of Simeon, a just and pious man, who awaited the Messiah and looked for the consolation of Israel. He was inspired to come to the temple, held baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).

Simeon, thereby, announced that the Messiah has come not just for the Jew but the gentile; not just the righteous, but the sinner.

He then blessed the Holy Family, and said in turn to Mary: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed— and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35).

So the Presentation is a proclamation of Christ — Messiah and Priest, Lord and Savior. He is the light who came into this world to dispel sin and darkness.

And this is the reason that, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles that will be used throughout the year have been blessed at Mass this day. Hence the term “Candlemas.”

To reiterate, I think it’s sad that Catholics haven’t been taught just how Jewish that “The Presentation” really is, and how much we owe our Jewish “elder brothers,” as Pope John Paul II once put it.

The Christmas Season is Now Officially Over – and Winter’s Halfway Done

In many countries of Europe, the feast of the Presentation officially closes the celebration of Christmas. That’s logical, once again, when you consider what Mary and Joseph were doing at the temple in the first place. She was now ritually pure, and her son had been dedicated to the Lord and redeemed by their offerings. The business of living their family life here on earth could now proceed.

Pope John Paul agreed with this official ending of the Christmas season. He began the custom of keeping the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square until February 2. I’m doing likewise, keeping my wreaths up and my candles burning until then.

An old superstition held that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 6, when I took down my tree) should be left up until Candlemas Day.

Remember also that the day is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Light is returning to the world. We just don’t need the candles as much as we did back in December.

And What About Groundhog Day?

Candlemas Day also was important in the lives of farmers. They thought that Candlemas Day predicted the weather for the rest of winter. Their beliefs and traditions led to our Groundhog Day.

An old English song went:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again.”

So if the bright sun “overshadows” the brightness of Candlemas Day, there will be more winter. However, if the light of Candlemas Day radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day, the end of winter is near.

A German proverb states:

“The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”

I guess our groundhog learned from their badger.

So Here’s My February Wish for You

Now that the days are getting longer and light is returning to the world, we might need fewer of those candles and other artificial means of illumination. But I’m sure you agree with Ecclesiastes (2:13): “I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.”

So I urge you to keep blessing all of us with your special gifts, your own beautiful self, and share the light that you and no one else has. Heed Matthew (5: 15-16):

“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works”

Remembering the Ace of Aces

January 11, 2020

And now for some history I never knew – and a little that I actually did know too.

Eddie Rickenbacker and his World War I fighter plane

Eddie Rickenbacker was “Ace of the Aces.” A World War I fighter pilot, he shot down 26 enemy fighters.  You’re an ace if you have five kills. Rickenbacker didn’t kill 80 enemies, like Manfred von Richtofen. But unlike the Red Baron he did survive the war. Much later, he became a millionaire and president of Eastern Airlines. I remembered Eddie’s the nickname.

Back when I was in the banking business, I had to go to innumerable business organizational functions and networking activities. At one of them, a woman with the surname Rickenbacker traded business cards with me. I asked her “Are you related to the Ace of Aces?”  The way her face lighted up made that dreary had-to-do-it meeting worthwhile.

I also remembered reading, somewhere along the way that in World War II Pacific Theater, things started off very badly for the Americans. The Japanese had been preparing for war for years, and they had much better stuff, much better weapons of war. Under the sea, the long-lance torpedo gave their submarines a frightening early advantage. (Aside – there is one on display on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. The damn thing seems to stretch a city block).

In the air, the Zero fighter plane was far superior – faster, more maneuverable, better weapons — to anything that America first had to offer. It remained that way until the arrival of a revolutionary new American fighter plane: the speedy, twin-fuselaged, armed-to-the-teeth Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Another aside.  Please make a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles Airport a bucket-list item. It’s a fascinating place. One of the planes on display there is a P-38. I was astounded at how small this deadly weapon of war actually was. It’s about the size of a luxury SUV.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

When the P-38s arrived in late 1942, America’s pilots needed a pep talk. Along came Eddie Rickenbacker. The man evidently knew the science of human motivation as well as he knew the science of air combat. He offered a case of Scotch to any fighter pilot who surpassed his record of 26 kills.

Within a year, the names of all the men who would surpass him became household words on the home front. The American press and radio networks eagerly followed and chronicled the exploits of Richard Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Thomas Lynch, Charles MacDonald, and Tommy McGuire. They all surpassed Rickenbacker’s total of 26 aerial victories. They all earned that case of Scotch.

