[This is an occasional version of my Daily Dreher newsletter that I send out to all the free subscribers. Paying subscribers should know that this does not count towards your monthly quota. You’ve already read everything below.]
Hey gang, I hope all is well with y’all. Here’s a taste of what we’ve been talking about on the Daily Dreher newsletter this week:
Fran Lebowitz & New York City
[I wrote early in the week about two Netflix movies that really cheered me up: My Octopus Teacher and Pretend It’s A City, the new Scorsese thing, starring iconic Manhattan curmudgeon Fran Lebowitz. Imagine my delight to discover days later that what I thought was just a short film was actually the first of a seven-part Lebowitz series!]
The second movie I saw that delighted me was a very different picture: Pretend It’s A City, a short documentary by Martin Scorsese, featuring the dry wit of Fran Lebowitz. Here’s the trailer:
It’s only a pastiche of quips from Lebowitz’s public speaking, as well as a private interview she did with Scorsese, stitched together with a jazzy soundtrack. What it really is is a love letter to New York City. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. I am not going to dip my toes in cold ocean water and go down there with the octopi and the pyjama sharks, but I would walk my feet to bloody stumps treading the streets of Manhattan, and sing hallelujah at the end.
Lebowitz is one of those people who fit Andy Warhol’s definition of a celebrity: someone famous for being famous. She wrote a couple of books of funny essays in the 1970s, and became famous then. But she’s barely written a thing since then, and famously has a case of writer’s block. She’s acerbic and curmudgeonly, in a cosmopolitan Dorothy Parker way, and makes her living being Fran Lebowitz. You can see the appeal in the movie.
Pretend It’s A City was a toot to watch, not only because it’s fun, but because Lebowitz’s Jewish humor and Jewish, well, everything, served as a kind of Proustian madeleine for me, bringing back the wonderful five years my wife and I had living in New York (1998-2003). What a thrill to live in a city whose culture is so Jewish! As a child, I was a devout reader of Mad magazine, but had no way of knowing that its humor was mostly Jewish humor. I could not have explained to you as a kid why it was funny, but not in the way any of us were funny. Eventually I figured it out: because Mad was Jewish.
It’s one thing to figure that out from reading, and learning about culture, and another to experience it as part of everyday life in New York City. How strange it was to feel in some way that I was in a place where I had once lived. It was 100 percent because of my obsession with Mad.
Once my wife and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of a Jewish couple with whom we were friendly. We were the only Gentiles there. At one point they all got into a ferocious fight. Julie and I were so uncomfortable that we wanted to leave. Later that week, I spoke to our host, and told him how sorry I was that things went so awry at the dinner party. He had no idea what I was talking about.
“You know, when everybody got into a fight,” I said.
He laughed. “We weren’t fighting — we were talking!”
This was part of our acculturation process. In the South, among white Gentiles, at least, we are all taught to be pleasant and cordial at all times at dinner, and never to talk about anything controversial. Not these New York Jews! Once I got that straight, and knew that punches were not about to be thrown, that this was normal, vigorous discourse, I found myself able to enjoy it (though not to participate; I remain congenitally terrified of confrontation, out of fear someone will have their feelings hurt and think me rude). Fran Lebowitz would never, ever make it in the South, because she would be taken as grumpy and unladylike. Me, I think the world is far more interesting having people like her in it, and not only in it, but on my block.
Our first apartment in New York was at 327 E. 58th Street, between First and Second Avenues. Our landlord was Ormond Gigli, a retired fashion photographer best known for this iconic image (of the building across the street):
Mr. and Mrs. Gigli lived in the townhouse, and rented out upstairs floors as apartments. Ours was basically a studio apartment (we separated the bedroom from the living room with a big curtain) with a tiny kitchen and bathroom. Rent: $1,850 per month. It seemed an ungodly sum at the time, but that was Manhattan then. Before Covid, the average monthly rent for Manhattan had climbed to $4,000 per month; it’s down 11 percent since then.
