"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

26 April 2007

On Brideshead Revisited

A couple of weekends ago, as a reward for grading research essays, I allowed myself to begin Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh). The one chapter per graded essay quickly turned into two, three, four, and I inhaled the novel over the course of two days. (Yes, I finished grading the essays, too; it did take two days instead of one.) I am now re-reading it, a little more slowly, and will laze my way through it with pen in hand this summer. It is worthy of many readings, and I only regret it has taken me this long to discover Waugh.

It is a framed narrative; the first-person narrator opens with a scene from his Army days in which he finds that his unit is being billeted at Brideshead, a family estate where he spent much time with his friend Sebastian as a young man and where he fell in love with Sebastian's sister Julia. This makes the novel one of my favorite types -- he goes back in time to his first visit to Brideshead and narrates the story chronologically from there, but comments on it from the later perspective as he does so.

The writing is of course superb. The story is poignant and breathtaking. It reminds me of Graham Greene and perhaps others I've read. They are Catholic writers exploring the place of Catholicism in the lives of their characters, and doing so without glibness or falsity. We are a fallen race, and this they show clearly. We fail, often spectacularly; we are frail, often beyond hope of improvement; but we cannot escape, if we are honest, our need for something beyond ourselves. And the fact that God is, that He is the Heavenly Hound seeking us, seeking us, that we cannot finally escape Him, that His grace is greater than our frailty . . . this informs the narratives in such a compelling manner that any thinking reader must be drawn to consider whether this be truth.

I have read some spectacularly good novels by Protestant evangelical writers. However, for the most part, novels from that perspective tend to present faith as the end of the matter. Like a Harlequin romance, but with the lover being Jesus, everyone lives happily ever after once they have "gotten saved." I suppose this is fine as far as it goes -- but for me that is not far enough. It leaves one with the idea that faith is about me and its object is to make me happy. Oh, and it automatically makes me good, of course.

But faith is about its object -- the triune God of the universe. And this God is not just a sentimental lover who wants us to be happy. He is a just and righteous God who wants us to be like Him. And this is what the Catholic characters in Greene's novels, and those in Brideshead Revisited, struggle with. They know they have a responsibility to God, they are well aware of what that responsibility entails, which is often a painful decision that does not necessarily make them happy -- and they cannot just throw it off and live as they wish.

And yet, when they accept that responsibility, whether it brings them some kind of temporal happiness or not, whether it looks like what others expect it to or meets the approval of others, there is a sense of "rightness" in their lives that confirms that acceptance. I am not saying this well, I'm afraid, but what I see again and again in these books is that the end of faith is not righteousness in itself (though of course we should strive to be righteous) but rather is desire for the God who is righteous.

I have heard many criticisms about placing too much emphasis on obedience, and I have seen crippling guilt and fear in people who do so. However, I am also sceptical about a total emphasis on grace, in the sense of "you don't have to worry about anything; God is gracious." Well, yes, He is, but He is also righteous and just, and the believer is not exempt from His discipline -- which means that He notices and cares when we are disobedient. So there must be a balance. Some guilt is a good thing: it makes us desire to do better. Understanding His grace is freeing; it allows us to fail without believing we are unloved.

What I love about Greene and now Waugh is that they do not gloss over this tension, nor present glib responses to the complexity of human nature in relation to the One who created us and loves us despite our fallen choices. They make me think, and they make me desire to be compassionate instead of judgmental and at the same time demanding instead of complacent. They make me want to be more like the God that glimmers through the pages of their texts.

20 April 2007

The Cross Point

"At the cross point, everything is retrieved from the past and everything is anticipated from the future, and the cross is the point of entry to the heart of God from whom and for whom, quite simply, everything is."

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon

16 April 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre

Virginia Tech is in our athletic conference. Please pray for the college community and the families of the murdered and injured.

God have mercy.

10 April 2007

Gems of Joy

Sometimes life is hard. We get lonely or depressed or overwhelmed with grief or work, and we just don't want to keep going. It's hard to focus on anything but the self and its pain and questions and frustration. But then we find a way to just get on with it, to do our best with what we've got.

And sometimes, then, God drops a gem of joy into our lives, just a little reminder. It may be a CD from an old friend you haven't talked to in years but who knew you'd like the music and the message. It may be a decorated balloon tied to your office door, bouncing a cheery face up and down in greeting from a beloved student. It may be the news that your son is returning from wherever he's been on a six-month deployment. It may be finding that one of your two best friends, someone you haven't seen in 15 years, is coming your way in just a few weeks.

It may even be all those things in a 2-week window, the last three just yesterday and today.

I need to stop complaining and do more dancing in the delight of His love.

05 April 2007

Good Friday Sonnets

At Mere Comments, Tony Esolen has been posting some sonnets on the stations of the cross written by William A. Donaghy sometime in the mid-20th century. Here is what Tony says about the poems, a few of which were sent to him by a friend: "Touchstone reader Fr. David Standen put me on to a few of them, then the archivists at Holy Cross forwarded to him the entire set, which can be viewed here [look for "Stations of the Cross" posted 30 March, 2007, if they are not at the top of the page]. They were published in what I think was the college literary magazine, Spirit, though I'll have to check on that detail."

Tony's meditations on the ones he's posted are well worth looking for at Mere Comments; he is as eloquent as the poet and challenges us to make the poet's insights ours. Here are two that especially struck me; I offer them as meditative reading for Good Friday coming up.

XI. He Is Nailed to the Cross

This sound had echoed back in Nazareth,
The thudding hammer on the singing nails,
When Mary hastened off in flying veils,
With eyes like violets, and quickened breath,
Her Babe within her, to Elizabeth.
Now Mary winces, clenches hands, and pales,
Her dauntless spirit cringes, twists and quails,
And at each jolt she dies a double death.

The soldiers need not force Him for He lies
Patient beneath them; as the nails tear through,
His shining prayer is piercing inky skies,
"Forgive them; for they know not what they do."
And even now the arms which they transfix
Would guard them as a mother bird her chicks.

XIV. He Is Buried

The mourners slowly bring Him through the gloom,
The valiant women, and three faithful men;
Her shoulders shaking, stormy Magdalen
Is weeping as in Simon's dining room;
But she who felt Him moving in her womb,
Who wrapped and laid Him in a manger then
Is still His handmaid, ready once again
To wrap Him up and lay Him in His tomb.

Once Delphi was the navel of the earth,
But now this sepulchre, which blackly yawns,
Becomes the point and center of all worth,
The focus of all sunsets and all dawns;
Within this cavern, could the world but see,
Mythology yields place to mystery.

04 April 2007

A Lesson in Contrasts

With last night's storm clouds still darkening the early morning sky, Phoebe's dim haze-covered glow behind the trees startled me on the drive down the old ferry road. At the stoplight, waiting for traffic to clear, I glanced back over my shoulder to see a single ragged black cloud precisely covering her, the halo she created about it suddenly almost brilliant with the contrast. As the cloud slid away, her glow diminished again in the grey-white fog.

Lessons to be learned; lessons to be learned.