Post 262

A Recipe for July

So what do you like? Apricots, strawberries, peaches or plums? The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook tells you how to make fruit cobbler with nine different fresh fruits.

Here’s how you make the filling part:

Apricots: Take 1 3/4 pounds of apricots, halve and pit them and add 2 teaspoons of cornstarch, half to two-thirds of a cup of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/2 a teaspoon of almond extract.

Blackberries: Take 6 cups of blackberries, rinse them, add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Blueberries: Take 6 cups of blueberries, rinse them, add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 1/2 to 2/3 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.

Cherries (sour): Take 1 3/4 pounds of fresh sour cherries, stem and pit them and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch, 2/3 to 3/4 cup of sugar and 2 teaspoons of almond extract and 1 tablespoon of kirsch (cherry brandy).

So alphabetically, the next one up is plums, but I think won’t go there because four choices is enough. You can always go online for more recipes if you want more.

Besides, you know what St. Hildegard of Bingen said about plums.

I always wondered, after hearing that plums were described as a fruit to avoid, what the deal was with plums. Aren’t all foods equally good?

Sure, sure.

Just ask Adam and Eve.

: )

Seriously, though, not all foods are good for all people at all times. We know human instances of this, but we also know biblical instances of this. It’s about context and about intention. Is there anything wrong with pork? Not really, but Tobit was right in refusing to eat it. How about ‘strong drink’? Again, it depends on the context. St. John the Baptist acted rightly in refusing that. It was revealed to St. Peter that all foods were fair game, but that does mean that, from then on, all foods are fine at all times?  Well, let’s see. You don’t have a full-on barbeque on Good Friday, do you?

So what about plums?

Ah, it’s complicated, as Shakespeare would say.

I figured it out about plums. If you are (or should be, due to your calling,) highly sensitive to the spiritual quality of various objects, in the sense that you are aware that this painting is inspired and that one with multiple heads is very much not, and in the sense that you are aware that this textile design is inspired and that freaky snaky one is very much not, and in the sense that you are aware that this lattice work is inspired and that one is very much not, then you might want a break when you turn to your food, and it might be best if maybe you do. It might be best to take a pass on the black fruit whose insides are golden but stained with red.

That’s all. It’s nothing weirder than that. Sure, all fruits are good, in the same way that almost everything in nature and most man made practical objects are good, given the right context and use.

Some people are just meant to avoid certain things which are fine for others. In the physical realm, little Pip might need to avoid cabbage, while little Estella might need to avoid caviar. The doctors and scientists are stumped as to why. Is the spiritual world more or less complicated that that? Does it not have its quirks and its mysteries? Indeed, it does, and you won’t catch WiseOne eating any lamb.

As for the reason for these spiritual quirks, at the risk of delaying this time-sensitive post past midnight Mountain Standard Time, let me explain.

It’s simple. It’s a test. How do you react upon hearing that such-and-such is off-limits for you, right now? How do you react upon realizing that eating this snack will jeopardize your pre-Mass fast? Are you looking forward to your Ash Wednesday ‘meal’? The Church regulations about food are minimal if you’re Catholic, and certainly they are nowhere near the modern in-vogue notions about cholesterol and omega-3 and anti-oxidants and fermented everything, but there are still a few hurdles. There are still a few times when a Wanna will battle a Mustn’t.

In the same way that you can see the caring of a mother who prepares special meals for her sensitive child, though it costs her extra time, money and effort, you can sometimes see the devotion that a person has for Christ in his dealings with food. Mind you, food is so often a very private matter, so you may not see or hear about a sacrifice like that. And indeed, hopefully you won’t be quite so vocal about all of your Lenten choices. Only God should know if you gave up that cup of coffee today and yesterday and the day before yesterday and you’re not counting, but . . . (An addictive drink is good because why again?) Only God should know if you skipped a meal just for him. My point is that our lives are full of choices, as they should be, and though it is true to say that all foods are good, one of the expressions of our love for God can be through our use or avoidance of food. It’s all about context and intention.

Okay, so let’s say you have the intention to make a dessert, but you’re undecided as to which one to choose.

Let me suggest:

Fruit Cobbler

Serves: 6 to 8 people
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes (includes 50 minutes baking and cooling time)

While the fruit is baking, prepare the ingredients for the topping, but do not stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture until just before the fruit comes out of the oven. Baking a cobbler on a baking sheet helps to catch any juices that spill over, and lining it with foil makes cleanup a snap.

1 recipe fruit filling [see above for 4 examples]
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the fruit filling in a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Place the pie plate on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet and bake until the fruit begins to release liquid, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. While the fruit is baking, whisk the flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla together. In a third bowl, toss the cinnamon with the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar.

3. Once the fruit filling has begun to release liquid, gently stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula unti the dough is just combined and no dry pockets remain.

4. Remove the cobbler filling from the oven and stir. Pinch the biscuit dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on top of the hot filling, spaced 1/2 inch apart. Sprinkle the dough with the cinnamon sugar.

5.Remove the cobbler to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbling and the biscuits are golden brown on top and cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Let the cobbler cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before serving.

If you don’t have fresh fruit, this cookbook (America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook) tells me that you can use 2 pounds of frozen; you just have to remember to double the amount of cornstarch stated in the fresh-fruit version of the recipe. Preparation is a breeze because you don’t have to thaw the fruit before using it, as long as you increase the baking time in step one to 60 minutes.

And it also mentions that if you want to make this ahead of time, then you can bake it, cool it, wrap it in plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature. To reheat it, put it into a 350-degree oven until it’s warm, about 10 to 15 minutes.

There’s nothing like a warm fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.




Post 261

Right to Rewrite?
Reflections on a Revised Version of
The Merchant of Venice

If I say, “The other night, I went to a performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” then I am saying that 1) the play ‘belongs’ to Shakespeare and 2) the main character is probably the Merchant of Venice.

Prior to going to the play, I read it. When I read it, I saw that the main character was the Merchant of Venice. His name is Antonio, and he proves himself to be incredibly selfless and, for the most part, noble. He is obviously intended to be Christ-like in some of his attributes. We see this in the symbolism used and in his words and actions. He is willing to give anything to his friend, and he is the embodiment of the line from Scripture, being someone willing to give up his life for the sake of his friend. He has little to say during the trial, even though his own flesh is being demanded by his brutal and heartless enemy.

Antonio’s enemy is named Shylock. Shylock is utterly devoid of mercy. He has some good lines, but there is no doubt that Shakespeare intended us to understand that the Jewish Shylock has a black heart, set on money and revenge. Yet when Shylock must choose between money and revenge, he embraces revenge. We see this twice. First, we see that his hatred of Antonio is such that Shylock would prefer to personally do physical harm to Antonio (extract a pound of flesh near Antonio’s heart using his knife) than accept double or triple the payment of his debt. Second, we see that when Shylock’s own daughter elopes with a gentile, Shylock is more concerned that she has taken his jewels and money than he is with her well being. As a matter of fact, he wishes she were dead at his feet, with the jewels nearby.

At the end of the play, Shakespeare unites the three couples we have met. Each of these relationships needed to undergo some testing, but this is a comedy, which means happy endings for the good guys (and gals). As for the bad guy, we’ve seen his evil plan come to naught. This is Shakespeare’s version. It’s Shakespeare’s play.

However, what I saw the other night wasn’t Shakespeare’s play. I’ll say it was a pretty good play, but it wasn’t his play. (For the record, I’ll say I liked the costumes and the set. The casting choices were good, though I would’ve chosen differently for Antonio and Solanio shouldn’t have become Solania. John Wright was impressive as Shylock.)

The real play ends with a rhyming and rather silly poem from the rather silly Gratiano. It ends on a comic note, with all the happy people planning to stay up all night talking and laughing about everything that’s happened.

The play I saw didn’t end happily. It had been quite true to the script, but at the very end, it went in a different direction entirely. Two of the three romances fell apart and did not recover. The play ended by giving centre stage to a character named Jessica.

(Jessica is Shylock’s daughter. She has very few lines in the play, and, as a character, isn’t very important. We learn next to nothing about her as an individual. She defies her father, whom she does not respect, in eloping with Lorenzo, a Christian. That’s the main thing about her. She steals some of her father’s possessions on her way out the door and is embarrassed at her disguise, but that’s about it.)

When this version of the play ended, all the characters, other than Jessica, left the stage. Lorenzo left and so did the main character, the merchant of Venice. The lights dimmed, leaving a spotlight on Jessica, who sat down on the steps with her guitar. She sang. She’s got a nice voice and the song was poignant. La la la. The tree is alone. All the birds have flown.

The only thing is, this is not the way Shakespeare intended his story to end.

We see her father in the background. It’s night. He’s packing his bags. He’s a broken man, is the point. He’s sad. She’s sad. La la la.

Why are we focusing on these two? Why the change? We were supposed to see all the ‘good’ characters finally united without any threat to their happiness. Instead, our attention is directed here, to the merchant and his daughter. Shylock is alone, Jessica is alone and they’re sad and the play ends and the audience claps and leaves, a little bit sad.

The Money Lender of Venice and His Daughter?

Where’s Shakespeare? What would he think? Is this when he comes back from the dead and says “Wait, wait! It ends not thus! All ends well! All ends well!”

Is this when Blogger goes up on stage and says, “People! People, it’s not like this! It’s not supposed to go like this! There’s no sad song at the end! Jessica is happy at the end, and so is Lorenzo! People, Nerissa doesn’t storm off, leaving her husband dismayed! She’s happy and so is he! Happily ever after, times three!”

Ah. I think I’ll pass. No onstage time for me.

I’ll write instead. It’s what a blogger does. The page is my stage.

[Enter Blogger.]

The play is, on some level, a mess. Is there a character who is entirely clean? In his play, The Surprise, Chesterton wrote two versions of one story. The external circumstances are the same in each story, but in the first version, each person acts his best. Nobody commits a moral error. In the second version, everyone is a worse version of himself, choosing wrongly and reaping the consequences.

So I thought I’d give you a list, a list of everything that everyone does wrong in The Merchant of Venice. I’m not talking about innocent errors. I’m talking about sins.

I group them by role, since there are so many. Also, I make a note where it is unclear whether a sin has been committed or not.

Sometimes it’s clear that the person chose to be immoral. As in real life, most situations about right and wrong are pretty clear. They may not be easy situations, but they are clear. You don’t have to lie, cheat, steal and kill. True, circumstances are important, but we know that the end doesn’t justify the means. In other words, you might think that you have a good reason for lying, but that decision to lie is the first thing. For another example, if you call someone less than human, it doesn’t matter that you were provoked. The context is important, but the decision to choose those words is the key thing, and the context cannot absolve you completely. When, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has Bassanio encourage the judge “to do a great right, do a little wrong,” (IV,i) Shakespeare knows that it’s a flawed principle.