Anyway, Ormond Gigli is the kind of person you move to the big city to meet. I learned tonight, looking him up, that he and Sue sold the townhouse a few years back to the Cambodian ambassador to the UN, and that he died in 2019, at the age of 94. What a century Ormond Gigli had! From his professional webpage:
Becoming known in the 1950s for photographs of theatre, film, and dance, Gigli stood out in the field with his mastery of photo direction from photo shoots of epic proportions to accomplishing intimate revealing portraits. His ability to put his subject at ease during complicated, sometimes uncomfortable situations, has been characteristic of his style as much as has been the technical prowess of his camerawork. He has photographed countless leading stars and celebrities throughout his career, including Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Anita Ekberg, Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, Halston, Marlene Dietrich, Leslie Caron, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Barbara Streisand, Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and many more.
Like I said, you move to the big city to meet people like that. Julie and I lived in Manhattan from the early spring of 1998 until the late summer of 1999, when we moved to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, about a month before our first child was born. I recall that first year in Manhattan as the happiest of my life. We had been married for only three months when we relocated to New York. I worked at the New York Post as a film critic, and Julie got on as an editorial assistant at Commentary. What a great way to start one’s married life, eh? We loved walking on the Upper East Side on Sunday afternoons in the spring, especially on upper Madison, not far from the Metropolitan Museum. Central Park was a joy in the summertime, taking a bottle of cold wine, books, and a blanket.
Christmas in the city was truly magical. We started a tradition of walking up Madison from Midtown, savoring the window shopping at Barneys, Bergdorf’s, and on up the avenue. Our first Christmas, we went to midnight mass at St. Thomas More church, in Carnegie Hill, and walked all the way back to our apartment in Midtown, with snow flurries fluttering down from the cold, cold night sky. I recall that first Christmas, buying Julie for some reason a three-CD set of Gershwin tunes. Every Christmas season since then, I have played music from those discs, because they recall the enchantment of my first year as a married man, in Manhattan, at the center of the world.
My view of New York has always tended toward Woody Allen romanticism instead of, say, Martin Scorsese grittiness. One of my favorite movies in Allen’s 1980s comedy Hannah And Her Sisters, in which New York looks impossibly glamorous and welcoming. What a shock it was to watch the movie after having lived in New York for a while, and to think, “How dirty and shabby everything seems.” Everybody — I mean everybody — we met that first year in New York, upon finding out that we were new to the city, would tell us some version of, “You are so lucky to be here now — you have no idea what a difference Rudy Giuliani has made.”
What I loved most about New York, from the day I landed there until the day I flew away, in tears, was that the whole world was there. Julie and I would walk through Little Italy, over to Chinatown, eat Vietnamese there, then amble through Soho, and over to the West Village, all in a single afternoon, and feel that we had visited five different cities. Brooklyn seemed like a foreign country to us, and we fretted about moving out there, but we needed more space with a baby, and Manhattan was unaffordable. Brooklyn was just then starting to crest as a cool place, and had not yet become unaffordable for people like us. Our neighborhood had once been home to a concentration of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, who still had a presence there in some of the grocery stores on Atlantic Avenue. There was a Yemeni grocery store where a tall man named Noor, with a sweet smile, always gave a treat to our little Matthew when we would go in to buy dried hibiscus flowers for tea. And Matt was the star at the Arabic bakery down the street, where they knew us from the Maronite church in the neighborhood. Queen was the name of an old school white tablecloth Italian restaurant on Court Street, the kind of place hipsters would never in a million years go, where the food was terrific, and the old Italian waiters loved our little bambino. My favorite film comedy is Moonstruck, which was set in our neighborhood. I used to love taking visitors to 19 Cranberry Street, to see the townhouse where the Castorini family lives in the movie.
What a joy it was to live in New York back then. We knew it couldn’t last. Julie said one night, as we were pushing the stroller back from dinner, “New York is like the man you fall in love with, but you know you could never marry.” She also said, on another occasion, “Living in New York is like living in Disneyland. Everything is so vivid, and costs five times as much as in the real world.” We left in haste, after the war in Iraq started — it was too stressful to live there after 9/11, and with war coming, and besides, we knew that we couldn’t afford to stay there if we were going to have more kids. Off to Dallas we went. Julie went first, and I stayed behind to wrap things up before flying down.
