Random Conjectures

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On Great and Holy Lent


Well, I suppose that I am suffering from blogospheric peer group pressure, as it seems that just about everyone Catholic is talking about fasting, and what they are ‘giving up’ for Lent. Today also seems to be the Feast of St. Patrick, so loads of people are talking about dispensations from the Friday fast so that they can have their corned beef and cabbage. Looks like we have opportunities for cognitive dissonance galore here.

So I suppose that I should add more cognitive dissonance, just to help the party along. Let’s start with the fact that the ‘traditional’ corned beef and cabbage dinner probably got started in 19th century NYC and Boston, when Irish Americans still lived in the same neighborhoods as Jewish Americans, and that was one of the better items on the deli menu. One could go on to say that St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish, to begin with, but was a Briton of Roman ancestry who got enslaved by a bunch of pagans who dragged him to Ireland.

Of course, at this point, I would get the most wry amusement by saying that the lot of you RCs who are all ‘I’m giving up chocolate for Lent’, are looked upon by most Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in much the same way that those who bench press 400+ pounds with free weights look upon the newbies in the gym who are all ‘I’m up to holding ten pounds in each of my hands now.’

We’d probably tell you to stop, but our amusement outweighs our sense of embarrassment on your behalf. So, we just let you go on with your idle prattle.

But, just like the studs at the gym, there are some of us who would actually kinda like to help the newbies learn how it’s really done. Part of it is simple self interest. I mean, no one wants to go to the gym to find that a newbie has damaged or maimed himself on the machines or the free weights. It throws your whole training schedule off. But part of it is that genuine pleasure which comes in helping a beginner to become proficient, and maybe even to become an athlete in his or her own right.

So, in that spirit, may I offer you the following suggestions.

First, I would suggest that you re-read the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6. Especially verses 1 through 21. Then come back.

Okay, the discerning reader might note that Our Lord is talking here about not just fasting, but almsgiving and prayer as well. As a matter of fact, His discussion of almsgiving and prayer precede any discussion of fasting. The discerning reader might note that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not just idle things, but are a package deal.

The next thing that one might note is that our Lord gives much the same advice for each of these: Don’t make a big show about doing them. Don’t talk about what you’re doing. Just do them. Quietly, and alone.

To quote from the classics, ‘The first rule about Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club’.

As for almsgiving, may I suggest that throwing money at the task is about as effective, or ineffective, as it is in business or in government. May I suggest some personal attention instead? How about trying to be kind to other people? How about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? To tell the truth, I think that our Lord has some words to say on the subject.

As for myself, though, I have noted, to my own shame, that at times I fasted to the point when I was not kind to others, but downright crabby and nasty instead. I would offer the observation that fasting to that point might not be productive, but actually the reverse.

As to prayer, however, our Lord’s counsel would appear to be, ‘Keep It Simple, Soul’. No excess verbiage. Our Lord knows what you need far better than you do, anyway. A lot of better and more holy souls than I am have found that the prayer of the Publican works well: ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’.  To that they have added the confession that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the Son of God. And so, they have come up with the Prayer of the Heart: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

A lot of people have found that if you say each word of the prayer in time with the beating of your heart, that your emotions, or your heart, can become calm. I have also found that by breathing in for four heart beats, gently holding one’s breath for four heart beats, and breathing out for four beats, one becomes even more calm.

I have also found that, at least in English, one can gain even more calm by praying in this way:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son’ (breathe in)

‘Of God, have mercy’ (hold breath)

‘On me, a sinner’ (breathe out).

Oh, just one more thing (at least on prayer). I have found that you can use this prayer to pray, not only for yourself, but for others as well. Just replace the words ‘On me, a sinner’ with ‘On Thy servant, Y’ or ‘On Thy handmaid, X’.

And finally, regarding fasting, let’s start with some precision in language here, shared by both Orthodox and Catholics. If you are reducing the amount of food you usually eat, you are fasting. If you are eliminating certain foods, you are abstaining from those foods.  And if you are giving up some thing (like chocolate) for a time, you are undergoing a penance. Let’s try to be precise here.

Part of the problem here is that up until recently (say, the last century or three), both Orthodox and Catholics were pretty much on the same page as regards fasting, abstinence, and penance. Mardi Gras and Carnivale pretty much meant: ‘goodbye to meat, guyz’. Shrove Tuesday also meant pretty much ‘bake them pancakes, guyz, cause you’ve got to use up all the eggs and milk before Lent begins’. Even the Irish ‘black fast’ up until the late 19th century meant that you didn’t put milk in your tea.

In short, Orthodox and Catholics both held that yer pretty much on a vegan diet for Lent. Sure, Greek Orthodox would slip in fish without backbones, and Russian Orthodox and RCs would slip in fish (backbones or not). But they were still in something resembling agreement. The charitable would say that RC clergy decided that the strictures of fasting were too onerous, and so loosened them, and continued loosening them, over the centuries. As I’m trying to be charitable here, I’ll try to refrain from what others have said on the subject.