Nevertheless, there are other things which may appear to be sinful, but which are, in fact, fine. If Shylock says he hates someone, that is also not necessarily a sin, because one has very little control over whom he likes and dislikes. To dislike someone is not a sin. To intensely dislike, i.e., to hate someone, might not be a sin either, but of course it begins to get more culpable the greater the intensity. Also, to deliberately feed one’s dislike or hatred of someone is a sin. To fail to curb one’s desire to act on that dislike is, usually, a sin. In addition, hating someone because they are a member of a particular group, nation or religion, is sinful.

Criticisms or insults are very tricky, because it depends on the exact wording and on the motive of the speaker. Some sets of words are not saved by a good intention, whereas other words can be. Often the distinction comes down to whether the truth has been spoken. If I call you treacherous, that can be fine, if it’s true. If I call you dishonest, that can be fine, if it’s true. If I call you greedy, that can be fine, if it’s true. If I say something that you don’t want to hear, but which is nevertheless true, then the issue comes down to motive. For what reason do I say what I do? Do I say it to make you feel badly, or do I have another motive? It is simplistic to say, “Ah, here is something unpleasant to hear; the speaker is being mean.” It may be the Canadian way of evaluating right and wrong, but it’s not in fact the Christian way. As I’ve said more than once, ‘niceness’ isn’t the test of holiness. There are many Scriptural exhortations to say what is true; have we forgotten? The fact that we’ve lost our nerve to speak plainly or to challenge each other directly doesn’t mean that Scripture is wrong. Saying what you mean isn’t always mean.

To return to Shakespeare’s play, in more than a handful of cases, we just don’t have enough information about fact and intention to tell whether a sin has been committed. When, for example, Portia negatively describes her suitors, what is her intention? How does she feel towards them? I’ll mark those “IC” (It’s Complicated.)

So here we go. Alphabetical, shall we?

ANTONIO, the merchant of Venice
1. agreeing to a contract in which non-payment of debt by the due date gives Shylock the right to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh (I,iii)
2. spitting upon Shylock (referred to at I, iii)
3. being unrepentant for spitting upon Shylock, and saying he might do so again (I,iii)
4. calling Shylock a cutthroat dog (I,iii)
5. being unrepentant about calling Shylock a cutthroat dog (I,iii)
5. (According to Shylock): laughing at Shylock’s losses, scorning Shylock’s nation and hating Shylock on the basis of his nation (III,i)
6. making Shylock’s conversion to Christianity a condition to reduce Shylock’s monetary punishment – specifically, he says he will use Shylock’s money only during Shylock’s life, instead of having it absolutely if Shylock converts to Christianity (IV,i)
7. encouraging Bassanio to give away the ring, saying that it would be better to value the assistance of the judge and the love of Antonio over Bassanio’s wife’s command (IV,i)
8. swearing on his soul to Portia that Bassanio will never again intentionally break a vow that he has made (V,i)
9. (IC) minimizing the possibility that his ventures may fail, especially in light of what is at stake (I,iii)
10. (IC) according to Shylock, railing against Shylock for charging interest, even in public (I,iii)
11. (IC) according to Shylock, hating Judaism (I,iii)
12. (IC) calling Shylock a misbeliever (I,iii)
13. (IC) being unapologetic about calling Shylock a misbeliever (I,iii)
14. (IC) according to Shylock, calling Shylock an usurer (III,i)
15. (IC) according to Shylock, disgracing Shylock, hindering and thwarting his business, cooling his friends, heating his enemies (III,i)

BASSANIO, in love with Portia
1. indebting Antonio to Shylock, to the tune of three thousand ducats ($6,000 USD)
2. spending beyond his means in order to impress a woman (I,i)
3. participating in a lottery for marriage (III,ii)
4. referring to Shylock twice as a devil (IV,i)
5. giving away the ring he promised to keep his whole life (IV, i)

BELLARIO, a doctor of the law
1. writing a deceitful letter, full of lies, saying that Portia is a learned young man named Balthasar (IV,i)

JESSICA, daughter of Shylock
1. lying to her father when he asks what Launcelot said (II,v)
2. stealing two bags of double ducats and two rich and precious stones from her father (II,vi)
3. using a ring, given to her father by her mother before they were married, in order to purchase a monkey (III,i)

GRATIANO, friend of Antonio
1. saying to Shylock, “O be thou damned, inexecrable dog” (IV,i)
2. saying to Shylock that he is like a reincarnated wolf who had slaughtered people
3. wishing his wife were dead so that she could entreat someone in heaven to change Shylock (IV,i)
4. telling Shylock that he should beg for leave to hang himself and ridiculing Shylock’s new poverty (IV,i)
5. recommending a noose for Shylock (IV,i) and trying to dissuade Antonio from being merciful
6. talking about having additional godparents in order to bring Shylock to the gallows (IV,i)
6. giving away the ring he promised to keep his whole life (IV,i)
7. (IC) saying that the ring his wife gave him was of little worth (V,i)

LAUNCELOT, servant of Shylock and then Bassanio
1. attempting to trick his father by pretending that he was not Launcelot (II,ii)
2. telling his father that Launcelot was dead (II,ii)
3. attempting to read his future by studying his own palm (II,ii)
4. thinking that Shylock is an incarnation of the devil (II,ii)
5. saying that Shylock deserves a noose (II,ii)
6. saying that the conversion of Jewish people to Christianity is a bad thing for the reason that the price of pork would rise (III,v)
7. causing an unwed woman to conceive a child (III,v)
8. (IC) in playing stupid and playing with words when Lorenzo asks him to ensure that dinner is prepared (III,v)

LORENZO, suitor and then husband of Jessica
1. calling his wife a shrew, jokingly or not (IV,ii)

NERISSA, maidservant of Portia
1. agreeing to participate in a deceitful scheme (III,iv)
2. pretending to not know how Gratiano parted with the ring (V,i)
3. accusing Gratiano of giving the ring to a woman, when she knows that she was in disguise as a man (V,i)
4. saying that she shall be unfaithful to Gratiano if given the opportunity (V,i)
5. telling Gratiano that she will not sleep with him until she sees the ring, which she knows she has (V,i)
6. lying that she has slept with the doctor’s clerk

PORTIA, the heroine
1. agreeing to follow her father’s lottery scheme for marriage, abdicating her responsibility to choose a husband to the best of her ability (I,ii)
2. lying to Lorenzo about her plans (III,iv), saying that she plans to pray at a monastery while waiting
3. writing to her cousin Doctor Bellario and requesting that he write a false letter to the Duke, and requesting that he supply court garments to her so that she can appear to be someone she is not (III,iv)
4. saying, seriously or in jest, that she will deceive people with her boasts while costumed as a man (III,iv)
5. involving her maid, Nerissa, in a deceitful scheme (III,iv)
6. appearing dressed as a doctor of the laws, misleading by her appearance and speech (IV,i)
7. demanding that Bassanio give away the ring he promised to keep and taunting him when he doesn’t (IV,i)
8. pretending to not know that Bassanio gave away his ring, and then pretending to not know the circumstances (V,i)
9. telling Bassanio that she will not sleep with him until she sees the ring, which she knows she has (V,i)
10. accusing Bassanio of giving the ring to a woman, when she knows that she was in disguise as a man (V,i)
11. saying that she shall be unfaithful to Bassanio if given the opportunity (V,i)
12. accepting Antonio’s oath and giving the ring to Bassanio through Antonio (V,i)
13. saying that she has slept with the doctor (V,i)
14. scolding Gratiano for exclaiming about adultery when she was the one who created that impression (V,i)
15. (IC) criticizing the suitors (I,ii)

1. restricting his daughter’s marriage choice by requiring that she marry the suitor who chooses the correct treasure box
2. restricting the marriage choices of Portia’s suitors by requiring that they vow to never propose marriage to another if they fail in their bid for Portia

PRINCE OF ARRAGON, suitor of Portia
1. participating in a lottery for marriage (II,ix)

PRINCE OF MOROCCO, suitor of Portia
1. participating in a lottery for marriage (II,i)
2. believing that he ‘deserves’ Portia, as if anyone can ‘deserve’ another

SALERIO, friend of Antonio
1. (IC) calling Shylock a creature who bears the shape of a man (III,ii)

SHYLOCK, Jewish moneylender and enemy of Antonio
1. choosing to hate Antonio because: a) Antonio is Christian, b) Antonio lends out money and doesn’t charge interest, thereby lowering the interest rates in Venice (I,iii)
2. plotting to entrap Antonio in order to “feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” (I,iii)
3. suggesting a contract in which forfeiture of debt gives Shylock the right to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh (I,iii)
4. (According to Launcelot): failing to provide proper food for his servant (II,ii)
5. being more concerned about his stolen ducats than his daughter (II,viii)
6. saying he would use Antonio’s flesh to bait fish (III,i)
7. saying, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” (III,i)
8. thanking God for Antonio having the misfortune of losing his ship and becoming bankrupt (III,i)
9. plotting revenge against Antonio, “I’ll plague him; I’ll torture him.” (III,i)
10. plotting harm to Antonio “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit” (III,i)
11. calling Antonio the fool who lent out money without charging interest (III,ii)
12. swearing an oath that he shall have his bond, when the bond involves physical injury and potentially death to Antonio (III,iii)
13. swearing an oath “by our holy Sabbath” to collect Antonio’s flesh (IV,i)
14. (According to Jessica): swearing that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum that he owed him (III,ii)
15. wishing harm upon the Duke’s charter and the freedom of Venice if he fails to obtain Antonio’s flesh (III,v)
16. referring to Antonio’s body as “carrion flesh” (IV,i)
17. refusing payment for his debt, and instead preferring Antonio’s flesh (IV,i)
18. (IC) saying, “What says that fool of Hagar’s offspring?” when speaking about Launcelot (II,v)
19. (IC) saying his daughter is damned for rebelling against him (III,i)
20. (IC) calling the jailer corrupt (“naughty”) (III,iii)

SOLANIO, friend of Antonio
1. suggesting that the devil could turn into a Jew (III,i)
2. saying that the devil was appearing as a Jew, referring to Shylock (III,i)
2. referring to Shylock as “the dog Jew” (II,viii)
3. addressing Shylock as “old carrion” (III,i)
4. calling Shylock the most impenetrable cur that ever kept with men (III,iii)

1. calling Shylock “an inhuman wretch” (III,v)
2. requiring Shylock’s conversion to Christianity in exchange for the pardon of his life (IV,i)

It’s quite the list, hey? If you were here, then I’d answer your questions about why such-and-such an item is on there, and what factors are aggravating ones and which factors are mitigating ones. As it is, I won’t do more than list the moral failures here.

