Saturday, November 29, 2014


Back on 17 October I posted a photo of me in my clerical collar that was taken for a parish directory and said that on many levels I could not recognize myself in it and that it creeped the hell out of me.  The photo seemed to be from a long time ago in a galaxy far away and I think what struck me (and this was extremely personal) was a sense that it seems to me that I was desperately trying to fulfill some social expectation in the role of parish priest. Something was uncomfortable, trying too hard.  I can see it in that photo and feel it in memory and even in my body.

Not long thereafter I came across this photo and had a very different reaction.

This was taken on 8 December 1990, the day I was ordained a priest.  I am setting the Table at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.  I don't know if you can see it in this photo but I see nothing but serenity.  I believe it is objectively there and I know it was there subjectively.  One of my memories of that day was being in a state of complete peace throughout the day.  No jitters, no apprehension, just utter calm.

This photo was not posed; it was a candid shot taken by a friend.  I was not trying to DO.  I was at peace BEING.  This was not about any social role; it was a sacred role.  I was a servant of the Altar, of the Church, and of God - without effort, without falsehood.  The feelings I have when I see this photo are overwhelmingly positive. Such a great counterpoint to my reactions to the other photo, taken later in time but stumbled upon recently prior to this one.

To my left, as I type this in my office, hangs my ordination certificate, pictured above.  It is almost a year since I performed any priestly function within the walls of a church or any other ecclesiastical context.  Do I still minister?  Yes, on almost a daily basis, as I seek to live God's love as a presence among others.  I console the sorrowing, encourage those cast down, affirm the hesitant, and celebrate with the joyous.  I offer context, proclaim blessing, and occasionally swing an avuncular two-by-four upside the heads of people I care about.  I try to stand by those going through difficult transitions.  Sometimes I even mention God, but most of what I say applies with equal comfort to Christians, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, agnostics, what have you.

For all that I feel distant from Church in any form these days, this photo has reminded me of the deepest and truest aspects of my vocation and my identity.  I recognize myself in this photo, easily and comfortably, without hesitation or anxiety.  It feels good to do so.

And this final photo is me this evening, lying on the couch and playing with selfies, snapping myself with my downstairs "kids."  In the front row are Lucille, Harry, Maggie, Mimi, Belle, Barbara, and Nevsky.  In the middle and back rows are Markus, Hephzibah, Smokey, Zotney, Carlo, Anthony, Haimish, Snort, and Jeffrey.  If I missed anyone, my apologies.  The other half of the family is in my bedroom.  I certainly recognize myself in this playful old codger and it is the same person as the priest at the Altar.

Not every stage of the interior journey is fraught with peril or pain.  Some is simply a joy.

Buona notte, tutti quanti!

--the BB

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Non c'è piú Troia

This is a photo I took from the opening scenes of The Trojan Women, the 1971 film by Cacoyannis.  The film is drawn from the play by the same name written by Euripides and produced in 415 BCE.  Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War.  Earlier that year the Athenians had captured and slaughtered the people of the island of Melos and Euripides may have been using the legend of Troy to hold a mirror to his fellow Athenians.  If one ever wants a dramatic reminder of the cost of war, this play and this movie can help.

We focus on the women of Troy, now facing slavery in a foreign land.  Hecuba is the first to speak, she who was the queen of fabled Troy and who has watched her husband and children slain.  She has yet more grief ahead.  In the movie Katherine Hepburn plays this role quite movingly. We see her first as a heap of black rags beside the destroyed city gate, struggling to rise.


να, δύσδαιμον, πεδόθεν κεφαλή:
πάειρε δέρην: οκέτι Τροία
τάδε κα βασιλς σμεν Τροίας.
μεταβαλλομένου δαίμονος νέχου.
πλε κατ πορθμόν, πλε κατ δαίμονα,
μηδ προσίστω πρραν βιότου
πρς κμα πλέουσα τύχαισιν.
αα αα.

Up from the ground—O weary head, O breaking neck.
This is no longer Troy.  And we are not
the lords of Troy.
Endure.  The ways of fate are the ways of the wind.
Drift with the stream—drift with fate.
No use to turn the prow to breast the waves.
Let the boat go as it chances.
Sorrow, my sorrow.
[Translated by Edith Hamilton]

Euripides, The Trojan Women, 98-105

This is an expression of Troy's destruction that I painted in acrylic on canvas last night.  It is a first stab at understanding my own experience of the Fall of Troy.

You see, clear back in the eleventh grade I was taking Latin and we were reading The Aeneid of Vergil.  We read books I, II, IV, and VI that year.  Book Two recounts the fall of Troy from the viewpoint of Aeneas, a Trojan prince and warrior.  The Greeks do not come off well in this version, a Roman version and part of imperial propaganda that traces the Caesars back to Troy through Aeneas.

I would have been sixteen.  One night or weekend as I lay on my bed translating for class, I came to the death of Priam, King of Troy.  His wife, Hecuba, was gathered with their daughters in a sacred space, clutching the household gods.  Priam attempts to don his long-unused armor and Hecuba says, in modern parlance, "Hang it up, old man; it's all over."  As if that moment of despair were not enough, one of their many sons enters, chased by the son of Achilles.  Their son is slain before their eyes and when Priam reproaches the young warrior he is slain in turn, sent to join Achilles in Hades, beheaded right at the altar of Zeus.  As I translated this scene I wept.  I have never forgotten this.

Decades later I occasionally joined my friend Bill for his tutoring sessions in Spanish.  One of his tutors was not familiar with the story of Troy and I proposed that my assignment for that week be translating the same scene into Spanish.  I pulled out the Latin text and one or two English translations, my Spanish dictionary, and the best grammar and style I could muster.  As I rendered that scene into formal Spanish... I wept again.

The women heading into slavery, again from the movie.

