What does it take to awaken the conscience of a nation? I have always hoped, when it comes to extending human rights to the unborn, that appealing to our better nature--to tenderness, dignity, beauty, the recognition of ourselves and our children at our beginnings--should take precedence over gruesome images of dismemberment and death, over polarizing accusation and labeling.
And some things disturb me about the campaign by the Center for Medical Progress to secretly record and disseminate video footage of discussions of "fetal tissue" procurement by Planned Parenthood personnel and the middlemen who farm this harvest of shame to researchers. Not the hidden-video gambit, that's a technique from legit broadcast journalism. Nor any deceptive "editing" (they've released full versions). But perhaps the campaign's narrow insistence on finding evidence of illegal for-profit activity that is probably well-protected by legal technicalities...when the real story is the utter deadening of human decency.
That's been the story all along. It was the story when Bernard Nathanson released an ultrasound video (primitive compared to today's "windows to the womb") called "The Silent Scream." He described how abortionists like himself must fish out the child's head; it was called "Number One" in his practice, and in Planned Parenthood's clinics is called "the calvarium."
My own little apostolate for life has been based on winning hearts and minds...and in not violating the trust and friendship of the women I love who have lost unborn children to this terrible choice, under circumstances I can never claim to have experienced. That mission is inconsistent with leveraging horror. The politics of this movement are so polarized and ugly that I have virtually recused myself from them. I heard a radio interview recently about legalizing drugs in which a reasonable man said, "I would be content with a world in which drugs were legal but no one ever used them." I would be likewise content with a world in which abortion was almost unthinkable, in which all of us loved and supported both mother and child. A world where we all, to quote Cate Dyer of StemExpress, "know what it is."
And we do know. And, if we practice denial long enough--for abortion (and research on its discarded casualties) seems so necessary, for so many good, sane reasons--we can let our sanity slip away, and laugh about the shocking sight of a tiny human body in a box while we drink wine at lunch.
When the Anchoress asks, "Why do you stay Catholic," depressing Pew studies be damned...you attempt to formulate an answer.
And when you can't manage anything coherent, you make a poem.
Why do I stay Catholic?
Well, why do I stay in my body?
It is simply who I am, for all its scars, fat, and iniquities,
and is the only one I’ve ever known.
Apart from it, I would be—
My cross would have no corpus—
More tasteful, perhaps, but so empty and alone.
So I want to stay in the body.
I want to smell my God, touch Him,
Eat and drink Him,
Feast my eyes on His face and
my ears on his voice
in all the faces and voices of the earth.
I want a body that lives in time,
in its thick inexorable stream.
I want to feel its flow, those twenty centuries,
straight back through Rome to the Jordan,
time-lapse to the beautiful young man
who stood up, drenched, before his cousin John.
I want a body bathed in that stream,
polluted since, diverted since,
no stranger to drought and flood.
But never run completely dry,
never cut off completely from the source—
Unbroken stream of souls,
Drowner of devils, font of life,
that carries down the DNA of God.
Is Crazy Stable a "Catholic blog"? Kinda-sorta...which is why I fangirl over bloggers with the guts to go full Papist. This Sunday, I'm thrilled to welcome four fresh and compelling voices from the Catholic online conversation to my own beloved parish, the Oratory Church of St. Boniface, for a panel discussion moderated by your Stablemistress. On March 15 at 1 p.m., it will be my pleasure to introduce:
Elizabeth Scalia, The Anchoress, a Benedictine Oblate and managing editor of the Catholic Portal at religion supersite Patheos. An award-winning writer and columnist at First Things, she's the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life (Ave Maria Press, 2013).
Eve Tushnet, whose eponymous blog at Patheos delves into the challenges she explores with great good humor and courage in her book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (Ave Maria Press).
Tom Zampino, a newcomer to the Catholic blogosphere, whose Grace Pending ("Observations of a faith in progress") shows that you should never underestimate the spiritual depths (and writing gifts) of an attorney and dad from Long Island.
Arrive before 1 p.m. (we're on Duffield Street near the corner of Willoughby, near the Jay Street and DeKalb Avenue subway stops--the website has directions here.) Novice bloggers are especialy welcome, and invited to introduce themselves in the Q&A. Hope to see you Sunday for a cloud of witness!
Once upon a time, back in the 1980s, a group of people entered a cavernous, darkened building on Flatbush Avenue. A flashlight played around the vast interior, revealing dull glints of gilded faces, flaked with decay...plants sprouting from a black, moldy carpet...sprung velvet seats sifted over with dust. The beam was too weak to illuminate more than a hint of the infinitude of rococo columns and alcoves that lurked in the shadows. We stood on a tour of "Brooklyn's Haunted Places" in the padlocked ruin of the Loew's Kings Theater, one of the original "Wonder Theaters" built to transport New Yorkers into a cinema fantasy world. Opened in 1929 and shuttered ignominiously in 1977, the Kings was almost certainly slated for demolition--if anyone in the drifting and dysfunctional city could summon the will to knock it down. The Spouse and I were a young couple on that tour--new homeowners in Flatbush, a place as steeped in myth as it was marooned in decline.