So what are we to make of all this? It’s complicated, because, as I said, Shakespeare gives Antonio, the hero of the story, many Christ-like attributes, and uses symbolism which directly makes reference to the story of Christ’s suffering and death. However, Shakespeare wanted us to notice that Antonio is rash, in twice binding himself for the benefit of Bassanio, who isn’t the most sensible person in the world. The first time, he dismisses the risk that his ships might fail to come in, and, above Bassanio’s objection, agrees to make an unthinkable deal. (The deal is that he’ll pay with his own flesh the penalty of being overdue on the payment of a debt.) The second time, in case anybody missed it, Antonio swears that his friend Bassanio will never again break an oath to Portia, and accepts her ring on his behalf. It’s reckless, and Shakespeare did it on purpose to show us that Antonio hasn’t learned from his first mistake.

As for Shylock, he uses his religion as an excuse to be unmerciful. It was unnecessary to commit himself to revenge by means of an oath. Nobody required that he swear upon the Sabbath to obtain Antonio’s flesh if he is in a position to do so. The Jewish faith did not and does not require vengeance like this. Yet Shylock shrugs his shoulders and uses his oath as an excuse to justify his obsession with revenge. Someone should have told him that nobody is bound by an oath which is bad from the get-go.

The main difficulty that modern directors will have with The Merchant of Venice is the fact that the bad guy is Jewish. You can’t do the play well pretending Shylock is swell. He’s not. If he hates you, then he looks forward to maiming you. If there’s a risk of death, so much the better; Shylock is unhappy when the judge requests that a doctor stand by to give assistance. That’s what you call a creep. Compounding the problem is that Shylock uses his religion to justify his mercilessness, repeatedly reminding everyone that he’s sworn an oath to his faith.

Having said all that, is it not the case that there are evil people in the world, of all faiths and races? Is it the case that we cannot bear the thought of a script which portrays a non-Christian in the worst light? Let’s think this through. Are certain combinations not allowed? Where, then, is realism? Must we pretend that every person of indigenous background was upright and noble? Must we pretend that every Buddhist is peaceful and prayerful? Why?

To do the play as Shakespeare wrote it is to show that Shylock is evil. The fact that he is Jewish should not justify a rewriting of the play to change Shylock into a sympathetic character by means of sad music and a mournful added scene of him leaving his home. It’s not acceptable to rearrange the play so that both Jessica and Shylock are noticeably alone and sad.

The play is what it is. It’s a play where trickery is funny and is rewarded. It’s a play where the good guys do wrong things and get away with it and even benefit. Jessica steals her father’s jewels and spends them as she likes. The man who elopes with Shylock’s daughter and converts her will inherit Shylock’s estate. Everyone ridicules Shylock and nobody, other than Shylock, says it’s gone too far. It’s a play where jokes about adultery are supposed to be funny and almost everyone lies. The woman who dresses up as a judge receives praise from everyone for her sham trial, and she and her friends have a laugh at the end. Indeed, Portia is said to be virtuous, but she scares me more than any other character, as she drags her maid-servant into imitating her worst behaviours, convinces the doctor of the law to be dishonest, and tempts Bassanio into breaking his promise. She blames her father for his post-death control over her, but she certainly seems to relish pulling strings herself. When she feels herself to be in the driver’s seat, she plays little cat-and-mouse games while everyone around her agonizes. Instead of taking the first opportunity to reveal the truth, she draws things out.

There is no sober voice in this play. Even the learned doctor of the law, stationed in Padua, lends out his robes and writes a false letter in order to dupe the Duke, Shylock, Antonio, and everyone in Venice. The Duke also falls short, and seems to defer excessively to the wishes of Antonio. When Antonio suggests altering the monetary component of the punishment if Shylock converts to Christianity, the Duke goes even further, and says that if Shylock fails to convert, then the Duke will reverse his pardon. The pardon had the effect of sparing Shylock’s life. This last aspect is the most disturbing detail of all. Freedom of religion is everything because it relates to one’s soul so directly. To force anyone, especially on pain of death, to either take on a religion or relinquish one is an affront to human dignity, and violates, entirely, the spirit of Christianity.

Religion is not something to be imposed against one’s will.

Shakespeare’s play is, at the end of the day, a disappointment, sending mixed messages about doing the wrong thing in order to do the right thing. It’s a play where trickery is applauded and where the good guys are arguably more underhanded than the bad. The people who are in charge make things worse, not better.

The play is something like Lewis Carroll’s nightmarish Queen of Hearts scenario. Portia is the queen, and she pulls all the strings. Yet the format is a comedy, and so we are meant to understand that her interventions have been positive. The men have been suitably chastised, the romances will proceed, the selfless merchant has been spared, the selfish Jewish moneylender will no longer be in a position to abuse by lending, the merciless Jewish villain will convert to a more merciful religion and all the good guys will have enough money. Some of Antonio’s ships turn out to be safe and sound, as Portia can prove. Portia and her sidekick are compared to God, raining down manna. As Lorenzo says at the end of the play, “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starvèd people.”


The play has, of course, its good parts, and the distinction between “flesh” on the one hand and “blood” on the other, is a very Catholic one, as every Mass we celebrate repeats the distinction. It’s interesting and the importance of the distinction between these words would have been the very seed of the play in Shakespeare’s mind.

As for other parts that I like, I like what Antonio says here at I,iii, 94:

Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart,
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

And I like the inscription on the box of lead, as a description of marriage.  The inscription says, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” (II, vii)

I like the challenge to the concept of ‘deserving,’ and of course the discussion of mercy (IV,i) is great. And of course, who can dislike Shylock’s compelling speech at the beginning of Act III? “. . . I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . . ” It’s a gem.

Gratiano’s dismissive description of the ring is also masterful, but in a different way. Gratiano gets things so thoroughly wrong, in missing the power of the “hoop of gold, a paltry ring / That she did give me.” That he finally grasps, at the close of the play, that “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” is the signal to the audience that things are going to work out all right after all.

And this last point brings me to the last point of the play I saw on Saturday night. The Merchant of Venice is supposed to end on a happy note, and even if I agree that the play is unsatisfying in failing to correct the injustices and in almost ‘blessing’ wrongdoing, I disagree with rewriting the play to change the outcome of key events and changing the mood of the ending.

I have my own issues with the play, having to do with the portrayal of right and wrong, and having to do with the portrayal of the imposition of Christianity as depicted by Shakespeare, among other things.

Nevertheless, one cannot alter significant aspects of the play without rewriting it, and that’s not right either. It is not right to take the creative work of someone else but then mess with it in the parts where it doesn’t say what you want to say. Take it or leave it. If you want to say something different from what the original writer said, then write your own play.

I have heard that The Merchant of Venice has been used by those with an anti-Semitic agenda as a way of furthering their goals. In order to do this, they must distort the play, because the play is complex. No character really comes off completely well, and Shakespeare’s eloquent passage about the equal dignity of all is perhaps the most memorable part of the play.

Those who alter the play to promote anti-Semitic views do a disservice to Shakespeare and art in general, but I do not limit my criticism to those who use the play in that way. Any director who knowingly rewrites someone else’s play to make it correspond with their own views is on thin ice. It is the job of a director to refuse to alter someone else’s voice to match their own. The fact that copyright doesn’t apply does not mean that the writer’s voice can be set aside.

This should be obvious.

After all, it was William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. If you think it is a worthy story, then present it well. Keep the integrity of the story and the moods.

If you are opposed to the story, and think it unworthy of being shown for this reason or that, then don’t show it. Lay it aside. Don’t distort it and present your own version.

Find another Shakespearian play to present or find another tale altogether. Run it at the Fringe. Let the main character be a humble and selfless Jewish man and his family. (It’ll be set in the 8th century B.C. but the critic will say it’s a Christian story.) Express your own views through your own characters.

Not up for the task? Then how about something simpler? Put together a short story. Write it this weekend and revise it over the course of a month. (You can do better than what is currently being served up for Canadian youth: pointless, disturbing and bleak.)

Still too much? Then how about a poem? Free verse – irregular lines and irregular beat. Barely any punctuation; won’t it be neat?

Say what you think. Make it real and make it your own. Don’t be afraid.

If you want to write, write.

Ignore the lies that say what you write won’t be any good. Begin. Once you’re done, ignore the lies that say what you have written isn’t any good. Such lies are inevitable. You needn’t write for anyone beyond yourself. Write because you want to record what you felt or thought.

Don’t worry about your audience. Sharing is a secondary consideration, always. It is commonly said that the first consideration is your audience, but this can be dangerous and distracting. If you begin with “what do people want me to write?” then you will wind up somewhere bland or weird. Your voice is unique, and to be original, you must think of yourself as the main audience for your writing.

Write as you feel led
Do your best.
Pray it’s good and
Hope that nobody will
Rewrite what you’ve said.

[Exit Blogger]


Post 260

A Post that Roams and a Recipe for June

I suppose I should really be giving these recipes at the beginning of the month. This is the recipe for June, but I’m sitting down to write it out at 7:33 p.m. on June 30th. If June had 31 days, then I’d probably be sitting down to write this tomorrow.

As it is, however, tomorrow is not June 31, but July 1st. Tomorrow is Canada Day and it’s a bigger deal than usual this year because it’s Canada’s 150th birthday. To its credit, Canada didn’t begin via war or revolution. Our start was Confederation, and it’s a bit-by-bit story that probably felt really exciting if you were a politician or a businessman hoping to get some of the money that would be flowing to build the railway.

There are a lot more Canadian flags up than usual around town, and some people have even attached hardware to their homes in order to put up the flag. It’s kind of neat.

I’m not a fan of the specially-made flag, which was created to commemorate the 150th. It’s red with a multi-coloured version of the leaf. The first time I saw it, I thought it was some kind of sporting event logo. Are we hosting another curling event? Lacrosse? Softball? My view is that there’s no need to start again with a new flag when we’ve got a perfectly good one already. Besides, the regular flag won’t be out of date when this party’s over. It’s a classic.

So what have you been up to today?