If you are wondering, yes: now that I am studying Italian I hope to translate the same scene from the Latin into the best Italian I can muster before the end of the spring semester.

Since my high school days I have read all of the extant Greek tragedies (do not be all that impressed; there are only twenty-one of them) at least once, and some multiple times.  I have viewed live theatre productions of some of them and movie versions of several as well.  I love these powerful works of art.  Beyond that, however, anything related to the cycle of Troy touches me deeply and personally.  To this day I often become quite emotional discussing this and how it moves me.  A simple phrase can choke me up.

Which raises the question--especially now when I have begun the project of rereading The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid--why does this speak so profoundly and upset me so readily?  After all, I just confessed some of this in my oral presentation in Italian class and choked up several times this past week.  I do not propose to expose all my issues here; for all my sharing, this is a public forum and I am aware of that. But I can say a few things.

Asia in general, and Troy specifically, represented a number of things to the ancient Greeks.  (The following is my impression based on things I have heard and read but I could be corrected by scholars in the classics.  Nonetheless, we are speaking about my inner reality, so my impression counts in any case.) The East was the region of the exotic and the mysterious.  It represented the Other and thus could both fascinate and repel.  The fascination for Orientalia in Western painting and music (Madama Butterfly and Mikado, anyone?) testifies to an abiding aspect of this.  Troy and Asia  represented wealth to be envied and plundered. There was also the element of the untamed, the irrational, the sexual, and the feminine.  It was Tiamat and Leviathan, the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and Medea, the sorceress who showed Jason how to steal the fleece.  Where but in Asia could a degenerate prince be raised who would violate hospitality and either seduce or kidnap another man's wife? (I write of Paris of Troy and Menelaus' wife Helen, of course.)

The lot of the losers, then and now, is typically death, exile, and slavery.  Nowadays it may be cultural exile and economic slavery, but the themes remain the same.  As the Romans summed it up: Vae victis! Woe to the conquered!

So then, what is Troy to western culture?  It has been a major theme in western culture since the time of Homer, providing material for all the arts down to the present day.  I would say the fall of Troy represents the death of a dream.  It was portrayed in ancient time as noble and civilized.  Even in the Greek Iliad, the Trojan hero Homer appears far more noble than the Greek hero Achilles.  Something exotic and rich and beautiful (and perhaps a bit wild) was destroyed, never to rise again.  It could not be overcome without deceit and would probably have prevailed if Fate and the gods had not decreed otherwise.  The Greek victory, that must have tasted sweet after ten years of fighting far from home, proved bitter for their homecoming was a rather fruitless and ugly one.

And for me?  Troy is some mythic symbol of all that wild, passionate, exotic, rich, vibrant energy in me that leads me to assert, repeatedly, que tengo alma latina en cuerpo sueco (that I have a Latin soul in a Swedish body).  No matter what my DNA may say, I am a passionate Mediterranean with little tolerance for the cold and dull (nor do I care for beer or hard liquor).  Bring me the sunshine, wine, olive oil, the savory variety of herbs; in one nod to being Swedish, throw in lots of butter.  I want music with rich rhythm that makes my hips twitch, even if I don't get up and dance.  I do not want to be tamed. (Huge understatement.)  And every situation, institution, context, or person in my life who has sought to tame me has felt to me like Greeks, stealing my Palladium, defiling my altars, slaughtering my warrior spirit, and carrying what is left of me into captivity and exile.  Troy, for me, is personal.

The three views above are of the statue by Bernini that depicts Aeneas fleeing the ruins of Troy.  On his shoulder he carries his father, Anchises, who holds the lares and penates (household gods).  At his side is Ascanius, his son.  Past, present, and future are represented and the very flesh of the three reflects--in the medium of marble!--the sagging flesh of the aged, the muscled strength of one in his prime, and the tender and slightly chubby body of childhood.  The expressions are powerful.  Ascanius seems to have the slightly lost incomprehension of a child, aware that things are very wrong but still innocent of the totality of horror from which he now flees.  Aeneas seems rather in shock, moving forward, aware yet not allowing himself fully to feel.  From one side Anchises seemed, to me, to have the the look of someone who has seen and suffered everything and knows loss beyond telling; from another angle he has a fierceness, looking forward to whatever unknown fate awaits him and his family.

When I entered the room in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, where this statue is housed, I needed no label to tell me what I was looking at.  This is in my blood.  After walking around it a bit, I stood and recited lines from The Aeneid (in Latin, of course--thank you Mrs. Wiley).  Tears streamed down my cheeks and I did not care who saw me.  All the irrevocable loss and the vast unknown future in every story, and that story, and my story was there.

We cannot live in the dream, we have to live into our destiny, much as Aeneas did.  We cannot stay in Troy, nor in Carthage.  The Lavinian shore awaits us, whatever that may be in your story or mine.  But we live with the memory of the dream and we know what has been lost (if we allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel it).  In an earlier post I wrote of how exile, loss, and journey are themes that run through my novels and also in the poems and writings I did when I was in my twenties.

Almost every time I refer to the following, I choke up.

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. 

 Queen Dido of Carthage has asked Aeneas, at a banquet, to tell of Troy's fall.  He begins with the phrase, "You have commanded me, O Queen, to renew an unspeakable sorrow."  I managed to type that in English without getting misty, but don't ask me to recite it in Latin.

For whatever complex set of reasons, some of which I understand, I bear in my soul abiding grief over Troy because Troy is a symbol of all the sorrow of my life and of the world.  At least that is how it speaks to me.

Aeneas also said, to his companions after a shipwreck, "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit."  "Perhaps some day even these things will bring joy as they are remembered."  LOL.  I have not yet gotten there.  Nonetheless, I receive each day as a gift and rejoice to be alive.

--the BB