I recall Julie driving us on an interstate near downtown Dallas when I put on a CD that had on it Carmen McRae’s recording of Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” (here she is performing it live). I burst into tears and cried like a baby. What a gift those years in New York were to me, to us. They helped make me who I turned out to be as a grown-up.
The Romanov Duchess Who Became A Saint
[The story of St. Elizabeth, a Romanov duchess who became a nun serving the poor after her husband, the Grand Duke, was assassinated, and who refused to leave Russia to save her life after the Revolution — and was executed.]
A reader wrote the other day that we should be thinking about the life and death of St. Elizabeth, a Romanov Grand Duchess who was martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
She was born a German princess in 1864, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Elizabeth — called Ella by her family — was baptized a Lutheran, but converted to Russian Orthodoxy a few years after marrying Grand Duke Sergei, brother of Tsar Alexander III. (She served as matchmaker for the marriage of her younger sister to the future Nicholas II, her nephew.) The spark for her Orthodox conversion seems to have been an official visit she and her husband made to Jerusalem for the dedication of a new Orthodox church built on the Mount of Olives. Elizabeth was so moved by it all that she expressed a desire to be buried in that church. According to Father Daniel Daly’s account of her life (it begins on Page 14 of this PDF):
The greatest tragedy of Elizabeth’s life occurred on February 4, 1905. Serge was leaving the Kremlin in his carriage. Ivan Kalyayev, a 27-year-old revolutionary, hurled a bomb as the carriage emerged through the Nikolskaya Gate of the Kremlin. Thrown from only four feet away, the bomb hit the Grand Duke directly. He was killed instantly. Hearing the blast, Elizabeth left her quarters and ran to the bloody scene. She insisted on picking up the remains of her husband and placing them on the stretcher. His remains were taken into the Kremlin to the Alexei Chapel of the Chudov monastery, where the prayers for the dead were intoned. Elizabeth knelt beside the stretcher for the service.
Her husband, the Grand Duke, was hated in part because he had expelled 20,000 Jews from Moscow. She was known to have been horrified by this act, and told someone that they would be judged for it. In the days before he was buried, Elizabeth prayed endlessly. She went to the prison to visit her husband’s assassin. She told him that she forgave him, and asked him to repent of the murder. She said she would beg the Tsar to save his life. The killer refused, saying he was proud to have done this deed for the revolution.
A few years after her husband’s death, Grand Duchess Elizabeth decided to devote herself to monastic life, and to starting a hospital. She sold all of her jewels, even her wedding ring. More from Father Daly:
By selling her collection of jewels, Elizabeth bought an estate across the Moscow River. From the four existing buildings she created a hospital, a clinic, a soup kitchen, a residence for the sisters, a chapel and an orphanage for girls. She accepted widows and unmarried women from 21 to 40 years of age. They were trained by doctors to be hard-working nurses. She began with six sisters, and within a year there were thirty. And on April 9, 1910, seventeen sisters, including Elizabeth, were tonsured as sisters.
With the help of the best doctors in Moscow she created the best hospital in Moscow. The outpatient clinic was served by 34 doctors each week. The doctors and surgeons worked free-of-charge. In 1913 more than ten thousand patients were treated in the clinic. Unlike the case with modern philanthropists, the charity of Elizabeth was literally “hands on.” She personally assisted in the care of the patients. She helped in the surgery with the doctors. She cared for the sickest patients and was there for their deaths. Her very presence was a source of healing and comfort. But both in the hospital and in public she tried to remain anonymous. And yet she received all who came to the monastery. Although she kept the hospital small and served the poor, the Moscow hospitals sent her their most ill patients. In addition, her sisters made countless home visits to people in the city.
