"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

27 February 2007

Only His Merit

The second chapter of Death on a Friday Afternoon is on the words of Jesus to the thief: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." It has much food for thought, much to help me understand and appreciate certain Catholic ways of thinking I'd only known as caricatures before.

What all of us can agree on is worth quoting at some length; Neuhaus says it far better than I ever could. (I've added caps for pronouns referring to God because I find them helpful.)

When our faith is weak, when we are assailed by contradictions and doubts, we are tempted to look at our faith, to worry about our faith, to try to work up more faith. At such times, however, we must not look to our faith but look to Him. Look to Him, listen to Him, and faith will take care of itself. Keep looking. Keep listening. (my emphasis)

And later:

When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that He has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, [. . .]. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of "justification by faith alone," although I will thank God that He led me to know ever more fully the great truth [which] much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced [. . .], whatever understanding I have attained of God and His ways -- these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with [the thief on the cross], look to Christ and Him alone. (my emphasis again)

I have left out what applies particularly to a Catholic understanding of the saints, which all do not agree about. What I have quoted from the passage is certainly the common belief of all Christians, though I often do not live as though it is. I think that if I really grasped this, with more than the mind, I would live in so much more freedom than I often allow myself. Because if I'm looking to Him, I don't need to worry and fret over whether I'm "good enough" for Him -- how arrogant to think I ever could be! I am only "good enough" because He has placed me in Himself, the only Good who exists.

22 February 2007

Cheap Grace: Worth What It Costs?

Death on a Friday Afternoon is Neuhaus's meditations on the final seven "words" of Christ on the cross. The first -- on the statement "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" -- begins by urging us, in Neuhaus's gently eloquent way, not to leap forward to Easter but to "stay awhile" at Good Friday, reflecting on the fallen Lord and our complicity in His death.

He writes, "after such a separation [ours willfully from God] there can be no easy reunion. [. . .] Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence."

I had not, I think, considered reconciliation in quite this way. I have intellectually understood that there needs to be payment for "that which has gone wrong" and that Christ could make that payment because He was the only one who had not gone wrong Himself.

And I have intellectually understood that my going wrong -- my sin -- was the problem that I could not fix myself, requiring that I make the ultimate payment, death, or that another, who was able, pay for me.

But I hadn't thought about how "cheap grace" makes my life of no value. Sin cannot be merely overlooked as if it had not occurred; a penalty commensurate to the sin must be paid; it must cost someone something to fix the problem.

"If bad things don't matter," Neuhaus writes, "then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor." And earlier, "Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter."

And so with all of life. When I shrug and ignore the violation of rules I have created for the good of my children or of my students, I am telling them, "What you do is not really that important." And when they accept my cheap grace, they have accepted a lie about themselves -- that they are not worthy -- and a truth about me -- that I do not care enough about them to show them their worth.

Food for thought. As God has cared for me, may I discipline myself to care enough for those He has placed under my stewardship to show them His love in His ways.

21 February 2007


The only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.

(Richard John Neuhaus, in Death on a Friday Afternoon, tells us that Alfred North Whitehead said this. I'll have more on this remarkable book in days to come, but this thought struck me forcefully today.)

15 February 2007


My favorite television show (Criminal Minds) has succeeded in fascinating me again with last night’s episode, which explored the concept of empathy. The more I think about the show, the more amazed I am at the depths of what they did in this episode; it is not the norm, at least in today’s visual media, to explore any abstraction so significantly.

Last week, in a two-part episode, Reid was kidnapped and tortured before being rescued by the team. The genius of the group, he is a logic machine who relies almost entirely on his mind and struggles with emotion and relationship. During his ordeal, Hotch remarks to Gideon that he has failed in helping Reid learn to deal with the job emotionally, and he is concerned this may now be a problem. Reid’s kidnapper injects him with a psychotic drug several times, and at the end, Reid steals two vials of the drug before rejoining the team, leaving us to wonder if he will turn to drugs to stop the pain that has now been stirred up, both from his past and from the effects of the torture.

As the episode last night began, Morgan greets the new woman on the team, Emily Prentiss, and asks how her weekend was. She is reluctant to answer and Morgan casually gives her the freedom not to – at which she spills out the story of a bad date and they find a connection in their mutual enjoyment of Kurt Vonnegut’s literature. It is Morgan’s ability to allow her to speak or not, and his attentiveness and empathy when she does, that allow her to finally begin revealing herself so that she can become more than just professionally a part of the team.

The team is called in to help find a serial killer targeting black high school girls who like to sing. Their profile says that the killer is a black man, and the town mayor goes ballistic, fearful of rousing further racial hatred in a town that already thinks the killings are racially motivated. The black detective running the local investigation decides to make the profile public over the mayor’s objections, and he and Morgan (who is mixed race) go out on patrol together.

