On Doubt

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter in the Roman Catholic calendar and can be called “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” in honor of the Gospel reading at Mass, John 20:19-31.

This Gospel story has been immortalized by Caravaggio in what is perhaps his most well-known painting, The Incredulity of Thomas. Glen Most has a thoughtful and provocative reception history of both the story and the painting.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Thomas, from Wikimedia

The Doubting Thomas story and I go way back together. When I was in the third grade, my father died four days after the Sunday on which this was the Gospel reading.  At my Dad’s funeral Mass, the priest asked me if I was going to be like Doubting Thomas, or would I instead have faith in the life after death that both Jesus and my father were experiencing.  In many ways, the past fifty years since that day have been shaped by my attempts to answer that priest’s question.  I have lived my life in the long shadow of Doubting Thomas, and shared in his struggle.

Plus enim nobis Thomae infidelitas ad fidem quam fides credentium discipulorum profuit. (The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples.)

Pope Gregory the Great

Now, the biblical scholar in me knows that this story, like that of the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, is how the early Church expressed that its experience of Jesus was different from how the apostles experienced him walking about in Galilee and Jerusalem.  I know that, as one of those who believes without seeing, I am, as Jesus tells Thomas, more blessed than those apostles in their locked room who have seen.

I get that, but there’s a part of me that’s always been a little jealous of Thomas.  He wasn’t sure, and so he got to see.  When I’m not sure…well, nothing like that happens.  I recently learned that a church in Helsinki, Finland has what they call a St. Thomas Mass every Sunday night.  As described on their website, “The St. Thomas Mass invites doubters and seekers to celebrate, worship God, serve their neighbor, and grow together.  Those who feel sinful and weak in faith are especially welcome.”  I would love to attend that Mass, knowing that there are times in my life where I would fit right in.  

Some light can be shed on this from the first reading for Mass on Doubting Thomas Sunday, which recounts the life of the first people who believed in Jesus:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common … There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Acts 4:32-35

Thinking about this reading from Acts and it’s juxtaposition with Doubting Thomas offers me an answer to something in the Gospel story that’s long bothered me.  The text tells us that on Easter Sunday evening the disciples were locked in a room because they were afraid of the authorities, but that Thomas wasn’t there.  Where was he? And, if Jesus could get through a locked door in crowded Jerusalem, why didn’t he simply go to wherever Thomas was, and appear to him there? I think it’s because the encounter with the risen Jesus can’t be understood as a private event.  We experience it together.  And not only do we experience the presence of Jesus as a common event, but our sharing in a common life with a concern for each other helps to bring about that experience of the risen Christ, who brings peace, forgiveness and blessing.

Free Thinking!

Alongside Giuseppe Gioachinno Belli, whom I’ve written about a couple of times, another great romanesco poet is Carlo Alberto Salustri (1871-1950) who wrote under the anagram Trilussa. From the time he was eighteen years old, until his death at the age of 79, Trilussa published poems in the Roman dialect in newspapers, almanacs, and volumes of collected works.

Trilussa, Collezione del Fondo Nunes Vais, Public Domain

Trilussa’s poems often took the form of Aesop-like fables, with animals standing in for types of people. Unlike Aesop, however, these fables most often offered cynical or jaded lessons, based on Trilussa’s scathing critiques of human nature, specifically as it was expressed in Italian political life. There is a small piazza named for Trilussa in Trastevere, just as one crosses the Ponte Sisto. A bronze statue of the poet sits on one side, alongside a plaque with one of his more well-known sonnets, “Al Ombra” (“In the Shade”).

Piazza Trilussa, Trastevere. Photo: Pierfelice, Creative Commons License

Recently, and for a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Trilussa’s poem, La libbertà de pensiero (“Freedom of Thought”) which he wrote in 1922, the same year that the Fascists seized control of Italy. The poem recounts a fable about a white cat and a black cat.