Then came the 1917 Revolution. More:
At first the convent was respected by the Bolsheviks. Supplies came to the hospital. During her final year Elizabeth had several opportunities to leave Russia. She would not leave her sisters and her monastery. Several days after Pascha, on April 27, 1918, the dreaded Chekists [secret policemen] arrived to arrest her. After given thirty minutes to say her farewells, she and Sister Barbara were taken away by car. Elizabeth had been arrested by order of Lenin. Elizabeth and Sister Barbara were exiled first to Perm, more than 700 miles from Moscow, then to Yekaterinburg, where she was joined by other members of the Romanov family. They remained there for about a month.
They were all taken to Alapayevsk on 20 May, 1918, where they were housed in the Napolnaya School on the outskirts of the town. The end approached at noon on 17 July. Cheka Officer Pyotr Startsev and a few Bolshevik workers came to the school and sent away the Red Army guards. Cheka men replaced them. That night the prisoners were awakened and driven in carts on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha, 11 miles from Alapayevsk, where there was an abandoned mine with a pit over sixty feet deep. Elizabeth and her companions were thrown into the mine where they died.
There’s actually more to the story than this. From a second source:
The Cheka beat all the prisoners before throwing their victims into this pit, Elizabeth being the first. Hand grenades were then hurled down the shaft, but only one victim, Feodor Remez, died as a result of the grenades.
According to the personal account of Ryabov, one of the assassins, Elizabeth and the others survived the fall into the mine, prompting Ryabov to toss in a grenade after them. Following the explosion, he claimed to hear Elizabeth and the others singing hymns from the bottom of the shaft. Ryabov threw down a second grenade, but the singing continued. Finally a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and set alight, upon which Ryabov posted a guard over the site and departed.
Early on July 18, 1918, the head of the Alapaevsk Cheka, Abramov, and the head of the Yekaterinburg Regional Soviet, Beloborodov, who had been involved in the murders of the Imperial Family, exchanged a number of telegrams in a pre-arranged plan saying that the school had been attacked by an “unidentified gang”. A short time later, Alapaevsk fell to the White Army.
On October 8, 1918, the Whites discovered the remains of Elizabeth and her companions, still within the shaft where they had been murdered. Elizabeth had died of wounds sustained in her fall into the mine, but had still found strength to bandage the head of the dying Prince Ioann. Her remains were removed and ultimately taken to Jerusalem, where they lie today in the Church of Mary Magdalene.
This is the church that she and her husband Sergei had dedicated in 1888, and in which she expressed a desire to be buried. Here is a picture of Elizabeth as a nun. She and her sisters were unusual as Orthodox nuns, in that they were not cloistered:
The Bolsheviks pillaged the convent and desecrated its church, but today, it has been restored (though not, to my knowledge, reconsecrated), and a statue of the saint was built on the property. The plaque reads: “To The Grand Duchess Elizabeth, With Repentance”
In April 1918, shortly before the Bolsheviks arrested her, she wrote to her friend Countess Alexandra Olsufieff:
One must fix one's thoughts on the heavenly country in order to see things in their true light, and to be able to say "Thy will be done," when one sees the complete destruction of our beloved Russia. Remember that Holy Russia, the Orthodox Church "against whom the Gates of Hell shall not prevail," still exists, and will always exist. Those who can believe this without a doubt will see the inner light shining through the darkness in the midst of the storm. I am not exaltée, dear friend, I am only certain that the God who chastises is the same God who loves. I have been reading the Bible a good deal lately, and if we believe in the sublime sacrifice of God the Father in sending His Son to die and rise again for us, we shall feel the Holy Spirit lighting our way, and our joy will become eternal, even if our poor human hearts and earthly minds pass through moments which seem terrible.
Think of a storm; there are some things sublime in it, some things terrifying; some are afraid to take shelter, some are killed by it, and some have their eyes opened to the greatness of God; is not this a true picture of the present times? We work, we pray, we hope and each day we feel more and more the divine compassion. It is a constant miracle that we are alive. Others are beginning to feel the same, and they come to our Church to seek rest for their souls. Pray for us, dear heart. Always your old and faithful friend.