During this scene we see Morgan again practicing empathy – with the detective’s position of having to make a decision against his employer’s wishes, with the detective’s frustration that it should matter to anyone what race a profile gives, with the detective’s desire to do his job well but have dignity. Morgan shows his understanding of these frustrations and talks about accepting reality as it is and doing the job one is given the best way possible, without worrying oneself over the politics of others. It’s a clear and realistic picture of one person reaching out to another from his own experiences to help the other come to grips with his circumstances.

Reid, meanwhile, is having flashbacks when he looks at the pictures of the murdered girls lying in the leaves. (He was digging his own grave in a small cemetery in the woods when the team rescued him.) At one point, he locks himself into a men’s room and takes out the – as yet still unopened – vials of the drug, but Gideon yells for him and he returns to the investigation. He does his job, helps the team solve the case and save a girl’s life, but his fear and confusion are frequently evident.

On the plane ride home, Morgan asks Reid if he’s all right; he’s clearly concerned about him and becomes more so as Reid uncharacteristically lashes back at him. He doesn’t walk away as he started to with Prentiss earlier; he has an established relationship with Reid and knows him well enough to know that he needs to talk. Instead, he reminds Reid that anything he says will stay confidential, and presses him to speak his mind.

Reid finally tells him about the effect of the photos and says, “It’s that now I know – I mean, I really know – what they were going through, what they were thinking and feeling, right before . . .”

“It’s called empathy,” Morgan tells him gently.

“So what do I do about it?” Reid answers. “It makes me not focus; it makes me not do my job as well.”

Morgan says, “You use it. You use it to be a better profiler, and to be a better person.”

The episode ends with Reid staring at Morgan and saying, “A better person?”

I am not sure where this will go, of course, but from what I’ve seen of the characters, I think Reid is asking how he can possibly be a better person if he now has emotional responses to his work. And I hope we are in for a “course” in how to control and use emotion in conjunction with reason to be fully human. There’s great potential here – and I salute the writers of this show for their insight and talent in bringing such depth to it. And, by the way, Shemar Moore is a really good actor, as is Matthew Gray Gubler. Wow. Anyone would have to love having the talent on this show collected in one place.

14 February 2007


Yesterday, as my husband drove me to work, three deer leaped across the drive between us and the chapel and away into the grassy bowl. The first, already in the darkness of the bowl, I barely glimpsed. The second bounded almost leisurely a fair way ahead of us. The third, several paces behind, extended herself low to the ground, seeming to know she had but little time to escape the chortling beast with monstrously bright eyes hurtling towards her.

12 February 2007

Revealing, Concealing

I am to introduce myself to a stranger. One wishes to be honest; that stranger will be my teacher and mentor for the next two years. Yet one wishes to be cautious as well. What does he need to know? What is unimportant? How does one reveal enough without revealing too much, conceal appropriately without concealing that which helps him to instruct me?

I don't mind revealing my writing skills. Unlike a fair number of our students, who try to conceal their ignorance and thus cannot learn from us, I am quite ready to reveal my weaknesses in the craft. (Yes, I will cry in humiliation when they are confirmed, but that is the beauty of correspondence courses. One may react in private, get over it, and respond like a mature adult the next day. One hopes.)

But writing is not merely a skill, of course. What makes it weak or strong is often that which underlies the process. And that is where I find myself hesitant, unsure. How much of the self that creates my writing do I, can I, reveal without crossing a line I'll later regret?

The last piece of writing I did nearly killed me. I spent weeks writing, throwing out, writing again, over and over. And it finally came down to this: I either told my own story or I told a lie. Not a lie in the sense of factual untruth, but a dancing about the subject that could not possibly convey its depths and would not have moved a single heart.

I'm glad I bowed to truth. But it was the hardest thing I've yet done in my life, I think. And, surprisingly to me, it hasn't made it any easier to consider doing it again.

Revealing, concealing. We must do both while avoiding both narcissism and dishonesty. A challenge once again. I like this kind of challenge. It reminds me that I'm alive -- and that life matters.

07 February 2007

Books, Books, Books

Hooray for amazon and Eighth Day Books and school funding and a wonderful husband who rolls his eyes and makes remarks on having to add structural support to the house to hold all the shelves but lets me buy books anyway! I now get to anticipate for the next several weeks the arrival of the following, probably in several different and exciting shipments:

1. George MacDonald, The Complete Fairy Tales, including his essay on fairy tales and both "The Wise Woman" and "The Light Princess."

2. George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, which I've read somewhere but never owned and must, must have on my shelf!

3. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. I've been feeling obligated to find out about Waugh, and everyone says this is his best.