I was gardening again. It was a big day for it actually – a couple of hours of weeding and a couple of hours of planting new things. Things are looking nice. I’m doing a mix of vegetables and flowers in my garden boxes, some from seed or bulb and some not. The large semi-circle garden is for perennials — a mix of roses, daylilies and several other things, such as bellflowers, hydrangea and even clematis. I’m not sure how I feel about clematis. They’re on probation.

The weather’s been hot, so daily watering is necessary even though we’ve had some good rains. Watering is enjoyable because you get to look at everything again. I coiled the hose up nicely when I was done, just for the record.

Hmm. What else? Errands included a trip to Goodwill to donate some clothing, a trip to Home Depot for lightbulbs and a little pot of pink petunias (to fill an empty spot), and a stop at the tailors. The tailor always wants to know what I’m up to. It’s always casual, but it’s there. As I left, she was checking out my shoes. (They’re espadrille wedges, bought online.)

Yeah, that’s what I find. Some people really want to know what projects I’ve got going, but almost nothing else, and other people are frightened that I might tell them what projects I’ve got going. They’d rather hear about anything else. Strange.

Anyway, today she wanted to know what I’ve got planned for the Canada Day weekend. She’s going camping.

I’m not, thank God.

I’ve got fresh sheets on my bed and ready access to clean water, both hot and cold. I’ve got sandwich fixings in the fridge, Revellos in the freezer and food growing in the garden. You don’t have to convince me that Shelter is a good thing. I like being able to go inside when it gets cold or hot or windy or buggy. I’ve never been a fan of pretending I need to survive the elements.

Animals, on the other hand, do tend to live outdoors. They don’t seem to mind it, and you might say that they seem to prefer it. They don’t even have campers with mini stoves and mini fridges. No tents, even.

It’s true. I saw bison the other day. I stopped off at Elk Island National Park and there they were. They didn’t have anything. No sunscreen, no shades. They just stood there in their fur coats. They swished their tails and looked like they had really No Plans.

Nobody was making supper and there was not a plastic fork to be seen. Instead, grass abounded.

Consider: dinner everywhere. What’s for dinner? You’re standing on it.

I was on my way home from Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. You know, I really wanted to like it. I had heard good things and I really felt it was worth going to see. I was proud of myself for finally heading there, and I paid the admission price with high hopes. Soon I’ll be seeing a friend from Europe, and I was wondering if this tourist attraction would be worthy of inclusion on the schedule.

It’s been a few days since I was there, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on the problem. How could it be changed to make it better?

I think that one of the biggest problems is that the people who are stationed in various buildings throughout the Village have been instructed to pretend that they are villagers from the past. The website says, “Costumed role-players recreate the life of early Ukrainian pioneers that settled in east central Alberta from 1892-1930.” Sadly, it doesn’t work.

Let me explain. You walk into a building, and the woman tells you, in a fake English accent, that the constable is away. You walk into a building, and the woman says to you, “Are you looking for Olena and Borysko?”

No, I’m not. You know I’m not, and I know that you know I’m not.

At this point, you have a few choices. One choice is to be a good sport and ‘play along,’ saying, “Ah yes, I am looking for them; where have they gone? I badly wanted to borrow some eggs because I need them for my recipe and the fox killed all my hens.” A second choice is to ignore the fact that she just asked you a nonsensical question and instead ask her something that she can answer within the alternate universe that she’s creating now. In this alternate universe, she was born a long time ago, and she lives in this village. In this alternate universe, you are apparently looking for Olena and Borysko, which means that you were also born a long time ago.

Any questions?

Here’s one. Does the typical tourist want to pretend to be looking for Olena and Borysko? Here’s my guess. My guess is: no. The typical tourist is, generally, wanting to see things, with very little personal expenditure of effort. The typical tourist goes to observe, almost all of the time, not to participate. The typical tourist doesn’t want to play improv games. If you go to a show, and the person on stage asks for volunteers, what percentage of people raise their hands? People do not, generally, enjoy being part of the show.

Thankfully, the churches on site were game-free zones, and the hosts did not pretend to be anything other than the individuals that they were. You could carry on a normal conversation with them. They were a sane refuge from the rest of the village.

I don’t know if I’ll ever return, but I know that I won’t be bringing my friend there. Instead we’ll go to Elk Island National Park.

We’ll check out the bison. You know – see what they’re doing. I think I know what we’ll see.

This little bison will be running the food processor until the salmon is finely minced but not pureed.
This little bison will be trying to shape the mixture into little round patties, roughly 2 1/2 inches wide.
This little bison will be dredging the patties into flour, dipping them into egg and coating them with breadcrumbs.
This little bison will be freaking out because the patties are hard to handle with hooves. Aaand . . .
This little bison will be cooking them until they are golden on both sides.

Making these patties are a bit of an adventure, but they are so incredibly good. They’re just lightly crunchy on the outside and perfectly delicious on the inside. If you haven’t had homemade salmon fish cakes made with fresh salmon, then perhaps now is the time.

Here it is, from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.

Pan-Fried Salmon Cakes

Serves 4
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes (includes 15 minutes chilling time)

A wedge of lemon is the simplest accompaniment to these salmon cakes, but any one of the sauces on page 673 will also taste great. If you don’t have a 12-inch skillet, cook the salmon cakes in batches.

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets, skin removed
1 1/4 cups plain dried breadcrumbs
1/4 cup mayonnaise [I make mine using homemade mayonnaise, but that’s just me finding it difficult to defy the last murmurs of the Weston A. Price voices.]
1/4 cup grated onion [essential!]
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Lemon wedges (for serving)

1. Remove any pin bones from the salmon. Pat the salmon dry with paper towels, then cut into 1-inch chunks. Carefully pulse half the salmon in a food processor until finely minced but not pureed, about 4 pulses. Transfer the salmon to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining salmon.

2. Gently stir 1/4 cup of the breadcrumbs, the mayonnaise, onion, parsley, lemon juice, and salt into the salmon to form a cohesive mixture. Form the mixture into 8 patties, roughly 2 1/2 inches wide. Lay the patties on two plates lined with plastic wrap. Freeze, uncovered, until the patties feel firm, about 15 minutes.

3. Spread the flour, eggs, and remaining 1 cup breadcrumbs in three separate shallow dishes. Working with one patty at a time, dredge through the flour, dip into the egg, then coat with the breadcrumbs. Press on the breadcrumbs to make sure they adhere to the fish. Lay the breaded patties on a clean plate.

4. Heat the oil in a 12-inch non-stick [I don’t have non-stick; the recipe can be done in a normal pan] over medium-high heat until shimmering. Gently lay all the salmon patties in the skillet and cook until golden on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes. Let the cakes drain briefly on paper towels before serving with the lemon wedges.

Post 259

Celestial: Reflections on Corpus Christi

Lauda Sion Salvatórem
Lauda ducem et pastórem
In hymnis et cánticis.

Quantum potes, tantum aude:
Quia major omni laude,
Nec laudáre súfficis.

Laudis thema speciális,
Panis vivus et vitális,
Hódie propónitur.

Quem in sacræ mensa cœnæ,
Turbæ fratrum duodénæ
Datum non ambígitur.

Sit laus plena, sit sonóra,
Sit jucúnda, sit decóra
Mentis jubilátio.

Dies enim solémnis ágitur,
In qua mensæ prima recólitur
Hujus institútio.

In hac mensa novi Regis,
Novum Pascha novæ legis,
Phase vetus términat.

Vetustátem nóvitas,
Umbram fugat véritas,
Noctem lux elíminat.

Quod in cœna Christus gessit,
Faciéndum hoc expréssit
In sui memóriam.

Docti sacris institútis,
Panem, vinum, in salútis
Consecrámus hóstiam.

Dogma datur Christiánis,
Quod in carnem transit panis,
Et vinum in sánguinem.

Quod non capis, quod non vides,
Animósa firmat fides,
Præter rerum ordinem.

Sub divérsis speciébus,
Signis tantum, et non rebus,
Latent res exímiæ.

Caro cibus, sanguis potus:
Manet tamen Christus totus,
Sub utráque spécie.

A suménte non concísus,
Non confráctus, non divísus:
Integer accípitur.

Sumit unus, sumunt mille:
Quantum isti, tantum ille:
Nec sumptus consúmitur.

Sumunt boni, sumunt mali:
Sorte tamen inæquáli,
Vitæ vel intéritus.

Mors est malis, vita bonis:
Vide paris sumptiónis
Quam sit dispar éxitus.

Fracto demum Sacraménto,
Ne vacílles, sed memento,
Tantum esse sub fragménto,
Quantum toto tégitur.

Nulla rei fit scissúra:
Signi tantum fit fractúra:
Qua nec status nec statúra
Signáti minúitur.

Ecce panis Angelórum,
Factus cibus viatórum:
Vere panis filiórum,
Non mitténdus cánibus.

In figúris præsignátur,
Cum Isaac immolátur:
Agnus paschæ deputátur
Datur manna pátribus.

Bone pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserére:
Tu nos pasce, nos tuére:
Tu nos bona fac vidére
In terra vivéntium.

Tu, qui cuncta scis et vales:
Qui nos pascis hic mortáles:
Tuos ibi commensáles,
Cohærédes et sodáles,
Fac sanctórum cívium.
Amen. Allelúja.

It isn’t often that you’ll hear a Sequence sung at Mass, but this Sunday is the feast of Corpus Christi (= “Body of Christ”), and so after the second reading, instead of standing for the Gospel reading, you’ll first hear a Sequence being sung. The above words were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas more than 750 years ago. (Isn’t that neat? Catholicism preserves the inspired work across centuries, so that new generations can enjoy it afresh). He wrote them in Latin, but if you don’t know Latin, then hopefully you’ll hear the English version on Sunday. (Latin is beautiful, of course, but comprehension is better, of course.)

It’s sometimes called the “Lauda Sion” or “Lauda Zion.” Here are the first three lines again:

Lauda Sion Salvatórem
Lauda ducem et pastórem
In hymnis et cánticis.

Here’s one translation of those first three lines. It’s a non-literal translation, partly to make it rhyme in English.

Sing forth, O Zion, sweetly sing
The praises of thy Shepherd-King,
In hymns and canticles divine;

Here’s another:

Sion, lift up thy voice and sing:
Praise thy Savior and thy King,
Praise with hymns thy shepherd true.

And here’s another, from the Lectionary for Australia and New Zealand. It is by James Aylward (1813-1872):

Zion, thy redeemer praising
Songs of joy to him upraising
Laud thy pastor and thy guide;

Putting the sequence into the sequence we’d use with modern English diction, would give a result something like this:

“Sing, Sion! Praise your Savior. Praise your leader and shepherd with hymns and songs.”

