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Disclaimer

The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Sunday
Jan182015

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Some people go Italy and come back bellowing that if they never saw the inside of another cathedral for the rest of their lives, that would be fine with them.

Not I. I could see another one tomorrow and tomorrow again; there would never be enough churches to satisfy me. I find the church the most sublime and inspiring of human structures. And in many cases, especially in Italy, churches are the home to some of the finest works of art in all the world.

On my trip to Italy last summer, I saw some of these. There was of course the Pieta, Michelangelo's magnificent sculpture in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. There were the beautiful medieval mosaics in the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere. Or Carvaggaio's astonishing cycle of paintings on the life of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi die Francesi (St. Louis King of France).

But among every group of goods there is always a best. For me, the best was my visit to the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome, where I saw the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture draws inspiration from the diary of St. Teresa of Avila, the relevant passage displayed on a marker below the piece. St. Teresa, a sixteenth century mystic, describes a vision that came to her during prayer: An angel appeared before her brandishing a spear of gold, which he proceeded to plunge into the saint's chest:

He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.

Bernini's sculpture depicts the moment just after the angel has pulled the spear from Teresa's chest. The angel hovers above her, the arrow relaxing in his hand, it's miraculous power having met its purpose. St. Teresa's head swoons back, her face transfigured in ineffable, ecstatic you. Her body appears pushed to its very limits, a corporal being feeling as much of the glory of God as a human can feel without being torn apart. I can almost see the very cells in her body swollen to the point of bursting with happiness. The angel, looking on, has a look of sympathetic knowingness -- yes, Teresa, this is what it is like, this is complete joy, this is knowing God and God's love in all of its completeness. Even Teresa's nun's habit tells a story, swirling and disheveled, it mirrors the shock of disarming ecstasy, the sense of being completely overwhelmed.

The Ecstasy is different from most of the other works I saw in Rome. Michelangelo's works are cool and confident -- think of David, calmly facing Goliath, or the Pieta, which depicts a mother mourning her dead son, the eyes of Mary gazing away from Jesus towards an inner peace: God will somehow make this right. Carravaggio is usually darker and brooding. Raphael is vibrant and noble, but his paintings are composed -- never the loss of senses or control that Bernini displays here. The Ecstasy is pure fire and heaven's light, it is the very picture of joy, if joy can be cast into stone.

Some art historians have said that the glory of the sculpture lies in what is not depicted. Teresa looks up, and above the statue is a stream of golden rays from heaven represented by a burst of rods, suggesting that the greatest joy, the spiritual energy of the artwork, comes for above in heaven and not from the angel or the saint.

Maybe so. But I see in the sculpture itself diving glory embedded in physical being, the body completely taken by the power of infinite joy. Santa Maria, after all, is a Catholic church, and Catholicism teaches that body and spirit reside together. Jesus was divine and human at the same time; we humans will die and one day return, body and soul resurrected, spirit and biology together. I don't think Bernini meant to show the separation of spirit and body, but its complete union. And he succeeded, to the extent that a human being can succeed in such a task.

In Italy, most of the churches with major artwork have lights above them, to illuminate the art in the gloom inevitably inhabiting the side chapels of churches built long before electricity. To make the lights work, you put a euro into a box and the light comes on for a few minutes, providing enough light to fully appreciate the artwork. I stood at the foot of this chapel, emptying my pockets of all the loose change I had, as transfixed by a work of art as I have ever been.

Anything I could say beyond this about the Ecstasy of St. Teresa would be a regurgitation of Art 101. About how art represents the emotions and thoughts we all have about ourselves. About how it models our hopes and dreams. About how it embodies, and inspires, our desire for human perfection.

And it would all be true. And this: When a person approaches a work of art, one must do so with a willingness to be changed. Not all art will change you -- certainly not every work of art I have encountered has changed me. But many have, and a few have touched me so deeply that everything I see afterwards is somehow observed in its light. The Ecstasy teaches joy. How to experience it, and how to look for it, and most importantly, through St. Teresa's example, how not to be afraid of it when it finds you at last.

Happy New Year.

Sunday
Jan112015

Kent Haruf

It has been a few weeks, but I would be remiss if I failed to mark the passing of novelist Kent Haruf, author of the 1999 bestseller Plainsong.

Mississippi Public Television has a program called The Writers, an intermittent series of interviews of writers with Mississippi connections. It was on The Writers that I first encountered Haruf, a soft-spoken, blue-jeaned and cowboy-booted author whose opinions about fiction writing fascinated me.

So I looked up Plainsong and read it. The novel takes place in a contemporary but fictional Colorado town, and tells the story of a high school teacher, the breakup of his marriage, and the new sense of family he develops when he arranges for the care and protection of a pregnant student of his who is thrown out of her home by her alcoholic mother.

Plainsong is the kind of novel most of us writers dream of writing -- well-crafted, a pleasure to read, even more pleasing to ponder. It has a pastoral tone, even though some of the events were suspenseful, and, at its bottom, an edifying regard for human life. When I read, I am looking for humanism, a sense of compassion for people and their situations that makes me feel more like a person. Not all books do this. Many modernist books specialize in alienation, something I think is very opposed to the purpose of good art. Haruf was very good at writing about what it means to be human.

According to his New York Times obiturary, he died of complications from lung disease in the shed behind his home, the place where he wrote his fiction. No better way to go than while sitting down to write, I say.

Haruf believed in getting the words down on the page quickly and without self-censoring. He thought the way to write was to express one's ideas in as raw a form as possible, without second thoughts, while the idea was still fresh.