But here’s the deal: If you are trying to do things the really old fashioned way, the apostolic tradition (found in the Didache, and maintained in practice) is that one fasted and abstained from most non-vegetable foods on Wednesdays and Fridays. For periods of fasting, such as before Pascha or Nativity, one also fasted for the weekdays of several weeks before those feasts.

But I will point out, in the words of my parish priest, that our Lord did not say (in Matt. 6) ‘If you fast’, but ‘when you fast’. Some fasting is therefore called for.

Having attempted the fasts of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches for the past thirty or so years, and having failed or succeeded in some measure to accomplish those fasts, I have rather painfully garnered the following counsel. I give it to you free:

  1.  Don’t talk about your fasting (or prayer, or almsgiving);
  2. If you are fasting to the point that you are becoming mean spirited or crabby, you’re probably doing it wrong;
  3. Fasting, as with almsgiving and prayer, include the most primary forms of spiritual exercise, meant to help yourself and others. Exercise, in order to be effective, has to be both habitual, and gradually increased. ‘Diet’ means ‘way of life’, not ‘fad’. Sudden and unwarranted increases in exercise usually don’t help, and often damage, those undertaking them;
  4. In order to survive, you need certain minima of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins. If you intend on being something other than another anti-vegan joke, you need to know how to plan a vegetarian diet that works. Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet is the most effective way of getting that knowledge that I have found.
  5. A daily multi-vitamin is also most helpful, and most religions don’t ask you to fast from such.

Finally, I suppose the question turns to that of: ‘Why fast, in the first place?’

I think that the answer to that may be found in the question, ‘Well then, why give alms, or pray, or fast?’ As I said before, this appears to be our Lord’s package deal. He tells us that if we do them, not expecting a reward from the regard of our fellow human critters, but from Him, He will reward us. And I do not think it a matter of coincidence that He follows His advice on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, with these words:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I think that perhaps what He is saying is that if we cooperate with God, and if we do good to others, if we pray, and if we fast, we will gather up for ourselves treasure in heaven, which neither the world, the flesh, nor the Devil can take from us.

More Maudlin Maunderings

Well, the house blessing has come and gone. The duck cassoulet was the hit of the party, The dessert cheesecake went quite well with the champagne and the port, and a good time was had by all. I wish that I could have invited more, including the six or seven readers here. ‘Had we but world enough, and time…’

And, the next day, Monday, there was enough cassoulet to have a party at my mother’s house, for my brother Bill, my nephew John, his friend Ryan, my mother, and myself. With something left over for my friend Larry, who could probably use it right now.

And, for my friends whom I could not invite, my current plans are to get the materials together, and, on Passion Week before Pascha, to confect another duck cassoulet to bring to St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church, for the feast we have after our celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I think most of youze guyz call it ‘Easter’. As you hipsters are wont to say, save the date.

I was sufficiently energetic as well on Monday to cook eight pounds of chicken thighs and legs gotten cheaply at the local multi-culti mart, a half gallon of liquid yogurt poured over the lot in a gallon zip lock bag and soaking there from the Sunday night after the party, spiced, dredged in flour, and fried beautifully. I have talked about the recipe used here. It wasn’t for me or my family though. It was for my two good neighbors, Ernie, who runs the man cave in his garage next door, and Benny, the local ex-gang homeboy, who treats me regularly to huge plastic cups full of Hennessey, Courvoisier, and El Jimador. We had a party on Friday, which had ‘stayed me in a happy hour’, and while I was in my cups, I said that I would provide them both with a fried chicken feast. One tries to keep one’s word. Especially with such good folk as they are.

But now it’s a Tuesday morning, on a dismal day, where everything is gray, including my outlook on life. I’m currently working my way through a bot of a Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs. I intend on continuing through the liter and a half of fair California Sauvignon Blanc which was one legacy of the Sunday house blessing. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner may also be involved. Or not.

My mother is dying.

I’ve tried avoiding talking about it. This was helped, in its odd way, by my illnesses of the past month. Because of her age and her allied illnesses, she was immune compromised. I was harboring some rather nasty viral bugs. It would have done her no favors by sharing them with her. So, for a month, I did not visit.

And then she had the stroke.

My brother called when she had it. I was in bed, and missed the call. I called back later, and spoke with her. She could still speak.

So I did not know the full extent of the damage from the stroke. Until later.

She has lost the use of her legs, and of her right hand. She was right handed. As a hobby, I have studied neurology and neurophysiology. I was and remain fascinated by the structure and functions of the human brain. Judging from the dysfunctions, I could probably give an accurate map of the areas of the brain affected by the stroke.

I hope you will pardon me if I drink instead.

