Who are you? Why do you not let me live
As I please? And how could your caress, so rough,
Be kinder than my smooth alternative?
Your steel-brush strokes are forcing me to slough,
Daily, my fleshy growths of appetite,
But still they come; I cannot have enough.
I would forever scratch my itches, light
At first, then harder at the thickened sore;
But you would give me radical delight,
Gouging my itches till I have no more.
“The Pleasure Principle” is published here with the permission of Southern Humanities Review, where the poem first appeared in Spring 1974.
In this poem, sinful desires are characterized as skin sores whose itchiness is temporarily relieved when scratched—but the scratching also makes the sores become irritated and enlarged and even more vile-looking, and the itch comes back not too long after.
The speaker addresses God, first in a posture of defensiveness. God has presumably broken into his conscience, convicting him of sin, and he responds with a string of accusatory questions to the effect of, “Who do you think you are, coming into my life, telling me what I can and can’t do? How could abiding a constant itch be more satisfying than giving in and scratching?” Continue reading ““The Pleasure Principle” by Raymond Oliver”→
While working at a rehabilitation center for torture survivors in Chicago, Greg Halvorsen Schreck was struck by the profound physical and emotional traumas these individuals had experienced. He thought of Christ, who suffers in solidarity with those who suffer. And he thought that as a fine-art photographer, maybe he could tell the story of this via dolorosa (“way of sorrow”) they were traveling, by linking it to the medieval Christian devotional practice of the fourteen stations of the cross.
The stations of the cross originated in the thirteenth century as a way for Christians to enter more fully into Jesus’s last hours by praying visually, verbally, and bodily with fourteen images that highlight various points along his journey to the cross, from his trial to his entombment. Derived from the scriptural accounts (save for the legendary addition of Veronica’s veil, plus the embellishment of Christ’s three falls), the stations offered a stay-at-home alternative for Christians who couldn’t afford a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: instead of literally walking the road between Antonia fortress and Golgotha, they could walk it metaphorically, in their imaginations, with fourteen way stations to provide particular foci.
The models Schreck used in his multipiece Via Dolorosa—which can be viewed in full here, and in the video below—are not themselves torture survivors. (That would have posed a safety risk.) But “the stories and the general ethos of those in our midst wounded by war, political upheaval, and unspoken violence shaped my approach,” he said.
It was important to him to portray a range of ethnicities—which is why his stations include people not only of European descent but of Latin American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and African descent, including a few of mixed race. The falling Christ is portrayed by a Mexican American veteran of the Iraq War. Simone of Cyrene is portrayed by an Ethiopian woman. Mary Magdalene, with her jar of incense, is portrayed by a woman who is half-Syrian.
Schreck also included his two children, adopted from Guatemala, in the project. His daughter, Magdalena, is cast alongside three of her friends as a daughter of Jerusalem in station 8 (top left). His son, Teo, is featured in stations 2 and 13; in the latter, Schreck himself stands in for Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, a reference to Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Florence Deposition sculpture, Schreck says.
Songs for Lent is a collaborative album by various Brooklyn-based musicians, released in 2013, that reflects on themes of temptation, suffering, sin, death, grace, and longing.
Except for two originals, all the hymn texts were written between the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries; Bruce Benedict, the chaplain of worship arts at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, curated them for this project, based on their theological richness and their fittingness for Lenten meditation. I applaud his selections, most of which have heretofore been little known and little sung in the church.
The one that’s most familiar is probably “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”—this is the only song on the album whose traditional melody is retained. All the others feature brand-new musical settings by twelve different songwriters; in a few cases, two interpretations of the same text are included. Though I enjoyed every contribution, I especially like the ones by Jason Pipkin: “Remember, Lord, Our Mortal State” and “Away, My Unbelieving Fear,” which he performs with his wife, Kanene Donehey Pipkin.
The collective—they call themselves “New York Hymns”—is graciously providing Songs for Lent for free streaming and download on Bandcamp. (Donations are welcome.) Lead sheets and chord charts can be accessed at www.newyorkhymns.com.
Below is the track list. Because most of the lyrics on the album are excerpts from longer hymns, I’ve included a link to the full set of original lyrics for each one in a parenthetical note.
Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the first day of Lent, a season of concentrated prayer, repentance, and simple living during which the church as a collective prepares herself to experience the resurrection joy that is Easter. Most people associate it with fasting—from food or other distractions; this is not an end in and of itself but is for the purpose of cultivating a greater dependence on God and an openness to his will. As Wendy M. Wright writes in her book The Rising, “The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is a season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well” (17).
The designation of a forty-day season leading up to the feast of the resurrection is at least as old as the fourth century, as the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”). The calculation of days, however, is not that straightforward, and varies by denomination: Roman Catholics count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (44 days), whereas most Protestants count through Holy Saturday (46 days; excluding Sundays, which are non-fast days, makes 40), and the Orthodox Church uses a different calendar entirely.
Lent is like getting your yearly physical. It’s not that we aren’t to maintain our health throughout the year but that having an “appointment” forces us to come face-to-face with the state of our souls and to really hear the Doctor’s orders. We self-examine, and then we attend to those parts of ourselves that need improvement.
Even though Lent involves pointed reflection on human neediness and the confrontation of sin, it is not meant to be all dark and glum, nor characterized only by emptying. The word “Lent” actually means “springtime”; it’s a time of renewal, growth, filling. Inspired by Jesus’s retreat into the desert to overcome idols and more fully inhabit his baptismal identity, we too retreat into a proverbial desert, saying no to one or more things so that we can say yes to something else. Continue reading “The season of Lent”→