Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Body and Blood

            We had a great family weekend.  On Saturday evening we joined in celebrating the twelfth birthday of Granddaughter Number Two, Lulu Fleming-Benite, at the Bareburger eatery near the NYU library.  Thence we were whisked by Rich to his house in Red Hook.

Church of the Visitation of the BVM, Brooklyn

          The main event for Sunday was to be theatrical, but that would be after being taken out by Ruby (Granddaughter Number Four) for coffee and pastry.   There were still morning hours left.  There was an Episcopal church within walking distance (for a serious walker) in Carroll Gardens, but its service time was not until eleven.  I thought that might be a little tight, since our theater tickets were for two o’clock in Dumbo.  So I did what I sometimes do in such circumstances--sought out the nearest Christian congregation of whatever flavor I could find.  A few blocks away was huge, old Visitation R. C.--of near cathedral proportions.  It has a mass at ten, and thither I repaired.  Oh, and—relevant fact—the ten o’clock Eucharist is conducted in Spanish.
            There were probably two hundred people in the congregation, though scattered through the vast nave in a way that made it seem thin.  There might have been six or eight adult males in addition to me, but lots of children.  Things didn’t happen very fast.  What looked (and sounded) like a band of subway musicians tuned up languidly in the south transept.   Women, including one minimally ecclesiastical nun, wandered about the sanctuary, and in and out of a door beyond it.  At some point a priest in a chasuble, mic in hand, joined the peripatetics.  Eventually the service began—rhythmic chants of guitar-backed alleloo, with lots of clapping, hand-raising, arm-lifting, and the simulation of doves on the wing.

            Of the words of the liturgy I got about eighty percent—way more (I reasoned) than most Catholics in most places at most times would have—and virtually all the sermon.  The priest preached for over an hour.  (The norm in my own church is now eleven minutes.)  A certain amount of this was ceremonial and dialogic.  Every emphatic homiletic point was followed by the priest’s alleloo, to which the congregation supplied the wanting ya.  There were brief intermittent interrogations, as for example,
            (Preacher) Where do you send a demon?                        
            (Congregation) Away! [with arm gesture of throwing something away].
But the main line was very substantial and very clear.  The gospel on which he preached (Mark, chapter 1) includes an account of Jesus’s teaching in a synagogue, where he “taught with authority” and exorcised a demon from a man possessed.  Explaining that a synagogue is a Jewish house of worship, like a church, he then asked whether it was possible that evil could come into the Church.  Surprisingly loud shouts of ¡Claro que !  Yes, indeed, said the priest, and it has--which is why Pope Francis is having to cast out the demonios from the Vatican itself! 

            That didn’t sound to me much like opium for the masses, which had to be supplied by a charming ceremony for Candlemas (it was February 2nd) presumably brought from Estremadura to Jalisco five hundred years ago—in which several young women presented elaborate Jesus-dolls, some in baby-buggies, at the steps of the altar.  Most of these people probably lived in the nearby public housing projects. Among them were four mothers with real infants.   I had small doubt that the unseen Christ was really there too.

            I received.  It took a while, but the Roman Church has now caught up with the Reformers.  First, a vernacular liturgy; next Communion “in two kinds.”  There was theoretically a cup of wine for the laity as well as a wafer—theoretically because the cup was empty by the time I and most others got to it.  The young woman administering it showed us its emptiness with an ecclesiastical version of that slightly apologetic hand gesture usually translated as “Whatcha gonna do?”  What I am going to do is make another Visitation the next chance I get.

            The insufficiency of symbolic blood in the morning was more than compensated for in the afternoon, which found us at the theater of St. Anne’s Warehouse in Dumbo.  So many good things in my life have come my way by virtue of advantageous marital connections.  Jessica Richards, Joan’s first cousin once removed, is the Stage Manager of the National Theatre of Scotland.  Many months ago, in Edinburgh, she alerted us to a production of Let the Right One In that the NTS would be bringing to Brooklyn.  My wonderful Brooklyn daughter-in-law, Katie Dixon, organized tickets for us.

St. Anne's Theater brochure from the Internet

            I had not before heard of Let the Right One In and am still nonplussed as to the meaning of the title.  But Katie knew all about it having seen the movie made from the Swedish novel (by John Lindqvist, 2004) in which it originated.  It is no easy task to characterize Let the Right One In succinctly.  It is a Harlequin romance for deviants.  As social drama, it proposes a promising cure for schoolyard bullying.  Here is a vampire story in comparison with which Bram Stoker’s Dracula merely sucks.  Above all, it is probably the bloodiest piece of dramaturgy I have ever seen, and I have seen Titus Andronicus at the London Globe!  We had brief words with Jessica before the performance, and she said that she thought our seats in Row G ought to be “far enough back to avoid the splatter”.

            The themes of the play are actually serious ones, but the cleverness of its plot is of a sort that should not be spoiled by a reviewer.  If you should have a chance to see it—and the run will be extended, I think—by all means seize it.  It wouldn’t hurt to do a preliminary brush-up on your vampirology, though.  A couple of crucial points on which I was rusty caused me some initial confusion.  Vampires are potentially eternal.  They hunger, or rather thirst for nourishment, but do not suffer our ordinary mortal aging process.  The old stake through the heart will do them in, though, and so will a blaze of sunlight.  This means that they must be creatures of night and of the gloom, and avoid the light of day.  A vampire’s life is no bed of roses, and she needs a little help from her friends.

 Rebecca Benson in the role of Eli

             In this play she gets that help in a somewhat disturbing fashion that left me pensive.  But of course what I found myself most deeply pondering on the clackety train-ride home was the extraordinary conceit of the ingestion of blood.  How can it at once be at the center of the highest spiritual aspiration and the most hideous carnal terror?