Friday, 28 September 2018

Baal ha-Khalomot

Disclaimer: moving around in Hebrew texts, I am like a half-blind man walking on crutches. It would be ironic if a text which revolves around the verb ‘interpret’ should receive a blatant misinterpretation from me, but the ironic and the actual have significant overlap, actually.

When the unsuspecting, though rather gossipy Joseph ben Jacob wanders into Dothan, looking for his brothers, they see him coming from afar and call him ba‘al ha-khalomōt, ‘master of dreams’. In their hatred, they throw him into a pit, and through an unfortunate series of events Joseph ends up in Egypt. There he rises in the ranks to become steward of Potiphar’s house, but through an incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph ends up imprisoned again. (The precise nature of the incident might be more dubious than it appears at first sight!)

In the dungeon he meets two officials of the King of Egypt: a cupbearer and a baker. One night they have a dream. For my studies, I was analyzing the chapter about these dreams (Genesis 40) and discovered some interesting details.

For starters, it is a bit ambiguous whether the cupbearer and the baker have different dreams at all. A hint is given that the dream has a different interpretation for each of them, but when the baker suddenly appears to have had a completely different dream, it is a bit surprising.

Prodded by Joseph, who asks them why they look so sad and then invites them to tell their dream because interpretations belong to God (the logic of this is somewhat elusive), the cupbearer begins elegantly, ‘In my dream ! a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches…’

The dream branches out until it shifts to the cupbearer himself: ‘And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand, and I took the grapes, and I pressed them into the cup of Pharaoh, and placed the cup in the hand of Pharaoh.’

Joseph has an extensive response. The first half is the interpretation of the dream itself; the second half is a request and a declaration of innocence. In the request, one action is emphasized: zākhar ‘remember’. Unfortunately, this gets lost in most translations.
The ESV has ‘Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house.’
More literally: ‘Only remember me close to you, when it is well with you, and do grant kindness to me, and remember me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house.’
It is basically one job: ‘remember me close to you … remember me to Pharaoh.’

And then Joseph tells them that he was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews and that he has done nothing to deserve being kept ‘in the pit’, as he calls it – an old wound opens again.

Abruptly the story continues, ‘When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable…’ (ESV)
The entire second half of Joseph’s speech is ignored. The baker does not even ‘see’ it, let alone remember it.
In this translation, another thing is not visible. Something even more fundamental than old wounds is echoed here: ‘And the chief baker saw that it was good.’ God’s praise of his creation is repeated. But it is out of place, because things are out of place: the light has been separated from the dark and somehow Joseph has ended up on the wrong side of the divide.

Incidentally, ‘interpret’ is a verb here. I would guess that the sentence could be translated ‘When the chief baker saw that he interpreted well’…

Then it is the baker’s turn to speak. His introduction is similar to the cupbearer’s, but it has none of the elegance. He declares, not ‘I also had a dream’ (ESV), but ‘Also I was in my dream.’ The baker starts with himself and reconstructs his dream upward from there: three baskets, food in the supreme basket (‘supreme’ because ‘elyōn is also a common title for God), and the birds above it who eat the food.
What is in the basket, precisely? According to the ESV, ‘all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh’. And even the interlinear translation does this. But if I’m not mistaken, the word ‘baked’ does not occur in the sentence: ’ofeh is the active participle of ‘bake’. What the baker carries around in his supreme basket is ‘all sorts of food for Pharaoh, works of the baker!’
You gotta advertise!

So we can sympathise, perhaps, when the cupbearer is restored and the baker is hanged. The story ends: ‘And the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.’

This is why I love the Old Testament: it always ends badly.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Nel Mezzo del Cammin

This Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. It was on this feast day that I first went to Mass, ten years ago now. I remember it, partly because I wrote about it. When Fr. Paul de Maat in Middelburg raised the chalice, I was ‘profoundly awed’, and could only think in brief lines from The Anathémata and traditional prayers.

