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Here we are in the hottest months of the year—the Shepheardes Calender year that is (uh, and the real year too, I guess).  I must confess, sometimes Spenser’s 16th century political allusions and classical references (and even his religious homilies and analogies) leave me confounded and sorely vex’d.  However in July, the poetic meter suddenly takes on a chantlike quality and the allegorical meaning of the text becomes more straightforward too (and more familiar to my Protestant Appalachian roots—in attitude if not in altitude).  Morrel, a somewhat grandiloquent and pompous goatherd has called down from a mountain to Thomalin a shepherd who lives on the plains. The goatherd wants the shepherd to come up to the loftier station, but the latter wants to stay close to his roots and avoid the excesses of pride.  Also Morrel’s guileful goats are running amok, whereas Thomalin dutifully keeps his sheep together.

This straightforward (yet somewhat contrived) set-up becomes a metaphor for the contest between Protestantism and Catholicism in England–an all-too-familiar theme for Spenser’s original audience.  Thus, as we proceed through the poem, we find ourselves mired in a theological controversy which runs the entire length and breadth of England. The pastoral frolics of sheep and goats transmogrify into a sly commentary on the politicians and theology of the day.  In Dante-esque fashion Spenser combines this with classical allusions, and personal grudges.  This little poem thus represents the spiritual, the natural, the personal, and the political–all mashed together in the form of two yokels shouting at each other on a hill.

This sounds amazing and it is–but it is also couched in Spenser’s faux Middle English, and the poem contains allusions to historical personages who are no longer well-known. Thus amongst the classical deities and Biblical personages we find the peculiar figure of Algrind—a not-very-subtle anagram of Grindal–who was the bishop of London at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign.  Fortunately for us, the bishop encounters another Ferrebeekeeper theme—a mollusk, dropped upon his head by an eagle.   It is enough to give the reader brain fever…or maybe that is just July’s heat….

At any rate, without further preamble, allow me to present:

july

The Shepheardes Calender: July

 Ægloga Septima.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue is made in the honour and commendation of good shepheardes, and to the shame and disprayse of proude and ambitious Pastours. Such as Morrell is here imagined to bee.

THOMALIN. MORREL.

Is not thilk same a Goat-herd proud,
That sits on yonder Bank;
Whose straying Herd themself doth shroud
Emong the Bushes rank?

MORREL.
What ho, thou jolly Shepherd’s Swain,
Come up the Hill to me:
Better is, than the lowly Plain,
Als for thy Flock and thee.

THOMALIN.
Ah! God shield, Man, that I should clime,
And learn to look aloft
This Read is rife, that oftentime
Great Climbers fall unsoft.
In humble Dales is footing fast,
The Trode is not so tickle;
And though one fall through heedless haste,
Yet is his Miss not mickle.
And now the Sun hath reared up
His fiery-footed Teme,
Making his way between the Cup
And golden Diademe:
The rampant Lion hunts he fast,
With Dogs of noisom Breath,
Whose baleful barking brings in haste,
Pine, Plagues, and drery Death.
Against his cruel scorching Heat,
Where thou hast Coverture,
The wasteful Hills unto his Threat
Is a plain Overture.
But if thee lust, to holden chat
With seely Shepherd’s Swain:
Come down, and learn the little what,
That Thomalin can sain.

MORREL.
Siker, thous but a lasy Loord,
And rekes much of thy Swink,
That with fond Terms, and witless Words
To blear mine Eyes dost think.
In evil hour thou henst in hond
Thus holy Hills to blame;
For sacred unto Saints they stond,
And of them han their Name.
St. Michel’s Mount who does not know,
That wards the Western Coast?
And of St. Bridget’s Bow’r I trow,
All Kent can rightly boast:
And they that con of Muses Skill,
Fain most what, that they dwell
(As Goat-herds wont) upon a Hill,
Beside a learned Well.
And wonned not the great God Pan
Upon Mount Olivet;
Feeding the blessed Flock of Dan,
Which did himself beget?