The name “Zion” appears in the Old Testament and referred to a geographical location, but you’ll hear “Sion” referred to by the Catholic Church sometimes, and you can take it as a reference to God’s kingdom as led by Christ. So when we hear the invitation to sing, then we can understand that it is directed at us.

The next lines, in Latin, are: Quantum potes, tantum aude: / Quia major omni laude / Nec laudáre súfficis. One translation is this: “All thou canst, do thou endeavour / Yet thy praise can equal never / Such as merits thy great King.” The Australian translation is: “Swell thy notes most high and daring / For his praise is past declaring / And thy loftiest power beside.” I prefer the first translation because I think that in prose, it would be something like: “Dare, to the best of your ability, to do what you can, because (He is) above all praise. No praise is enough.”

“Laudis thema speciális / Panis vivus et vitális / Hódie propónitur,” appears in English as “Today no theme of common praise / Forms the sweet burden of thy lays – / The living, life-dispensing food –” or “See today before us laid / The living and life-giving Bread / Theme for praise and joy profound” but could be written as “Today we present a special theme of praise: Bread, living and vital.”

These lines form the introduction. St. Thomas Aquinas was asked to write this Sequence, along with other parts of the Mass, specifically for the Feast of Corpus Christi (by Pope Urban IV), and so that’s why it fits so perfectly.

What I find rather amusing is how much theological content it has. Instead of lots of rhymes for the sake of rhyming, you can count on the good doctor to give us a catechism class in itself. Aquinas doesn’t do fluff. So it’s long, but when you consider what it teaches, you have to admit that this big saint is very efficient with his words, not to mention inspired. In 288 rhyming and perfectly ordered Latin words, he presents, among other things, foundational principles relating to the Eucharist:

  1. Christ instituted it.
  2. The bread changes into the Body of Christ and the wine changes into the blood of Christ. It is dogma, and although it cannot be understood or seen, the faith confirms this.
  3. The whole of Christ is received, when one receives the Body or the Blood
  4. No matter how the Body and Blood are divided, Christ is not divided or diminished, and each person receives the whole amount in even a fragment or portion of the Eucharist.
  5. That although both good people and evil people receive it in the same way, the results are completely different.

For most of Christianity’s 2000 years, being Christian meant that you believed Christ meant what he said when he said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” Being Christian meant that you knew that Jesus was claiming that he was able to defy all the rules of human logic and science and past experience in order to create a new way to be with human beings and to change them.

When St. Aquinas wrote this Sequence, there was no such thing as Protestantism. There was no such thing as a Sunday service which reenacted the Last Supper by pouring grape juice into hygenic and disposable mini cups.

You always got the Real Thing. Real wine was changed into Christ himself. Real bread was changed into Christ himself.

It was done for hundreds upon hundreds of years, and it all began at the Last Supper, which we could say was the First Supper, being the first time that bread and wine were much more. The last shall be first, indeed!

Nevertheless, wherever you have had the Eucharist, or mention of it, you have had doubters and haters.

As proof of this, you’ll notice that the reading for Corpus Christi this year doesn’t bring us to the Last Supper, to the institution of the Eucharist. Instead, it brings us to the time Jesus spoke about the truth that was to be. The gentle Jesus was describing what he would soon be offering, and the response was one of incredulity and negativity. They were scoffing at the best gift that would be given. The Trinity itself comes to you, and you’re not even in Heaven.

Then the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they said. Jesus replied:
‘I tell you most solemnly,
if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you will not have life in you.

There are other Gospel passages which show that some of his disciples left him. Some of those who had followed him when everything was easy and pleasant decided to be done with him. Why? Well, he didn’t say what they wanted to hear.

He challenged their human understanding with something which sounded bizarre.

Who talks like this? They dismissed him because he no longer fit into the box that they had made for him.

Miracles to watch, interesting stories to hear, multiplied loaves and fish? Sure! We’re in! Bizarre words? Not so much.

The fact that what Jesus said was a cause for controversy shows us that it was a big deal from the beginning. It sounded strange because it was strange. It still sounds strange, because it still is strange.

Jesus wasn’t talking symbolically. Symbols can be explained. Go ahead and explain your paper cups filled with grape juice. As for this chalice filled with Blood, well, even a saint as big as St. Thomas Aquinas can’t explain it all. It’s a mystery and he must acknowledge that this miracle of miracles “baffles nature’s powers of sense and sight.”

Miracles and the truth just sit there, staring you in the face, watching what you do.

So Jesus didn’t alter his words. He didn’t alter his words to suit his listener, to soothe his listener when his listener felt discomfort. No. It was the listener who needed to change. The listener must enlarge himself to accept the Truth. It’s a choice.

When Jesus saw that some of his disciples were abandoning him, he didn’t reword or ‘reframe’ what he had said.  What he had said did not need alteration.  Instead, he asked his apostles whether they too, would leave. What a moment of sorrow! He didn’t know whether those closest to him could handle everything about him. Would they leave too? He asked because he wanted to know. His apostles had to decide; it was all in their hands and Jesus would not spin his words to avoid a painful parting. He had already spoken what was true, and it was now time for his followers to decide whether they could accept Him.

You see? What Jesus was saying was astonishing and disturbing. It was weird. It made no sense.

And indeed, the Eucharist defies our five senses, because here we notice that the Bread looks like bread, feels like bread and tastes like bread. The Wine looks and smells and tastes like wine. How can something have all the external qualities of something and yet be something entirely different?

I show you an ordinary wicker basket, and I say to you, “Do you see this basket, which looks and feels like a basket? Well, it is not a basket. It has all the qualities (the ‘accidents’ if you want to use the terminology) that a basket should have, but it is in fact (in its essence) a candle, and this candle is shining its invisible light upon you and the whole room.”

You would conclude that I was either completely confused or messing with you.

Do I mess with you?


Celestial Now

I’ll tell you what the sun looks like

The sun becomes larger and
extra bright

With precision
I’ll write

The inside
Is white

The outside
Is a soft and pleasing pulsing mix
What is it?
Pinks and blues and yellow?

The rim
The boundary
Is thin

The rim
Is silver and flashing
Whirring quick

Can you follow it?

What does it mean?
Why me?
I know

You wouldn’t want to believe me if I told you
I know
So I won’t

I’ll tell you what the sun looks like

Believe me
Sometimes the sun looks like

The Eucharist

Post 258

A Recipe for May

Manicotti is yummy. It sounds and looks impressive, but it’s not very complicated. (I am assuming, of course, that you’re not making your own pasta or milking your own cow to make the cheese.)

As a matter of fact, after making it a few times, you can do it pretty quickly. You make the filling, put it into the cooked pasta tubes and then arrange the tubes on a dish with some sauce on top. Then you put it in the oven. As for the actual filling part, there are a few ways to approach it. I don’t recommend buying any kind of kitchen equipment to do it, though probably there is such a thing. You can get by with using a little ziploc bag with one corner snipped off. That’s the method recommended in my cookbook. (“Spoon the filling into a zipper-lock bag, cut a hole in the corner of the bag, and squeeze gently from the top to pipe out the filling.”) I’ve done that before, but you can also use a combination of spoon and fingers to push the filling into place. You could, I suppose, even slice the manicotti lengthwise on purpose, fill it and then place them into the baking dish seam-side down. Whatever you do, the end result will be scrumptious.

This one is from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, 2010 edition:

Cheesy Baked Manicotti

Serves: 4 to 6
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour (includes 30 minutes baking and cooling time)

When buying manicotti, examine the package to make sure the noodles aren’t broken or cracked. Any type of tomato sauce will work here, including your favorite jarred brand. You can substitute a 12-ounce box of jumbo pasta shells for the manicotti.

12 manicotti (8 ounces)
22 ounces ricotta cheese (2 3/4 cups)
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 1/2 cups)
3 ounces mozzarella, shredded (3/4 cup)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
4 cups tomato sauce (see note above)
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot for the pasta. When the water is boiling, stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the manicotti. Cook, stirring often, until the manicotti is almost tender but still a little firm to the bite. Drain the manicotti, spread the tubes out over a baking sheet, and let cool.

2. Meanwhile, mix together the ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, the mozzarella, egg, basil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl.

3. Following the photos, squeeze about 5 tablespoons of filling into each manicotti tube (or spoon about 1 tablespoon filling into each shell). Arrange the filled pasta in an oiled 9 by 13-inch baking dish.

4. Pour the tomato sauce over the filled pasta. Wrap the dish tightly in foil and bake until the sauce is bubbling around the edges and the ricotta filling is hot, about 25 minutes.

5. Let cool for 5 minutes, then sprinkle with the parsley and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.

To Make Ahead
Assemble the casserole as directed through step 3. Wrap the dish tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Allow the manicotti to sit at room temperature for 1 hour before proceeding with step 4.


Post 257

Cubits Upon Cubits

Noah pondered the message that he had heard.
Death of flesh, an end to corruption and violence.
A boat to be built, cubits upon cubits.

A covenant. A flood.

Noah pondered the meaning of it all, and he imagined.
He imagined all the people he would save.
Had this not been his prayer, once?
Had he not prayed for a boat large enough to take
Everyone he knew
To the Lord?
Indeed, he had.

That, however, was a metaphor, and this,
Well, this
Was not.

This was cubits upon cubits, animals and food.
He imagined all the people that would fit
In such a ship.
He knew many people.
He imagined it would be
Rather like
A party.

He knew that his own family
Would be safe,
Along with Mr Bull and Mrs Cow

But he was quite convinced
That others, though unmentioned, would naturally be there
Out on the water.

Cubits upon cubits.

Noah started building.
His friends pretended
Not to notice.
He was amazed and utterly stunned.
Not to notice
This enormous thing?

Noah kept on building.
Finally, someone appeared.
At last! Good old friend!
(We’ll play cards when we’re on board.)
Greetings and blessings to you and yours!
So much for that.

Cubits upon cubits.
Noah didn’t stop.
Where was everyone?
Eyes averted. Strangers now.
Who were these people?
They were unchanged, but now Noah
Saw their hearts.

He kept building.
Cubits upon cubits.
Is it for real?

Did the Lord really say?
How did it go?
Animals, food, a flood and a covenant.
Animals, food, a flood and a covenant.
His sons, their wives, his wife but
Come to think of it,
Nothing more.

The Lord spoke again. It was time.
His family gathered.
With them were the animal kinds.

They closed the door upon the world they knew
And here we ask,
Who appeared as prisoners
When really free?
In any case
One week of nothing was
An eternity.

