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Odds and ends from staff and contributors to The Lamp.


✥ A few months ago, I ran an internet search for my childhood parish, Saint John the Beloved. I don’t remember exactly why, and it doesn’t really matter: Google didn’t find it. Instead, the search engine—no doubt basing its results on my location—sent me to the website of Saint John the Beloved Old Catholic Church (actually just a Facebook page), not far from my house in Northwest D.C. I was intrigued. The Old Catholic church broke off from the Roman Catholic Church after the First Vatican Council in 1870. Its original grievance was the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, and, fittingly, without the pope to boss it around, the Old Catholic church has been wandering into ever more creative interpretations of the faith in the one hundred fifty years since. It was originally a Dutch movement, though there are distinct strains of Old Catholicism all over Europe. In the United States, the conservative Union of Scranton is currently in schism with world headquarters in Utrecht (like most everyone else, the two sects disagree over female ordination and gay marriage). All this is to say that I had no idea that the church could afford real estate so close to Wisconsin Ave.

It turns out that it couldn’t. The Old Catholic church in Washington, D.C., is peripatetic and seems to find a new meeting spot every few years. Its current home—or maybe I should say one of its current homes, as it appears there are several splinter groups in the city—is in a Presbyterian church two blocks behind the Library of Congress. The last time I was on Capitol Hill I paid it a visit, but the doors were locked and no one was around to answer my questions. I wasn’t expecting much anyway: Saint John the Beloved has only one hundred thirty-five followers on Facebook, and I would be surprised if that many people have ever gathered under its auspices. I was not surprised that the church’s website link was dead or that when I called the phone number listed on Facebook I got a dial tone.

But that’s not to say that the church has died off. Saint John the Beloved’s pastor, the self-styled Bishop Charles F. Braun, Lord of the Old Catholic Diocese of the Chesapeake Bay, is an avid Facebook user. He frequently posts pastoral musings, as well as stray thoughts on all manner of subjects, from pleas for racial justice to cheers for gender equality to advertisements of his full-throated support for the Israeli and Ukrainian states in their respective conflicts. (I think it’s safe to say he is in communion with the Union of Utrecht.) Were it not for his antique vestments and ornate wooden crozier, he would fit in nicely among a certain cohort of aging pastors—both Catholic and Protestant—who approach their ministry as a supplement to social work.

I’ve often found with schismatic groups that in their attempts to preserve a more ancient form of Catholicism they end up inventing strange new rites, post-modern interpretations of the faith. (In recent years, for instance, the Old Catholic church has accepted an ersatz, and frankly intellectually insulting, version of the martyrdom of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.) I’m far from the first to notice this tendency. At the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis sought reconciliation with the Union of Utrecht, but lamented that there wasn’t much left in common between the breakaways and Rome, only an “increasing distance between us on matters of ministry and ethical discernment.”

There’s a coda to this story, and I don’t know exactly what to make of it. A friend of mine in Nashville recently had his own run-in with the local Old Catholics. He had accidentally broken the chain on his gold scapular and went down to a jewelry shop near his house to have it repaired. As it happened, the jeweler was a priest in the Union of Utrecht. Upon seeing the scapular, he spontaneously blessed my friend and offered him a snifter of cognac. While he repaired the chain, the jeweler emphatically explained that he really was a priest and that he really did confect the Eucharist. My friend, who, understandably, had no idea what an “Old Catholic” was, took it all in stride. When he came back home, the scapular chain broke again almost immediately.

—Nic Rowan

✥ People familiar with Manhattan’s Upper East Side ask me the same question when I give them the address of the magazine where I work: where do you eat lunch? A culinary desert stretches from Fifth Avenue past Madison (where perfumeries outnumber delis a hundred to one) to Park Avenue. There are restaurants here, technically, but none fit for an office worker’s lunch. They have names like Brasserie Rive Gauche and Très Chic by Jean-Pierre and have a very specific local clientele. If you don’t have one of those metal credit cards and a yen to explain to Nora why Maureen simply can’t be invited to the next little party, well!