THOMALIN.
O blessed Sheep! O Shepherd great!
That bought his Flock so dear:
And them did save with bloody Sweat,
From Wolves that would them tear.

MORREL.
Beside, as holy Fathers sain,
There is a holy Place,
Where Titan riseth from the Main,
To ren his daily Race:
Upon whose Tops the Stars been staied,
And all the Sky doth lean;
There is the Cave where Phoebe laied
The Shepherd long to dream.
Whilom there used Shepherds all
To feed their Flocks at will,
Till by his Folly one did fall,
That all the rest did spill.
And sithence Shepherds been foresaid
From Places of Delight;
For-thy, I ween thou be afraid,
To clime this Hilles hight.
Of Synah an I tell thee more,
And of our Lady’s Bow’r:
But little needs to crow my Store,
Suffice this Hill of our.
Here hen the holy Faunes Recourse,
And Sylvanes haunten rathe;
Here has the salt Medway his Sourse,
Wherein the Nymphs do bathe:
The salt Medway, that trickling streams
Adown the Dales of Kent,
Till with his elder Brother Thames,
His brackish Waves be meynt.
Here grows Melampode, every where,
And Teribinth, good for Goats:
The one, my madding Kids to smear,
The next to heal their Throats.
Hereto, the Hills been nigher Heaven,
And thence the Passage eath:
As well can prove the piercing Levin,
That seldom falls beneath.

THOMALIN.
Siker thou speakest like a lewd Lorel,
Of Heaven to deemen so:
How be I am but rude and borrel,
Yet nearer ways I know.
To Kirk the nar, so God more far,
Has been an old said Saw;
And he that strives to touch a Star,
Oft stumbles at a Straw.
Alsoon may Shepherds clime to Sky,
That leads in lowly Dales;
As Goat-herd proud, that sitting high,
Upon the Mountain fails.
My seely Sheep like well below,
They need not Melampode;
For they been hale enough, I trow,
And liken their Abode.
But if they with thy Goats should yede,
They soon might be corrupted;
Or like not of the frowy Fede,
Or with the Weeds be glutted.
The Hills, where dwelled holy Saints,
I reverence and adore;
Not for themself, but for the Saints,
Which hen been dead of yore.
And now they been to Heaven forewent,
Their Good is with them go;
Their Sample only to us lent,
That als we mought do so.
Shepherds they weren of the best,
And lived in lowly Leas;
And sith their Souls be now at rest,
Why done we them Disease?
Such one he was (as I have heard
Old Algrind often sain)
That whilom was the first Shepherd;
And liv’d with little Gain:
And meek he was, as meek mought be;
Simple, as simple Sheep;
Humble, and like in each degree
The Flock which he did keep.
Often he used of his Keep
A Sacrifice to bring;
Now with a Kid, now with a Sheep,
The Altars hallowing.
So louted he unto the Lord,
Such Favour couth he find,
That never sithence was abhor’d
The simple Shepherds kind.
And such I ween the Brethren were,
That came from Canaan;
The Brethren twelve, that kept yfere
The Flocks of mighty Pan.
But nothing such thilk Shepherd was,
Whom Ida Hill did bear,
That left his Flock to fetch a Lass,
Whose Love he bought too dear:
For he was proud, that ill was paid,
(No such mought Shepherds be)
And with leud Lust was over-laid;
Tway things doen ill agree.
But Shepherds mought be meek and mild,
Well eyed, as Argus was,
With fleshly Follies undefil’d,
And stout as Steed of Brass.
Sike one (said Algrind) Moses was,
That saw his Maker’s Face,
His Face more clear than crystal Glass,
And spake to him in place.
This had a Brother (his Name I know)
The first of all his Coat:
A Shepherd true, yet not so true,
As he that earst I hote.
Whilom all these were low, and leef,
And lov’d their Flocks to feed,
They never stroven to be chief,
And simple was their Weed.
But now (thanked be God therefore)
The World is well amend:
Their Weeds been not so nightly wore,
Such Simpless mought them shend.
They been yclad in Purple and Pall,
So hath their God them blist;
They reign and rulen over all,
And lord it as they list:
Ygirt with Belts of Glitter and Gold,
(Mought they good Shepherds been)
Their Pan their Sheep to them has sold,
I say, as some have seen.
For Palinode (if thou him ken)
Yode late on Pilgrimage
To Rome (if such be Rome) and then
He saw thilk Misusage.
For Shepherds (said he) there doen lead,
As Lords done otherwhere;
Their Sheep han Crusts, and they the Bread;
The Chips, and they the Chear:
They han the Fleece, and eke the Flesh,
(O seely Sheep the while!)
The Corn is theirs, let others thresh,
Their Hands they may not file.
They han great Store, and thrifty Flocks,
Great Friends, and feeble Foes:
What need hem caren for their Flocks,
Their Boys can look to those?
These Wizards welter in Wealth’s Waves,
Pamper’d in Pleasures deep;
They han fat Kerns and leany Knaves,
Their fasting flocks to keep.
Sike mister Men been all misgone,
They heapen Hills of Wrath:
Sike sirly Shepherds hen we none,
They keepen all the Path.