P.S. Thank you for the dear past.
Words to live by today.
She also wrote:
Always be guided by your heart rather than by your head, and your life will be transformed. Happiness does not consist in living in a palace or enjoying a large fortune; these can be lost. True happiness is something that neither men nor events can take from you. You will find it in Faith, in Hope, and in Charity. Try to make those around you happy, and you will be happy yourself.
Forese Donati’s Hunger
[In this passage, I discuss an episode from Dante’s Commedia that illustrates how suffering, if received in the right spirit, can purify us spiritually.]
Here, from Dante’s Purgatorio, is a good example of what I’m talking about. In her book Dante In Love, Harriet Rubin says that for Dante, the tragedy of his guide Virgil is that Virgil, despite the greatness of his soul, did not know hope. Virgil’s melancholy kept at bay the transforming pleasures of love. In his poem, Dante likens Virgil to a man walking at night through the impenetrable who holds the lantern behind him, so that those who follow can see the way.
In Purgatorio, though, we see those who suffer in hope, because they know that their suffering will be only temporary, and through it, their souls are being prepared to bear the glory of God. In Canto 13, Dante and Virgil approach the terrace of the Gluttons — that is, where those whose besetting sin was gluttony have that tendency purged from them. Dante sees a group of shades approaching, singing the words of Psalm 50: “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
The poet Dante means for us to see that these penitent gluttons are using their mouths for a higher purpose than eating and drinking. But this is not a beautiful choir. Writes Dante:
Their eyes were dark and sunken,
their faces pale, their flesh so wasted
that the skin took all its shape from bones.
Suddenly, one of them looks at Dante and cries: “What grace is granted to me now!”
Dante doesn’t recognize the skeletal man at first, but then it hits him: this is his old friend Forese Donati, utterly transformed by hunger. Here is how the Renaissance illustrator Federico Zuccari captured that moment (here’s the link to the Uffizi gallery’s online exhibition):
Dante asks his friend why he looks so terrible. Forese explains:
“All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.
“The fragrance coming from the fruit
and from the water sprinkled on green boughs
kindles our craving to eat and drink,
“and not once only, circling in this space,
is our pain renewed.
I speak of pain but should say solace,
“for the same desire leads us to the trees
that led Christ to utter Eli with such bliss
when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.”
For me, these are among the most beautiful passages in the entire Commedia. Here is a man who is starving — starving! — and yet, he and his fellow penitents take comfort in their sufferings, having joined them to Christ’s, knowing that the pain of their renunciation of appetite takes them closer to union with God. The paradox here: the bliss of agony, the agony of bliss. They hunger for the Bread of Heaven.
If we knew with all our heart that our pain and suffering could purify us, and bring us closer to Christ, would we run from it with such desperate vigor?
Since it was first discovered that Covid causes some sufferers to lose their sense of taste and smell — sometimes permanently — I have feared that this would happen to me. Food and drink is my greatest sensual pleasure. If I lost the ability to smell baked bread, to taste tart raspberry jam and salted French butter on it — that would be an immense loss for me. Today, facing the likelihood that Covid has come to my house, and that it will probably strike me, and that this could be my fate — well, I am going to prepare myself as best I can for the possibility that the Lord may take away the gift of taste and smell from me, permanently. I need to face down this fear, and allow love of God to transform it. If I am called to suffer in this particular way, I need to accept that would be for my salvation.
In Canto 13, Forese and the crowd pass on ahead of Dante, and arrived at a fruited tree:
Dante writes (this is Anthony Esolen’s translation, which I quite like):
This might seem cruel to us. Why would God torture these starving shades like this? Because He has to rightly order their desires. He is teaching them to love Him more than they love food. Recall that they know that one day they will be in Paradise; Christ has already won the victory for them. In Dante’s cosmos, their time in Purgatory is not to pay the price of sin, but to strengthen their souls for Paradise, a realm of pure divine light. As I explained in an earlier newsletter, one can read Dante’s Purgatorio as an analogy to Christian life in mortality, preparing ourselves for heaven by dying to ourselves, so that we can begin to live more fully in Christ right now. Salvation is not something that happens after we die. It begins here on earth, when we surrender to Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to begin within us the process of theosis, of sanctification. Prayer, fasting, and repentance are all ways of dying to self.
