Sunday, August 12, 2018

368. Faith: Stained Glass, Big Mama, Love, and the Petrified Heart of a Bishop

The good reviews of Fascinating New Yorkers keep coming in.  The latest one, by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views, concludes:  "Readers will enjoy Clifford Browder’s lively, descriptive writing. Fans of non-fiction and more recent history will really appreciate the research that he put into these pages. His writing will definitely captivate your interest as it did mine. 'Fascinating New Yorkers' is a pleasure to read and I look forward to reading more works by this author."

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The print version of Fascinating New Yorkers 
is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The e-book version is available from Amazon with Kindle for $4.99.  For more reviews, see below.

For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS following the post below.

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Short biographical sketches of colorful people who lived or died in New York.  A cardinal who led a double life, a serial killer, a baroness with a tomato-can bra, and a film star whose funeral caused an all-day riot.  And many more.


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories.... A must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there."  Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!"  Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 


         This is the first of a series of posts about how we cope with this astonishing, baffling, exciting, and somewhat absurd phenomenon known as life.  Here we are, tiny blobs of matter squirming across the face of the earth, most of us not knowing how we got here or what to do about it.  We are haunted – some of us, at least – by the rich, immense, heartbreaking fragility of it all, and the prospect of leaving this life without having accomplished anything meaningful, of dropping into the void with a soft whish or a dry thud and vanishing forever.  Think, in a city like New York, of those who die alone, their remains unclaimed by any next of kin, or sometimes even unidentified.  They end up in cheap pine coffins, marked only with a number, on Hart Island in the Bronx, near City Island.  On that small island convicts deposit them, coffin stacked on coffin, in the graves they have dug.  Over a million bodies are interred on this forbidden island -- forbidden because it also harbors the crumbling remains of abandoned facilities, entering which is a threat to limb and life.  And even if we will be duly claimed and appropriately buried elsewhere, or cremated in a black puff of smoke, the seeming meaninglessness can be devastating.  But never underestimate the resources of the human mind.  We have devised, by my count, seven ways to cope with this dilemma.  Here now is the first, the Way of Faith.

File:A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis.jpg
Convicts burying coffins on Hart Island, circa 1890.

         The Way of Faith involves a religion.  Any religion will do, but since I grew up in it, I’ll cite Christianity.  It posits the existence of an all-knowing, all-wise, all-good God, who cares passionately about each and every one of us and welcomes us – on his terms – with open arms.  No matter how trivial and frustrating our life may be, He – or She or It – sees us as worthy of his – or her or its – love and compassion.  Yes, there may be certain terms involved – what they are depends on which variety of Christianity you are drawn to – but knowing that this God exists gives meaning to your life and the world you are trying to cope with.  Skeptics can scoff, but the Way of Faith is embraced, and always has been, by multitudes.  It injects meaning into the universe, heals despair, lifts us from the Slough of Despond.

         Of course there are problems.  My friend Ed was raised a Catholic in Denver and attended Marquette, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee.  Ah, those Jesuits, I once worked for them and got to know those flowing black robes; they are a savvy bunch.  But on coming to New York, Ed began to question the strait-jacketing faith of his upbringing, wrenched free of it at last, and joined the ranks of the unchurched, or perhaps one should say the de-churched. 

          Similarly, my friend John grew up in Minneapolis and was subjected by his mother to a church where the service was in Finnish, not a word of which he understood.  The faith he was caught up in was Laestadianism, a fundamentalist branch of Lutheranism that forbade attending movies, consuming alcohol, and dancing.  He lost his faith while at the University of Minnesota, and on coming to New York became a full-fledged atheist and remained one until the day he died.  Clearly, the Way of Faith is not for everyone.  But Ed had a quiet, somewhat restrained manner that reminded me of university students in France who had been to a Catholic collège, and not the secular lycée.  They had that same polite, restrained manner, which other students noticed and commented on, though without disparagement.