Ten years later, I myself was raising the chalice – the first time in this church that this chalice was used, a chalice that I inherited from a predecessor in faith and in priestly ministry.

More precariously than he knows he guards the signa

Some fragments from the current time:

Yesterday was the first meeting of a group intended for thirty- and forty-somethings. It would not have started without an Italian couple, who have kindly, but regularly and persistently reminded me that such a group was lacking in our community. Through an accident of circumstance, it is now called the Panettone group. Mention was made of an Italian celebrity who could recite passages from the Divina Commedia for hours on end (without repeating himself, obviously). Hence the title.

For a reading group that meets this Thursday, I have started reading a modern book for young adults, inspired by Dante: Bianca come il latte, rosso come il sangue (White as milk, red as blood). It is about a normal 16-year-old boy, called Leo (I didn’t make this up), who likes to play football, grows nervous in silence, and who is deeply in love with someone called Beatrice.

The teachers have nicknames. The religious education teacher is a celestial priest who is well-versed in the Bible and whom Leo calls Gandalf. When a girl in class who is somewhat of a teacher’s pet makes a reference to Gollum, ‘Gandalf’ says, ‘I don’t know who this Gollum is, but if you say so, I believe it.’ And Leo reflects inwardly, ‘Gandalf doesn’t know Gollum, it seems absurd, but that’s how it is.’
This is too subtle to be merely a joke or an absurdity.

But there are many subtleties in the book. Leo attends a school named after a character from Mickey Mouse. In English known as Horace, the Italian name is of course Orazio (‘There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio…’)
The new, young, and enthusiastic philosophy teacher is inspired by a movie called in Italian L’attimo fuggente (The Fleeting Moment) but known in English as Dead Poets Society (wink, wink).
And in the same (short) chapter, there is another ‘wink’ moment that even rhymes with this one:

Leo in latino significa “leone”. Leo rugiens: “leone ruggente”.
(Leo in Latin means ‘lion’. Leo rugiens: ‘roaring lion’.)

This time the author basically spells it out. Leo rugiens is a phrase from 1 Peter 5, which returns in the prayer of the Church every Tuesday night at Compline: ‘Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.’
Leo does not seem particularly active in the resistance, but he is not spectacularly failing either.

As the title makes clear, colours are very important in the book. Red and white run through it as recurring themes. White is associated with silence, emptiness, infinity. Red is associated with overwhelming impressions, passion, love. ‘Beatrice is red,’ Leo grandly proclaims. But what he does not know (and what, so far, I have only gleaned from the summary) is that Beatrice suffers from leukemia: a Greek word (leukon haima) that means ‘white blood’.
It’s so good to read truly intelligent young adult novels.
(Leo also says: ‘Silvia is blue, like all true friends.’ The city of Delft has a big blue heart in the city centre. I feel quite at home here.)

Well, that’s enough about the book. Today I talked to someone who watched at a deathbed last week. And now my eye has fallen on the obituaries in the newspaper. I don’t usually read the paper, but scanning through it, I noticed a couple of things.
Firstly, there are many completely unfamiliar names among the youngest generation. Kayleigh and Kenza, Vaan and Keet, Vayènn and Lovis – next to the more reassuring Sven and Rik, Maarten and Tessa, Guus and Dirk.
Secondly, it is a common occurrence for deceased family members to be included in the obituary. But this is indicated in different ways; I see four in one newspaper. The traditional cross symbol is one. But another (a child) has a star. One obituary contains two different ways: a 96-year-old woman has a son with the words ‘(in loving memory)’ affixed to his name, but her great-grandson has a butterfly symbol in the same place.
Thirdly, there is another strange symbol that occurs in two different obituaries. Kira, Tessa, Britt, and Foxy have a dog’s paw after their name. Apparently the pets are so much part of the family that they are included, mostly in the absence of other children.