How crazy is that scene under the Tree to us modern Americans? Forese Donati and his fellow gluttons are suffering well. Because Forese has hope, his pain is also his solace. What a hard truth that is for us to grasp. But how necessary.
I was curious to know what I had written about this passage from Purgatorio in my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, which I haven’t read since its publication in 2015. I just dug up the manuscript and found this. If you don’t know, here I’m talking about my struggle to reconcile myself with my broken family. “Mike” is Mike Holmes, my therapist. “Father Matthew” is Father Matthew Harrington, my confessor:
If I believed with all my heart that my suffering could purify me, would I run from it with such vigor? This canto invited me to think about how the physical and spiritual struggles I had been through since coming home had at times brought me closer to God—and how my own bruised ego had, at other times, pushed him away.
I am a glutton for food and drink, no doubt, but I am also a glutton to feed my soul on other things that I cannot have. On this terrace, I grasped the nature of my hunger, my craving, for approval and acceptance by my family. I wanted it so much that I had made it more important than the hunger for God.
I had returned to Starhill expecting to find the fatted calf slain and prepared for a banquet. It wasn’t there. I suffered this deprivation in sorrow and anger, regarding it as injustice, as my family giving me stones when I deserved bread. And I made myself sick over it.
In this canto, the poet revealed to me that the very thing that made me so sick and depressed was the thing that was the instrument of my salvation. Eating stones for two years had broken my teeth and starved me down to the spiritual bones. Yet as a prolonged drought dries up a lake and uncovers hidden structures long obscured by the water, that unslakable thirst and unsatisfiable hunger sharpened my inner vision and uncovered structures of sin deep within my heart—walls I never would have sought to tear down had I not moved home and been made to wait at the gate of Daddy’s house.
In confession with Father Matthew—you don’t purge wrath from your heart overnight—I told him that for all the emotional pain and physical affliction I had lived with, I did not regret for a second coming back.
“If I hadn’t been starved for their love, I never would have discovered that I had been worshiping idols,” I said. “I never would have read the Commedia. I never would have had this church. I never would have had the Jesus Prayer, and never would have been given the gift of believing, for the first time in my life, that God the Father loves me.”
The priest smiled. “God has a plan,” he said.
I told him about Forese Donati and his joy amid his suffering. He knew that his pain was only temporary and a prelude to everlasting bliss. Forese knew that he deserved his penitential punishment, because he had made food and drink his idols. But he also knew that his imposed fasting, though extreme, was the only thing that would rightly order him toward God.
“I have to be that guy,” I told Father Matthew. “I have to find joy in this situation, as hard as it is. I know that this is a severe mercy. I have had more spiritual growth in these past two years than at any time in my life. The two are connected.”
“It hurts to take our medicine,” my confessor said, “but it’s the only way we’re going to get healed.”
Meeting with Mike the next week, I told him about the test of the gluttons’ repentance. The pilgrim watches some penitent gluttons standing under another fruit tree dripping with water, jumping up and down like children begging for candy. Then, after hearing God’s voice inside the tree speak to them, they go away, says Dante, “as if enlightened.” They obey the authority of God’s voice, not the commands of their cravings. They hunger more for righteousness than for food.
“This is where I need to be in this situation with my family,” I said. “I’m so impatient. I want things to be fixed right now. I don’t want to wait on God.”
“God is teaching you patience,” Mike said. “Learning to wait on him and let things play out according to his plan is part of your healing. Your role is to keep using those tools you have to keep yourself focused on the truth of things, and letting truth inform your emotions.”
“And remembering that I am in control.”
“Yes. And don’t forget that this thing with your family might never be fixed,” he continued. “The point is, you are being fixed, and you’re being fixed by learning to satisfy that hunger within you by turning to God.”
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