         My own story was a happier one.  I grew up in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, where I attended Sunday School at a very liberal Methodist church that imposed no catechism or other rigid doctrine.  These gentle Methodists just taught us a few simple moral principles and urged us to be generous to “those less fortunate than ourselves.”  I imbibed this readily and painlessly, and even participated in the well-attended annual Christmas pageant, which told dramatically the story of the Nativity.  At the pageant's end, the high school and adult church choirs surged down the church’s aisles, bringing the spectators to their feet, as we robed choristers, electric candles held high, gave forth with resonance the triumphant strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.  In that joyful blast of voices my own faulty vocalizing went undetected.

         Only in my senior year at high school did I drift away from the church, preoccupied as I was with (1) going steady, and (2) my duties as a cadet major commanding a battalion in our local MTC corps, a distant cousin of the ROTC.  (A cadet major – I kid you not.  A dubious commitment, but that’s another story.)

         My Methodist God was good-natured, somewhat distant, and not too demanding.  In college, hoping to get a scholarship to study in France, I read Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and so, thanks to this  scion of an illustrious WASP clan that had given us two presidents, I encountered that very Catholic presence, the Virgin.  In conveying the meaningfulness and beauty of Chartres cathedral, Adams explains that this is her shrine, her home.  She is there, in image and in spirit, surrounded by flickering tapers, and she understands.  She can be approached, can be prayed to, can be enlisted on our side when her son judges us in the final and terrifying Judgment.  

          Later, when I got to France, I would visit that cathedral in the winter, when tourist crowds were absent.  There I looked in wonder at the soaring Gothic arches, the spiritually infused sculpture at the portals, and the stained glass windows high above.  Above all I stared in awe at the rose windows that in the faint wintry light seemed to detach themselves from the stone walls and hang magically in space.  Yes, there was beauty here, and magic, that only the Way of Faith can produce.  So began my Protestant flirtation with Catholicism.  Any faith that could produce such marvels could not be dismissed lightly.  One could almost forget the Pope and the male hierarchy, gobs of history, and the bundle of dogma that otherwise kept me off. 

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         The Virgin, as represented in medieval and Renaissance art, was the most benign embodiment of the Big Mama that would haunt my writing in the years to come.  She kept popping up, unsummoned, bearing such names as Madonna and Venus and Great Mother and Kali and Eve, sometimes sweet and enticing, sometimes monstrous and terrifying, always basic and inescapable.  That her most benign form was venerated by Catholics was not the doing of the male hierarchy, who saw in Woman the confounding temptress Eve.  Our Lady was forced upon them by the people, who needed a softened and compassionate female deity, a supreme Mother who could be swayed by prayer, who could embrace them with unjudging love.  If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em, so the Church made room for her and, in time, the great Gothic cathedrals were built and dedicated to her, and in them she reigned supreme.

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The south rose window; this only gives a hint.

         In art she has often been sentimentalized, but I have seen her free from sentiment in certain works.  In Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, in Alsace, she grieves fiercely for the horrifying death of her son, whose hands, nailed to the cross, seem to clutch in agony.  For me, the whole scene, uncluttered, has a haunting starkness.  And in that other work of his, the Stuppach Madonna in Germany, in a scene as richly and joyfully cluttered as the Colmar Crucifixion is bare, she radiates a maternal blond beauty that I find quite moving.  And this despite her being displayed in a parish church where one was allowed to see her only for a limited amount of time while, as I recall, some insipid music was played.  I still prefer her to Titian’s overwrought Assumption of the Virgin in Venice, where she soars aloft watched by enraptured well-garbed apostles and a clutch of naked putti, inspiring in my skeptical mind the comment, “Boy, that is some assumption!”

File:Matthias Grünewald - The Crucifixion - WGA10723.jpg
The Virgin is in white on the left, with John the Baptist pointing on the right.
The anatomy and proportions are way off, but who cares?

File:Matthias Grünewald - Stuppach Madonna - WGA10776.jpg
The Stuppach Madonna.  This only suggests the radiance of the original.