Dear future nephews and nieces, I admire how much you care for your pets – but if you will not keep their dirty paws from defacing my death notice, I am coming back to haunt you.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Lost in Translations

For preparing my homilies, I tend to use the USCCB website. It has a nice little calendar that enables you to pick a date and get the Scripture readings for it – a feature no Dutch website has. But if you rely on it too much, you are in for some surprises.

The first surprise was months ago, on a regular weekday Mass at seminary, the memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. I had been asked to provide the homily and had duly read the texts. When I arrived in the chapel, however, I discovered that Cyril and Methodius had been named co-patrons of Europe and were therefore celebrated with greater attention on this side of the ocean. That included special Scripture readings that reflected the missionary lifestyle of these saints.
So when one of the students started on the first reading, I had no idea what precisely it was going to be.
Fellow students told me later that my homily had been bolder and more passionate than usual.

The second surprise was later, on a Sunday in the parish, when the parable of the two sons was read. A father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first one says no, but changes his mind. The second one says yes, but does not carry out the work.
It is interesting to reflect on the reasons why the second son says yes. Is it perhaps because he has heard his brother’s reply and wants to be better? Does he think: I’m the only one left, and if I don’t say yes, no one will?
These are attempts to add some dynamics to the story. But it requires some improvising and back-pedalling when, on reading the Gospel in church, you find out that the Dutch translation has the first son saying yes and the second saying no.

The third surprise came today, on the feast of Christ the King. The first reading from Ezekiel includes the following words (God in the figure of a shepherd speaking to His flock):
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.
The theme of this passage fits well with the theme in the Gospel of Luke that God will have mercy on the lowly and punish the uncaring rich. There is an idea of separation (of the good and the bad) that is also expressed in the Gospel reading of the day, about the sheep and the goats. The ‘right shepherding’ is precisely this, that the weak are strengthened and the egoists are taken down a notch. And besides, even in regular shepherding practice, aren’t the healthy and fat animals chosen for slaughter?
It is unsurprising that the passage in Ezekiel continues:
As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.
Well, isn’t that a perfect parallel with the image of the Last Judgment in the Gospel?
It is, until you get to the Dutch translation, which goes something like this:
The lost sheep I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will strengthen,
and the healthy and strong I will continue to care for.
I will pasture them as it ought to be.
And you, my sheep – says the Lord God –
I will do justice to the one animal opposite the other,
opposite ram and goat.
This time, having grown hoar with age and wary with experience, I discovered the divergence before it was too late. I understand the connection between ‘judge’ and ‘do justice’. The link between ‘destroy’ and ‘care for’ remains a mystery. I thought it might be shrouded in Hebrew depths, but according to Strong’s dictionary, the verb שמד has the following meaning:
to desolate: – destroy, bring to nought, overthrow, perish, pluck down, X utterly.
So I just don’t know. In any case, this is why I still use the USCCB website, but always double-check.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Historian's Irony

Cardinal Newman said, ‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’ That might be the case for systematic Protestantism along the lines of the Reformation, with a strict observance of the solas. It applies less obviously to a Protestantism that understands itself as a form of developing Christian faith that happens not to include a strong allegiance to the bishop of Rome.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is deep in history, and he has ceased to be anything in particular. Nonetheless he looks with understanding and sympathy on the spiritual and religious quests that have occurred in history and will no doubt continue to occur.

I am rereading MacCulloch’s book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (1490-1700), which I first read 10 years ago while I was in the process of becoming Catholic, and which I am now reading in preparation for a historical trip to Germany in the footsteps of Martin Luther.

It is striking how religion and politics interplay, how allegiances and rivalries help to build consensus, and how people navigate a world with the consciousness of a last judgment, with a network of relations that has shifting perspectives on the wheat and the tares, and with the human needs that are basic to us all.