Un Gatto bianco, ch’era presidente 
der circolo der Libbero Pensiero
sentì che un Gatto nero,
libbero pensatore come lui,
je faceva la critica
riguardo a la politica
ch’era contraria a li principi sui.
“Giacché nun badi a li fattacci tui,
– je disse er Gatto bianco inviperito -,
rassegnerai le proprie dimissione
e uscirai da le file der partito:
che qui la poi pensà libberamente
come te pare a te, ma a condizzione
che t’associ a l’idee der presidente
e a le proposte de la commissione!”
– “E’ vero, ho torto, ho aggito malamente…” –
Rispose er Gatto nero.
E pe’ restà ner Libbero Pensiero
da quela vorta nun pensò più gnente.

Here’s my translation:

A white cat, who was president
of the Free Thought Society,
heard about a black cat, 
another free-thinker, who held
opposing ideas and criticized his politics.
“Since you can’t watch your damn mouth,”
said the enraged white cat,
“You’ll be relieved of your duties 
and leave the ranks of the party. 
Anyone here can freely think whatever he likes, 
so long as he agrees with the ideas
of the president and the leadership!”
“It’s true,” said the black cat. “
I’m wrong. I’ve behaved badly.”
And so, to stay in the Free Thought Society,
He never thought about anything again. 

So much of our discourse today revolves around the ideas of free speech, policed speech, and the role of authority in regulating speech. In my own field of higher ed, college campuses–including mine–have become fraught places where multiple intersections of interests and ideologies clash, all waving the banner of free thinking. Almost a hundred years after this poem was written, we find ourselves in the roles of either the white or black cat, depending on the space we are in.

N.B., a great introduction to Trilussa’s poetry, with elegant English translations is John Duval’s Tales of Trilussa.

Here, Priests Run Everything

All over Rome you’ll find the letters “SPQR” emblazoned on everything from taxis to trashcans, drinking fountains to sewer covers. It’s an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”) and seems to originate in imperial Roman coinage and inscriptions. Sarah Bond has an essential piece about the polyvalence of “SPQR” through the centuries, including its appropriation by modern white supremacists.

What I’m thinking about today, in light of the state of the Catholic Church as an institution, is the sonnet entitled, “SPQR” by the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863; full text and translation at the end of this post). Belli lived in Rome when the Church was also the ruling authority in the city. He wrote scores of sonnets in the vivid Roman dialect (I’ve blogged about him already) and he was not afraid to use his poems to challenge ecclesiastical abuse and hypocrisy.

One such poem is, “SPQR.” Here, Belli “remembers” his schoolboy days, where he would see the letters everywhere in Rome and wonder what they stood for. So, like any good Catholic, he asks his teacher/priest (Fr. Fulgentius). The priest rather brusquely tells the boy:

Ste lettre vonno dì, ssor zomarone,
Soli preti qui rreggneno: e ssilenzio

These letters mean, you giant dumbass,
“Here the priests run everything.” Now shut up.

Soli Preti Qui Reggneno”—SPQR—literally, “Here only priests rule.” This is the world Belli lived in, but it’s also part of the world that Catholics have grown up in. Clericalism—the idea that “Father knows best,” that priests are inherently or supernaturally holier/better than laypeople, that they are above the rules and accountability that govern the rest of us— is ingrained into many Catholics since childhood, especially those from immigrant communities in the United States. And many priests believe it too, carrying themselves as if they were better than their lay brothers and sisters. This is what lies at the heart of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, because sexual violence is fundamentally about power. Clerical power has been fed by the privilege and deference given to clergy by lay Catholics, and is the cause of obfuscation and silence embraced by the clergy to protect their status, no matter the harm done to the laity. I’m not alone in thinking this. 

As Belli’s sonnet makes clear (and as I learned from my mother, herself an immigrant to the US from Rome), laypeople have long known that hypocrisy exists among the clergy. But we are at a moment now in the life of the US Catholic Church in which many Catholics will no longer put up with it,  because now we see how clericalism has permitted and subsequently hidden irreparable harm done to children.