         Gregorian chants are another aspect of Catholicism that inspires me; I am entranced by their simplicity and purity.  To reconnect with them, recently I attended a a short Episcopal church service mostly in plainsong, a monophonic chant akin to the Gregorian.  And for something more complex, more massively overwhelming, how about Bach’s Mass in B Minor?  For inspiring the arts, Catholicism can’t be beat.  Protestantism in its purest form has a touch of the ascetic; its suspicion of idolatry makes the visual arts suspect.  But if sung by a really good choir, its hymns can be poignant and inspiring.

         A few times in my life I have encountered a truly spiritual person and was moved by something indefinable that they seemed to radiate.  One was Dr. Edmond D. Soper, who taught my Sunday School class my junior year in high school; he was gentle, he was knowledgeable, he was wise.  Another was an English Jesuit, Father Martin D’Arcy, who visited the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school where I was working in the library.  A short man with an almost comical manner, he had a great sense of humor.  In a talk he gave, he told of a woman, once a great beauty but now, as he put it, “all paint,” who in his presence insisted that she too could go to the communion rail.  “Come off it, Gladys,” said her male companion.  “He knows you’re living in sin.”  It’s my experience that truly spiritual people have a keen sense of humor; they can laugh at both others and themselves.

         What about Catholicism still holds me off?  The smugness of certain Catholics – not all, by any means – that they have the Truth and can prove it, that anyone disagreeing with them is grievously and pitifully mistaken.  Personally, I agree with a sign posted in my health foods store:


If I can never be, in the strictest sense, a Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, it’s because I can’t accept Christianity’s claim of exclusiveness.  For me, it cannot be the only path to true faith and salvation.

         Also troubling is Catholicism’s obsession with the physical, leading to the veneration of relics.  I recall staring in wonder and bafflement at shadowy cases in some provincial church in France containing bits of hair and bone, presumably the remains of some martyred local saint.  And in Puebla, Mexico, I remember seeing, on exhibit in the former secret convent of Santa Monica, the petrified heart of a bishop.  More comprehensible for me were the baroque paintings there of suffering male martyrs, their tortured bare flesh well calculated to inspire in their female votaries a delicious mix of the spiritual and sensual.  As for the need of a relic for dedicating churches in the New World, what a great business it was for the churches of the Old World, who could divvy up bits of bone and hair and sell them to their transatlantic confrères.

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Reliquary of the Holy Thorn, Saint-Etienne.

         Worship of relics can easily be carried to extremes.  Christ's blood, his crown of thorns, and splinters of the cross have been venerated.  When contending cities fought for the remains of a saint, those remains were sometimes divvied up.  Saint Catherine of Siena's body is enshrined in Rome, but her native Siena, thanks to a bit of body snatching and reputed spiritual hanky-panky, displays her mummified head and, in a separate reliquary, her right thumb.  I find the head downright weird and morbid.

File:Head of Saint Catherine of Siena - San Domenico - Siena 2016.jpg
José Luiz

        When I learned that some French nuns in the nineteenth century claimed to have discovered the Holy Prepuce, Jesus's foreskin, the only part of him left behind on earth, I was vastly amused and had to acknowledge that those girls never missed a trick.  And when, later, I learned that in the Middle Ages anywhere from 8 to 18 holy foreskins were venerated in different European cities at the same time, I could only marvel at this miraculous multiplication.  Today -- miraculously again -- they all seem to have disappeared.  And to its credit, the Church in recent times has tried to evaluate such claims and reject the dubious ones.

         Of course many devout Catholics scoff at the veneration of relics and cleave to the core of their religion.  How can I argue with a friend of mine, a Sister of Mercy, who has told of awakening from three days of anesthesia, following brain surgery for removal of a life-threatening tumor, to experience a debilitated body and a soaring spirit, as she babbled on to visitors about overwhelming, healing, and all-embracing Love?  From that moment on, her life was changed profoundly.  She looked at nature with fresh eyes, and through Love was able to triumph over intense physical suffering and the recovered memory of childhood abuse.  Such is the Way of Faith at its best.  It is overwhelming, it is awe-inspiring.

Coming soon:  A very different way of coping, embraced only by a few, but with consequences for all: The Way of Power.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  I

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  What price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder   

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