4. Eragon. We got Eldest at the used bookstore, and the YM loved it; read it in a matter of hours, I think. So now he gets to find out what happened first, and I get to read them both as a reward for letting him have the books for his own.

5. Dante: I'm finally getting Tony Esolen's translations of all three volumes -- Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. I know the translation will be eloquent and accurate, and I'm looking forward to the introductions, too, which will be eloquent and brilliant.

6. Mary Oliver's Blue Iris, because LuCindy mentioned it, and because Oliver is surely one of the best of contemporary poets.

7. Donald Hall's Claims for Poetry because I want to see what another great poet says about poetry.

8. Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, because it's Merton.

9. Wendell Berry's Standing by Words, because Berry either makes me very happy or very angry, both in good ways.

10. The Didascalicon of Hugh of Victor, on reading well, and, to help with it,

11. Ivan Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text, a commentary on Didascalicon.

12. Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology; we read Amusing Ourselves to Death last semester, and this one sounds good.

13. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. I haven't read anything else by Sven Birkerts, but this is a topic constantly before me as I try to teach attention to the word in a technological age.

14. The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment, by Daniel Taylor. Another unfamiliar author to me, but highly recommended by a colleague when we were discussing the dangers of dogmatism but the need for absolutes.

15. The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny, and Imagination, by Caroline J. Simon. Any reader of literature should think about the place of imagination in faith. This looked like a good help toward reflection.

16. Gregory Wolfe (editor of Image, a journal of Christian art), The New Religious Humanists. I read his collection of editorials from Image recently, and the one on religious humanism fascinated me. I'm really looking forward to seeing how he fleshes out the idea.

17. Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Neuhaus is an eloquent writer who loves the Lord. I hope this one arrives well before Easter for Lenten reading.

18. Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I'm always encountering saints and references to church icons in the works I read, so this color-illustrated book looks like it will be a pleasant education and resource.

and, finally,

19. the texts and workbooks associated with the LongRidge Writers Group Advanced Writing Program: Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel. I did their correspondence course in short fiction some years ago, and my instructor recommended I try this one. (I was always trying to write novels instead of short stories, anyway!) This is a 2-year (or so) course which takes you through the elements of fiction-writing (characterization, plotting, setting, dialogue, etc.), the first three chapters of a novel (including revision), how to query agents and publishers, and the business end of novel writing, all with a published novelist as your teacher and mentor.

So, time to brush the dust off some old files, decide which one to follow (or a new idea, maybe!) and have some fun seeing if I can craft something decent. If I finally decide this isn't my niche, it will still teach me a great deal which will help in teaching literature and maybe leading writing workshops if we ever get to create our creative writing minor.

"Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation'

I picked up Stanley Kunitz's The Collected Poems last night and found a number that struck me in various ways. But this one left me hardly able to breathe. (A hornworm is a light green caterpillar with white stripes, a "bulbous head" and "a sharp little horn for a tail," as Kunitz describes it in a companion poem, "Hornworm: Summer Reverie.")

Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.
In my imaginings I have already spent
my brooding winter underground,
unfolded silky powdered wings, and climbed
into the air, free as a puff of cloud
to sail over the steaming fields,
alighting anywhere I pleased,
thrusting into deep tubular flowers.

It is not so: there may be nectar
in those cups, but not for me.
All day, all night, I carry on my back
embedded in my flesh, two rows
of little white cocoons,
so neatly stacked
they look like eggs in a crate.
And I am eaten half away.

If I can gather strength enough
I'll try to burrow under a stone
and spin myself a purse
in which to sleep away the cold;
though when the sun kisses the earth
again, I know I won't be there.
Instead, out of my chrysalis
will break, like robbers from a tomb,
a swarm of parasitic flies,
leaving my wasted husk behind.

Sir, you with the red snippers
in your hand, hovering over me,
casting your shadow, I greet you,
whether you come as an angel of death
or of mercy. But tell me,
before you choose to slice me in two:
Who can understand the ways
of the Great Worm in the Sky?

05 February 2007

Light and Mystery

written Saturday, 3 February

This morning, leaving with reluctance for a rare Saturday at work, I found myself caught between the sparkling iridescence of Pheobe, nearly at the full, on my left, and the faint first blush of Aurora, heralding Apollos's rising, on my right. Unique beauties; both seductively enticing. Aurora is lovely, but, much as I enjoy sunlit days, often the full light of Apollos unnerves me with its intensity. Although light reveals, it seems to me it can conceal as well as does complete darkness -- it leaves no place for nuance, for interpretation. Heresy, this, I suppose. They say that the moon makes for madness, but I think she's the only sanity I know. For her light reveals, too, but leaves space for the mystery, the ambiguity, that are necessary in a world we are meant to love, despite its fallenness, as its Creator loves.