The question facing those Catholics contemplating their ongoing participation in the institutional Church is whether the Tradition—the Christian faith and its practices that have been handed down through the centuries—can continue to exist and be passed on in an institution that is so clearly rotten from the inside out.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine built the great basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Rome, he destroyed two large cemeteries in order to create a foundation for these new buildings. Metaphorically, the clerical nature of the institutional Church is a cemetery: a city of the dead that needs to be razed in order for a new building, a new place of worship, to rise in its place. Whether any of us in the Church have the will to undertake that vast labor is what will define Catholicism from this moment forward.

Quell’esse, pe, ccu, erre, inarberate
Sur portone de guasi oggni palazzo,
Quelle sò cquattro lettere der cazzo,
Che nun vonno dì ggnente, compitate.
M’aricordo però cche dda regazzo,
Cuanno leggevo a fforza de frustate,
Me le trovavo sempre appiccicate
Drent’in dell’abbeccé ttutte in un mazzo.
Un giorno arfine me te venne l’estro
De dimannanne un po’ la spiegazzione
A ddon Furgenzio ch’era er mi’ maestro.
Ecco che mm’arispose don Furgenzio:
“Ste lettre vonno dì, ssor zomarone,
Soli preti qui rreggneno: e ssilenzio.”

Roma, 4 maggio 1833

That SPQR on the door
Of almost every building,
Those four fucking letters,
They don’t spell anything.
But I remember when I was a boy,
And had to read or get thrashed,
I always found them together, like the ABC’s.
Finally, one day the desire came over me
To ask Don Fulgentius, my teacher, for an explanation.
Here’s the answer Don Fulgentius gave me,
“These letters mean, you giant dumbass,
‘Here the priests run everything.’ Now shut up.”

Rome, May 4, 1833

Praying With Yogi Berra (Sort Of)

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” ~attributed to Leo Durocher

It was one of those air travel nightmares you hear about but hope you are never in: In October 2009, I was on an international flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv en route to Jerusalem for an academic conference. After a rigorous and time-consuming security screening (enhanced for all travel to Israel) we were boarded on the plane only to wait on the tarmac for seven hours due to a mechanical issue. Tempers grew short and airport security were brought on the plane after some passengers began shouting at the flight crew. By the time I landed in Tel Aviv, and made it through Israeli passport control, the car ride to Jerusalem, and arrival at my destination, I was exhausted.

I awoke sometime in the middle of the night, my body’s clock completely out of whack with my surroundings. With nothing else to do, I began channel-surfing. Late-night TV is bad no matter where you are, and Israeli TV is no exception. I mindlessly flipped through eastern European soap operas and 1960’s footage of Israeli folk dancers until, miraculously it seemed, I came across the live broadcast of Game 1 of the World Series. The Phillies were at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx Bombers had won 102 games that year on their way to the AL Pennant. On the mound for the Phillies was Cliff Lee, picked up from Cleveland that year right before the trade deadline. Lee had pitched an eight-inning no-hitter against St. Louis in June on his way to a complete game. Here, on the biggest stage in baseball, in one of the game’s iconic parks, Lee was magnificent: throwing 80 strikes out of 122 total pitches as part of a complete game, eight-inning shutout in the Phillies 6-1 victory.   

Unlike Cliff Lee, I didn’t make it to the end of the game, but those first few innings I watched from Jerusalem were a delight I will not soon forget, thanks to his record-setting performance: the first pitcher in a World Series start with ten strikeouts, no walks, and no earned runs. The next morning, I drank my coffee in sight of the Temple Mount and walked into the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the site believed to be the tomb of Christ has been venerated for over sixteen centuries. In another happy coincidence, I arrived just as Mass in front of the tomb was beginning for an American tour group. I quietly joined the back of the group and slid comfortably into the vocal and physical rhythms of the rite that has been with me my entire life.

The Aedicule, built over the traditional tomb of Jesus, Holy Sepulcher Church, Jerusalem. By Daniel Case from Wikimedia Commons.

