Thursday, August 11, 2016


Sitting in those churches, just
mentioned  -  sometimes just
for warmth, other times for
need, I would think about a
hundred things  -  remember,
I was still fairly fresh out of
a cloistered seminary-school
life, and then the miserable
turmoil of some months of the
regular, miserable high-school
crap to finish up that final year.
Everything still ached, and all
the ideas, and memories, were
still fresh and  -  I guess  -
oriented yet in that direction.
OK, so. I used to think about
Martin Luther a lot. Yes, that
guy  -  the 1500's German
church one, not Martin Luther
King  -  who, frankly, back
then, didn't much concern
me. Martin Luther was, for
me, one of the guys who
broke it all open. And that
'opening' immediately
presented all the enigmas
and paradoxes with which
'Modern' man has been
often struggling. (Another
nice thing, here  -  go listen
to the 'Enigma Variations',
by composer Edward Elgar;
see if you like that). Luther
hung up ('posted'), you may
recall, those 95 theses on the
Wittenberg Castle church
door one night. I used to
picture him, or even me,
doing something like that
here, on any one of these
strange New York Churches;
a list of protests, a list of
objections. The collective
yawn would be heard for
miles (that's kind of a writer's
challenge there, imaging the
'hearing' of a yawn. Pretty
daring!)  - the world is that
much different now. But,
back then, something like
that was a vital bulletin
board of the town center.
But eventually all of
that caused a real rupture
in things, and a vital
problem too; it gave
us the 'modern world'
in all its gimcrackery
and foolishness. The
problem, sort of, of the
'common man', who up
until then had basically
been pissed upon by those
above him, or her without
anyone much really caring  -
life was cheap, you followed,
you went along or you got
stampeded. The secular
end-result of all this
(actually) now is the useless
rabble-rousing crap we
foist off as Democracy
and personal liberty
and all that. Captive
nations of the world (are
you listening USA?) arise!
You have nothing to lose
but your chains! (How's that
for original?) Anyway, part
of what Martin Luther used
to say, and which I thought
about and studied over long
and hard, and in all these
raggedy church pews too,
was that each person had
the absolute right to approach
Scripture, God, Faith, and Belief
individually and on their own
terms. (That's why there were
so many of these churches, all
with different names and
denominations and connected
creeds). Before that, it all had
to come THROUGH others,
through the lines and edicts
of a false priesthood, a
churchyard dictatorship,
a controlled dripping-out,
and an enforced and
bought-for point of view,
promises, indulgences,
salvation, and all that.
No, Luther said, 'Hold on!
We want it our way, in our
own language, plainly
spoken, and we'll make
up our own minds, thank
you.' Not having to 'answer'
to religious authority,
'Justification by faith
alone', it came to be called.
That was landmark-status,
ground-breaking stuff, and
it frazzled people's brains.
They suddenly could read
their own Bibles, and that
was that; make up their own
minds, get on with their lives,
and that was that too. It was
about plain text, simple language,
the stuff one could understand  -
without all the smoke and
mirrors, funny hats and layers
of official trappings. When the
plain sense of a text is brought
forth, that's all one needs  -
what the text means is what
you say it means, not what
some philogian or historian
of an ancient society says
it means. Clarity. I understood
that clearly, especially  -  I found
-  in the face right then of all
that lying Vietnamese War
language, where everything
was obfuscated and no truth
was left, a real sensible scheme
of things. Truth be told. Plain
speaking. (In 1972, 'Plain Speaking'
was the title of a Merle Miller
biography of Harry Truman.  In
Luther's own day, one of his
students, to show the miraculous
clarity and 'plain speaking' of
Luther with his students, around
the dining tables, published
his own bio-book, entitled
'Table Talk', about Luther). I'd
think of how much must all the
war-smokescreen of 1967
language have been like, in
its way, even to Martin Luther's
day. The brutal paradox, and
what screwed everything up all
over again, back then, for his
church days, was that with
every person reading the
Bible for themselves and
living by the meaning they
found ('claritas scripturae' was
his term for scripture being clear
in in itself  -  and it played a
fundamental role here), then
any reader might say, with
Luther, 'I do not accept the
authority of popes and
councils, for they have
contradicted themselves
over and over, and made
their new words to fit their
new shapes. My conscience
is captive to the Word of God
as I see it. (sola scriptura).'
And then came the trouble,
the big flip (as I sat there, I
realized I knew what I was
thinking, smack in the middle
as I was of the grand societal
paradox of all time, reflected
there for me now in New York
Fantabulous City of God. What
was I, then, St. Augustine anew?).
The trouble: If everyone else then
can see things as they choose,
personal revelation and all of
that, Luther, and John Calvin
too, became immediately
impatient with those new
and unruly prophets who
sprang up around them, and
who claimed to find the Spirit
in all kinds of novelties in
scripture and producing all
sorts of disorder by their
preaching. The 'claims' of
clarity of scripture and
depended by much on
who was doing the looking.
The proverbial 'cat' was out
of the bag, and  -  suddenly  -
Luther, and Calvin and the rest,
realized what they'd unleashed.
They immediately had to impose
their own 'snap-backs', not much
different then from what before
had been coming from Rome :
all those endless denominations
and feuding sub-groups I just
mentioned. A conundrum, a
paradox, a new mess. Hello
Withcraft! Hello Salem! The
clarity of scripture was a bit
tricky, yes, with the 'context'
determining the 'application.'
Whew! What a mess, all that.
The 'common sense' of tradition
versus the untrammeled freedom
of the individual interpreter.
A lot of this thinking went
on for me at St. Francis
Xavier Church, on 16th street;
right nearby was the NY 
Foundling Hospital, a place
with a legacy that fascinated me;
a sort-of help mission of the
ages for NYC infants and
indigent babies, a leftover
adjunct of the old missions
and Sanitary Commission
days in old immigrant NYC.
St. Francis church took everyone
in, including me, and there was
a food kitchen. 590 6th Ave.
was the hospital, and the
church was just east of that. 
To get up to the church, which 
was always open and like a refuge,
huge dim lights, a quiet and dark 
holy space, you had to climb maybe
20 steps, and below you, on either
side would stretch the line for the 
soup kitchen, for whatever serving 
it would next be open. Men, quiet 
and sullen, would limply be in line, 
awaiting prayer and food (you had to 
partake a very short prayer service 
downstairs first. Sometimes it was sad 
and eerie too to see all those eyes 
looking up. Believe it or not, I still,
to this day, stop in there.
I don't think this chapter 
142 would end correctly 
without my including the 
following close : Around 
me everywhere were the 
people and the activities 
of the streets. At first I 
was stunned; day after
day of the sounds and 
aromas, odors and the lines
of all the passing panorama.
It was a broad and heady
brew, an entire mixed-up
new head, for a kid from
Avenel. I was hungry  - but
not for food. For the learning
and study and knowledge to
have this all make sense.
Canto III, Dante's Inferno  -
"Language diverse, horrible
dialects, accents of anger, words
of agony, and voices high and
hoarse, with sound of hands,
made up a tumult that goes
whirling on forever in that air
forever black, even as the sand
doth, when the whirlwind breathes...
I will tell thee very briefly. These 
people have not any hope of
death; and this blend of life of
theirs is so debased, they envious
are of other fate. No fame of them
the world permits to be; Misericord
and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but
look and pass."

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