MORREL.
Here is a great deal of good Matter,
Lost for lack of telling:
Now siker I see thou dost but clatter,
Harm may come of melling.
Thou meddlest more than shall have thank
To witen Shepherd’s Wealth:
When Folk been fat, and Riches rank,
It is a Sign of Health.
But say me, what is Algrind, he
That is so oft bynempt?

THOMALIN.
He is a Shepherd great in Gree,
But hath been long ypent:
One day he sate upon a Hill,
(As now thou wouldest me,
But I am taught by Algrind’s Ill,
To love the low degree)
For sitting so with bared Scalp,
An Eagle soared high,
That weening his white Heat was Chalk,
A Shell-Fish down let fly.
She ween’d the Shell-Fish to have broke,
But therewith bruis’d his Brain:
So now astonied with the Stroke,
He lies in lingring Pain.

MORREL.
Ah! good Algrind, his Hap was ill,
But shall be better in time:
Now farewel, Shepherd, sith this Hill
Thou hast such doubt to clime.

PALINODE’S EMBLEM.
In medio Virtus.

MORREL’S EMBLEM.
In summo Felicitas.

Contraception Experts before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.

For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows.  The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees.  These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves).  Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.

Hi! I can still intrude in American politics!

There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se.  If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen].  There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.

I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.

The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience.  This implies that they are paying for the service!  Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees.  It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field).  Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs.  Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.

Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse.  People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own.  The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.

The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them.  People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them.  Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.

I have no answers but here's some bland clipart.

Our Lady of the Barren Tree (Petrus Christus, ca. 1465)

Here is a tiny painting by Petrus Christus who worked in Bruges during the middle of the fifteenth century.  Painted around 1456, and measuring a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, the painting shows the virgin mother standing in the hollow of a darkened thorn tree holding the infant Jesus.  The imagery is unusual for Christian religious art.  The tree may stand for the long lost tree of knowledge–barren since the expulsion from paradise, but about to be brought back to life by Jesus.  Alternately the image may have an idiosyncratic meaning:  Christus belonged to “the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree” and probably painted this work as personal devotional object for a wealthy fellow member.  Whatever the exact meaning, the barren tree’s wicked thorns certainly foreshadow the crown of thorns and Christ’s execution on the Cross.  The tree is hung with lower-case letter “a”s fashioned of gold.  The symbolic meaning of the letters is somewhat obscure—the most likely possibility is that they stand for “Ave Marias” and represent the 15 mysteries of the Rosary (a widespread devotional rite which represents the life of Jesus).  However they might also allude to knowledge outright, or to some personal reference (one must avoid the urge to think they represent the grade inflation now so rampant in the academic sphere).  Whatever its meaning, this little painting is a triumph of mysterious late-gothic mood.

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