But the boat
in all its Mass
Was soon afloat.

Noah marvelled at the ark and at floating in the sea
Above his earthly abode.
Noah praised the Lord for poetry and beauty and justice and family.

As for friends,
He remembered them.
He remembered everything.

He remembered what had been said and what had been done
And he had
No regrets
For himself.
What he had
Was regrets
For them.

The smooth surface of the water
Hid many secrets
And many misdeeds.

Noah remembered.
The thing that pained him most
Was the memory of the laughter

The jokes about the beards and flying fruit, about tattoos and magic mushrooms and the Tabasco sauce cure. The jokes about the feet in the air and the wide bicycle chair. The jokes about the aunt stuck in the dirt and the dogs splattered on the windshield. Too many to count.

Memories upon memories, cubits upon cubits

The barbeque in the backyard the dinners at the restaurant and one last royal party. The photographs taken everywhere and the music playing loudly. Conversations about every moving thing and theories and analogies and good-natured chatter. Or so it seemed.

Past now

The water was still
It contained everything
And nothing

Noah now had nothing and everything
For he had everything worth having
In the whole wide world

He had his Lord
He had his family
And he had his dog.


Post 256

All About Asparagus: A Recipe for April

At even some of the best restaurants, vegetables are treated as rather unimportant. Sure, you’ll receive them cut into interesting shapes, but often they’re just steamed. Don’t get me wrong — steaming has its place, but some techniques really take veggies to another level.

This is from the cookbook The Best Vegetable Recipes, put out by America’s Test Kitchen. I am choosing asparagus because it’s the season for them and because the word ‘asparagus’ begins with the letter “A,” just like the month of April. Asparagus is often viewed as rather deluxe. Emperor Augustus is responsible for the phrase, “faster than cooking asparagus,” which I did not even know was a phrase. Another fun fact comes from Wikipedia: “A recipe for cooking asparagus is in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s third-century AD De re coquinaria, Book III.” Asparagus grows well in salty soil, but it can take a very long time (years) to get them set up properly.

I like broiling my asparagus because it’s quick and easy, but most of all, it’s tasty:

Another cooking option, and one that most cooks don’t consider, is grilling or broiling. The intense dry heat concentrates the flavor of the asparagus, and the exterior caramelization makes the spears especially sweet. The result is asparagus with a heightened and, we think, delicious flavor.

And here’s even more, specifically about broiling them:

The two primary questions related to broiling concerned the thickness of the stalks and the distance they should be kept from the heat source as they cook. In our tests with thicker asparagus, anywhere from 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter, the peels began to char before the interior of the spears became fully tender. When we used thinner spears (no thicker than 5/8 inch), the interior was tender by the time the exterior was brown.

We then focused on how far to keep the spears from the heating element. At 3 inches, the asparagus charred a bit. At 5 inches, the asparagus took a little too long to cook, and they failed to caramelize properly. The middle ground, 4 inches, proved perfect for cooking speed, control and browning.

And more:

Grilled and broiled asparagus should be lightly oiled before cooking — use extra-virgin olive oil for the most flavor. After cooking, grilled and broiled asparagus can be tossed or drizzled with a viniagrette for even more flavor.

And here’s the recipe itself:

Master Recipe for Broiled Asparagus

Choose asparagus no thicker than 5/8 inch.

2 pounds thin asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper

Adjust an oven rack to the uppermost position (about 4 inches from the heating element) and heat the broiler. Toss the asparagus with the oil and salt to taste and then lay spears in a single layer on a heavy rimmed baking sheet. Broil, shaking the pan halfway through to turn the spears, until the asparagus is tender and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool the asparagus 5 minutes and arrange them on a serving platter.

The accompanying recipes are variations. There’s “Broiled Asparagus with Reduced Balsamic Vinaigrette and Parmesan” and “Broiled Asparagus with Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette” and “Broiled Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus with Mascarpone,” but I’m done with retyping.

Besides, you know I like to keep my posts short.


Post 255

Not What You Expected:
The Small Voice of a Big God

When you see this phrase, “God spoke to Noah,” what do you picture? How do you envision it happening? Do you imagine a booming voice startling the man?

Sometimes, angels appear to people. They are God’s messengers. When they appear, the angels usually begin with the words, “Be not afraid,” because angels don’t look like chubby-cheeked cherubs. They look strong and powerful, and the sight of their radiant beauty can be, well, intimidating.

It’s not usually like this with God’s voice. God’s voice is gentle, like the voice of a patient father. Consider how God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire when he communicated with Moses. Moses knew it was God when he heard “a small still voice” (1 Kings 19:12), and he stepped forward from the cave. Consider how when Samuel was called by God, the only one who could hear God’s voice was Samuel. Samuel heard a voice and thought that Eli, who was nearby, was calling him, but it wasn’t Eli. Eli, for his part, could not hear anything at all (1 Samuel 3:7-11).

And that’s what we sometimes forget. When these prophets and saints heard God’s voice, usually nobody around them did. When they learned things from God, usually nobody else around them did. In most cases where God spoke to prophets or saints, there were neither eyewitnesses nor ‘ear’ witnesses; no one would be able to verify that the prophet or saint heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.

So what are you to do? Let’s say you’re there, minding your own business, when suddenly you hear God’s voice. It’s clear and it’s distinct and you’re not imagining it.

What do you do?

What makes the prophets and the saints holy is not that they heard God’s voice, but that they responded to it. Even Jonah, who is viewed as somewhat of a wimp for initially running in the opposite direction from the one that God wanted him to, did not doubt that he had heard what he heard. He believed that he had received a message from God and that he had a mission. What makes St. Paul special is not that he heard Christ’s voice, but that he heeded it.

More people have heard God’s voice than have responded. More people have been invited than have responded. Those who don’t respond don’t make history. It’s only later that we will learn about all the rejected invitations and the squandered opportunities to become what God had wanted his children to become.

When Joan of Arc heard God’s voice and invitation, she obeyed and made big changes and took big chances. What did the people around her think? They didn’t look at her and see a glowing halo. They saw someone utterly ordinary who was now acting Really Odd.

When Juan Diego saw Our Lady of Guadalupe, he did not doubt what he saw, but what did the people around him see? They saw an ordinary man who was wasting the bishop’s time and acting Rather Oddly. It was only after the others were given concrete signs that they understood that they were dealing with the supernatural.

When Mary conceived Jesus, the world entered a new era, but the world did not know it. People passed Mary and Joseph on the street, clueless that Mary carried within herself the Saviour of humanity. And indeed, judging from outside appearances, nothing had changed. It didn’t seem that a new era had dawned at all. Herod savagely ordered the slaughter of innocent babies, and the normal lives of Mary and Joseph were interrupted as they fled to Egypt. Did they have anything, now that they had unexpectedly relocated to a foreign land? They had their newborn baby but neither friends nor relatives. Humanly, these refugees had nothing. Spiritually, they had everything.

When Mary and Joseph returned to their homeland, they had with them Jesus, true God and man, but who would have guessed it? They blended in to their neighbourhood and people would have treated them as they liked, with familiarity, with disinterest, with friendliness or coldness. There was no bright neon sign flashing above their home: “Here Resideth Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Son of the Living God.”

No. It was quiet. God is, generally, quiet.

So when the neighbours found out that Jesus, that most predictable Jesus, son of the unremarkable carpenter, had appointed himself teacher, and was attracting crowds, well, they didn’t deal with it well. They had known him long before these crowds knew him, and they Knew Better. They chose not to accept the possibility that Jesus or his followers knew more than they did, and that this man was special, or holy, and that his current behaviour was justified. Their high opinion of themselves caused them to stiffen their necks and harden their hearts against him. When Jesus returned to the region, willing to shower them with graces, they lacked the requisite openness to him, and he left, having performed no miracles. A prophet is not acceptable in his own country, he said.

Indeed, those who know you from the past can’t handle a change in plans. They can’t handle God’s plans for you if you go in a new direction that they haven’t pre-approved. Can they handle God, who calls people out of an ordinary existence to act in ways that are unpredictable and ‘wild’?

I received an email from someone whose name was “anonymous” and whose email address was written as “anonymous@anonymous.anonymous.” Part of the comment was, “This was NOT what I was looking for or expecting.”


Excuse me?

What have I said or done to make you expect anything at all? What is the basis of your expectation? My past conduct? Our past relationship? The contract between you and me, where I promised to satisfy your needs and desires, for a handsome fee? The contract between you and the internet, to which I am a party, assuring you that you will find Everything You Desire Online?

Look elsewhere. I don’t write to make you happy.

Giovanni was popular and loved to laugh. He had many friends and appreciated them all. There was really nothing to dislike about him, because he liked everybody, even the unlikeable. He was one of those people who wanted to do everything for everybody, and when he wanted to be a soldier, people cheered him on. He had, so it seemed, everything a young man could want, including a father who provided for him. But then, suddenly, inexplicably, something ‘got into’ that young man, and he went off the deep end. (He went into the deep, you could say.) The fellow publicly disowned his father (for what? A dispute about some cloth?) and walked away, abandoning his very tunic. It made no sense; what has happened to Giovanni — known to his friends as Francisco? What has happened to St. Francis?

What happened to him was what happens to many of the prophets and the saints. It goes like this: you’re there, minding your own business, when the email comes in, and it’s from God. No. Sorry, let me begin again. You’re there, minding your own business, when the doorbell rings, and it’s God.

That’s the problem.

What proof do you have that you heard anything? What proof do you have that God spoke? What proof do you have that he said, “Rebuild my Church,” or “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Did he leave his business card? What proof do you have that Mary spoke to you? What proof do you have that you heard her sweet voice, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception”?

You have nothing. You have your word, easily discredited, especially in light of the way you’ve been acting lately.

The priests and the bishops gave many saints a very hard time. Why? It’s because they knew that God wouldn’t entrust anything important to an uneducated and unimportant layperson. Do I exaggerate? Read the accounts of saint after saint, distrusted by the clergy. How St. Faustina suffered!

Sadly, even in this post-Vatican II era, there is such a thing as clerical snobbery. It’s ironic, of course. As WiseOne once put it, “Where do priests think priests come from?” Every priest is born of a laywoman. The problem is that a priest, who is, generally, chosen by God to become a priest, forgets that there are other ways of being chosen. St. Peter was chosen to lead the Church, but St. John was chosen to be a son to Mary. St. Paul was not chosen as one of the twelve apostles, but he was chosen to preach to the gentiles.

