"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

31 July 2006

On Writing Letters

My friend Cindy wrote me a letter recently – a real letter: handwritten and sent by U.S. mail.

There is something powerful in finding your name written by hand on an envelope in the mailbox, or waiting on your desk when you get home. As much as I love seeing Cindy’s name in my email inbox – it’s always good to hear from a friend, no matter what medium – it’s not the same as a letter I can hold and handle, open and slowly savor page by page, rustling the paper and enjoying the lovely, clear hand in which she writes.

I appreciate being able to stay in touch quickly with email; I like the pictures I get of kids and grandkids and friends’ kids. The medium has its place.

But I wonder if the very ease of it has drawbacks, too? A student once mentioned that email and the proliferation of diary weblogs like myspace and xanga have overburdened her with what feels like too much knowledge about too many people she doesn’t have time to reach out to and pray for in meaningful ways. She becomes discouraged at her apparent lack of compassion, but perhaps she was never meant to know so many burdens that others carry.

And I wonder if this medium contributes to the human tendency to laziness? “I’ll whip off a quick response and I’ve taken care of my obligation,” instead of taking the time for reflection that’s needed for any real depth. I’m often startled to find, in clearing out my email, that I’ve done just that: sent a quick reply and then never followed up with real concern. May God forgive me.

The art of letter-writing is rapidly dying. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of the medium in which I am lamenting this.) I don’t write letters – I do well to get birthday cards to 23 family members somewhere near the right dates, and these are usually accompanied by, at most, short notes on the cards themselves. I have been (and will continue to be) guilty of the once-a-year (or so) “mass mailing” of a family update to friends I value but simply can’t seem to find time to write to individually.

I don’t believe the common saying, “you have time for what’s important to you.” Life consists of many urgent tasks that eat up time, there can be more important things than there is time to do, and some of us have little energy to begin with. Truly important things can be left undone because there honestly isn’t time for them. But still I think a world in which real letters come often in the mail is a richer one, and I mourn its loss, for all of us.

23 July 2006

Be Still, My Soul

Sunday morning alone with the hymnal again . . .

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

19 July 2006

On What Makes an Artist

Okay, the last post was frustrated. On a more positive note, I have found a wonderful catalog which appears to have outlawed the use of the exclamation mark altogether, as well as to have thoughtful writers creating its descriptions. So I spend a lot of time browsing the pages of the Veritas Press catalog -- and probably spend more money than I should, as I buy books for myself as well as for the Young Man. But one must reward common sense where it's found, yes?

Veritas also scatters cool quotations throughout its pages, like this one from St. Francis of Assisi:

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

Choices and Exclamations

Summer is time to choose next year's home school curriculum, the most frustrating part of the process (after, of course, the part of getting the kids to buy into it). Back in the dark ages when we began, at a time when few non-missionary families were yet teaching at home, the choices were pretty simple: A Beka, Bob Jones, or the public school texts. We'd supplement with biographies and so forth, of course, but the basics required little time.

Now the choices seem endless and quality is difficult to judge; reviews abound, but which ones are trustworthy, which reviewers share my particular perspective on what makes a good text? As is the norm in all things found in large supply, most of the options are not worthy -- but how to glean the gold nuggets from the abundance of pyrite -- and accomplish anything else with one's limited time?

Reading the hundreds of product descriptions and reviews is excruciating in itself, but many of the catalog writers seem to think that exclamation marks will make their products more appealing. I am tempted to declare a boycott of any catalog that uses more than two of these awful marks on any given page -- but then I find a significant financial savings on something I want, sigh, and continue. Because! these books! are the cheapest! that you! can possibly find!

Argh. It's enough to make me want to send him to public school (where he, too, can learn to use exclamation marks every time he's too lazy to find the words that will create the emphasis he wants.)

16 July 2006

On Being Myself

Back in the dark ages of my youth, we called it "finding oneself." I don't know if today's youth has a term for it, but certainly the primary goal of as many today as in my day is to figure out "who I am" so I can go "be" that. Many of my students talk about needing to find out their gifts and calling and interests and so forth before they can decide how they can best serve God. I understand this, but I question it more and more. Serving God is something the believer simply does, everywhere and all the time (except, of course, when we sinfully choose to serve ourselves).

Indeed, as in my youth "finding ourselves" was an excuse to avoid social and political commitment, it seems to me that for many Christian youth today, the same concept applies for avoiding genuine all-out commitment to God.

I've been reading more in Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island, and today I discovered his eloquent articulation of something I've thought about (and tried to explain much less clearly) concerning what it means to "be oneself." He is writing about knowing God's will -- what it is and how to follow it. Because he says it so well, here's an extended quotation:

His will for me points to one thing: the realization, the discovery, and the fulfillment of my self, my true self, in Christ. [. . .] In order to save my life, I must lose it. For my life in God is and can only be a life of unselfish charity.

[. . .] God's will for us is not only that we should be the persons He means us to be, but that we should share in His work of creation and help Him to make us into the persons He means us to be. Always, and in all things, God's will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation, forge my own eternal happiness, in the way He has planned it for me. [. . .] I cannot work out God's will in my own life unless I also consciously help other men to work out His will in theirs. His will, then, is our sanctification, our transformation in Christ, our deeper and fuller integration with other men. And this integration results not in the absorption and disappearance of our own personality, but in its affirmation and its perfection.

"Forging our eternal happiness in the way He has planned it" . . . Aye, there's the rub. We want to "be ourselves," to be sure we aren't "lost in someone else's identity," and God says -- nope, you need to do the opposite: focus on serving others. And you do this, by the way, by losing yourself entirely in My Son's identity!

And we refuse to see that this is His plan to give us, in the end, all that we long for -- because built deeply into us as creations in His image is the need and the desire (however buried) to be complete in Him and not in ourselves, where we find only anxiety and indecision and death.

Lord, help me to remember day by day that You are the Source of my life, and that all will come to me only when I let You instill in me the desires of my heart, so that all I desire is to love You and live as Your child.

13 July 2006

"The World"

I've been reading Christina Rossetti's poetry while prepping for Victorian Lit this fall, and while I've always loved her work, I am simply stunned by reading so much more of it than I've ever encountered. I read for hours one afternoon, mesmerized by the depth and poetic quality. She has many narrative poems, all equal in quality to "Goblin Market," and her devotional poetry is nothing less than magnificent.

This poem, called "The World," reminded me of imagery from Phantastes:

By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathesome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

06 July 2006

Daze of our Wives (and other topics)

No, I didn't come up with that cool title. That would be Dawn Eden, bless her soul. :) It is the title of my review of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in Touchstone in January. The review isn't available online at Touchstone, but has been reprinted by Catholic Education Resource Center, where you can read it at this link if you are at all interested.

My review of Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy is in the final stages of editing, but I don't know when it will appear. I'm told the review hopper at Touchstone is overflowing, so it will probably be a while. Still, it feels good to have done it and have it accepted.

Shenk writes the following in reference to Lincoln's having defined a specific purpose for his life:

This sense of purpose was indeed the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison. This doesn't mean [Lincoln's] suffering went away. In fact, as his life became richer and more satisfying, his melancholy exerted a stronger pull. He now responded to that pull by tying it to his newly defined sense of purpose. From a place of trouble, he looked for meaning. He looked at imperfection and sought redemption.

I think I need to put this before my eyes every moment of every day. I'm too easily oppressed by melancholy, by circumstances, by my own sense of inadequacy and frustration. I need to learn to respond by doing the work before me and leaving the results to God. Would that it were as easy to do as to say!