When King Henri IV of France (formerly King of Navarre) ultimately decided to convert to the Catholic Church, allegedly on the grounds that ‘Paris was worth a Mass’, this was the reaction of a prominent Reformer:

Theodore Beza, who all through his long years in Geneva had corresponded with Navarre, regularly received cash from him and was devoted to him as a new King David in Israel, was devastated at Henri’s betrayal of the godly cause. Beza nevertheless remained loyal, and sadly consoled himself with a different Old Testament image: God’s champion in Israel, Samson, sacrificed his life to slay his enemies, and now perhaps King Henri was making an even greater sacrifice of his soul in God’s cause. He also continued to regard himself as on King Henri’s payroll.

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Vineyard Song Remastered

Sometimes writing a homily is difficult. But at rare moments, hints are thrown at you from all sorts of different places and the homily basically writes itself.

This time it was the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, and the Gospel passage associated with it, of the wicked tenants who kill the vineyard owner’s son (Matthew 21). I thought to myself, didn’t Pope Benedict write something about this? He’s usually pretty good at contextualizing the parables and explaining how Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to let down their guard and join Him in his new creation.

Indeed the Pope wrote about this Gospel, and the Isaiah passage and even Psalm 80 in connection with it. Surprisingly, it can be found in the chapter on the principal images of the Gospel of John (Jesus of Nazareth I, ch. 8), under the heading ‘Vine and Wine’. Pope Benedict considers the Isaiah passage foundational for the vine motif, and writes:

The Prophet probably sang it in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the context of the cheerful atmosphere characteristic of this eight-day feast (cf. Deut 16:14). […]
Everyone knew that “vineyard” was an image for a bride (cf. Song 2:15, 7:12f.), so they were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.

Many more interesting and edifying things were said about the passage, but this information made me see the whole passage in a different light. If it was a love song, then the translation on the USCCB website ‘Let me now sing of my friend, my friend’s song concerning his vineyard’ was misleading. So I decided to take out a Hebrew-English Old Testament and see if I could make some sense of it, despite the fact that my Hebrew knowledge is sorely limited.

The first thing that stood out was that the song starts out very sing-song-y, which is recognizable as soon as you can read the Hebrew alphabet:
’āshīrāh nā līdīdī
shīrat dōdī l’kharmō

Li-di-di, it is as airy and light-hearted as fa-la-la. It means ‘for my beloved’ and is related to dōdī (translated as ‘of my lover’).

The word is used twice, for the text continues:
kerem hāyāh līdīdī
b’qeren ben-shāmen
(‘My beloved had a vineyard’, or more literally ‘A vineyard was there for my beloved’: a possessive dative. And then, ‘On a very fertile hill’. ‘Vineyard’ and ‘hill’ are very similar words: kerem and qeren.)

Next I wanted to know if there was a similar play in the lines ‘He hoped it would yield grapes. Instead, it yielded wild grapes.’ In this I was disappointed:
wayqaw la‘asōt ‘anāvīm
wayya‘as b’ushīm
Yes, it rhymes, but that is only because -īm is the regular masculine plural ending. Nothing surprising there.
But wait…what was it that the man of the winepress was looking for? Grapes? Then why did it sound like something else? The word ‘anāvīm looked strangely familiar, and would look familiar to any amateur theologian worth three miserable grains of salt. There are some words that are known even to your average American Catholic blogger (no offense), and one of them is anawim, the ‘poor’ for whom poverty is a spiritual attitude. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, the anawim. And indeed the word is almost identical in spelling to ‘anāvīm: ענבים and ענוים.
The almost-double meaning of ‘grapes’ is the first hint of the revelation in verse 7: ‘The vineyard of the LORD of Hosts is the House of Israel’.

Now I wanted to know if something similar applied to b’ushīm, the ‘wild grapes’. And while I could not find a similar word, I chanced upon the commentary in E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible, which told me two things:
(1) The word b’ushīm was derived from bashash [Strong suggests it’s actually ba’ash], meaning ‘to stink’ – which can easily shade into an aesthetic, ritual, or ethical judgment (in any language).
(2) Isaiah 5 is the only place in the Old Testament where qeren is translated ‘hillside’; all the other seventy-five times it means ‘horn’.