Bong, a farm boy from Wisconsin, shot down 40 planes. He was the Pacific war’s Ace of the Aces. McGuire, who dropped out of Georgia Tech to join the Air Corps, had 38 kills. But of the six who bested Rickenbacker, only MacDonald lived to return to civilian life after World War II.

Johnson died a month after the Japanese surrender after yet another heroic gesture. A plane that he was flying over Japan ran into bad weather and ran low on fuel. He and his co-pilot had parachutes; the two passengers with them did not. Johnson and the co-pilot gave the parachutes to the passengers, and they died trying to make an emergency landing.

Let’s raise a glass in salute to all of them, and let’s give a special shout-out to Eddie Rickenbacker. He was not only the original Ace of Aces. He was also a true champion, a man who did his utmost to see his own record broken.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

November 10, 2019

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

Today’s history lesson is about a place on my bucket list.

I’d love to visit Prague some day. I’m told that it’s a magnificent old city. Part of the reason for that is that somehow the physical ravages of modern war did not reach it. That’s a good thing.

There’s also a personal tug. Prague is the city where, in 1933, America’s National Hockey Team won its first world championship. Our team, the Massachusetts Rangers, defeated the Toronto National Sea Fleas, 2-1 in overtime, to take the title. The overtime goal was scored by John Garrison, “The Ghost of Harvard Yard.” The coach of the team was my uncle, Walter Brown. It was the first time ever that an American team defeated the Canadian team in international competition.

But back to today’s lesson – it’s about the city’s most-photographed sight, the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in the city’s center. It’s been known at the Charles Bridge only since 1870, in belated recognition of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It was he who laid the first stone, back in 1357.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

Charles was big into numerology. And so he insisted that the first stone be set in place at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 of that year.

Why such precision? Because the date and time make for a palindrome: 135797531 (or 1357 9, 7 5:31). That number, which reads the same backward and forward, is carved onto the stones of the Old Town Bridge Tower at the east end of the bridge. Charles believed that it would bring a magical strength to the structure. All righty, then.

The bridge wasn’t finished until 1402. Its length is 1,692 feet. For more than 400 years it was the only means of crossing the Vltava, and it was therefore the most important connection between Prague Castle and Prague’s Old Town. The bridge helped to make Prague an important nexus for trade between Eastern and Western Europe.

There’s more superstition beyond Charles IV’s numerology. The bridge was also constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of Saint Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox. More recently, people came to believe that rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk will grant you a wish.

Saint John of Nepomuk

John was murdered on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia in the latter 14th century. In 1390 he was made vicar general for the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 the archbishop, with John’s support, excommunicated one of the favorites of the king and thwarted the king’s ambition to make a new bishopric out of the province of Prague.

John was arrested as the archbishop’s chief agent. Wenceslas personally tortured him with fire, after which he reconsidered and released him on an oath of secrecy regarding his treatment. John, however, was dying, and to conceal the evidence Wenceslas had him gagged, shoved into a goatskin, and cast into the Vltava. Bohemian Catholics came to regard John of Nepomuk as a martyr.

Saint John’s statue is one of 32 points of interest (see map) on the bridge. Things also got interesting there around the time of the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war began in May of 1618, touched off by the colorfully-named Defenestration of Prague. In that incident, three Catholic officials, emissaries from the Holy Roman Emperor, were tossed from an upper window of Prague Castle by an angry mob of Protestant Bohemian rebels.

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

Three years later, on June 21, 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed. Their severed heads were displayed for all to see on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Apparently, that grisly measure – quite common in those times – wasn’t much of a deterrent.

Near the end of the war, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava. As they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower, and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward.

It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the bridge became the attraction that it is today. That’s when the alley of baroque statues was installed on the bridge’s pillars.

Charles IV’s numerology didn’t spare the bridge from severe damage. In 1890, a huge flood hit Prague. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials from upstream gradually formed a giant barrier against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the pressure, and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged.

Two statues, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, fell into the river. The Ignatius statue was replaced by statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. For the St. Francis statue, they had a replacement cast.

1890 Flood Damage

It goes without saying that the Charles Bridge, also known as Karlův Most and Karlsbrücke, is one of the most visited and photographed sites in Prague.