To accomplish this end, he would sit down at a manual typewriter and write with a cap pulled over his eyes. Unable to see even the page, he would write in stream of consciousness pattern until he had met his word quota for the day. Editing he left for later. Sometimes the raw product was good, sometimes it was bad, but it always helped him sound the depths of his characters, providiing an intimacy that translated into every sentence that made it into print.

I could never take uncensored writing to that extreme, but I like the idea of it, the pure devotion to creation of the words and sentences.

Goodbye, Kent, and thank you for the words you have spun out for us.

Sunday
Dec212014

Censorship and "The Interview" -- We've Forgotten Salman Rushdie

As the end of the year approaches I have been striving to finish Salman Rushdie's great novel Midnight's Children, a fanciful account of Indian independence and national identity. It is my second Rushdie novel, having read The Enchantress of Florence last year.

But I digress. In the conversation about Sony Picture's decision to cancel the release of the movie The Interview, I am reminded of Rushdie's book Satanic Verses. As you may remember, this 1988 novel was denounced as blasphemous by the Ayatollah Khomeini the year after it was pubished. Khomeini issued a fatwah against Rushdie, effectively a call for Rushdie to be assassinated in the name of Islam. This death threat lasted until 1998 when Iran issued a conciliatory statement that for all practical purposes ended the fatwah (although it sleazily added that it could not officially withdraw it because Khomeini was dead, and only the person who issued it could withdraw it).

During the fatwah, Rushdie went into hiding. But his book was not withdrawn from the shelves and neither Rushdie nor its publisher have retracted its contents. This is despite the fact that several translators of the book and at least two publishers were targets of assassination attempts.

Corporations, we are told, are people, too. But actual people seem to have a lot more guts than the financial kind.

The real problem here is that, while violent reprisals against Sony and people who are associated with this movie are possible, what is definite is that we have seen the last attempt at public ridicule of Kim Jong-un. A violent dictator has silenced his critics. This means every violent dictator out there now has a playbook for intimidating the American media.

Certainly Vladimir Putin has gotten the message.

Thursday
Dec112014

Sentence of the Week, December 11

From Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushie, we have:

Unless, of course, there's no such thing as chance; in which case Musa--for all his age and servility--was nothing less than a time-bomb ticking softly away until his appointed time; in which case we should either--optimistically--get up and cheer, because if everything is planned in advance, then we all have a meaning, and are spared the term of knowing ourselves to be random, without a why; or else, of course, we might--as pessimists--give up right here and now, understanding the futility of thought decision action, since nothing we think makes any difference anyway; things will be as they will.

First of all, I think by Musa Rushie is referring to Moses, Musa being the Islamic term for the Hebrew prophet Muslims revere as one of the greatest predecessors of Mohammad. Musa would be one of the progenitors of faith, the man who, along with Abraham, set religious thinking in motion.

What I love about this sentence is how scatterbrained it is, full of dashes, pauses, charges forward, and reversals--the second to last clause, for example, takes away most of the energy of the clause before it ("we should get up and cheer...we might give up right here and now"). The sentence is more or less arguing that there is no such thing as chance, while its structure is wild and the very embodiment of randomness. The structure belies the sense.

And yet logically, it doesn't--the appearance of randomness doesn't necessarily mean randomness exists. Much of Midnight's Children is an exploration of this idea, the tension between randomness, freedom, and fate. The sentence doesn't answer the question. Neither does the entire book, but I would be disappointed in the book if it did.

Friday
Nov072014

On Expensive Watches / Sentence of the Week

One sign that Christmas is approaching is the appearance of jewelry ads. When The New Yorker magazine starts carrying ads on its back cover about watches every week, I know the holiday blitz is coming.

This week's back cover featured the Breguet Classique Hora Mundi watch, a beautiful timepiece. I have been considering a new watch for a little while -- mine, a Seiko, is more than 15 years old. I buy watches to last, but after awhile it is time for a new look.

So I thought, Brequet, probably out of my price range, but who knows? The New Yorker ad contained no hint of price, which should have been my first warning. Google told the truth: $89,700 for platinum, a mere $75,100 for rose gold. Hey, maybe they will go on sale after the holidays...

First, let me clear something up: I can't afford an $90,000 watch, in case you are wondering. But if I could, would I?

That took about 30 seconds of soul searching. No, 3 seconds. Not ever. Even if I were a billionaire, with virtually unlimited funds, I would never spend that kind of money on a watch. If someone gave a watch like that to me for free, I would give it back. Really.

There are, to use a cliche, two types of people in the world. Those who think 90 grand is fine to spend on a watch if you can afford it, and those who think no watch is worth that kind of money, not if the pope wore it, not if the Nobel committee gave it to them as a gift. I am in the second category. I only tolerate luxury up to a point (although to be fair my point is probably highter than a lot of people's), and beyond that guilt creeps in. There are so many better things to do with $90k.

Sentence of the Week

From that same New Yorker, an article by Emma Brockes on the British playwright Jez Butterworth:

One is aware there are words Butterworth uses partly because he finds them amusing: prannie, prannock, flapjack, Maypole, Chorleywood, pisshead, and accordion, among others -- words he picks up and saves like a magpie.

I had forgotten the legend about how magpies collect shiny objects and carry them to their nests. Brockes's comparison of Butterworth's language to a bird collecting shiny objects was illustrative and unexpected.

(It is, by the way, a legend. According to Science News, magpies do not collect shiny things.)