Wait, what? What did the text say again?

kerem hāyāh līdīdī
b’qeren ben-shāmen
‘My best friend had a “vineyard”
On a really fertile “horn” ’

They were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.

For more random wordplay, go and watch this clip.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Gas Stations

Since purchasing a car some three years ago, my life has been characterized by increasing mobility. My being on the road has led to a deeper appreciation of an ubiquitous feature of roads: gas stations.

They are much more than places to refuel your car. They are small dots on the map of hospitality and friendly interaction with passing strangers – who for a change do not pass at 100 or 130 km/h. They are cafés where you can get coffee and restaurants where you can purchase lunch, cold or hot. They are places of sanitary relief, of fresh air and stretched legs.

You can count on them being there, and on them being there for you even if you have never visited them before.

Even the layout has a comfortable familiarity everywhere. There is a place where you can get fuel, with lots of space around it to park your car for quick purchases. And there is also a parking space that can be used for a real driving break.

They can even function as inns, these gas stations. Last night before 11pm, when driving from Roelofarendsveen to Ridderkerk, I felt myself getting tired and stopped at a gas station between Delft and Rotterdam for a ten-minute nap. But when I opened my eyes again, it was after 1am.

Although I am very happy with my new home, now almost finished, I think I could get used to living in my car, as long as there would be gas stations along the road.

Saturday, 29 July 2017


It’s been a while, I know. Lent, Easter, and the Ordination all conspired to keep me from posting; or perhaps it is my fault. In any case I was very glad to see how many people sacrificed time to come to the Ordination. I was particularly touched by the presence of some American friends; Youth Choir Faith, which sang a few hymns at the Mass; and one or two special friends.

Since then I have been on holiday, another mountain-hiking holiday in Austria. We stayed for two nights at a convent of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross (O.R.C.) and then continued to a small hotel, more of a guesthouse really, between Ochsengarten and Kühtai. The guesthouse had its own chapel. It was beautiful.

Last night I was procrastinating. (Are there job offers for procrastination? If it were my job I would probably delay procrastinating until the last possible moment, and before that moment I would get so much useful things done!) I opened a magazine that was lying on the table and found an article by Kees Waaijman, a well-known Dutch Scripture scholar of the Carmelite order, about schroom – a typically Dutch word connoting a kind of fear that is more like a reverent hesitation.

The article contained the following quotation from John Cassian (my translation):

Schroom is filled with attentive affection, not afraid of blows nor of reproaches, but only of the slightest injury to love, and it is haunted by a passionate tenderness that saturates all its acting and speaking, out of concern that the other’s burning love towards it might cool, however little.

It reminded me of a favourite phrase of Pope Francis, la rivoluzione della tenerezza, the ‘revolution of tenderness’. Tenderness is a word that occurs multiple times in his inaugural homily; there it is associated with the attitude of St. Joseph. I sensed the revolution in this quote by the desert father.

I also sensed it in Austria – and here I was reminded of a quote from Charles Williams, somewhere in his mysterious Arthuriad cycle: a description of an island never set foot on, the land of the Trinity: ‘each in turn the Holder and the Held’.

This I remembered, and after a while it continues:

…in the land of the Trinity, the land of the perichoresis,
of separateness without separation, reality without rift,
where the Basis is in the Image, and the Image in the Gift…

I had to look for it, and lo and behold, it was from The Founding of the Company. On rereading I found that this poem is also the one that contains the exchange between the poet Taliessin and the court fool Dinadan. Dinadan calls Taliessin ‘lieutenant of God’s new grace’. Taliessin refuses a title that would make him master over others, but Dinadan lectures him:

                                          …any buyer of souls
is bought himself by his purchase; take the lieutenancy
for the sake of the shyness the excellent absurdity holds.

Shyness is perhaps not the worst translation of schroom.

The poem ends as follows:

The Company throve by love, by increase of peace,
by the shyness of saving and being saved in others –
the Christ-taunting and Christ-planting maxim
which throughout Logres the excellent absurdity held.