No wonder, eh? It’s a place I’d love to visit myself.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

October 17, 2019

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

1492: What Really Happened

October 12, 2019

Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yes, he did. But in the long sweep of history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s “discovery” of America did not have anything approaching the impact – the tragic consequences – of other events of that year.  Christoper Columbus wasn’t all that important, or consequential. If he hadn’t voyaged west and found new lands, someone else would have. History in the “New World” would have followed roughly the same course.

Not so the history of the Old World, had the rulers of Spain been enlightened and fair-minded.

Columbus himself points out the world-changing decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. His diary begins:  “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ferdinand and Isabella

In January of 1492, the forces of Castile and Aragon had conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim caliphate in Spain. This restored all of Spain to Christian rule. The king and queen had resisted the demands of Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, to expel the Jews until they had first subdued the Moors (not the Moops.) But with that military victory, they moved swiftly to get rid of Jews and impose religious uniformity.

It would take until 1614 for Spain’s succeeding monarchs to banish the rest of the Moors.  For a short while, Islam was allowed in Spain. But in 1502, all remaining Muslims were order to convert to Christianity or leave.

As for the Jews of Spain, about 200,000 of them were forced to leave as of July 30, 1492. They had to abandon all of their material possessions and settle in places like North Africa, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere.  They became known as Sephardic Jews – “Sefarad” is Hebrew for “Spain.”

Can you imagine how the history of the world might have evolved if Ferdinand and Isabella did not agree with people like Torquemada – had they allowed their Jews and Muslims to stay, to work out their differences, and to build their country into something else entirely?

Nor was it enough for F&I to “cleanse” Spain. They married off their daughter Isabella to King Manuel of Portugal in 1496. They made it a condition of the marriage that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel reluctantly complied, although in the end only eight Jews were kicked out; according to the Jewish Virtual Library, tens of thousands of others had to convert to Christianity, on pain of death.

Tomas de Torquemada

I recall learning in school of the wonderful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who supported Columbus on his great adventure.  What rot. And what profound negative consequences their religious hatred had, down through the centuries.

The Sultan of Turkey, Bazajet, welcomed Jews. He said, “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

How indeed.

Spain, and Portugal for that matter, became inconsequential, minor-league powers in Europe. Much worse, though, was that their treatment of Jews would be imitated in various guises throughout the known world. It’s still echoing loudly today. The decree of expulsion, known as the Alhambra Decree, was not officially overturned by the Spanish government until December 16, 1968.

This decision by the Spain, 476 years in the making, likely came about after the Catholic church itself admitted that it had been wrong about the Jews for almost two millennia.  The following is from Nostra Aetate, an instrument formulated in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI:

“what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII

And that pronouncement may never have happened had “Vatican II” not taken place.  The council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It is sad that he died before the council, and before this pronouncement. He would have loved it. During World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, he was the Vatican delegate to the Ottoman Empire.  He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to use his authority on behalf of Jews. He had no use for the wimpish Pope Pius XII, his predecessor, who did nothing to resist Adolf Hitler.

But back to today, October 12. If you feel like ragging on Christopher Columbus for his misdeeds, go ahead. But he’s not the villain. The real villains sat on the throne of the combined kingdom of Castile and Aragon, and at their right hands in the Office of the Spanish Inquisition.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education and the Teaching of History

October 5, 2019

Sometimes it’s best to let others speak for themselves. I think that our third president, while certainly one of the “great” ones, has been treated a little too kindly by history. But I can’t deny his intellectual brilliance. Here is a sample.

(From Query XIV, “Notes  on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson first describes the state’s plans for public schools. They will be free to all boys for three years, after which the better students will advance to higher levels of learning. They will be further winnowed out until each year the best students will be selected for admission to the College of William and Mary. The family’s wealth will not be a factor in admission. Rich families whose students do not make the cut will be free to pay for those students’ higher learning, if they so desire.)

Who Is Educated, How Chosen, and Why:

“The ultimate result of this whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten other annually, of still superiors parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to…”

“The general objects of this law are to provide and education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. Specific details are not proper for the law. These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its execution…By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youth of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the cultivated. – But of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty…”

And Why the Teaching of History is Most Important:

“..the reading in the first stage, where they will receive the whole of their education, [is]…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations: it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

“In every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.  Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary.

“An amendment to our constitution must here come to the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among al the people.  If every individual which composes the mass participates in the ultimate authority the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. “