On Lexington and eastward there are a few Bowl Places. In these midday temples of the professional class a rite is observed. Certain ingredients are placed in these receptacles—rustic, yet prestigious. A firm logic governs the process. At a nearby vegan Bowl Place one early afternoon I witnessed what happens when one flouts the liturgy. An elegantly dressed elderly West Indian woman ahead of me in line, delighted by the fare on offer, wanted some of everything: turmeric pickled onions, maroon beet discs, steaming farro . . .

“But what’s your protein?” the server asked her in vain. “Are you saying you want to do extra sides instead of a base?” She ignored them, asking for some of that lovely edamame as well. In revenge the server tabulated a bevy of extra sides and charged her a ludicrous sum—nearly fifty dollars. It was horrible to behold.

Lately I have sought a less semiotically fraught lunch at an old-school deli, one of the few around, with a set of steam trays. Plates of food are not as popular these days, but there’s something to be said for mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables, steak, and peppers. The best part is that the people there will give you anything you want.

—Nick Burns

✥ From Saul Bellow’s description of driving in 1957 through downstate Illinois:

You find it hard to travel slowly. The endless miles pressed flat by the ancient glacier seduce you into speeding. As the car eats into the distances, you begin gradually to feel that you are riding upon the floor of the continent, the very bottom of it, low and flat, and an impatient spirit of movement, of overtaking and urgency, passes into your heart.

Miles and miles of prairie, slowly rising and falling, sometimes give you a sense that something is in the process of becoming or that the liberation of a great force is imminent, some power, like Michelangelo’s slave only half released from the block of stone. Conceivably the mound-building Indians believed their resurrection would coincide with some such liberation and built their graves in imitation of the low moraines deposited by the departing glaciers. But they have not yet been released and remain drowned in their waves of earth. They have left their bones, their flints and pots, their place names and tribal names, and little besides except a stain, seldom vivid, on the consciousness of their white successors.

The soil of the Illinois prairies is fat, rich, and thick. After spring plowing it looks oil-blackened or colored by the soft coal that occurs in great veins throughout the state. In the fields you frequently see a small tipple or a crazy-looking device that pumps oil and nods like the neck of a horse at a quick walk. Isolated among the cornstalks or the soybeans, the iron machine clanks and nods, stationary. Along the roads, with intervals between them as neat and even as buttons on the cuff, sit steel storage bins, in form like the tents of Mongolia. They are tilled with grain. And the elevators and tanks, trucks and machines, that crawl over the fields and blunder over the highways—whatever you see is productive. It creates wealth, it stores wealth, it is wealth.

✥ This January, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority released a webpage that, using commuter card data, generates “Your 2023 Metro Report.” The concept was lifted from Spotify, a music app that tracks its users’ listening habits and packages the information in personalized listicles at the end of every year. The point, I suppose, is to encourage more public transit use.

The decision came at a good time for me because, partway through last year, I had resolved to ride the bus as much as I could—in part out of thrift, but more because I have found that navigating the city without a rideshare app or car is a genuine pleasure. By now, I’ve become an evangelist to hesitant friends, who all stick to the train. No parking, no surge pricing, no tips, no bulky keys: the bus is just public transit, and it is liberating once you adjust to its rhythms.

I was delighted, therefore, to see that in this period I had gotten in more than one hundred and fifty trips on the bus. Years ago, when I came across a friend’s tweet that read, “If you can’t take a bus, my respect for you immediately plummets,” I was almost offended. Now I wholeheartedly agree.

As life fills up and my obligations and appointments accumulate, sitting on mass transit feels more and more luxurious, a way of reclaiming some focused time. An hour to ride the bus to Mass or to a friend’s house for dinner in place of a short drive is for me real leisure, a chance to read the Book of Common Prayer or a novel or, like Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd,” simply to lean on the window, “absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.” In 2024, I’ll be taking the bus even more often.

—Christopher McCaffery

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