Every person is invited, in more than one way, and more than once, to do God’s work. God’s voice is soft and hidden, but those who respond to his call may change before your eyes. The neighbour builds an ark. The shy man defies the Pharaoh. The shepherd boy becomes a king. The virgin has a baby. The carpenter’s son challenges the religious elite. The fisherman leads the church. The young man disowns his parent. The peasant girl leads an army. The wealthy widow sells her possessions. The laywoman becomes a blogger.


Post 254

Maple Leaf in the Middle:
Reflections on the Flags of North America


The Dominican Republic’s flag is divided into quarters by a white cross. In the centre is an emblem. The emblem, adopted in 1863, is the most Christian flag emblem in the world, featuring the cross in its upright and most typical style and a Catholic bible open to the Gospel of John: “And the truth will make you free.” (8:32) I like it and I think everyone should like it. So there.

Moving along, Dominica’s green flag is also divided into quarters by a big cross, but in the middle is a birdie. Yes, I can’t get away from them. I guess everyone kind of thought, “Hey, this flag is going to fly in the sky. Birds fly in the sky. How about we put a BIRD on the FLAG? Hey?” This bird is green and blue and has a yellow beak. Alright. It might be a parrot. I’ll just pop over to Wikipedia. I’ll be right back. Okay. I’m back. It’s a parrot. It’s the sisserou parrot, which I’ve never heard of, until now. It’s found only in Dominica. It’s endangered. There are only 250 individual birds left, which brings to the fore another question about animals on flags. What do you do if your chosen animal is suddenly in trouble? The images on a flag represent the nation, which includes, most importantly, the people of the nation, so if you must choose an animal, then it is best to stick with a generic version of it, in the same way that if you must choose a building, then it is best to stick with a generic version of it. Your symbol is less likely to disappear that way.

Jamaica’s flag looks alarming. That big yellow X on a background of black and green has an unsettling effect. Here’s something interesting: with one exception, all the other flags of the world incorporate at least one of the following colours: red, white, blue. (Mauritania’s flag is green and yellow.)


Whoa! That’s a big emblem on the flag of Belize. There are two guys on it who aren’t wearing shirts. They look like characters you’d meet on the Simpsons or something. They have belts and muscles and white pants but no shoes. Someone thought this was a good idea. One fellow is equipped with an oar and the other is holding an axe, which you don’t see every day. The motto translates as, “Under the shade, I flourish.”

Costa Rica’s flag is nice, the only one in this horizontal category without an emblem.

El Salvador’s flag looks quite smart from a distance. Let’s go in for a closer look at that emblem. Well, it gets worse as it gets closer and closer to the center. The gold lettering is arranged in a circle, and that looks good. The leaves look nice, and they are tied artfully with a blue ribbon. The flags are arranged handsomely. But then – but then, you hit the triangle. Inside the triangle is a five-coloured rainbow, the Pacific ocean, a ridge of volcanoes illuminated by the sun, and, on a pole, in front of the sun, is the red Phrygian cap. I wish we could be done with the cap on a stick thing.

Honduras’s flag has nice colours, but your eye is drawn to the five stars arranged in a ninja pose.

Haiti’s emblem is strange because the design is placed on a white background. Everybody knows that’s not how you do an emblem, especially if you’re going to put it on a background of blue and red. It looks dorky. As for the emblem . . . AAAAGHHH! IT’S THE HAT! IT’S THE HAT! I CANNOT ESCAPE THE HAT ON A STICK!!!!

That’s right. It’s the cap again.

But that’s not all. The cap is on a pole which is stuck onto the top of a palm tree which is behind a drum which has two axes protruding from it. The drum is flanked by two trumpets pointing downwards and two cannons and two anchors. There are six flags and six long guns. There is a broken chain on the lawn (symbolizing freedom from slavery). I cannot figure out what the remaining items are. There are several golden balls on the lawn, and there are white flask-like shapes. On one cannon is, perhaps, a mortar and pestle. On the other cannon is something which looks something like a helmet. It’s just time to declutter. Let’s start with that cap.


The flag of the Bahamas is blue and yellow overlapped by a black chevron.

Cuba’s flag would have gone into the stripey category, but the presence of a chevron takes priority. It’s got a white star on its red chevron.


Guatemala’s flag is very pretty, and the coat of arms looks attractive from a distance. Closer inspection brings you up close and personal with some weapons, however, including Remington rifles with bayonets and two swords. Sitting atop a scroll is a bird called a ‘resplendent quetzal.’ Reading about the resplendent quetzal only made me think of more reasons birds should stay off flags. This bird was associated with the snake god, Quetzalcoatl. The female bird often neglects her young. The resplendent quetzal is classified as ‘near threatened.’ Apparently, this bird was known to kill itself when held in captivity, and so somebody (maybe the bird?) decided that it should be a symbol of liberty.

The flag of Barbados is blue and yellow with part of a black trident. The trident is a three-pronged spear, and needs a stick to be of any use. This one is broken, and somebody decided that it should be a symbol of liberty.

And now we come to the Canadian flag. I didn’t know where it would wind up, but here it is, in the middle of the middle category. It’s centered, you could say. And indeed, the Canadian flag has a red maple leaf centered on a white background flanked by two red panels. You can fold the flag by placing the red panels on top of the white area, shutter style, in order to make a square.

It’s a great flag. Did you really think I would say otherwise? Let me count the ways. One: It has no rifles, Remington or otherwise. It has no spears or machetes or axes or clubs or cannons or shields or tridents, broken or otherwise. Two: It has no birds or snakes or dragons or animals of any kind. Three: It has no distorted astrological elements such as smiling suns, excessively pointy crescent moons or red stars. Four: It has a normal rectangular shape with normal proportions. Five: It is horizontally symmetrical, which in itself has two benefits. First, it means that whether it is read from left to right or right to left, or whether you see it from the front or the back, it’s the same. It’s still Canada. Second, symmetry is, in itself, attractive. Six: It cannot easily be mistaken for another flag. Seven: The colours are good. Eight: The red does not represent blood and there are no representations of anything negative. Nine: It is easy enough to draw from memory. Ten: It is transparent, both in the sense that it is not layered with symbolism and in the sense that seeing it from a distance gives you almost everything that you get from seeing it up close. Eleven: The leaf has eleven points.

I remember learning to draw the stylized maple leaf when I was five. It’s an interestingly shaped leaf — well-suited for emblem use, and the tree can be grown from Victoria to Prince Edward Island. I have such a tree in my own yard, and I can say that the red that you see on the flag is not an exaggeration.

Maple Leaf, square format

Mexico’s flag just did not work out. There have been many renditions of this eagle eating a snake while standing on top of a prickly pear cactus which is on a rock which is on a lake. The cactus on the current version looks cartoon-like. The first eagle, from 1821, was too big, but better. That eagle had a crown and wasn’t holding a snake. The cactus, the rock and the water were all better than they are now.

The flag of Saint Vincent and The Grenadines (doesn’t that sound like the name of a band?) is pleasing to look at, and clever in a subtle way. Three diamonds are arranged in the shape of a “v.” The colours are nice.


The flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis has a diagonal black band. These thick diagonal black bands are not a good idea, especially when the background is yellow or red.

Trinidad & Tobago’s flag is no better.


The United States flag is so recognizable that one can hardly objectively analyze it. I can’t imagine the United States having anything else, though we know that the flag has changed many, many times since its initial adoption to show the different number of states. The current version, with 50 stars, dates from 1960. If Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state, then I suppose the United States will have a brand new flag, sort of. This is the problem with basing your flag on your political boundaries. It’s definitely a busy flag, and not at all symmetrical, but I can live with it.


There are four countries whose flags don’t fit.

St. Lucia’s flag is blue with triangles overlapping each other. I see three colours (black, white and yellow) but I don’t know how many triangles I am supposed to count. I suppose I should see them as two, because the triangles represent the two volcanoes, which makes me notice that there are ‘canoes’ in ‘volcanoes,’ but in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that they’re technically ‘volcanic plugs’ and not volcanoes. At the same time, the thin line of white (arguably a third triangle) and the big triangle of black are supposed to represent two races living harmoniously. The yellow triangle represents sunshine and, at the same time, prosperity. It’s confusing and it doesn’t look good either.

Panama’s flag was designed by the family of Panama’s first leader. The flag features a small red star and a small blue star, which coordinate with the quadrants of the flag that are red and blue. It has a buoyant, almost circus feeling to me. It’s fun to look at.

The flag of Antigua and Barbados has a yellow sun rising in a black sky, which spells failure from the get-go. The intention of the designer was to have a strong “v” shape (victory) and so everything is made to fit into the red V.

Did someone say circus? Grenada’s flag is circus material, for sure. Gold stars are on the wide red perimeter, and then there’s one in the middle inside a red circle. The background is divided into green and yellow, diagonally, and that flame-like thing floating almost randomly on one of the green triangles is a clove of nutmeg.

I bet you didn’t see that coming. I didn’t, but I guess it all comes down to a clove of nutmeg. It makes me think of that William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” one of the first poems I loved. It still has a place in my heart. This bud’s for you, Grenada:


The Brown Shelled Nut

so much depends
the lone nutmeg

placed on the bright

without the white


Post 253

The English Evasion: Reflections on Etiquette

Christianity is found all over the world and in different eras. It has bathed certain regions of the world so thoroughly that the foundation of those regions are entirely saturated with Christian values and outlooks. Those who inhabit those regions today have a Judeo-Christian mindset without even realizing it. They take it for granted, for instance, that there is something deeply wrong with suicide and torture and infant-sacrifice and infidelity. When dealing with such issues, the dialogue is different. Those who declare themselves on the side of various forms of immorality have the style of revolutionaries, and this is fitting, because they are rising up against an ancient and wise tradition of moral know-how.

The difficulty that I want to explore has to do with the expressions of Christianity. Although Christianity, and specifically, Catholicism is oft seen as a system of rigorous and overly-restrictive picky rules, the truth is that there is, even within Catholicism – the most intellectually and spiritually complete version of Christianity – a tremendous amount of freedom. Christianity is compatible with every decent human culture. It is not, of course, compatible with all aspects of those cultures which have core practices antithetical to human dignity. In those cases, adoption of Christianity will result in abolition of abortion, infanticide, polygamy, self-mutilation and so on.

It is to be expected, then, that the expression of Christianity will be informed by one’s culture. The idea about how to be a good Christian will be shaped and influenced by the culture in which Christianity is practiced.

