Wednesday, December 10, 2014


When I was a little girl and testing my self-control it was not about marshmallows.  I walked to school in the rain every day, trudging along Sumner Avenue in my rubber boots which slapped the backs of my calves at every step hard enough to raise a nasty welt.  The cure would have been to wear long stockings, but I despised them because for a while I’d been forced to wear them with a kind of garter belt that went over my shoulders because I had no waist.  It was merely flesh-colored elastic but to me it was like those black leather harnesses that SM pictures show.  No one had thought of tights yet, so long stockings and garter belts were associated with Marlene Dietrich sexy outfits.  Mine were not sheer black silk but rather oat-meal colored and about that texture, worn with sturdy oxfords to prevent leg aches.  So my welts were as much suffering in the name of vanity as a test of endurance.

Addicted to the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales that were full of torture and ordeals, feats of tenacity and virtue, I imagined that I was surviving in the frozen north or the midnight nettle-ridden church graveyard.  I was the little mermaid, the original one who had foot neuropathy like a modern AIDS patient, because she had traded in her fish tail for legs, which I didn’t quite understand was about what was between the legs.  

What I’m saying is that there is a close relationship between sex and pain that even a little primary school kid could feel.  The point of the connection is mastery of oneself, self “control” as they put it as though the brain were a dashboard -- which it is -- because at that point in life it’s hard to find anyone else who could be controlled by a little kid.  Maybe the dog.  But adults control little kids.  Some of them punish and now we know how many torture children.  Control, punish, torture, is a continuum about imposing one’s will on someone else.  They say, "I own your butt."  The self-defensive response is withholding, if only by not respecting those who don’t have enough self-control to figure out how to persuade a child.  

Solstice on the high prairie

These are dark thoughts for the Christmas season, but it’s very much a solstice (endarkenment) winter this year because of the disclosures about what we only suspected before: that the parts of our government who were supposed to be trustworthy enough to protect us turn out to be criminally insane.  What other explanation is there for what we’re reading now?  Sure, they were scared about 9/11, but this frenzy of imposed pain and humiliation was also about an additional element.

I’m often a little taken aback by the reaction when I mention “pedophilia,” undefined but generally imaged as a helpless little kid being sexually invaded by a monstrous adult.  Quite apart from the criminal event, men around here who still make their livings in physical ways, men who are hunters and cowboys, will blow up into a rage and swear that they will KILL anyone who did this to children.  And yet as a teacher, a minister, an investigator of cruelty complaints against animals, and a scholar, I KNOW that there are many children here who are to some degree molested, even murdered.  Secretly, without challenge.  I see that somehow the rage is meant to be a sign of protectiveness and moral indignation, but it sounds more like the same kind of vengeful emotion that caused an offender to use a child for his own ends -- mixed with memories of their own personal trauma.

That is, it’s a raw emotional rage that has a strong element of fear underneath it, the kind of storm that can be released in battle or by meth and alcohol.  It is an infected wound that probably has its origin in the abuse of the raging avenger, inflamed to the point of inviting his own disintegration.  

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was killed by torture in WWII.

As a child I was sneaking access to accounts of torture involved in WWII, both the war and the resistance which included women and children.  Catholic kids were absorbed in the trials of the saints and martyrs.  There is a body of literature that revolves around the indigenous peoples of the Americas -- some of it (Protestants) seeing them as no better than the wolves and some of it (Catholics) seeing them as something like slaves with souls -- both sides curiously watching and feeding off of torture both physical and mental, trying to impress the Other with their power and righteousness.  

I'm not sure how much today's youngsters know this is real, not a video game.  Watching “The Borgias” the storyline is certainly familiar and I long for a character who would point out what a human being can rise to, how to oppose evil without becoming evil.  The closest is that the former concubines and abused wives decide to raid the cardinals' purses in order to feed poor children.  This makes the three women still controllers, but with bribery and blackmail instead of violence.  They all want control, even the children who go door-to-door on behalf of Savonarola.

We love it.  Our media are crowded with graphic accounts of criminal networks, alien confrontations, and devastated dystopias.  Like Putin we seem to long for confrontation, hopefully violent and desperate, in order to prove we matter -- bare-chested and bear-mounted -- we can dominate everything else.  It's a kind of projection of ourselves on the underside of billowing smoke clouds by the red light of uncontrolled fire. 

In times like these -- and actually on the surface the times aren’t so bad, it’s just that we keep realizing how bad they have been SECRETLY, how out of control our protectors were -- we need better things to think about.   So after I’ve watched another sumptuous, sexy and bloody episode of “The Borgias” I turn to a quiet little comic strip that plays off the chosen name of the current Pope.  I’m not even very religious in conventional terms, much less Catholic, but this little commentary cheers me, drawing as it does on the historical Saint and including “Brother Leo” who is a version of “Brother Juniper” who is a version of the innocent fool who acts wisely -- a fairly universal human type.  The Great Falls Tribune loves to intersperse stories about the Special Olympics among its usual fare of murder and robbery.  Then there's "Forrest Gump."  But do we have to be stupid to be good?

Patrick Marrin

Who draws this comic strip? Patrick Marrin succeeded Bill Freburger as editor of Celebration in 1998. He holds master’s degrees in theology, philosophy and journalism and has worked in religious education, liturgical and preaching ministry and as book editor, graphics editor and political cartoonist for a daily newspaper. Before being tapped as editor for Celebration, he was chair of the Mass Communications department and an associate professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. He traces his interest in liturgy to his early formation as a student at St. John’s Prep in Collegeville, Minn., and to the influence of the Benedictine monks there. He was a member of the Dominican Order for 18 years, including 11 years of ordained ministry. He lives with his family in Kansas City, Mo.”

The Marcel Breuer sanctuary in Collegeville, MN

This monastery focuses on liturgy, which is one of my interests, so on the way to seminary in 1978 I stopped off long enough to attend morning mass in their rather fabulous modernist sanctuary.  It is a community with the same human problems as the rest of the world, including the abuse of schoolchildren and controversy over homosexuality, but they are essentially humanist -- that is, valuing of all human works, not just those defined by institutional religions -- and that comes out in Marrin’s comic strip.  In fact, it is that dimension of Western Culture that the modern Savonarolas see as undeserving, mundane, a frill.  In fact, this is a community rooted in the land.  They make terrific bread.  (Symbol alert.)

Torture is an attempt to control.  For some it becomes a visceral, emotional, pleasure to actually hurt others.  For those at the next level, who only authorize, but secretly, it is also self-aggrandizement.  For those who suspect it’s happening but only if they are forced to face reality, it is a failure of courage and leadership that undercuts the whole idea of democracy.  For those who secretly relish the close accounts of torture, it is as much a dehumanizing and addictive drug as meth. 

Early on an August morning I arrived at the St. John’s abbey just as the sun began to break through the fog.  One drives down a long straight road to the amazing Marcel Breuer bell banner in front of the sanctuary.  I could see it a long ways ahead -- it was golden in the sunlight.  Then the bells rang out.  "Be still and know that I am God."  Not you, Cheney.  You don't make the morning that comes to comfort us.

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