May is Mary's month, which often commences with the annual "May Crowning" at Catholic parishes and schools around the world. Today, Ellyn von Huben offers her signature hilarity and graceful reflection on this timely Catholic tradition.
"If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May Queen.”
Those of us living in the Midwestern United States have had a springtime in which it really feels that we “know that all creation is groaning in labor pains…” (Romans 8:22) After a disappointingly mild winter – the disappointment being the lack of a picture book “White Christmas”- which ended in several weeks of multiple snowstorms, the wintery gloom and chill have dragged on. The groundhog who predicted an early spring should look into a new career. The labor of the earth bringing forth new life has been painfully stalled. At last, there have been some blessedly warm days, finally bringing the beauty of buds on the trees and the first flowers of spring. On the sixth Sunday of Easter, I can look out my window and safely say that spring has sprung. Though I wouldn’t say I’m packing away my winter coat just yet.
Each spring I enjoy one of the happiest perks of my job as a church secretary: a good perch for viewing the procession of school children to the annual May Crowning. There are the eight graders, trying to look casually grown-up as they wait for one of their own to crown the statue of the Blessed Mother. We are always especially touched by the gravity of the second graders, wearing their First Communion clothes for a second time. They are so pious and serious as they walk past in single file. I think of the impression this is making on their young hearts, helping form a lifetime of devotion to the mother of Our Lord...
The human body is an offer of Divine Grace. Sure, but this body? With its flaws and aches and less-than-perfect aesthetic value? Yup, that very one. Word on Fire contributor Ellyn von Huben draws upon the great lessons and legacy of Flannery O'Connor to illuminate just what it is about the body that works to reveal that most sacred gift.
Domestic violence is not entertaining. And I don’t spend my time scanning news sites looking for more sadness than that which usually jumps out at me when I check the Chicago Tribune each morning. But… there was an incident that caught my eye on a popular news/chat/gossip site a few days ago. And my first response was to send it to a friend with the brief comment, “Hulga’s revenge?”
Flannery O’Connor fans know who Hulga is. A joyless woman, possessed of a degree in philosophy but little common sense, Hulga - née Joy - lost a leg in a childhood accident. She lives with her mother on the family farm, where her position is, in today’s parlance, resident “Debbie Downer.” In a tragi-comical turn of events, Hulga seduces a Bible salesman whom she takes to be an innocent rube, and instead winds up as his victim. The Bible salesman is not what he appeared to be and Hulga, in her haste to shame him, allows herself to be shamed. Not only is Hulga shamed, she is left in the loft of the barn while salesman takes quick leave of her – carrying her prosthetic leg as a trophy. (This is better told by Flannery herself. If you don’t have a copy of her collected works I would advise that you find one. And make “Good Country People” one of your first choices.)
How could Hulga not come to mind when I read of a woman in South Carolina who stabbed her boyfriend and then threw his prosthetic leg into the yard to keep him from chasing her? And this woman was thorough! She didn’t just through his leg out in the yard; she tossed his spare leg, too. I wonder if any other fans of Flannery and “Good Country People” also saw it as some sort of turnabout on Hulga’s tale. (That is all I know of this sad story, except that it coincidentally took place in the south, reminding me of what the great author said about that, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”)
The frailties of the human body show up frequently in Flannery’s work. As a Catholic, she knew the importance of the human body as being an offer of Divine Grace. Each human body. In the Resurrection, it will be our bodies, glorified, that will rise. God himself became human, incarnated in a body of flesh and blood – bones, tendons, corpuscles and muscles. It is easy to see to make a connection to the divine if one looks upon a body in its prime – adorable babies, Olympic athletes at the peak of their fitness, gorgeous women on the covers of popular magazines, men so good looking they must be deported...
We all could use a good distraction at times. But what happens when the intended distraction becomes a course in elevated thinking and deeper contemplation? Word on Fire contributor Ellyn von Huben tells us how she stumbled upon one such distraction: the little-known TV show "The Booth at the End."
TV is often used like a drug. Something to take you out of the doldrums; away from the laundry, barking dogs, unsorted bills. I resort to this drug myself. There are times I am too tired to read, too unmotivated to write, clean, walk, or even do a craft project. But I still look for a diversion. There was a rainy Saturday afternoon like that. Bored with the thought of watching "Arrested Development" or "Malcolm in the Middle" reruns, I toyed with the Hulu+ selections to see if there was anything I had missed. It is usually comedy that I seek and the more absurd the better. But this time my eye was caught by something new: “The Booth At The End.” This was billed as Sci-Fi, which is a genre that I tend to avoid like to a proverbial plague. In my estimation, Sci-Fi is a plague of misshapen space creatures possessing unpronounceable names set in preposterous situations. I have been blessed with many gifts; willful suspension of disbelief is not one of them.