My experiences of the World Series game in the House that Ruth Built and the Mass at the Holy Sepulcher both involved a powerful combination of memory, history, ritual, and emotion. A baseball game is liturgical after all: a public, communal, ritual event, within which individual and group dramas are acted out in larger structure of order and rules. Both baseball and the liturgy are global phenomena, with distinct cultural elements depending on where in the world they are, not to mention the role that some ballparks play as pilgrimage sites of sorts or the gallery of saints and sinners in the history of the game. And of course, like liturgy, baseball’s adherents argue passionately about any changes to the rubrics–at times even more passionately than Christians to about worship.

I don’t want to press these similarities too far, and I’m not about to argue that there is some innate religious component in human nature or in everything that we do (but there is quite a bit of literature out there on religion and baseball). But I can’t deny that these two unexpected encounters within the space of a few hours were for me more than just a reminder of “home” in a foreign country. The ballgame gave me a deeper understanding of the worship service. Together both brought me face to face with the embodied nature of religious worship, its necessary binding to place and to group.

Shamblesuk at the English Wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons.

Acrostics: Seen But Not Heard

Recently, and rather surprisingly, acrostics have been in the news. Two different resignation letters of former officials from the Trump administration contain acrostics spelling out not-so-subtle political exhortations. Daniel Kammen’s resignation as State Department Science Envoy used the first letter of each paragraph to spell out “impeach.” And the group resignation signed by fourteen members of the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities used the same structure to spell out “resist” (n.b., click on images for larger view).


Perhaps the most famous (or notorious) modern American political acrostic is found in the letter then California governor Arnold Scwharzenegger sent to the State Assembly accompanying an unsigned bill. I’ll leave you to decipher the message:

One recent book in biblical studies contains an acrostic that spells out a dedication to the author’s spouse. Acrostics aren’t a new literary phenomenon. They are found as far back as second millennium BCE cuneiform texts.  A text known as “The Babylonian Theodicy” is a dialogue between a sufferer and a friend (similar to the biblical Book of Job) consisting of 27 stanzas of text, each with eleven lines. The lines in each stanza begin with the same cuneiform sign which together spell out the name of the text’s author: “I Saggil-kinam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am an adorer of the god and the king.” The images below are taken from W. G. Lambert’s edition of this text. You can see the identical cuneiform signs looking at the first sign on the lefthand side of the tablet and following them vertically.

There are acrostics in the Hebrew Bible, but they are alphabetical, that is, the acrostic spells out the alphabet. One of these is the so-called “Praise of the Good Wife” poem which closes out the Book of Proverbs. The first letter of every line spells out the Hebrew alphabet.

The most elaborate acrostic in the Hebrew Bible is Psalm 119 which, like the Babylonian Theodicy, contains multiple stanzas each beginning with a different letter. The Psalm consists of 22, eight-line stanzas and its acrostic, like Proverbs 31, spells out the Hebrew alphabet.

Acrostics serve many purposes, as with the case of the resignation letters, Schwarzenegger’s letter, and the Babylonian Theodicy, they can contain covert information available to the keen observer. Or alphabetic acrostics, like Proverbs 31 or Psalm 119, aid in memorization of the text. Both kinds of acrostics depend on and subsequently display the erudition of the author while simultaneously asking the reader to demonstrate some savvy of their own.

Acrostics are also important artifacts to literacy in a culture because they require literate readers who can access the text visually. These are texts which must be seen and not heard. The complex interplay between orality and literacy in the ancient world, and ancient Israel in particular, merits further study.


Coffee and the Life of the Mind

As Markman Ellis notes in his excellent history of the coffee house, almost since their first appearance in the west they have been places for people to gather and talk about ideas.