Flash forward almost 30 years. The couple, still Flatbushers, are back, with their 19-year-old daughter, on the opening night for the gloriously restored Kings. The kickoff concert, fittingly, is another indestructible grand dame: Miss Diana Ross, resplendent in an array of glittering costume changes, belting out her catalog of hits to a rapturous crowd of pure 2015 Brooklyn: Caribbean families, hipsters, diva-worshiping gay guys, and newly minted senior citizens who came here for movie dates and graduations from nearby Erasmus High School back in "the day."
Diana praised the beauty of the space: "I feel like a queen! Can we turn up the house lights?" They never went high enough for me to get any shots that convey the red-and-gold palette, but you get the idea:
The restoration is stupendous. (For a good rundown, go here.) The same vintage as Radio City Music Hall, the Kings lacks its exuberant Deco quirkiness, going instead for a dreamlike palatial vibe.
The original had an Old World patina, which has been painstakingly recreated to yield a slightly sepulchral luxe, a perfect prom palace for funky vampires. Walnut paneling, caryatids, alcoves, columns, spin and overwhelm. Imagine sitting here in the depths of the Depression, watching Fred and Ginger (and a newsreel, and cartoons), shown to your seat by white-gloved usherettes.
Speaking of whom, the Kings team on opening night was terrific, doing a firm and friendly job of herding 3,600 of us--a full house--through metal detectors (alas) and to our cushy seats. They did their predecessor Barbra Streisand proud. I expected the politicos on hand, including Mayor DiBlasio (or, as the Daughter calls him, "Mr. Potato Head") and the irrepressible Marty Markowitz (who never gave up hope for the Kings) to babble at us, but they seem to have gotten that out of the way days earlier at a ribbon-cutting.
Here she is, Brenda from Flatbush (my longtime Interwebs handle), descending the grand stair. As we left, a charter bus was filling up (we joked that they had come from Park Slope). We walked home through the snowy streets, past jerk chicken shops and a pawn broker and the construction pit where a new hotel will soon rise on Flatbush Avenue...past Erasmus, whose courtyard hides an ancient building awaiting its turn at renovation...past the Dutch Reformed Church, whose spire has gazed down on this village intersection since the American Revolution...past its churchyard, where slaveholders rest beneath Dutch-inscribed tombstones. Past and future whirled together (not to mention the sensory overload from having sung "Stop! In the Name of Love" with Diana). I hope the Kings signals the resurrection of a Flatbush as crazily quilted as the one we stopped in and love...and not that it heralds the scourge of gentrification that would drive out the very kind of working folks who dreamed and celebrated in its glorious space all those years ago.
I've been sick this week--the cruddy aftermath of a bad cold, mostly, but enough to place me within the nebulous borders of what I think of as "the kingdom of the sick." We know it when we're there, or when another is stuck inside the gates. Unlike dire poverty or hunger, which can seem so alien to our experience, all it takes is a racking cough or a temperature--or the terror of a suspicious lump--to kick us roughly into solidarity with everyone who dwells in that big, dark place; and whenever I leave (or sometimes, when I just pass) a hospital and glance up at its flourescent-lit windows, I feel a surge of selfish joy to be outside, where everything is suddenly more beautiful, free, and promising.
Maybe that's why my defenses, immunologic and psychic, have been down this week at the deluge of horrifying images from West Africa, none more shattering than this one from Sierra Leone, at a "hospital" where every vestige of care has broken down, every shred of human dignity dissolved like the capillaries of this awful virus's victims.The older I get, the more I realize that "human dignity" has come to occupy the summit of my hierarchy of values; this picture takes a sledgehammer to it.
I think of this little girl so often now. As a little girl, I was sick quite a lot. My mother would bring me buttered toast and Campbell's Chicken and Stars soup. If I was feverish, she would bathe me in bed with a clean-smelling solution called Lavacol; the washcloth as she wrung it out in a basin would make a lovely trickling sound. When I got up to drag myself to the bathroom, she would smooth my sheets, and they would be miraculously cool when I returned. I felt only the comfort; I could never have articulated that what was restored also was my human dignity. And at some miraculous moment, I would feel the stirrings of energy, the clearing of the fog, and would start to think about going outside to play. When I did, the world would seem, for a while, to be in a halo of grace and opportunity. The kingdom was forgotten. In my turn, I did the same for my own daughter. Same soup, same trickling washcloth.
I want to be an X-Men mutant, immune to Ebola, and stride in past the men in boots and suits and their chlorine hoses, and lift her up off the reeking floor, and give her clean sheets and toast and her humanity back. This picture is a few days old; she is certainly safe by now in the Kingdom of her Creator, or at least my faith affords me that consolation. But with every mild cough and its annoying cargo of mucus, I now remember her, poor little sister in the dark kingdom, inside the deepest ring of its hellish confines, the "bourne from which no traveller returns." Even the reflexive terror of living in a metropolis where this virus could emerge tomorrow--perhaps on the next subway pole I grasp--does not equal the horror of being alone on that floor.
A Prayer for the Forgotten Dead
O merciful God,
take pity on those souls
who have no particular friends and intercessors
to recommend them to Thee, who,
either through the negligence of those who are alive,
or through length of time are forgotten
by their friends and by all.
Spare them, O Lord,
and remember Thine own mercy,
when others forget to appeal to it.
Let not the souls which Thou hast created
be parted from thee, their Creator.
May the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.