But “The Booth At The End” caught my eye and held my attention for way more than the usual three minutes I take before I bail on a show. That was probably because the characters were regular humans, with pedestrian names and the setting was a coffee shop not unlike the twenty-four hour a day place that I frequented in my college days. Whether we were visiting for a study break during an all-nighter or converging for sustenance after a night at the bars, I never saw a man in a back booth waiting to help those who approached to make their wishes come true. This special “Man” idling in the last booth is what makes the show’s coffee shop different. Xander Berkeley portrays the Man in a very low key way; deftly combining sang froid and compassion to give us a character who is fascinating to watch and almost impossible to read. (In season 2 he has moved to a different coffee shop. Maybe even a very special man can only loiter so long in any one establishment.)
“I heard the pastrami sandwich here is good.” (Eeew – never had pastrami. The thought of just saying the word might be a deal breaker right there for me. I’m not sure what pastrami actually is; it just sounds wrong to me.) That is the code that lets the man in the booth know that someone is there to make a deal. Word of mouth is the Man’s only promotional tool. The motivations of those who come to make a deal are diverse. Some are driven by love of a child, parent, or spouse. Others are compelled by vanity and lust...
As the blessed celebration of Easter continues, Ellyn von Huben brings the beauty of this indescribable event into our grasp for a moment— through the interpretation of Cecco del Caravaggio's arresting painting "Resurrection." The dynamism of the figures convey far more than just an historical event. Ellyn explains.
Those who are familiar with the work of Caravaggio know that not all of his paintings are of a spiritually elevating nature. Indeed, some of his paintings, no matter how exquisitely executed, are of subjects that would render them unsuitable as fine art prints in a family home. One book that I own describes the artist, Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, thus: “His life was sulphurous and his painting scandalous.”(1) That encapsulates much that we need to know. The Holy Spirit can work through artists – both contemporary and of centuries past – to bring forth art of a sanctifying nature, no matter how sulfphurous the artists themselves may be. (Likewise, I must interject that there is much well meaning work of dubious quality created by earnest artists and composers of the purist of hearts and best of intentions.)
Caravaggio’s fans are familiar with his paintings of young boys, for instance “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” “Bacchus,” and “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Even his painting of “St. John the Baptist” has a transgressive nature that would make it an unlikely to appear on a holy card. His lovers and models were frequently interchangeable. This is where I would like to introduce Francesco Buoneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio – Caravaggios’s ‘little Francesco.’ He is a painter about whom little is known. Some art historians have come to the conclusion that he may have been the model for some of Caravaggio’s most well known homo-erotic works, including the “Amor Vincit Omnia.” This cupid is certainly not what we would put on our Valentine greetings, though it had not been considered outrageously shocking in its time. Cecco was not just a hanger-on and dabbler in the workshop of the great painter. He also was a brilliant student who went on in the decade after Caravaggio’s death to make his own significant mark on the art world...
Once again, Ellyn von Huben finds a work of art and manages to let us in to the story unlike anyone we know. She did it today with Zurbaran's "Crucifixion," which is a beautiful, tragic and telling a piece to reflect upon on this Good Friday. And if you are lucky enough to be within striking distance to the Art Institute of Chicago where it is housed, go.
With this being Holy Week, my mind is drawn to the exquisite Tenebrist painting by Francisco de Zurbarán — “Agnus Dei” (or “Lamb of God.”) It’s not surprising that I would be drawn to the work of Zurbarán, often referred to as the “Spanish Caravaggio.” The depth and drama of Caravaggio’s work had grabbed me from the first slide I saw in my first at history class; there was a hypnotic appeal to the violent contrast of light and dark and tangible hyper-realism used to dramatic effect.
Holy Week, our time of Passover preparation, calls us to meditate on our unblemished Paschal lamb. This is not to be confused with the cuddly lambs that greet us in the store aisles when we do our Easter basket shopping. The truth of what awaits the Paschal lamb is harsh. Our Lord himself must have seen many similar lambs, awaiting their moment of sacrifice in the temple. As I mentioned in a previous review of Dr. Brant Pitre’s book, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” we see a description of thousands of unblemished lambs sacrificed in the temple; an event that is hard to imagine, if one gives permission to the imagination to wonder about the harsh sights, sounds and smells. A moderate amount of blood has a distinct smell that is hard to forget, so much blood must have been overwhelming. The bloody sacrifice of thousands of lambs conjures a scene that even Quentin Tarantino would have difficulty recreating.
But what about the “Agnus Dei”? This lamb is different. He is here to remind us of the one sacrifice that is necessary for mankind. The sacrifice that is to pay a debt that he does not owe for we, who owe a debt we cannot pay. Zurbarán has captured this calm moment, of the unblemished lamb, legs bound and prepared for sacrifice. All we must do is follow the story that we know is to come. As Pitre said in his book, “That’s what happens to Passover lambs. They don’t make it out alive.” [p. 164]...