The Italian poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli ( 1791-1863) has written one of my favorite ruminations on coffee and life. His sonnet, Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista) is, like all his sonnets, written in the vibrant and earthy Roman dialect the locals call “romanaccio.” Here it is with my rather wooden translation:

G. G. Belli (fotgrafo ignoto forse Giacomo Caneva) – Silvio Negro, “Nuovo album romano”, Vicenza, Neri Pozza editore, 1964, foto n° 9., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12015785

Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista)
Guiseppe Gioachino Belli
Rome 1833

L’ommini de sto monno sò l’istesso,
Che vaghi de caffè ner macinino,
C’uno prima, uno doppo, e un’antro appresso,
Tutti quanti però vanno a un distino.
Spesso muteno sito, e caccia spesso,
Er vago grosso er vago piccinino,
E ss’incarzeno tutti in zu l’ingresso,
Der ferro che li sfraggne in porverino.
E l’ommini accusì viveno ar monno,
Misticati pe mano de la sorte,
Che sse li gira tutti in tonno in tonno.
E movennose oggnuno, o ppiano, o fforte,
Senza capillo mai caleno a fonno,
Pe cascà ne la gola de la morte.

People in this world are like
coffee beans in a grinder.
One comes first, another follows, then another after that,
but they all go the same fate.
They often change places, often the big bean
trades spots with the little one,
but they all crowd into the opening
of the blade that grinds them into dust.
And this is how people live in the world,
thrown together by the hand of fate,
which spins them round and round.
Each of them moving, slow or fast,
until, without ever knowing, they descend,
to drop into the jaws of death.

Belli is referring to the old hand-turned coffee grinders, which are making a comeback. His vivid imagery of the beans whirling around and slowing descending to their annihilation, and comparison of this with life, is in itself pretty powerful. Expressed in the robust doubled consonants and long vowels of romanaccio, the poem is sublime. My Mother was a Roman and I grew up hearing her and other relatives speaking the dialect. It still contains quite a few loanwords from Latin.

The actor Maurizio Mosetti has recordings of Belli’s sonnets that you can download here.

Here is Mosetti in a traditional carnival mask reciting the sonnet, which is then set to music by the Roman musician Andriana Bono.

So, next time you’re enjoying a strong espresso, think of the beans that were ground to make it. Think of the whirling, random chaos that is life, and remember:

A uno a uno se n’annamo tutti.
One by one we’ll all be going away.

The Ready Ear of the Scribe

Among the incredible Egyptian holdings in the Louvre is The Seated Scribe discovered at Saqqara and dating from the 4th-5th Dynasties.

Egyptian Scribe

This isn’t the only example of a seated scribe found in Egypt. Others exist, from as late as the 7th century BCE, a good 18 centuries or so later than the one pictured above.

Scribes were an essential part of Egyptian bureaucracy and underwent a rigorous and standardized education. Among the school texts, one of my students’ favorites is The Satire on the Trades, which exists in several copies. In it, a father is taking his young son to begin his education as a scribe. We can infer that the son is anxious about this, and the father gives him advice about how much better the life of a scribe is–along with a veiled threat: “I will teach you to love books more than your mother.”

The father’s descriptions of other trades is meant to highlight how undesirable they are compared to being a scribe. The coppersmith has burned hands bent like claws. A potter is covered with dirt more than a pig in the muck. The barber has to wander through the streets trying to drum up customers.

In comparison to this is the scribe who, the father claims rather disingenuously, is his own boss. While it is true that the scribe has privileged access to the powerful, he is meant to be seen and not heard (unless bearing a message). More importantly, he is meant to see and hear. The statue from the Louvre and its fellows make that clear: The scribe sits upright, attentive, writing board in one hand and stylus in the other, at the service of his boss.

Egyptian Scribe

What my students love about this text is, of course, the fact that parents who send their children to school appear not to have changed in 3000 years: Getting an education apparently means nothing more than getting a “good” job–one with prestige and no manual labor. And, of course, there will always be someone above you.

A Brief Statement of Purpose

I am not planning to write many blog entries here, but I wanted to claim my own space on the web for my thoughts and work.

With the help of Reclaim Hosting and advice from fellow academics online, such as Eric Cline,  Alana Vincent, Sarah Bond, Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, and Carrie Schroeder, among others, here I am.

I’ll be posting articles, online pieces, teaching materials, and thoughts on relevant news items in academia. I promise to get better as I go along.

And so, without further ado…