The Christian Golden Rule, to treat others as you would want to be treated, is expressed in various ways throughout the world. Cultural customs are retained, to a large extent, and so if you grow up as a good Christian in Japan, you’ll make sure not to walk around in someone’s home wearing your outdoor shoes. If you grow up as a good Christian in Italy, you might be quite accustomed to treating traffic signals as suggestions. If you grow up as a good Christian in Korea, you might interrupt your neighbour in eager conversation, but you’ll never blow your nose at the table, of course.

And that reminds me: did you know about Catholicism’s role in the development of Korean cuisine?

The Korean fascination with the chili is in itself a fascinating story since the chili originated botanically in the Valley of Mexico and Guatemala. The chili, which plays a central part in the high-voltage cooking of Korea, has developed a significance of its own in denoting the machismo of how much one can eat without gasping for breath . . . During the seven-year war that began in 1592 between Japan and Korea, Portuguese Catholic priests accompanied Japanese troops to Korea. The Portuguese took along the chili seeds or plants that the Spanish had brought from Central America to Europe. And so the chili entered Korea via Japan and took hold with a vengeance never to be relinquished.

— Copeland Marks, The Korean Kitchen:
Classic Recipes from the Land of the Morning Calm

(In other words, the Japanese didn’t have an interest in it, but the Koreans said to themselves, “Hey hey hey, whaddya think about mixing in some of this, eh?”)

If you grow up as a Christian in North America, your ideas about how to be a good Christian (or even, about how to be a good person) will be very much shaped by the English social norms. This is not necessarily a good thing. We owe a great debt to England in many ways, but it’s time to stop and think about some of these English tendencies.

Two tendencies are very English. The first has to do with appearing calm in all situations. The second has to do with indirectness.

You’ve heard the expression “stiff upper lip.” It’s a reference to both staying strong against the enemy and staying strong against oneself, where one is tempted to collapse in an emotional heap or pummel one’s mother-in-law. It’s an English thing.

Nevertheless, you would be entirely wrong in thinking that the British are without emotions. Their emotions run as deep as those of any human being. You can see this by noting that their artistic expression has the full range of human sentiment. I like what Elgar I’ve heard, and everyone knows that Shakespeare’s works show great insight into the human heart.

Chesterton spoke about how a Spanish man will run up to embrace his young son, but an English man won’t let himself. Chesterton said a Russian man will say, “Hello, I’m so-and-so and I killed my sister because her boots squeaked, how do you do?” I paraphrase his exaggeration, but there’s something to be said for such an approach. Indeed, there’s an openness of expression found in many other cultures that is frowned upon in the world of the English, particularly in upper-class circles.

England is very much a class-driven society. It is palpable when you’re there. There’s the Queen, and then there’s, well, you. The Trump phenomenon strikes the English as a prime example of the perils of the chaotic and ‘classless’ American way, where ‘just anybody’ can rise up to do anything.

The wealthy and those who pretend to be wealthy are dignified, reserved and very cold – on the outside, that is. On the inside, they’re as warm-blooded as any Chilean, as hot-blooded as a Korean soap opera star.

In the mind of an Englishman, being polite always involves being composed. Enthusiasm must be tempered and so must anger. All expressions of human sentiment must pass through a filter of respectability and decorum. You are left with what is tepid. You are left with what is neither hot nor cold.

But the emotions are there, and all of the anger and the hostility and the peevishness and small-mindedness are there. They are hidden under a veneer of perfect civility. The emotions are there, and the unspoken thoughts are there! Conversely, the words of love and tenderness and loyalty and heartfelt empathy are there. They just remain unspoken, is all. You complain?

The second attribute has to do with indirectness. I was recently chatting with a Ph.D. candidate who has a Slavic background, and she spoke about her impression of Canadians. She said that they were two-faced. She didn’t elaborate, but she did not need to. I know what she means. In their interactions with you, they are unfailingly smiley and agreeable. Once you turn your back, however, they will mutter to themselves or a close friend that you have failed in this way and that. She said that she once asked a classroom of students to separate a list of adjectives into two piles. Put the positive human qualities here and put the negative human qualities over there. Kind, trustworthy, generous, well, those go over here. Selfish, dishonest, blunt, well, those go over there. Whoa! She was so shocked – why do these Canadians categorize bluntness and directness as being a bad thing?

It’s our heritage. Our English heritage tells us that confronting things directly is ill-advised. Confronting an issue head-on could lead to conflict, and, of course, conflict is always bad. It could result in emotions being inadvertently expressed, which, of course, is bad. You see?

The English language therefore makes use of many round-about methods of talking. There are many circuitous ways of making statements and asking questions, to avoid direct engagement. You can speak in generalities, and you can speak using the hypothetical and you can speak in the passive voice where things happen without anybody making them happen. They are just The Way Things Went, The Way They Are and The Way They Will Always Be. And of course, there are many conversations about the weather, to avoid the elephant in the room. “Would you like me to change your tires?” “Oh, no thank you, I had them done just yesterday, as a matter of fact.”

It is viewed as polite, and, sadly, it is often viewed as The Christian Way.

Man. That’s when you need Jesus to walk in and kick the tea tray down the hall.

You’ll see that the heroines of the best English novels (written by Bronte, Austen, Gaskell) don’t play by the rules if the rules get in the way. They surprise and scandalize those who are ‘proper’ because they say what needs to be said and they refuse to say what is expected to be said. Deep down, we admire that, and so such novels continue to be popular. Chesterton’s protagonists are similarly simple and free, and do not follow the predictable style of the English upper classes. His heroes show their cards and they show their loyalty. When lines are crossed, words are spoken and sometimes swords follow words. His protagonists break the mold, and will break window panes if Our Lady is defamed. His heroes know how to fight for a worthy cause and they do.

Chesterton showed that the proper expression of Christianity was not shackled by the English upper-class’s definition of good manners. It’s important to separate the two things. Being well-mannered according to the English or Canadian standard is not an indication of your holiness as a Christian.

As a matter of fact, you can be on both ends of the spectrum at once. Here’s Horace, and he’s as polite as can be, but he relishes every opportunity to show that everyone around him is not nearly as composed as he is. He particularly likes any evidence that someone is flustered or perturbed. He is Mr. Unflappable. He enjoys verbal duels, and will use language designed to confuse or impress or both. He aims to unsettle and disturb others so that he can be, by contrast, very collected. It’s disgraceful, really, especially because it is underhanded. What seems to be politeness and restraint is disguised venom. When he meets his match, Horace resorts to the other English tactic: evasion. When his questions and attacks have been answered in full, he refuses to acknowledge that he has been answered. He poses yet another question. When asked a question, he pretends it went unheard. When asked the question again, he says that it is unanswerable. After causing trouble and hardship to others, he neither apologizes nor accepts responsibility. He haughtily says, “Pity,” and expects you to act as if all is business as usual.

In the other corner, we have Horatio. Horatio is a character. He has a big laugh and a big heart. His poker face is second to none, but if the Oilers lose in overtime, he takes it pretty hard. Horatio doesn’t colour within the lines and you never quite know what he thinks, until he tells you. He’ll tell you his opinion using words you’ll understand, and is unimpressed when archbishops use phrases such as “ratified this truth” when half the congregation has English as its second language. When you’ve made him happy, you’ll probably know. When you’ve hurt him, you’ll probably know. He’ll call you out using words you’ll understand. Those who cross him claim to be utterly mystified as to his reasons, and you can believe them if you want. I’m going with Horatio. At least he tells the truth.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Etiquette is well and good until it becomes a lie. Decorum and manners have their place, but they mustn’t reign as king. By the time politeness has demanded this and that and the next thing, it might have become a demanding dictator. It can become a way of life that is so ingrained that one views everything through the lens of etiquette, and, what’s worse, it can become a counterfeit Christianity. Everything is judged by whether it meets the modern definition of good manners. It’s no longer Good versus Evil; it’s Good Manners versus Bad Manners.

Good manners and general civility in society is important, but it cannot be confused with virtue, and it must give way, as needed, to the demands of a moral life. We cannot forfeit truthfulness and genuine dialogue in the name of good manners. To do so would be to limit our lives and to lead a two-faced existence. How many people imprison themselves behind a false mask of congeniality, going to their graves without expressing and living the truth of what they think and feel?

Does this mean that I am advocating temper tantrums when things don’t get well at the bank, the dentist’s and the podiatrist’s? No, it does not. Does it mean that I am in favour of screaming matches? It does not. It means that I am in favour of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily follow the script, because honest dialogue rarely does. I am in favour of real questions being asked and fair questions being answered fully and truthfully.

I know that there are saints who tell us to smile always and to be cheerful always, but those must be classified as suggestions applicable in some, but not all, contexts. Suggestions are good, but they should not be burdensome. These ideas are not in the Gospel and they are not in church teaching, so let’s not get carried away with this type of thinking, and treat, “Thou Shalt Smile” as the eleventh commandment. Jesus didn’t go around wearing a t-shirt that said, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” He did what he needed to do and he wasn’t smiling while he suffered in the innumerable ways that he suffered. It would have been unnatural.

The emphasis on demeanor is in the same category as St. Josemaria’s direction that one must not talk about food while eating. He says one should talk about intellectual or spiritual things in order to dignify the duty of eating. Such things about the details of everyday life are suggestions, not commands of the Catholic Church. To think otherwise would be to make the Church excessively and obsessively controlling. In the case of this suggestion, there are valid arguments in favour of talking about food at the table, in keeping with the themes of sincerity and simplicity in other parts of his writing. After all, Jesus wants us to be like children, and children will joyfully talk about food or whatever comes to mind, for that matter. Children are natural, and we’d be in a stifled world if we couldn’t speak about food and prayer and gardening and the latest homily and fiber optic networks in the same wide-ranging conversation. Besides, the cook is often anxious about whether the food has pleased her guests. If I enjoy food, I say so simply, and when others say they like what I serve, that makes me happy too. Why complicate matters? Similarly, if I am pleased, I smile. If I’m not, I don’t. Why add layers of Christian ‘requirements’ to life? Take such things as ideas for yourself, reminding you that there are things more important than food to talk about, but don’t take it as a rule, and don’t judge Sister Annata when she says these are the best asparagus spears she’s ever had.

So let’s be clear about things. At the end of the day, we’ll be judged on what we have in our heart towards God and our neighbours. Jesus had, at all times, immense love of God his Father. His heart could not have been more cheerful and happy, and he was full of love for those around him, but this was not expressed by a strict adherence to Jewish etiquette. He was a gentle man, but he wasn’t evasive. Indeed, when necessary, his words were direct and as sharp as a sword.

He was a gentle man, but thank God, he wasn’t an English gentleman.