I am reminded of the quotation at the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’. Though seldom properly attributed, it is from the ‘Satyricon’ of Petronius Arbitor. It is from the ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, that opera buffa, where a nouveau riche billionaire provides an elaborate feast for his guests. And Trimachio, the host of the event, says the following:

Nam Sybillam quidem Cumis ego ipsis oculis meis vidi in ampullis pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent, ‘Sibylla ti theleis?’ Et respondebat illa, ‘apothanein thelo’.

I realize full well that I get points off for not putting the text in single quotes into proper Greek script. But, well, I’m a bit impaired just now. And planning to get more than a trifle more impaired. Deal with it.

But, for the majority of you philology impaired, it is a terrible thing to realize that your mother has become the Sybil of Cumis, and that she wants to die.

Bye, all. I’ll come back when I’m not so poisoned by life. Or death.

I’m just happy that my mother could have some few teaspoons of the cassoulet that I cooked for her. And that she enjoyed them.

Some maudlin maunderings…

Well, the house blessing is coming Sunday. The house is getting cleaned, more slowly than I would like, because of the residuum of this damned cold/flu. Meanwhile, I’m putting together the items of the menu for the priest, the rest of our choir, and a few friends. There are a lot more that I’d like to invite, but space and time are limited, especially in my little hovel. Maybe another time and place. In the meantime, I must say that I’m sorry that I can’t provide for all of my other friends. Maybe in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe. Read the rest of this entry »

Valentine’s Day after Beth


Actually, maudlin thoughts aside, this is more along the lines of thinking about things that I did for and with my late wife Beth, that made Valentine’s Day special, and that any poor schlep (or shlepette) can do for his or her beloved.

Yeh, I could brag that I am, if not a great chef, at least a competent one, and can rustle up some Eggs Benedict or Dover Sole a la Bonne Femme or Boeuf Bourgignon or Quiche Lorraine, and all.

I could. But that would fall into the category of ‘True, but unhelpful.’ What y’all need are some quick fixes. Here are three: Read the rest of this entry »

Another open letter to an excellent essayist

It seems that Dr. Adam De Ville has written yet another good essay in his weblog. Those who wish to may read it, here. I found in it some areas of disagreement, and I attempted to communicate those to him, privately, on his weblog. Unfortunately, I was informed that only members of his weblog could make comments on it. Thus, I am reduced to making them in my poor weblog instead: Read the rest of this entry »

Remedial Education: Progress Report, of a sort…


Those four or five people who actually read this miserable weblog may, from time to time, wonder why I have not been writing all that much in it, lately.

Well, part of the reason was that I was working on a big project for a friend. You know, you promise to help a guy, and then you find out that it’s turned into a federal case.  The literal kind. Like, before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and all. Read the rest of this entry »

An (open) letter to a fine essayist

Dr. Adam De Ville, a gentleman and a scholar, has recently written another of his fine essays, entitled, Sovereign is He who Destroys the Exceptional. That essay can be found here. I will not sully Dr. De Ville’s good work by offering a précis of it.

Nonetheless, I found his work worthy, not only of citation, but of comment. This is what I had to say: Read the rest of this entry »

Food Porn: Fried Chicken


Well, it’s been two months since I’ve written in this silly weblog. Sorry about that. Something to do with having to face the loss of my mother, who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s and old age. I will, perhaps, talk about that later. There have also been some changes as regards my process of remedial education. Certain intensifications. I will also perhaps write more about that, later.

But as I am not quite ready to talk about either subject, I will instead talk about fried chicken. Read the rest of this entry »

Human Aging Considered as an Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Part I)


Well, last Tuesday morning the temperature in wonderful downtown San Pedro dipped to below 60° F. for the first time this year, right down to an absolute bone-chilling 55°. My reaction, like that of many spoiled SoCal residents, was to stay in bed until far later, and then to turn on the pilots of the two wall heaters in my living room and bedroom. Those who come from far chillier climes, who have to deal with far worse on a regular basis, are free to post negs to their heart’s content.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’


Perhaps you are familiar with the story. It is an old one, going back to the fables before Aesop, two and a half millenia ago: Chicken Little is walking around, when an acorn falls from a tree, and bungs him a good one on his pea-brained noggin. Little decides that the sky is falling, gets on social media, er, shouts to all his friends, starts a petition at whitehouse.gov, leads them to talk with the King, meets with George Soros/Breitbart/Pepe the Frog/Fill In Villain of Your Choice Here, er, a friendly Fox, who suggests that all the barnyard crew stay in his lair for the evening, and then they can travel the rest of the way to visit the King.

Whereupon, the Fox eats the lot of them, Chicken Little included. Or else the Fox manages to get the lot of them to do some really stupid stuff, like vote for Trump or Hillary, and either riot afterwards, or get smug about their winner. I dunno: it’s kind of hard to tell these days.

But the moral of the story would appear to be this: try not to get played, kids. Would that any of the lot of you had learned that lesson, folks.

Because it seems to me that just about ALL of you have been played in one way or another, guyz. Myself included. Read the rest of this entry »